The early years of a child’s life can have an incredible impact on their future. They’re not only learning colors, words, shapes and numbers — they’re learning how to interact with others, explore the world, and understand and express their own emotions. It’s a great responsibility to be an early childhood professional, but it’s also greatly rewarding.
“I know I’m making a difference, not only in a child’s very early years of life, but also a parent’s life,” said Jenny Fleming, a program specialist at the Nebraska Department of Education in the Office of Early Childhood. “As a parent, there is no greater feeling when going to work every day than knowing that my young child is being loved and cared for in a safe, nurturing, quality environment with someone who wants to see my child grow and be successful.”
Early childhood professionals work with young children (birth through age eight) and their families. They work in a variety of settings and may also be referred to as teachers, child care providers or interventionists. The profession requires skilled, experienced, educated and dedicated workers, and while it may be a field that is often pursued by women, any gender can excel and find fulfillment working with young children.
A common misconception about the early childhood profession is that there are limited job options and few ways to advance a career. But once you obtain the skills to get started in the field, there are many different jobs to pursue both immediately and along your career path.
“Since graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, I’ve had a variety of roles in the field,” Jenny said. “I’ve taught infants through preschoolers, worked as a home visitor/family support worker, special education paraprofessional, director and assistant director in early childhood programs, and now, I’m a program specialist.”
In her current role, Jenny coordinates trainings for the Environment Rating Scales and the CLASS, observation tools used by Step Up to Quality to assess the quality of early childhood programs. She also has the advantage of working with a talented team of observers who go out into programs and complete the observations, making sure the programs are ready for them. Since she had been a teacher earlier in her career, her path prepared her for this role. She can relate to the educators who are receiving observations and help ease their nerves.
Jen Burkey, a Step Up to Quality coach, has also had the pleasure of a winding career path that has fit her needs along the way, always with the constant of children’s education. After getting her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, she worked as a substitute teacher for first and third grade, as an evening lead teacher for a learning center, and upon chance, found her passion for early childhood.
“As I was home with my own son, I began helping friends during the day with their little ones,” Jen said. “It became clear to me that I loved the three to six age group. All of the hands-on play, trips to parks, zoo visits and walks were never a burden to me. I realized this was where I felt so appreciated, needed and successful. Many outside individuals commented on my patience and how it took a special person for that age. This was the light for me!”
After that point, Jen’s kids grew older and attended school full time. She was offered a position at a preschool, an opportunity to take a further step in her career with an age group that she loves and align with her kids’ schedules.
After many wonderful years at the preschool, Jen reflected on her priorities and decided to move forward with becoming a Step Up to Quality coach, allowing her to have a more flexible schedule to visit her grown kids and dad while slowing down and enjoying her personal life.
“I love the chance to support and partner with teachers, mentor people, engage with kids in the classroom, and help educators create classrooms where the students are the center of learning through play,” Jen said. “What was a gift or talent I had to become a teacher, I can now share through giving my time to others.”
Whether you’re considering getting started in the early childhood field or are unsure where to go next in your career, it’s important to reflect on your “why.”
“A colleague of mine often asks in trainings ‘what is your why?’” Jenny Fleming said. “Ask yourself, ‘Why did I choose to be in this field? Why do I stay? What makes me smile every day when I go to work?’ If your answer is the children, know you’re right where you should be! It’s okay to explore the opportunities within the field and talk with others. Just always remember to ask what your ‘why’ is.”
Everyone will feel stuck at some point in their career, whether it’s at the beginning or somewhere along the way. In these moments, look to others, whether they’re advisors, colleagues, friends in the field or someone you look up to. It’s okay to ask for advice, and they may point you in a direction you never considered. This is a field that requires continuous reflection and learning.
“There are so many early childhood initiatives and support fields. Instead of staying on the same track, you could become a part of a different initiative,” Jen Burkey said. “For example, instead of a classroom teacher, become a trainer, mentor or coach. Education will always be a field where there is a constant need everywhere. This is a chance to make a difference during important, formative years and use your creativity to reach so many.”