Let’s give the Children’s Center the support it really deserves

B Thuronyi

I started planning this piece while unable to get out of bed, struggling through a 24-hour stomach bug. Naturally, I caught it through my toddler’s class at the Williams College Children’s Center. Parents are used to this! I’ve probably been sick more since having kids than I was in my entire adult life up to then. That’s how it goes, and we do our best to get through it while still meeting our obligations to our families and our jobs.

Parents aren’t the only ones who get sick. Constant exposure to germ-rich toddler slobber is an inescapable part of professional life for our kids’ teachers. With sufficient time, resources, and physical and emotional reserves, you can absorb setbacks like illness and keep doing what you need to do. But as we’ve all learned or re-learned firsthand during the COVID-19 pandemic, when those reserves are running low, when there’s no slack in the system to absorb shocks, something has to give. Burnout sets in, and you start to see a real risk of collapse.

That’s what’s been happening at the Children’s Center for well over a year.

Friday morning in my toddler’s classroom, I heard, alongside the teachers, that because of teacher absences (yes, same stomach bug), that day’s flextime — a few hours a week for teachers to work on their own schedules, rather than the usual fixed eight-and-a-half-hour shifts that had lately been turning into 10 hours — had to be canceled last-minute. This “benefit,” which some would consider a basic work expectation, has been cited by teachers as one of the few positive recent changes at the Center. But it’s the first thing to go when staffing is tight — and staffing is always tight. Teachers are regularly unable to step away from their classrooms for even a minute during the day because most rooms have been operating precisely at legally mandated teacher-child ratios for most of a year. Parents know what it’s like to have to ask for permission and coverage from their partner so they can use the bathroom, and now that’s the workplace standard at the Center.

The Center’s shortened hours are putting strain on staff and faculty at the College but are helping relieve some of the unacceptable pressure that Center teachers have been under for way too long. Unfortunately, at best, shortened hours are a Band-Aid on a deep wound.

In two recent meetings with Center parents, administrators described the College’s plan to hire enough teachers to return (eventually) to full-day care. This plan relies on filling job openings with a starting wage, unchanged for months, of $18-20/hour. As Professor of Sociology Christina Simko noted at the meeting, that’s little better than the median national wage for childcare workers, with comparable workers in other sectors earning $28/hour. Many of those jobs, I’d argue, are less demanding and important than early childhood education, are in lower cost-of-living areas, and involve less screaming and fewer back-to-back diaper changes than jobs at the Center do.

While four teachers have been hired since last summer, six have left. The College’s plan seems to define success as getting the Center open full-day but still at bare minimum staffing, ready to restart the crisis if just a couple of teachers take extended leave or quit. I’ve heard that many current teachers at the Center are considering changing jobs. I completely sympathize. Much of the professionalism and fulfillment in the job has been undermined by the strain every Center employee has been under since staffing dropped, not to mention throughout the unbelievable struggle of the peak pandemic.

Just aiming to pull the Center back from the brink is the wrong approach. We should recognize its real value to the College and give it the resources not just to survive, but to thrive.

The Children’s Center isn’t day care. It’s early childhood education. The teachers who work there are skilled professionals, not babysitters. They follow and support our children’s interests, development, and social-emotional learning. They teach them skills — sharing, working with others, self-sufficiency, persistence, managing how feelings manifest in behavior — that are crucial to lifelong success, especially in college and the workplace. They show us new things about our kids all the time. They structure curriculum to every age and to each child. My toddler’s teachers (Cate Nowlan, Amy Sanchez, and Megan Alarie) have taken 10 toddlers — Toddlers! The car seat logistics for the van alone are staggering! — on multiple field trips, to Cricket Creek Farm, Jaeschke’s Orchard, the Clark, Williams College Museum of Art, and more. 

They’re the reason my child will pirouette and plié at the slightest invitation, because on a walk the little ones saw ballet dancers practicing through the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance windows, kicking off a months-long curriculum including two dance lessons, viewing of Degas paintings at the museum, and a dance stage set up inside the classroom. Just before graduating from the Center’s Willow room, my older child, then five, made a kid-sized bench by hand with real tools and painted it with rainbows, supervised by carpenter Dave Morrison from Williams Facilities. (Dave takes personal or vacation time to do this. Even his materials aren’t funded; he scrounged last year’s from a scrap bin.)

The Children’s Center may never have been intended to be as good as it became. It was conceived, not because of a commitment by the College to the importance of early childhood education, but as a job benefit to recruit and retain faculty and staff. It worked on me. I heard about it from parents in my department when I interviewed. I came here knowing it would give my kids an incomparable childhood. I have talked it up to literally every candidate I’ve interviewed myself. Some of them came to work here too.

I can’t help but juxtapose two simultaneous crises from this spring: The Children’s Center schedule finally breaking down from chronic understaffing, and the Towne Field House finally breaking down under its own weight. The College just announced a $1 million anonymous gift to offset the negative effects of the Field House closure. $1 million is the subsidy the College provides to the Children’s Center over nine months. It’s also one year’s starting wages for 25 new Children’s Center teachers. 

It doesn’t shock me that an alum stepped in to help with an athletics crisis while no one has yet come to the aid of the Children’s Center. But it does make me think about how our financial investments reflect and sustain our values — those of alumni, the administration, and the College community as a whole.

I think it’s time to recognize that the Children’s Center has value to the College far beyond its ability to keep staff and faculty from moving away. We can and should see it as central to our institution’s mission.

Administrators have raised the concern that greater investment in the Center would require trade-offs. They suggested that College employees who don’t have children might resent being asked to subsidize the Center. I’d like to put forward another possibility: They might be proud to do it.

Those of us who don’t have children might want to work alongside people who do. They might appreciate what parents can bring to their jobs and what children can bring to campus. Whether we’re staff, faculty, students, or alums, we might want to move toward a world where sexism doesn’t hold back women and parents from professional advancement, where there’s no pressure for one parent (usually a woman) to step back from work to support the other’s career, where having or wanting children isn’t something you have to hide or make excuses for. 

We might want Williams students to have professors who are parents, with perspectives on teaching and learning shaped by their children and their children’s teachers. We might want future Williams students to have been shaped and supported by the kind of environment that the skilled and dedicated early childhood educators at the Center provide. We might want to believe that our College community and our College’s mission affirmatively values working parents, families, and children, and sees their success as a key part of our collective success, worth celebrating and cherishing. We might want to step up and save something beautiful that can’t endure without our full support.

B Thuronyi is an assistant professor of chemistry.