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I taught preschool for 15 years. Here’s what I saw: the good, the bad, and the scary.

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

My first job as a preschool teacher was at a local drop-in day care where I live in San Diego, California, that also ran a small preschool class. The school was one large, chaotic room with one smaller room for the “preschool” cordoned off by large, primary-colored plastic blocks. I taught for the first time in that tiny room, surrounded by the screaming, happy kids of the drop-in facility. Surely my kids didn’t learn anything in that din, but I loved them, and they were well cared for.

When my son turned 5 and entered kindergarten, I got a job at a typical preschool. The parents at this preschool were mostly lower middle class. I worked six hours a day, and when my son was out of school for holidays, I was able to bring him with me to work. I worked hard at my job and felt awe, at times fear, at the amount of influence I had over the children’s lives, their day-to-day emotional and mental health.

This preschool was typical of the preschools I taught at over the next 15 years, bad and good. Bad: high ratio of children to adult, very low pay for teachers, terrible teachers not getting fired or replaced. Good: joyful recess time outside, lots of story time and creative play, childhood friendships forming, and, often, friendships between good teachers and warm parents.

My time as a preschool teacher has taught me this: Parents cannot rely on preschools themselves, or the state and local laws that regulate the schools, to ensure their children are being treated well. Even at well-run preschools, I’ve seen teachers behave in subtly persistent or outright cruel and, at times, physically harmful ways. The strongest advocates for children are their parents.

Preschool teachers are hard to recruit and retain — and hard to fire, even if they’re terrible

A teacher at one of the schools where I worked early on was known as Scary Mary. This is what the 4-year-olds called her as they clustered in the corners of the playground. She was short, with a black bob, and she smiled ear to ear at the parents. Like a Disney villain, as soon as she was alone in her classroom with the kids, her voice changed from a high chirp to a bark. She maintained a glossy red manicure, and she’d snap her fingers while yelling at the kids. She often reacted to misbehavior with pointed, cruel remarks. An assistant teacher who worked with Scary Mary seemed completely terrified of her; she barely spoke.

Once, I walked by Scary Mary’s open door and saw her pull a child out of his seat. A blond boy who was prone to nose picking and daydreaming had once again let his lunch sit, uneaten, while he talked and giggled. Scary Mary yanked him out of his seat — hard enough that his knees hit the underside of the table — and wagged her finger in his face. “You are a bad boy!” she said. “Do you want your mom and dad to cry because you don’t eat? You want to be skinny and small like a girl?”

I went on my lunch break and made a complaint with the director. She nodded seriously and assured me she would talk to Mary.

A few weeks later, I saw Scary Mary grab another child by the belt loop. He cried as she leaned over him. All I could see was the small hump of her bent back and the rounded curve of his dimpled elbow sticking out.

I cried in the hallway bathroom. I knew that Scary Mary was damaging the children she taught. I also knew that our director was going to try everything in her power to make Mary work out before she would even consider firing her. Firing an employee makes tongues wag; parents talk to each other, and it can make the school look unstable to have turnover. In addition, finding a reliable teacher with enough early childhood development units to teach a class, one who would work the hours needed and who interviewed even fairly well, was very difficult.

At the next preschool I taught at, I observed the director, over a period of a month, interview candidates for the position of the 2-year-old class. This preschool was full of mostly upper-middle-class families, with both parents working high-stress jobs. Most of the interviews took place during working hours, and often the director would walk the possible teacher through the classes, showing her (usually a woman) the classes, introducing the rest of us teachers. One prospective teacher looked at a baby I was holding and joked that he was an “ugly little thing,” and shared how sad it was that not all babies are cute or lovable. “I don’t really like babies anyway,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll get the 4-year-olds.”

I heard many upsetting comments like this from prospective and working teachers. Many teachers feel that other teachers are confidants: They tell us things that would never get said to the parents or the director. After a month, the director finally hired someone. She eventually fired her, after parents repeatedly complained about the chaos and lack of learning in her class. She spent a lot of time texting while the children did worksheets.

