Interview with Teresa Sankey

Name: Teresa Sankey

City of Residence: Vancouver, BC

Occupation: Child Care Licensing Officer (25 years) & Instructor in ECE at Burnaby School District Continuing Education & Vancouver Community College for 15 years (ended August 2012)

How long have you been an ECE?

31 years

What inspired you to become an ECE?

I finished University and was like “what now?” I was raised in a family that valued education. University was all about extending my education and engaging in deeper learning. It was not about training for a “job.”

All through University, I worked as a member of a Women’s Collective doing outreach related to pornography and prostitution. I worked as an advocate for women in the sex-trade. I valued that work but knew that I could not continue and make a living.

I have a strong feminist and socialist background. I was raised to believe one of the reasons I’m here on earth is to contribute to society and to support children and families. I came to the decision to become an ECE from a political place.

What keeps you here?

It was painful to leave the work I loved when I had children. I could not afford to continue to be an “on the floor” educator and support my own children financially. I started out as a Child Care Licensing Officer doing a maternity leave to pay off my student loan from University so I could focus on being debt free to support my children. As a single parent, we do the best we can with what we’ve got. Just prior to that, I was offered work as an ECE instructor in the evening and worked for many years with adults going into the field of ECE.

I continue to work as a Child Care Licensing Officer for the money. At my age, to step away from this work would mean poverty. I don’t particularly enjoy this work but it is what I’ve done to support my family – it’s a compromise to stay in the field.

My pension won’t enable me to support myself when I retire. I will have to continue to work. But the government pension will support my return to the work I love.  I will go back “on the floor”.

It is a sobering thought. It is 2017 and the only women in our office who can be truly free to retire when and how they want have partners – partners who work full time or receive a pension.

Settle the debate for us: Job or Profession?

Rather than getting caught up in semantics, what matters are the values and sense of ethics I bring to the work. It’s not the label that counts. It is not the BA or the title.

It’s how you move through everyday interactions in the work you do. Doesn’t matter what work you do. All work has value.

What does professionalism look like in the child care sector today?

My concern is “credential creep” and the quality of current training for ECEs. The energy being placed on having ECEs obtain their Bachelor of Arts would be better placed in attending to the funding and quality of our basic and post basic ECE training.

From where I sit, basic ECE training should prepare people to work with children and families. Here in British Columbia, someone can start working on the floor with one course, for example Health, Safety and Nutrition. This level of training is not preparing people for the depth of the work involved. With the ECE Assistant category there is no requirement for Child Growth and Development. No requirement for Guiding and Caring. These gaps are leaving ECE Assistants vulnerable to making poor decisions because they lack the basics; they lack the breadth of training and experience required to do the work.

We need to focus on the basic and post basic ECE programs- ensuring they are well funded and accessible – and having our skills recognized and remunerated.

We can’t move forward without this foundation.

What is needed for the future (wages, benefits, working conditions) to fulfill your professional role effectively? 

There is a desperate need for financial support and the political will to support the changes that need to happen. There is much talk of increasing spaces but if we do not have the funding in place to ensure quality spaces, to improve our training programs, to ensure well qualified staff are well paid and an adequate number of licensing staff to support and monitor then we will fail. The $10 dollar a day plan of the ECEBC and Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. is a good start. We need to start now.

What’s the most amazing story a child has told you?  

A story that surprised me came from my own daughter, Saoirse —my own kid’s experience with child care and her faith in me as her parent. I have forgotten about this story and it shook me because it is just what we do in this family and I took it for granted.

When enrolling my children in child care, as part of the orientation, I’d shared that I’d had an arc of my own learning during my time in the field and did not use Behavior Modification and Time Out with my own children. I asked the caregivers to call me first and have a meeting if they ever felt the need to move to using such strategies with my girls.

Saoirse was in Out of School Care. She was 8 years old. She enjoyed telling her Campbell’s tomato soup story. The cook had prepared Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch.

When a staff member gave Saoirse a bowl of the soup, Saoirse replied: “No thank you. I don’t want the soup. I will just have the grilled cheese, please.”

Staff: “Why?”

Saoirse:  “I don’t like that soup.”

Staff: “How do you know you don’t like it? You haven’t tried it yet.”

Saoirse (pointing to the kitchen): “I saw the can, I have tried it before and, unless the recipe has changed, I know I don’t like it.”

Staff: “I want you to try it first.”

Saoirse: “No, I don’t like it.”

Staff: “I’m putting you in time out.”

Saoirse: “You are putting me on time out because I do not like tomato soup?”

Staff: “Go sit in your cubby.”

Saoirse: “Okay but I’m entitled to a call first.”

Saoirse insisted on her right to a phone call before going to “prison.” She called me. I dropped work and drove right over.

Saoirse was sitting in her cubby, arms across her chest, when I walked in the door. She smiled and stated to staff: “See? I knew she’d come.”

I spoke with Saoirse and acknowledged that it was an inappropriate use of time out. I went to speak with staff and shortly after Saoirse was “sprung.”

I’d had the conversation with my kids – if something is bothering you, call me and I’ll come. I raised my children to respect staff but that it was also okay to question. You don’t always have to accept the conditions of care. Saoirse believed. I came.

This was a “big” memory for Saoirse, a significant moment.

Stories that kids think are significant are what count.

How do you get your friends or family to support the importance of ECE?

It’s a given – most of my friends are ECE’s – we live in a collective bubble. Outside the bubble of ECE & feminist folks it’s harder and there’s a tendency to slam up against the reality of public opinion.

My father thought I should be a lawyer or at least a “real” teacher. One time he visited a centre I was working at in the downtown eastside. It was 1987 or 88 and to find an alphabet that wasn’t racist or sexist or classist was a challenge but we’d succeeded and had it posted on the wall. It was important for my co-workers and I to find an alphabet that represented the children we worked with.

