Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children


“Americans do not know that up to a million childcare teachers today are at-risk for functional illiteracy,” Elizabeth Gilbert explains in a recent Washington Post blog.

These adults can end up “mirroring” their social disadvantages to the children they work with, according to Gilbert, who is the coordinator of the “Learn at Work Early Childhood Educator Program Labor” in the Labor Management Workplace Education Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

As we blogged last year, Gilbert is calling for dynamic change.

“After working for nearly two decades in community-based childcare settings in disadvantaged communities in Massachusetts, mirrors became a way for me to comprehend what I was seeing, and to capture and reveal this world in a way that others could understand,” Gilbert writes in the Post blog.

“Childcare systems across America can be viewed through a Preponderance of Mirrors. Mirrors provide cogent evidence of the real-life consequences of ‘pairing’ vulnerable young children with under-paid, under-educated, and under-valued childcare teachers (early childhood educators).”

As they share their days, weeks, and months, Gilbert says, children and teachers “bond in relationships rooted in learning and caring, wonderment and admiration, and sometimes, sadness and frustration. The child(ren) and childcare teachers are separate mirrors unto themselves, yet both reflect to the other in very clear and accurate ways just how to make sense of a world around them, much of it steeped in social, educational and economic disparity.”

Place two mirrors across from each other, and they create an infinite number of re-reflections. In the worst case, one mirror is a teacher who is overwhelmed and underpaid, and the other mirror is a child struggling with poverty, violence, and mental illness.

“The mirroring of disadvantage in this context is part and parcel of America’s childcare landscape today,” Gilbert writes, focusing on five kinds of mirrors:

• mirrors of economic health and well-being where there are re-reflected images of teacher with low salaries and children living in poverty

• mirrors of literacy competence where there are shared reflections of children facing word gaps and functionally illiterate child care teachers

• socio-emotional growth and development mirrors that bounce teachers’ high job stress and low morale off children who struggle with behavioral problems

• mirrors of cognitive foundations in learning that re-reflect teachers’ limited educations and children who are starved for cognitive stimulation, and finally

• cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity mirrors: in one mirror is the rich potential for multicultural education that’s often found in early education very diverse settings; but sadly this potential is muted by a mirrored image of the racial and economic segregation that also exists in many early childhood settings

The lesson: an investment in high-quality childcare has to include an investment in training high-quality teachers and paying them well.

“In the end, a childcare workforce that is under-paid, under-educated, over-worked, under-valued, and experiences job burnout at alarming rates, will simply be overwhelmed. These teachers are already woefully un-prepared to close the wordachievement and opportunity gaps for millions of young children in care, whether or not states have hired (for low wages) and licensed (with few requirements) them to do so.”

Gilbert concludes, “Perhaps it will be through a Preponderance of Mirrors, that politicians, policy makers, philanthropists and the public can come together to frame to build consensus about how to fix the realities unfolding in these mirrors.”