Newshub Nation: Early childhood education teacher Megan White warns staffing conditions could damage children

Early childhood teachers went on strike for the first time this week.   

After years of underfunding, a lack of teachers, and children's emotional and learning needs going unmet, the sector is at breaking point.

Newshub Nation senior reporter Laura Walters spoke to one teacher about the toll this is taking on kids and kaiako.  

Megan White has managed an ECE centre for the past four-and-a-half years and has taught in the sector for nearly 14 years.   

She is also New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa's early childhood representative.

White said that she wanted to be a teacher because "I feel really passionate about children's education and watching these guys grow through the most precious years of their entire lives".  

She said that it's a privilege to "watch the brain connections form every day".  

Unfortunately, White said that the conditions that ECE teachers are forced to work in mean "you very quickly get disheartened", which is why a lot of teachers leave the sector so early on. 


"The reality of working in early childhood in New Zealand at the moment, it's not OK, and I can totally understand why people want to get out," she said.   

One of the key reasons White thinks the sector is floundering is the interest from corporate centres to make money out of children.  

"They just see it as a good business venture," she said.   

"People who own these corporate ECE centres often have no education background at all, so they actually have no idea.  

"It's just simply money, and it's taken over."  

White said that making money off children is "just so wrong", arguing that the focus must be on education, not profit.   

She believes that one of the critical ways the system is failing children in ECE is the teacher-to-child ratios that centres are funded at.   

The government only requires early childhood education centres to appoint one teacher to look after five under-two-year-olds. If there are 10 children, the minimum number of teachers would be two, and so on, as group sizes get bigger.   

Mike Bedford, New Zealand's only public health specialist for the early care and education sector, said that this amounts to child abuse.   

"That ratio leaves children in danger of emotional neglect, causing distress and potential long-term harm," said Bedford.

For White, "if we have more teachers and qualified teachers, we're at a loss", which means: "They're forcing me to hire unqualified, unqualified teachers, which is not at all what our philosophy of our centre, and what I believe children deserve."

The experiences of White and her peers are echoed in New Zealand's largest survey of early childhood teachers, conducted by Te Riu Roa union in May.

Staff ratios were a key issue, with 90 percent of respondents agreeing current ratios did not enable the best quality learning environment for tamariki. And 65 percent agreed or strongly agreed that current ratios made it "impossible to satisfy health and safety requirements".

Of the more than 4000 participants, 90 percent said they were more stressed, while more than a third thought about leaving the sector.  

Meanwhile, nearly half of the teachers surveyed said they spent up to an hour or more each day performing unpaid work. The union estimated this could amount to $2 million in unpaid wages nationally each week.  

According to the union, the survey showed "a system that is lovingly but tenuously held together by the care and generosity of the kaiako and kaimahi that make up Aotearoa's ECE workforce".  

"I think teachers for so long have felt like we have to be nice," White said.  

"We need to start talking about these issues more and let society and parents know what's going on, otherwise nothing's going to change for us."  

White said that the conditions mean she is "at breaking point".   

"Being nice to my teachers, that's all I can kind of do because I can't show them that I value them through their pay or what conditions that they work in," she said.  

White also struggles to find relievers if one of her staff calls in sick, further exacerbating the problems, and adding to her feelings of helplessness.   

While conditions are tough for teachers, the children face the consequences.  

"We know that children need to have a secure attachment for their brain to be in a state to be able to learn and play, and for them to be able to feel that security," White said.   

"When we're running on minimum ratios because we have staff that are away sick, you can't do that."  

She fears that when children see others whose needs are not being met, they struggle to trust their own will be.   

"They've probably learned to not be able to express their emotions and talk about them, which is exactly what we're trying to fix," White said.  

"If you've got your arms full of five babies and you're trying to listen, but you can see someone over there that needs you, there's nothing you can do.  

"You just have to sit there and be like, 'I am sorry'," she said.   

She fears for the impacts that these conditions will have on a whole generation of Kiwi kids down the line.  

"If we don't have the teachers to be able to support the social emotional competency of children and meet their emotional needs, then we're failing," she said.  

She fears for the lack of developed resilience in children 10 years from now.

"It's going to be bad. It's scary to think about what might happen."  

These consequences will not be shared equally, with the children of parents who can afford better care insulated from the sector's struggles.  

"Every child should have the right to quality childcare, no matter where they are, or where they live in the community," White said.  

White fears that parents' relative silence on the topic is making change hard but admits that "teachers don't talk to the parents about the issues because you don't want parents to think that the quality that your children are receiving is not okay".  

White is speaking out because "parents need to know that the reality".  

"Everyone's burnt out, everybody's tired, they're burnt out, they've had enough, they don't know what to do."  

Through such tough conditions, White has considered leaving the sector herself, but said she wants to be a part of the change.  

However, if things don't get better and if National takes away the funding for twenty hours free early childhood funding, which it plans to do to fund their tax cuts, White fears she may have to shut down and swathes of teachers will leave the sector.  

A year ago, White said that she had little hope for the sector, "but I think over the last year there has been some progress, has been some noise, like the Government's commitment to pay parity".

"I have hope that other people are going to start speaking up and talking about issues and we're going to keep fighting.   

"We won't be stopping any time soon."  

Watch the full video for more.    

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on Three & Three Now, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.    

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.