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Aidn White | Changing the narrative on caregiving

I grew up in Wisconsin with nine younger cousins and two younger siblings. I was constantly asked to babysit them, from the time I was nine years old all the way until I left for college. At the time, I hated it. I had to give up playtime to watch my younger cousins or make dinner for them, and it was frustrating. I didn’t realize there were parts of it that I enjoyed.

I decided to go to Hampshire College here in Massachusetts, and I wanted to go into educational policy and philosophy. I started taking the necessary classes, but I needed a work-study job, and Hampshire happens to have an Early Learning Center on campus. I figured that all those years of babysitting could at least pay off in some way. So I got a job in the infant classroom there. I walked into the classroom and was greeted by the children… I rocked babies to sleep. It only took me three or four shifts before I realized, ‘This is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’

I thought for a while that I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. About a year and a half after I started doing the classes required for that, I realized I preferred working with even younger students. I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity and the mentors necessary to know that this is absolutely where I want to be. 

I volunteered in a kindergarten classroom in Hadley for a brief time, and I loved it, but what changed the atmosphere for me were the standards. I have so much respect for teachers of older students, but the process of having a list of standards to teach kids at that age, when they learn so much through play, was not something I wanted to push and pull with for the rest of my life.

There are standards to teaching prekindergarten as well, but those standards relate to the opportunities that kids should be given in that time of their life, rather than the things that we expect them to learn and that we are judging their entire education on. There is more flexibility, and not only in what we have to teach them, but also in the way that we teach and how we can organically respond to children’s needs.

You saw my kids waving from the window, right? They’re always thrilled every morning to see me, my co-teacher, and each other. They are constantly learning new things, and watching their brains make connections is really cool. Every time I make a six-month-old laugh, I think, ‘This is how I know I’m in the right field.’

I work with a family whose older daughter is now four but who was a baby in my classroom, and their younger son started with me when he was four months old. They made me a Christmas card with their little handprints on it. I’ve been working with them for the past four years at school, and I’ve also done some babysitting for their family during the one month of summer we have off. This card that they wrote is kind of the epitome of why I do the work that I do, where they’ve written: 

‘Thank you for loving and squishing and smooshing the cheeks of our kids in ways that have always filled them up, backed up with years of experience and academic learning, but mostly just a big old endless stream of love for the littles.’ 

It reminds me how hard it is to be the parent of a young infant or toddler, and how no family is meant to do it alone. The fact that I get to be in a field where I can not only spend days snuggling babies, but also do it in ways that support entire families — there’s something to be said about the ability to do the thing that I love and have it make such an impact in such a meaningful way. Every time that I stop and think about the connections, the years and years of threads that connect me to so many different families and kids, I am reminded that this is why I do what I do.

It’s easy to forget my purpose when I’m changing several dirty diapers in the span of half an hour, or when a baby is shrieking at me because she doesn’t want to go to sleep. It’s easy to forget that even those hard moments are important, which I don’t think can be said about all other professions. 

I worked retail in the past, and the hard moments in retail didn’t matter. They were just hard.

In my first year of teaching, I learned a lesson that sticks with me to this day. A co-teacher faced a personal crisis when her husband had a bike accident, and she took about four months off. This left my mentor teacher in a high-stress situation managing eight infants, all under 12 months, training a new batch of work-study students — and on top of that, she had a long string of substitutes instead of a regular co-teacher.

During this time, she took a special interest in training me. She saw something in me that she wanted to make sure was nurtured, even in hard times. But there was a moment when she pulled me out of the classroom. She sat me down and said:

‘You are going to be an incredible teacher one day. But the first thing that I need you to know is that our classroom is a space intended for babies. Their voices need to be the loudest in this classroom. Because everywhere else in the world, babies’ voices are ignored. People hear a baby cry, and they don’t always question why the baby is crying — they just get annoyed. Your impulses are great; and, you also need to be able to take a step back and not be quite so loud.’ 