The Census Bureau states that 4.8 million children attend organized preschool or day care yearly. The degree to which child care facilities are regulated, and the quality of the care, varies wildly around the United States. It’s impossible to give an authoritative assumption on whether my experiences over 15 years of teaching preschoolers are average. I do know that many other preschool teachers I have spoken to have shared in many of my observations. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said in an interview with the Atlantic, “Access to real quality is pretty darn low.”

Barnett went on to say that the odds of a parent without a high school diploma getting her preschooler into a high-quality program is one in 10.

Preschools have tight budgets, and kids don’t always get the one-on-one attention they need

Preschools don’t make very much money. Preschool teachers make even less. The Bureau of Labor Services notes that preschool teachers make an average of $21,490 a year. Directors of preschools can make a livable wage, but their job is extremely taxing. Every preschool director I knew worked more than 40 hours a week, put in hours a week talking with angry or frustrated parents, filled in for absent teachers, planned the holiday programs, balanced the budget, hired and fired employees when necessary, and very often was called to help manage a particularly unruly child. I myself worked 40 hours a week, and even with my husband's additional full-time income we barely squeaked by.

Every preschool I taught at worked under a very tight budget. This meant that when extra help was needed, it could rarely be afforded. Every person working for the school was expected to move into whatever role was needed to make the preschool ratios work. Every state has a law about how many children of a certain age can be in the care of one adult. The ratios for preschools in San Diego are one teacher to 12 students — children 30 months and under have ratios of one teacher to six students.

When you have a child who is particularly difficult, whether repeatedly hitting, screaming, refusing to stay seated, or simply crying, homesick, or with separation anxiety, the teacher has to figure out how to work the class around that child. How do you do circle time with 10 2-year-olds as, day after day, one of the children walks around the room sobbing, clutching his blanket, and knocking on the door?

Child development, compassion, and basic sense tell you that a child like this needs one-on-one attention. The child needs an adult who can kindly and patiently work with her until either the phase has passed or a possible problem has been identified, such as ADD, autism, or severe separation anxiety.

In reality, the daily one-on-one care for a struggling child can rarely occur. Even if a teacher starts out the day holding the hand of a child, pulling the child into her lap during circle time, this can’t hold for the entire day. Teachers go on lunch breaks and 10-minute breaks; they have to set up for nap time; they have to set up and clean up art; they have to help other children too; and often, they have to deal with either diaper changes or potty time.

This is why the director is often called in to assist with a child. I worked for five different preschool directors, and each one of them was fairly good to very good at their jobs, but none of them were particularly great with children. Administrators were good with creating scholastic plans that best benefited each age range of children, good at organizing the minutiae of a school — the paperwork, the state laws to follow, the hiring, the schedule management — but exhibited the long-acknowledged difference between being brilliant in comprehension and brilliant in action. It is the fighter pilot in simulation and the fighter pilot thousands of feet in the air in free fall. It is one thing to learn about calmly helping a child having a tantrum and another to sit, the child's snot and desperation inches from your face, and do it.

Some administrators might be brilliant with their own children, or have been wonderful caregivers in the past, but the addition of the grind of administrative duties and pleasing teachers and parents seems to be the limit, the litmus point where the constant reservoir of patience and connection one needs to be a good preschool teacher runs dry.

One director would handle a relentlessly crying child by sitting her down on a stool and saying sternly, “You are going to stop this nonsense now.” The child would continue to cry (children don’t believe in stopping nonsense — they also don’t believe their emotions are nonsense), and the director would tap away on her computer. One little girl I remember in particular because she was absolutely unmoved by both the director’s stern voice and the hours in the office. She’d cry for so long she’d fall asleep, sitting straight up, mouth open.

Another director would hold the offending child by the hand and announce to anyone she came into contact with that the child was “deciding to be a terrible listener today, making their teacher very unhappy, and so they have to walk around with me instead of playing with toys.” The shame on the child’s face was depressing as hell. I would give an encouraging smile to the child and tell them they could do a better job, and it was okay to be sad but not okay to throw toys, and the director would shoot me an annoyed look for not following script.

Young children don’t always know how to tell their parents something is wrong

What I knew about these and other practices was this: None of this was discussed with the parents, and certainly not in any kind of realistic detail. And none of the children were old enough to think to say, “Mom, Dad, is it okay that I spend two hours a day sitting on a stool and crying?”

