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Perspective | Leaving the classroom: Lessons from those who have left child care jobs

For nearly 20 years, Child Care Services Association has been conducting workforce studies to better understand the composition of the child care workforce in North Carolina and differences among regions and to recommend policy improvements related to retaining and growing a high-quality early childhood workforce.

While gathering information related to our 2019 child care workforce study, we had a unique opportunity to not only send a survey to those currently in the child care workforce but also to survey those who had left. More than 2,800 individuals who previously worked in child care settings responded to the “leaver” survey and were asked questions related to why they left, where they went, and whether they would return to the classroom if some of the challenges they faced could be addressed. 

While there have been several national child care workforce studies, the responses from individuals who have worked in the child care field in North Carolina could provide valuable insight for future state policy discussions.

Who are the workers who leave child care jobs and where do they go?

Of the 2,808 individuals who responded to the leaving the classroom survey:

  • 57% left child care to work in another field entirely.
  • 28% left their former position for another job in the early childhood field.
    • Of those still in the field, but not in the job as a child care teacher or assistant, about 12% moved into a different role such as director or assistant director.
    • About 7% worked in the field, but in a different capacity, such as staff at a child care resource and referral agency, Smart Start, or other non-classroom based settings.
    • Another 9% were working in early childhood in another state, as a family child care home provider or in an unlicensed program.
  • Of the 15% remaining, about 9% still work with children in some capacity (in a K-12 school setting, caring for school-age children, or as a nanny).
  • The remaining 6% responded that they are retired, unemployed, disabled, in school or some other miscellaneous response not easily categorized.

Why did they stop being a child care teacher or assistant?

Of the 2,305 individuals who responded to this question (which also offered them the chance to select multiple answers),

  • 41% said they left because they wanted to earn more money
  • 32% wanted more opportunities for professional growth
  • 25% wanted better benefits
  • 20% wanted better working conditions
  • 16% wanted more respect

Lack of sufficient staff support was also indicated with 12% of former child care staff selecting “support for children with challenging behaviors” and 7% selecting “difficulty supporting children with special needs” among reasons for leaving their child care jobs. What is most interesting is that only 5% of responders selected “teaching is not for me.” Not surprisingly, less than half (45%) indicated that they might return to a child care classroom in the future.

Would those who left consider returning as a classroom teacher or assistant teacher if the reasons they left were to be addressed?

Of the 2,226 individuals who responded to this last question, 64% said they would potentially return to the classroom if the factors they had listed as reasons for leaving were to change or improve.

  • 37% said “yes” they would return to a child care classroom
  • 27% said “maybe” they would return

The road forward

Child care pay is low. We know in a good economy like we have today with record low unemployment, individuals in child care can work in fast food or retail sales and earn higher wages. Many in the workforce have their own families to raise, so earnings matter in retaining and growing a high-quality child care workforce.

With nearly 30% of those who leave staying in the early childhood field, but not necessarily as a child care teacher, upward mobility and professional growth within the field is good for the field overall. This means that experienced people can bring an experienced lens to their work with young children.

Better wages (41%), professional growth (32%), better benefits (25%), better working conditions (20%), support for challenging behaviors (12%), and paid time off (12%) are policy areas that can be addressed. Investments can be made to better support those working in child care.

When 64% of the responders who left say they would potentially return to the classroom, addressing these concerns should be a priority. There are some challenges in life for which there are no policy solutions. But, the concerns expressed by child care leavers are solvable.

These survey results are preliminary. Those who received the survey aren’t weighted by demographics or any other common variables used in survey research approaches. Nevertheless, they are instructive. Of those who left their child care jobs and who chose to respond to the survey, their answers are not surprising. They are common sense.

This is the workforce that supports all other workforces. It’s the workforce that helps promote the healthy development of our youngest children. Twenty years of workforce studies point to the same challenges that the child care leavers have expressed. There are solutions to these challenges that would invest and value the important work those working in child care do every day. It’s time for those discussions to begin in earnest.

The full policy brief, Leaving the Classroom: Addressing the Crisis of NC’s Early Childhood Educator Turnover can be found here.

Editor’s note: This perspective was originally published by the Child Care Services Association. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Marsha Basloe

Marsha Basloe is president of the Child Care Services Association.