This is one of a series of blogs featuring first-person accounts from early educators across Massachusetts.

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TKMy name is Teddy Kokoros, and for the past 13 years I’ve had the pleasure of working as a preschool and pre-K teacher at the Transportation Children’s Center (TCC) in Boston. I first started working at TCC after completing my associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education at Bay State College’s now defunct Early Childhood Education program. Under the tutelage of my professor Linda Small, I got both the academic knowledge and the field experience via internships that I needed to be a competent early educator.

Initially, after completing my associate’s degree, I transferred to Wheelock College to continue my education but quickly had to drop out to work full-time when my family experienced financial and other hardships. I needed a full-time job to help out. Luckily, TCC, where I had completed an internship, was hiring and gave me a job as a preschool teacher.

I’ve stayed at TCC all this time both for the freedom they give me in creating lesson plans for their children and for the support they have given me in furthering my education. In the past decade plus, policymakers, researchers, and the general public have paid more attention to the importance of early childhood education. While there are positive aspects to this, there has also often been a push-down of academic standards and expectations for young children that is not developmentally appropriate.

While we use Teaching Strategies Gold for assessment at TCC, we are also given an uncommon amount of freedom to base what we do in the classroom on the children’s interests. Our focus is developmentally appropriate and helps children learn the social, emotional, and academic skills they need through fun and play. This not only makes things more enjoyable for the children, it makes things more enjoyable for me as a teacher.

In addition to having fun while working with great groups of children and their families, I’ve also been able to further my academic career. TCC was flexible with my scheduling and supportive of me going back to school which allowed me to get my bachelor’s degree from UMass Boston. I also earned a masters in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and I’ve completed a Post Masters in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice, which was fully funded by federal Race to the Top grant money. All this opportunity to learn more has allowed me to become a better teacher in the classroom and a better supporter of families. My education has also opened other doors for me, including working as an early childhood education professor at Fisher College and UMass Boston.

I’ve had a privileged existence in the early childhood field. Most early educators do not get the opportunities I have had. In one of the lowest paying fields, early educators often experience burn out and extra stress due to their financial situation, which prevents them from furthering their education and often drives quality early educators out of the field. If we want to realize the full potential of ECE, this needs to end. Early educators need to be compensated and supported in a manner consistent with the importance of their work. Researchers like economists James Heckman and Arthur Rolnick have shown that investments in early childhood education have a high rate of return. It is time we made investments in our early educators, which, in turn, would be an investment in our children and our future as a society.

This past fall, I started the PhD in Education Studies program at Lesley University. I hope in my future research to figure out ways to galvanize the political power of early educators and of the families and children they serve in order to influence our policymakers to give early educators the compensation and respect they so richly deserve.