This is one of a series of blogs featuring first-person accounts from early educators across Massachusetts.
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When I meet new people and they ask me what I do for a living I love hearing the different reactions when I tell them that I am a preschool teacher.
While many will say “You are so brave,” or “I could never do that,” I more often than not hear, “Wow that must be so fun,” and “You must get to play all day.” Sure I get to play and be silly but I have many jobs. I am a singer, a dancer, a mathematician, a scientist, a writer, an artist, and a referee. More importantly though, I am a keeper of dreams for futures to come, the holder of hands, the wiper of tears, a listener for both kiddos and their families, and most importantly, I am the open arms always ready for times of joy, sadness, anger, and anxiety. I’d be lying if I told you that it has always been easy, but it has definitely been worth it.
My name is Caitlin Gontarz, and I am a lead teacher at South Shore Stars Weymouth Preschool. I have been with the agency since October of 2008. When I was hired, I was a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire. I had a degree in English and hadn’t taken any Early Childhood classes nor had I had any formal experience outside of babysitting and being a nanny. I had answered a Craig’s List post for the preschool, and I was hired as a floating teaching assistant. I never dreamed that when I walked through the door of Weymouth Preschool Stars on my first day at 22 years old that I would be starting a career that today I could never imagine leaving.
I spent my first few months bouncing from classroom to classroom filling in when teachers were sick or out for a vacation day. I knew right away that I wanted to stay in this field and become a teacher, but unfortunately because I already had a bachelor’s degree in another field I was not eligible for the EEC Scholarship. I am fortunate to work for an agency that is committed to professional development and that helps pay for Early Childhood Courses for teachers who are new to the field. I began to take classes at Quincy College in order to become Early Education and Care Teacher Certified. In an effort to satisfy the requirement for the Early Childhood Education Bachelor’s Degree Equivalency, I continued to take classes at Quincy College, Bridgewater State University, and Massasoit Community College.
It took me four years, but eventually I completed the required 36 credits in Early Childhood Education. In these four years, I moved up the career lattice from floating teaching assistant, to teaching assistant 2, to teacher, and finally to lead teacher. As a lead teacher looking to move to a lead teacher 2, I continue my professional development looking specifically for trainings in supervision and management, and in topic areas such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and Supporting Children Who Have Experienced Trauma.
Working in the early education field has given me the opportunity to lay a strong foundation for the children in class, both for their cognitive skills, and, more importantly, for their social-emotional competence. Yes, we teach children to identify the letters of the alphabet, write their names, and count with one to one correspondence, but even more crucially we teach them how to function in the world. We teach children how to share, take turns, brainstorm ideas, problem solve, and resolve conflicts with their peers. Without a foundation for these skills how can we expect children to grow up and maneuver through the world in a positive and beneficial way?
Working in the field of early education has also given me the opportunity to build strong relationships with the parents and family members of the children I teach. My school has been able to be a safe place for so many families to drop their children off, giving them the opportunity to work and create a better life for their families.
As an educator, I am most proud of the “A-ha moments” that I have experienced in my classroom. Whether it is a child writing their name for the first time, watching a new child making their first new friend at school, or the feeling of the weight being lifted off my shoulders when I have finally gained the trust of an uneasy parent. These are the moments that make my job worth coming to everyday.
It would be so wonderful to do this incredible work and also be financially stable. I lived at home with my parents for many more years than most of my friends because I knew that it would be irresponsible to move out on the hourly wages that I earned as a teaching assistant and teacher. It wasn’t until I became a lead teacher that I felt I could finally support myself on my own, and to this day it is still a paycheck-to-paycheck struggle.
What the early education field really needs is the community’s respect, because once we have that, I truly believe the rest will follow. Not everyone can do this job; it requires patience, intelligence, an ability to be a team player, and a big heart. You give 200 percent of yourself daily, and even when your shift ends you cannot leave your work at the door. Whether it’s trying to tackle the ever growing mountain of paperwork, brainstorming ways to connect with a challenging kiddo, worrying about a family you know is struggling, or simply reflecting on a hard day, you are to some degree “always on” as an early educator.
I’ve had many people in my life tell me “Maybe you are burnt out,” or “Maybe it is time to find a desk job,” and finally “Don’t you want to make more money?” Sometimes my immediate answer is yes to all of those questions: sometimes I am burnt out, sometimes I feel like I can’t do it anymore, and yes, of course, I would love to make more money. However, there is no financial reward that could replace the feeling I get at the end of the day when the kiddos swarm to hug me goodbye, or the smile on my face on Monday mornings when a parent tells me their child played school at home and was being “Teacher Caitlin,” or that feeling of finally building trust with a withdrawn child or a worried family.
While the outside world might think that I just play all day, I know in my heart that I am changing the lives of the kids and families I work with. I know that I am giving them the support they desperately need to reach for a future that they would never have without the early education field.