My whole family is loud. There are so many of us, and not a single one of us has any concept of volume modulation whatsoever. Being told to quiet down as a child felt like a reprimand. And in that moment with my mentor teacher, at first it felt like a reprimand. It was really upsetting to me, and I had to unpack it for a long time.

But I eventually realized that she was telling me to be quiet not because she didn’t think what I had to say was valuable, but because she wanted me to know how to be better. She wanted me to be quieter, not to suppress me, but so that I could hear the voices of people who were much smaller than me. 

And ever since then, that’s been the thing that I strive to do. I am constantly thinking, ‘This classroom is made for babies. It’s made for people to be able to come in and understand infants and let them talk the loudest.’ It’s become a major underlying motive for me as a teacher: proving that it is possible to find a room and make a space that is just for the people who get ignored in other rooms.

It’s very important work to be a nanny or a babysitter, but there is a huge difference between babysitting and what we do as early childhood teachers. We have a whole classroom of kids. The ways in which we interact with the kids and their families, the things we have to keep in mind, our space that we set up, and the activities we plan are all different from what you would do with one or two children. We write progress reports, and we have parent-teacher conferences. I might have a six-month-old in a baby carrier strapped to me all day, but I also have to sit down and write a four-page progress report about gross motor skills and social-emotional learning.

There’s a book that I’ve been reading recently called Illuminating Care, by Carol Garboden Murray. She writes about how the reason that people often look down on early childhood educators is because we as a society don’t value care as a concept. You see this in nursing, you see this with people who work in elder care, and you see this with teachers. There’s a large contingent of people who look down on that kind of work, especially when the care is for those on the far ends of the spectrum: infants and the elderly. There’s an implicit message we receive that says in order to be respected as a person who does the work that you do, you need to remove the care from it. 

So we’re told, ‘We’re not a daycare. We’re an early childhood center.’ To a certain extent, I feel strongly that that’s true — care is not the only thing we do. But, care is the basis of everything we do. And so this concept of removing care from the visible part of our work, in order to be respected as teachers, is an issue near and dear to my heart. I want to be able to say, ‘I work with infants under fifteen months old’ without people suddenly viewing me as a 15-year-old who they should pay with pocket change.

I spend a lot of time talking with teachers about ways to shift the perception of our field. But we also talk about shifting the public’s perception of our students. We want you to see our students as people, too. 

Regardless of how young they are, children deserve for you to see them as people, rather than seeing them as a burden or an inconvenience. No matter how young they are, they all have their own personalities and their own personhood.

There’s a level of connection in every single tiny moment that is just as big if not bigger than teaching them to do addition. Yes, math skills are important, and reading skills are important. But people can’t learn how to count or how to read without knowing how to love and be loved. That is the basis of what we teach. And through that lens we teach everything else. 

We teach them the first letter of their name and how to find it, we teach them how to clean up after themselves, and all of that is through the lens of, ‘We love you, your parents love you, your friends love you. Let’s be members of a community together, and love each other, and learn how to do that in a safe, healthy way.’ I strongly believe that early education is extremely important for that reason.

The best part about early childhood education is how it varies based on the age of the kids — things change quickly and kids are in different stages. In my last classroom, the youngest baby started at seven weeks old, and the oldest just turned three last month. Typically, kids stayed with us until they were about three and a half, then they moved to preschool. Now, I work in a classroom with only children 15 months and under. We focus a lot on social and emotional learning, laying a foundation for future learning. This includes teaching them how to communicate, understand emotions, and respond to feelings appropriately.

However, our role goes beyond just teaching them to interact. We read books and sing songs to help them learn language. When we read a book with a baby, they learn to focus, track words, and understand the connection between words and pictures. We also use hand signs in songs, which allows them to communicate before they can even speak.

The toys in our classroom are chosen with purpose. They assist in developing gross motor skills, from rolling to walking to climbing. Sensory play, like sand, water, and rice, allows them to explore different textures. We even cook with the kids, introducing them to new foods and the process of cooking. We introduce pre-science concepts, like gravity and momentum, and emphasize the importance of pretend play.