Whatever happens to children at this age, I observed time and time again that they accept it. It is not that they like it — they can (and do) scream and cry and mope and mutter — but that they do not have anything else to compare life to. During these years, they have this: home and school. Sometimes a child particularly unhappy at school will make it well known that they don’t want to go to school, because the other option they know is home. They don’t typically recall or express details, such as “I don’t like the way my teacher grabs my arms hard,” or “I don’t like when the teacher says I’m a bad boy.” Some children do, and they are wonderful advocates for themselves. The rest depend on the persistent inquiries and attention of those who love them best.

I took my parenting cues from this experience to heart: Anytime during my children’s preschool years that they expressed unhappiness with school, I always dug deep. I asked many questions on walks, during drawing, during cuddle time at bed, and I listened well. I once had to have a “come to Jesus” moment with the director of a preschool for my own child. My son was in the care of an assistant teacher who had taken an instant dislike to him: It happens. However, her bad behavior didn’t “just happen” — she was allowing herself to act on emotion, and my son had been able to express that he was unhappy at school. After a week of talking to him, he was finally able to tell me that this teacher was in the habit of yanking him out of line, hard, and giving him a little shake, to tell him to stop whispering to his friends.

The director listened, and promised that teacher wouldn’t be in charge of my son anymore. She was not in the same room with him again. I did a few unexpected drop-ins here and there over the next month, and all was well.

The unexpected drop-in is probably a preschool parent’s most potent tool for information on what is happening during their child’s day. Some schools don’t allow this; I would not leave my child at those schools.

Unexpected drop-ins are tremendously underused. The observations made during one can change your child’s preschool experience. One foster mother dropped in on her son and found that his teacher, in the room next to mine, had left him standing in the bathroom with no underwear on, alone, as punishment for pooping in his pants. The mother filed a written complaint and pulled him out of the school. I was grateful, because it had been obvious to me that this teacher had taken a great dislike to this little person, but there wasn’t anything concrete to point to until the mom dropped in.

If there are problems that you don’t know about, the drop-in might be the only way to spot them. Dropping in can reveal discipline measures you weren’t aware of, or a fear of your child’s you didn’t know he was carrying (the little toilets!), or her habit of barely eating lunch and then throwing the rest away.

It can be difficult to find time for a drop-in. I struggled with it, as I worked and attended school and my husband worked full time as well. I found a couple of ways around this: I used my rare day off work, when my child still attended preschool, to drop in; I had both my husband and my mother take a turn to unexpectedly drop in for an early pickup; I made acquaintance with other parents in my child's class and asked them if they could let me know how my son was doing when they picked up their child — a virtual drop-in.

Another construct to connect parents to their children in preschool or day care is the webcam, installed directly into classrooms. Some child care centers offer this device, which has mixed reactions. Some parents love the cameras for the connection it gives them with their child and the feeling of security that comes from knowing there is a “watchful eye” on their child’s classroom situation. However, bathrooms and changing tables are almost always off limits to the camera, as sometimes are outside play areas. In addition, there are privacy and security concerns about the ability of hackers, as well as less devious situations, such as a parent who logs in at a library and leaves before logging out. Plus, these cameras do not include sound, so the context of what a parent is viewing can be lost.

The power of a parent’s unexpected drop-in

All I saw and heard over the 15 years I taught preschool impressed on me deeply that an involved parent is enormously powerful. Some parents fear that being too involved will make the teachers treat their child less kindly out of annoyance, but the opposite is true. The directors and teachers need the parents to be happy. They need the children to stay enrolled at the school.

Parents who make it politely clear that they are listening and watching closely as a caring parent, and then who actually do so, can be guaranteed that all those looking after their child will be — consciously or not — more attentive to the experience of that child.

I was able to care for my son, and then a daughter, and then another daughter, in their little years because I was a preschool teacher. Being a mother made me a better preschool teacher, and being a preschool teacher made me a better mother. My teen daughter knows: I still believe in the power of an unexpected drop-in.

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2015) Her work appears in Rolling Stone, the Guardian, Guernica, the Week, Cosmopolitan, and more. Her novel, Agitate My Heart, is in edits.

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