My dad came into the day care and seemed transfixed by the alphabet on the wall. He seemed to be almost relieved – “oh your work has value – you are teaching children the alphabet and how to read.” Above everything else, this seemed to validate my choice of occupation for him.

For me, the alphabet was so not what we were about. We were about supporting children and families – providing a sense of belonging, life skills, food security. After that experience, we took the alphabet down.

It’s important for children to be psychologically safe, to have trusting relationships with adults, to explore and learn about themselves, to be seen and heard, to develop a strong sense of self and to be empowered to advocate for themselves.

Who is your favourite ECE role model of all times?

Gyda Chud. She is an icon in the field.

Gyda was one of the first ECE to bring an appreciation of diversity to our work. Diversity in all its facets and meanings – not just multiculturalism but gender and class as well.

It’s how Gyda moves through the world; she truly walks the talk. She brings a positive energy to all she does. She channels her anger over social injustice into advocacy. She challenges you to think critically but in an oh so respectful way.

Gyda has a deep respect for children and families and for the work we do. She appreciates that the foundation of work is CARE. The care in Early Learning and Care.

Kids can’t learn if their basic emotional and social needs, if their care needs, are not met.

What’s the best experience you’ve ever had as an ECE?

I had many rewarding work experiences as an ECE working with children and families.

As a Child Care Licensing Officer, it’s difficult to choose the “best” experience.

I have a number of goals when working with care providers. One goal when investigating is to work hard at ensuring everyone feels heard and respected. I try to ensure people are well informed every step of the way throughout the process. The process must be fair and people’s rights must be protected. While it is important to remain focused on the bottom line – the best interests of the children – I believe a licensing officer can conduct investigations in a manner that respects the individuals involved.

Another goal is to bring a constructive, problem solving focus to the work. When we receive a concern, there is a window of opportunity to create real change. Undergoing an investigation is an uncomfortable experience for everyone and coming to a positive outcome takes a lot of hard work but it can happen. Collaboration and cooperation are key.

The times when I have been able to complete an investigation, maintain a positive working relationship with the individuals involved and create some positive change for children, families and staff have been rewarding. This is not always possible in my line of work but one can try.

What’s your best tip or trick that you’ve used over the years—that new people wouldn’t know about?

To resist the temptation, no matter how difficult, to take the first job offered to you. Work in a variety of different settings to find the right fit for you philosophically and a site that can enable you to support yourself in the long run (wages, benefits, professional development, pension). Unionized work sites are more likely to support human needs for wages and working conditions but are unfortunately no guarantee of quality care. One must take care.

Too often we neglect to mention how difficult the work can be if done well. It is challenging work and, at the same time, work that is deeply enriching and profound. It shapes who you are. It is important to embrace and honour this knowledge.

What’s your absolute favourite resource that you “keep in your back pocket”? 

A sense of humour.

For daily doses of support – my co-worker Laura Zazzara, my friend Kirsten Bevelander and my children.

For long distance support – Mo Caley. My friend from ECE and beyond.

What do you wish more Canadians knew about being an ECE?

What a deep set of skills you need to bring to the job. Families trust us with their children. We are responsible for the physical, social, emotional and cognitive well being of each child in our care. It is a huge responsibility.

We need to ensure staff receive quality training to reflect the skills required. We need to ensure the work is being remunerated to reflect the skills required and the responsibility involved. We need to ensure child care spaces are affordable and accessible. AND we need to ensure the overall environment is of a quality that supports the well being of children from 0 to 12 years.  The licensing regulations reflect minimum requirements. The regulations do not reflect quality. We need to exceed those standards – indoors and out – to ensure children’s overall well being.

Where is your favourite place to go & be with the kids?

Outdoors – natural environment—trees, plants, grass, rocks and earth.

What’s the best up close and personal encounter you’ve had with politicians or diplomats?

A very well meaning MLA came to the daycare. You know smiling children playing – it was a good photo op! When he arrived it was raining and we were getting the kids into their “muddy buddies.” It was organized chaos.

A child was growing frustrated with pulling on his muddy buddy pants. He threw himself into the politician’s arms. The MLA gave a look of “what do I do?” I said he (the child) is asking for help, provide it. To his credit, the MLA got right in and helped. By the end of that transition, he had sweat on his brow!  Nobody took any pictures that day though. Ho, ho.

You’re talking with someone who is interested in becoming an ECE. No one is listening. What do you say?

The most radical thing you can do is stay in the field.

I understand all the reasons why people leave – money is really difficult, the work is draining enough but then you have to be out there advocating for the field.

It can be depressing. All too often in ECE, you need to live with roommates or find a partner with a decent wage or live in substandard conditions in order to allow you remain in the field.

This has to change. We have to keep up the fight and support ourselves in doing so.

Surround yourself with angry, funny people. Works for me.

When the work gets to you, where do you go to recharge?

My children – Saoirse and Freyja.

Money or genuine appreciation?

Oh f##k! This should not be one of those either or situations.

If you are genuinely appreciated, then you should be paid accordingly. Don’t say you appreciate me then pay me $11.00 per hour!

You’ve just won a huge jackpot of 50 million and you have 24 hours to spend it in the ECE profession. What do you do?

Direct Operating Grants to support the change that is needed.

Revolutionize training for ECE’s to reflect the skills and experience required.

Gut the Child Care Licensing Regulations – such that it meets what research tells is optimal for children.

Pay Early Childhood Educators what the job is worth and have a COLA (cost of living assessment) clause in every collective agreement that reflects the city/ town in which you live.

Finally, what does “it takes a village to raise a child” mean to you personally?

We collectively have an ethical, social and moral responsibility to support children and families.