All these foundational skills pave the way for future learning, like the alphabet, numbers, and math. They equip kids to enter kindergarten with the ability to make friends and follow instructions. Beyond academic skills, we teach them to form attachments and trust, understand care, and form connections. Even a simple task like changing a diaper becomes an opportunity to connect and care: we tell them why we’re doing it and help them understand why it’s happening and how we’re trying to help them.

All parents need assistance. Parents deserve to go to work, they deserve to have time to themselves, they deserve to be able to go on dates, they deserve to be able to take time to sleep. I work with a family that has two young infants, and both of the parents are pediatric emergency room doctors who work pretty exclusively overnight shifts. So I go over to their house on the weekends and watch their kids in the morning so that when they get home from work, they can sleep. 

People who dedicate their lives to working with children are doing it not only because they love children, but also because families need it. No family is equipped to do it all by themselves. So there is a level of love and care that teachers have for the families they work with, even the ones who are challenging. 

The fact that people continue to do care work and teaching work, despite how that work is viewed in society, says something about human nature. There is inherent goodness in people. People are good, and people help other people. And that is something to be respected, and not something to be looked down on the way that society has told us that it should be devalued.

I’m always surrounded by discussions about teacher shortages and people exiting the field. Around the time I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, many family childcare centers in the area began closing due to retirements or people leaving the profession. This worsened a huge disparity in Massachusetts between the number of kids needing care and the available spots.

I’ve identified a couple of reasons why I haven’t considered leaving. First of all, I spend a lot of time reading, listening to podcasts, and talking with other teachers, because early childhood is a really insulated field. If you don’t make a concerted effort to be in touch with other people who either work in the field or care about the work that you’re doing, you essentially never make connections about your work. 

To counter this, my former co-teacher, my former mentor, and a friend founded a group called Reggio-Inspired Educators in the Pioneer Valley. This group consists of 60 to 80 members who meet monthly to discuss education and our experiences, with about 20 people at each meeting. These meetings remind us that while our immediate context might seem small, we’re part of a broader community. We talk about things happening in our classrooms and how to be better teachers, essentially doing a group reflection once a month to remind ourselves of the web of connection between us. That web has been something that I’ve relied on. 

I know that my previous boss relied on it as well. And she decided, even with that, that she needed to close down and go back to school for social work, because as wild as it sounds, family therapy requires less work for her than running a daycare did.

Another huge reason I haven’t left the field is because of Teach Plus. Being a fellow has given me an opportunity to deal with a major problem that faces the field: the fact that decisions are made about us without us. The laws that regulate what we do in the classroom are put into action without giving us a chance to speak before they’re put into effect. A lot of the regulations are made with kids’ best interests in mind, but they are not made by people who have worked in a classroom.

For example, there’s a rule that we are not allowed to swaddle infants. Parents can swaddle infants, but we can’t swaddle infants to put them to sleep, because it’s considered restricting a child’s movement while in care. You can so clearly see, when you read that regulation, that the people who wrote that down thought to themselves, ‘This is great! This way, people who are bad won’t hurt babies by restricting their movement.’ But as a person working with babies, I look at that rule and don’t understand how it happened. I’ve never met an infant at two or three months old who will sleep without being swaddled. 

Working with Teach Plus has given me the opportunity to have a voice on those kinds of issues. There’s a structured way for me to collaborate with others who know that regulation doesn’t make sense. To those in power: I understand the good intent behind that regulation, but you need to get input from people who work with children to make rules for people who work with children. 

A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to sit down and do an interview like this or talk with policymakers because they are too tired from the work they’re already doing, and they don’t know where to find those opportunities. They don’t have a platform to speak from. And I often reflect on the fact that part of what keeps me from burning out entirely is that there are moments when I get to connect with people about the work that I do. Whether it’s to make change on a policy level or to make change in my own teaching practice, the constant reflection and ability to speak about what I’m doing is part of what keeps me here, because I feel heard.

