For a nation that prides itself on being No 1 on many a global list including the top spot in the global education rankings and the best country for children to grow up in, Singapore ranks a lowly 29th in the early childhood education sector.

The government has, in recent years, addressed this: from plans to build 40,000 new preschools in the next five years, to highlighting the importance of early childhood education during National Day speeches.

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Early childhood educators shape future generations, after all.

Yet not many seem to want to do the work, with staff complaining of being overworked, underpaid and underappreciated – many childhood centres in Singapore find it hard to retain staff, and over half of qualified early childhood educators don’t even enter the workforce.

How tough is an early childhood educator’s job?

Early childhood educators help promote a child’s hand-eye coordination, social, emotional and physical development, and language development.

They are also usually the first ones to spot when a child has intellectual developmental issues, such as autism. They can then recommend relevant schools, or, in certain cases – depending on the type of school or the educators’ training – be the ones to administer early intervention.

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They also teach their students simple mathematics and things like shapes, colours and songs. Most lessons are planned during a teacher’s own time.

They have to clean up after their young charges – from wiping them down to changing soiled clothing, and dealing with tantrums and meltdowns.

All this is done while running after children with boundless energy, as their students are aged two to six.

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A typical weekday for early childhood educators like Roxanne Tan, 22, includes waking up before the sunrise and arriving at school a little after 7am, where she cleans up the centre before it opens at 9am.

Her shift ends at 1pm (some teachers take up to two shifts a day), but Tan usually stays back an hour to chat with concerned parents followed by another hour to clean up the centre. Then, she heads home – to do more work.

From menial tasks, like creating crafts for her classroom to planning the next day’s sessions, extra work takes up the rest of her day.

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This excludes the extra seminars, meetings and conferences Tan has to attend or help run, over the weekends.

“It’s rare that I have the full weekend to myself,” she says. In fact, this month, her first full day off fell on National Day – a public holiday.

It’s an emotionally and physically draining job. Yet, many dilute the importance of early childhood educators. Tan feels that many still perceive her as merely a nanny or caretaker, and her industry, a luxury.

“We get many parents who are appreciative of us, but there are many who see us as nannies, just because they pay school fees.”

Is early childhood education a necessity, or a luxury?

Studies have shown how crucial early childhood education is for a child’s social, mental and emotional development. From teaching children emotional coping mechanisms, to fostering a lifelong love of learning, effective early childhood education paves the way for all learning and development.

During 2017’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the importance of pre-schools for children aged two months to six years in giving them “a good start and the best chance to succeed in life”.

“We must do this because every child counts. If we get this right, we will foster social mobility, and sustain a fair and just society,” he said.

This was echoed in his this year’s National Day Message. There will be an increase in preschool places nationwide, “so that all children can have a strong start in life, and benefit from dedicated teachers, good facilities, and quality play time.”

For mum Lilly Jia, 43, sending her six-year-old to preschool was a no-brainer.

“He loves school, and he learns a lot, especially about his favourite subject – animals and dinosaurs. When I sit in on lessons, I see that they put in a lot of effort to keep the learning environment fun and engaging.

“It’s also nice to have a little peace and quiet when he’s at school,” she laughs.

Why are early childhood educators so poorly remunerated?

In such a tiring job, what entices one to become an early childhood educator? Perhaps it’s the pay?

“Not quite,” says Tan, even though she works in a better-paying private school. The median salary of preschool teachers is $1,840. Until 2009, early childhood education was the eighth lowest-paid profession.

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How about respect from the community?

Tan feels that early childhood educators like herself don’t get enough recognition and appreciation from parents, and this may put potential candidates from making it a career option.

For Tan, though, it was her love for kids that propelled her to take up the job.

“One day, a pair of twins came back to school after their family vacation, they ran up to me and chorused, ‘We missed you, Miss Tan!’,” she shares, smiling. “Encounters like that are what pushes me.”

But although she loves her students and her impact on their lives, some days cause her to rethink her decision.

“There are some days when the children I’m looking after throw tantrums, or have breakdowns. There was once I had to use my whole body to restrain a child who was crying, kicking and punching. The other kids took that chance to scream and run around the classroom – it was pure chaos. I ended up with bruises.”

Yet, while Tan is often overwhelmed with her workload, she reveals that there are other teachers with even more demanding job scopes.

“A friend of mine works in a special needs pre-school,” she says. “They don’t just implement lessons – they have to plan each lesson individually because of each child’s unique needs. They also have to shower the kids, change their diapers, and have their lunch with the children. There is no time for her to rest.”

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Overall, early childhood educators seem to get a pretty raw deal – they perform work that is integral to a child’s development, yet are poorly recognised for it.

How can we treat preschool teachers better?

In recent years, early childhood education centres have worked to empower their teachers through professional development, and create more progression opportunities for them.

Yet, attracting talent remains a challenge. As CEO of NTUC First Campus, Chan Tee Seng, says to Channel News Asia: “[Early childhood education] is a manpower-intensive service, and people need to have a certain passion, interest and disposition. They also have to undergo very intensive training.”

In addition to equipping them with the right skills and advancing their job prospects, how else can we perhaps make things better for underappreciated preschool teachers?

If you’re a parent, a good place to start would be to thank your child’s preschool or kindergarten teacher on Teachers’ Day this Friday. Bear in mind that it was only from last year that preschool teachers could enjoy a day off on Teachers’ Day.

That would be the least you can do, considering the effort they tirelessly put into making sure your children have the best start in life as they possibly can.