In her work, early childhood education teacher Maria Patteri sees the great impact that skilled teachers have on children’s growth and learning. However, the shortage of teachers is severe, and Maria believes the situation will only ease once questions related to working conditions and pay have been solved.
Teachers are highly educated professionals who see the significance of their work for individuals and the future of Finland as a whole. However, many teachers are exhausted and even contemplating a career change. This is the message for Finland in short, signed by thousands of education sector professionals.
Maria Patteri’s path towards her Master of Education degree as well as early childhood education teacher and special needs teacher professions began with a work practice period in an ECEC centre. She admired the competence of teachers and wanted to work in a similar profession after graduating.
Now Maria has worked as an early childhood education teacher for the past six years. The work feels rewarding, especially when the children feel happy and enthusiastic to learn.
“I really enjoy the moments and projects where all children are actively involved. It is a pleasure to support the children’s growth and development. Moments when a child realises they have succeeded and feel pride for their achievement are very special. It is great to see how the goals set in the early childhood education plans are achieved and how the parents, too, get to witness the child’s development,” Maria says.
Continued shortage of skilled personnel challenging the quality of early childhood education
The shortage of qualified early childhood education teachers in many cities has been widely discussed in public. Maria finds the situation worrying from the point of view of children’s learning and development, but also because the shortage of skilled personnel increases the daily stress of work.
Due to the shortage of skilled labour, it is often impossible to find qualified substitutes in the event of an illness, for example. The fact that, at the moment, there are many posts which cannot be filled by qualified personnel is even more worrying.
According to Maria, the situation burdens the entire staff of early childhood education: teachers, directors and day care workers.
“Teacher shortages are visible in the daycare groups, but also at the level of the entire ECEC centre, if responsibility for the pedagogy of the centre rests with a few teachers. Unfortunately, I do not believe that there are any shortcuts to solving the problem. The only sustainable way to address the shortage of teachers is to improve working conditions and pay."
Maria says that the on-going lack of resources means that early childhood education and care cannot be organised as required by the National Core Curriculum for Early Childhood Education and Care and the law, and staff are working more than they should.
"I hope that there will be a genuine desire to invest more in the resourcing as soon as possible,” Maria says.
In need of peaceful working conditions and the possibility to focus on the essential
Maria hopes for more peaceful working conditions and the possibility to focus on her work. The high turnover of adults in the group is not in the best interests of the children either. The Act on Early Childhood Education and Care aims to ensure that children have as permanent interrelationships with the staff as possible.
“I would hope for more peaceful working conditions and real opportunities to focus on my child group as well as the planning and evaluation of its operations. At present, it takes far too much time to think about who will substitute whom in the event of absences.”
The retention of teachers is one of the persistent problems in the field of early childhood education. Maria, too, knows people who have left the field, and a survey conducted by OAJ in autumn 2021 shows that it is very common among early childhood education teachers to contemplate a career change.
In particular, poor working conditions and low pay are driving skilled labour away from the field. There is more discussion about the exhaustion of early childhood education teachers, which also worries Maria.
“The discussion about the exhaustion of teachers has intensified and the situation has been actively pointed out. The exhaustion of teachers highlights the issue of the already existing lack of resources and makes us wonder how we can hold on to the qualified teachers still working in the field. If qualified professionals leave the field, the ones who remain are forced to assume even greater responsibility. Sometimes it feels like a snowball effect,” Maria says.
High-quality early childhood education evening out differences in learning and strengthening equality
Maria is pleased for the fact that the role of early childhood education as part of children’s educational path has been strengthened and that the pedagogy of ECEC centres is emphasised in the documents guiding the operations of early childhood education. This has been an important change, because studies show that high-quality early childhood education evens out learning differences between children and thereby reduces inequalities between children and families.
Next, the valuation of the profession should be seen at the wage level. In Finland, early childhood education teachers are highly educated – like Maria, many have obtained a Master’s degree. Teachers’ pedagogical skills have been shown to have a tremendous impact on the beginning of children’s learning paths and on the starting point of their school studies.
“In the law, the objectives of early childhood education and care are defined as, among other things, supporting the child’s learning conditions, implementing pedagogical activities based on play and exercise, strengthening positive learning experiences and providing special support if necessary for the child. All of this requires solid pedagogical knowledge. Without highly educated teachers, there would be no scientifically researched information available in ECEC centres about children’s growth and development, and such information could not be consciously applied to support children’s growth and development. In such a case, it would also be impossible to achieve the objectives required by the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care,” Maria explains.
Finns consider a salary increase of hundreds of euros to be justified
OAJ is currently undergoing agreement negotiations for early childhood education teachers and directors of ECEC centres. The aim is, for example, to secure salary increases that safeguard purchasing power, as well as a wage programme that would ensure the development of teachers’ salaries in the long-term.
The entry salary of an early childhood education teacher is now a little over EUR 2,400, while Finns think that a fair starting salary would be hundreds of euros higher. Even further training is not reflected in pay, unlike in many other sectors. A teacher’s salary is always the same, regardless of if they hold a lower or a higher university degree.
Maria sees the money spent on early childhood education resources and teachers’ salaries as an investment.
“Teachers are professionals in making the future and strengthening equal opportunities. Highly educated and healthy teachers are therefore an investment in the future of children and Finland as a whole. Some people may think that salary increases would be too expensive – but I believe that we will end up paying more if we fail to attract skilled professionals to the field and hold on to the current ones.”