Photo Courtesy of J. McConnico
By: Vidya Putcha
Preschool — often the first time that children interact with the education system — can be a powerful opportunity to support children’s growth and development at a critical stage in life. In Ukraine, the government has acted on a strong commitment to preschool education by providing families with affordable opportunities through its public system of education. However, like many other countries, the system struggles to keep pace with demand. In 2014, for example, 90,000 children were waiting for places in public preschools, with 15,000 in Kyiv alone. Additionally, more attention is needed to improve the quality of preschool programs.
Finding ways to better position and support preschool teachers, who are at the core of the system, is crucial to addressing these challenges. In an effort to learn more about their role and provide recommendations for how to strengthen this workforce, Results for Development (R4D), the Ukrainian Step by Step Foundation and the Institute for Education Development recently carried out a study on preschool teachers in Ukraine. This research was published in a new report, Supporting the Early Childhood Workforce at Scale: Preschool Education in Ukraine, and surfaced critical insights which may be illuminating for policymakers in other countries looking to strengthen the roles of personnel working with young children and families:
1. Provide ample opportunities for hands-on learning early on in preschool teachers’ training.
While nearly all preschool teachers in Ukraine have completed some higher education in teaching, a number of preschool teachers we spoke with described having limited practical opportunities during their higher education. Higher education programs were described as being heavily lecture-based and focused on outdated approaches, with opportunities for student teaching often coming too late in the program and facilitated by teacher educators with very little teaching experience themselves. We also learned that it is difficult to sustain a healthy pipeline of preschool teacher candidates, as many graduates of teacher training colleges and universities do not go on to work in preschools. This may be a product of higher education institutions not effectively fostering a professional interest in preschool teaching among its students.
Hands-on learning can help prospective teachers understand how to apply new knowledge to their work in preschools. At the same time, these opportunities may allow teachers to reflect on their future careers and help to sustain their interest in the field.
2. Offer a range of in-service trainings and ensure that teachers have opportunities to connect and learn from one another.
Encouragingly, preschool teachers are able to receive in-service training every five years with funding from local budgets. We heard that teachers appreciate these opportunities and particularly enjoy being able to connect with and learn from peers. Teachers we spoke with advocated for more of these opportunities, which suggested to us that practical knowledge from peers may better address their professional needs than training courses. However, while these in-service training courses seem to be beneficial to teachers, there are concerns about the quality and variability of the trainings, in particular, that teachers have limited choice in offerings which often do not reflect varying needs and interests.
Many teachers are already poorly compensated so it is important that they have access to training and professional development opportunities that do not require their own personal financial investment. Since teachers may have varying experience and backgrounds, designing different types of training courses, giving teachers the freedom to choose those that best meet their needs, and facilitating peer learning opportunities, can help in ensuring the relevance of offerings.
3. Provide more targeted support on engaging with parents and identify ways in which feedback from parents can be incorporated in programs.
Teachers and other school personnel frequently noted that communication with parents was their biggest challenge. Teachers felt that parents were not involved enough in their child’s development and ignored recommendations on how to support children at home through activities such as reading. At the same time, although many parents we spoke with lauded preschool teachers in public institutions for the work that they do despite low pay and heavy workloads, we learned that a growing number of families are enrolling their children in private preschools as they are drawn to the modern approaches that teachers in these school employ as well as the flexibility offered by these schools.
Efforts to better understand these dynamics could help in strengthening relationships and ensuring that families’ needs are being met in public institutions. Teachers also need support from senior teachers and leaders to help them better communicate with parents in order to ensure complementary home and school environments.
4. Hire and train auxiliary staff to offset challenging workloads and allow for more targeted support to children with special educational needs.
While teachers were strongly motivated by a desire to work with children, they described heavy workloads often resulting from large class sizes and paperwork. This was often further compounded by insufficient time and experience to provide individualized support to children, particularly those with special educational needs who were more frequently part of classrooms after the recent shift to inclusive education in the country. A new initiative to introduce the role of teacher assistants to support inclusive classrooms has been met with great enthusiasm and has potential to alleviate some of these challenges.
Efforts to deploy and mainstream auxiliary staff roles can help to unburden teachers and improve their ability to provide individualized support to children.
Empowering preschool teachers to thrive in their day-to-day interactions with young children can be challenging, given limited resources and the complexity of working with this population. While the insights above are only a small sample of how we can course correct, they offer ideas for how the early childhood workforce can be supported to make a lasting change in the lives of young children. The Early Childhood Workforce Initiative looks forward to supporting countries with knowledge and evidence as they embark on efforts to support these critical individuals.