Dream Job: Preschool Teacher

Playing for Pay

Pam Gamble spends her days rattling off the alphabet and counting aloud to 10, smeared to her elbows in finger-paint and knee deep in four-year olds. "We get to play all day," she said. "We get to paint and run, get messy, and be creative - anything a four-year-old can imagine we try to make into reality."

Gamble has been teaching preschool at the Country Day School in McLean, Va. for almost two years. In addition to leading classes in the intricacies of the ABCs and simple mathematics, she helps young children become good students for the future. She serves not only as a teacher, but also as a role model, disciplinarian, big sister, and caretaker rolled into one, helping children clear academic and social hurdles with open arms.

And for all her efforts, her little clients embrace her - literally. "One of the best parts of the jobs is getting hugs from the kids, and being part of their lives," said Gamble. "They're always so eager to tell us things."

A Hands-On Experience for All
Preschool programs differ across the country. Some teachers go it alone before a roomful of tots, while others, like Gamble, work as part of a team of teachers to ensure one-on-one contact with the students. However, the free-form educational experience Gamble conducts lends itself to a multitude of small-group activities concentrating on specific subjects, ranging from reading and writing to baking and acting.

"We try to stay outside as much as possible, so the kids have time to run and explore the world around them while interacting with each other," said Gamble. "They learn more that way than they ever would from us lecturing to them."

It may sound like fun and games on the surface, but life lessons are interwoven into this interactive learning experience. "Our kids ran their own restaurant, making and serving food to the rest of the school," said Gamble. "We keep animals on the grounds and the kids help take care of them." So as the children make cookies and feed chickens, they learn about proportions (from the baking ingredients) and anatomy (just where did that egg come from?).

Teachers Learn Too, But It's Not for Everyone
Before Gamble began teaching she worked in educational software. She knew that being tied to a desk wasn't for her, so she started to actively pursue teaching opportunities while working on her master's in gifted education.

Gamble learns new things every day thanks to her curious clientele. "I think the most powerful thing you can tell children is, 'I don't know - let's find out,'" Gamble said. "It lets them see that you learn all your life, and that adults don't really know everything!"

Most states require that preschool teachers have at least a two-year associate's degree in early childhood education. Gamble recommends that aspiring teachers also expose themselves to the craft as early and as often as possible. "Volunteer, work with after-school groups, get all the experience you can get," she said. "Make sure it's what you want to do - don't just sit in a class and think about it!"

Creating Better Students for the Future
Working with kids and helping them become good students might produce priceless results. However, early-childhood education is rarely a lucrative field. "I became a teacher for the money," Gamble joked with a verbal wink. "Seriously, I've always loved kids and I feel like I'm good at getting down to their level and communicating with them."

According to Salary.com, the average daycare center teacher in the United States earns $27,000, while an average kindergarten teacher earns $45,000. However, some schools, like Gamble's, are well funded by hefty tuitions and annual auctions, resulting in better wages for the teachers. A basic explanation for the overall pay disparity may be found in the general perception of preschools. Some parents and politicians see preschool as a form of glorified daycare, and many states do not subsidize preschools. This is slowly being turned around as numerous studies show that preschools can help create better students.

The National Center for Education Statistics found that children who enter kindergarten without basic "school-readiness" skills (recognizing letters and numbers, understanding letter-sound relationships, and demonstrating an understanding of relative size and number ordinality) are often able to become school-ready by the end of the year. However, students who arrive with this basic knowledge often acquire more advanced skills (recognizing words by sight; addition and subtraction), leaving them better prepared for grade school. Attending preschool may help place children in the latter group, resulting in better academic performance in the long run.

Beyond Traditional Compensation
Although preschool teachers receive modest wages in exchange for their hard work and dedication, there are some unexpected perks. "You get lots of stuff for free or at discounts at stores," said Gamble. All you have to do is provide proof of your occupation to participating shops. "We also get pretty good holiday gifts," she continued.

While teaching young children can be fun, it's a daunting task with long-term consequences for the students. Gamble strives to make her students' preschool experience a positive one. "Someone asked me once whether I remembered my first teacher," said Gamble. 'Of course I do - everyone does,' I replied. Then they said, 'Think about all the kids in your class. Someone will ask them that question one day, and they'll think of you.'"

A heavy responsibility for a beginning teacher to bear, no doubt, but Gamble wholeheartedly embraces it. "I don't know if that makes it a dream job, but I think that's pretty cool!"

So, if you don't mind painting with your fingers, sounding out vowels, and singing along to the same songs over and over, grab a lesson plan...and dream on!