Here’s one example of why I get involved in advocacy. A family I work with has two daughters under two. They adopted one child and then unexpectedly became pregnant. Both parents are in charge of significant segments of a pediatric emergency room at a local hospital. Nobody would look at them and say that their work is unimportant. Given their overnight shifts, they’ve employed a live-in au pair for the night shift when necessary (and to be with their kids during weekdays), but they also need to hire a rotation of babysitters during the weekends. Despite their seemingly well-off status, the cost of infant care in Massachusetts is prohibitive. 

In many cases, infant care can cost twice as much as preschool care and often is about the same price as in-state college tuition at a state school. It’s not financially sustainable to run an infant classroom unless you can essentially subsidize it, either directly through tuition or through other classrooms in a center.

Every time I visit this family, they express their wish to put their children in formal care, but the financial structure of infant care makes it impossible. Imagine yourself in their shoes. You’ve suddenly acquired two infants where you thought you’d only have one; you have a high-stress, extremely important job; and behind all of that, you have to worry about whether or not your kids are going to get the education that they need to be successful in life because it’s simply not accessible. And by all measures, this family is on the higher income spectrum.

There are so many families who need infant care but can’t afford it, where each parent is working three minimum-wage jobs. These families often lack even the basic resources, like books or toys, that can help mitigate the impact of not having access to high-quality early education.

This situation is why I ventured into policy and advocacy. There are countless families I’ll never meet, simply because they don’t have access to me or someone like me. We need more awareness and support for policy changes to address these challenges. Families often don’t have the time or energy to advocate for these issues due to their many other concerns. Those of us who do have the capacity should step up, educate ourselves, and advocate for societal change.

In Massachusetts right now, they’re trying to pass the Common Start bill, H.489/S.301. The Common Start Coalition has been working on it for a few years now, with great support from the communities it would affect. 

To give a brief rundown: the Common Start Coalition and their bill aim to universalize early childhood education. This means every provider would receive foundational funding to subsidize the costs of early education and care. The House bill aims to lower costs so that families earning at or below 85% of the state median income, which is over $115,000 for a family of four, would receive financial assistance in paying for child care. As funding becomes available and the benefits of this bill are proven, they hope to expand support for middle-income families as well. 

The Senate bill goes a step further: it states that families up to 200% of the median income in MA would pay no more than 7% of their income, while families at or under 100% of the federal poverty level would get free child care. Even just the base level of support this bill would provide would significantly impact almost every family I currently serve.

Every family of four earning between $30,000 and $271,872 a year would be receiving assistance in paying for early education under this bill.

The bill takes inspiration from the way that childcare worked during World War II. To make sure women could work, the government provided subsidized child care for the only time in our nation’s history. And then all the men came back from war, and the government didn’t want women to be able to take the men’s jobs anymore, so they made childcare unaffordable and unattainable again in 1946. All the women had to go home from the jobs they’d taken during the war. 

Teach Plus Massachusetts and other groups are working to increase the reimbursement providers receive for vouchers, enabling more providers to accept vouchers from families with high financial needs. They’re also aiming to adjust the sliding scale fee, subsidized by the state government, to ensure teachers are paid better while simultaneously reducing costs for families. This approach would make it financially feasible to open more spaces for child care.

There are other countries that have free or low-cost child care. There are also big companies that have on-site child care free to employees. So a lot of the ideas around access that the Common Start bill and other advocacy are working towards come from things that already exist. But work that tries to approach the issue from so many different angles at the same time has been many years in the making, and we have never been closer.

As a person who works with kids every day, it’s disheartening to think about the fact that this bill could have already passed in the last legislative cycle. That is exactly why everyone needs to rally behind it so that we can push for it to pass this time.

For me, it’s been a long process to move away from the notion that using the word ‘care’ might make me seem less professional. There was a time when I was advised that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a teacher, I shouldn’t mention that I work with babies. Instead, I should just say I work in a classroom, or I’m a teacher. Someone even told me once to only talk about my work with preschoolers because that’s perceived as more ‘respectable’ than working with infants, even though infants are my primary focus.

Sometimes, when people use the term ‘daycare’ to describe what I do, I sense they’re using it in a way that diminishes its value. It hits a nerve, but it reminds me that our real task isn’t to extract care from education. Instead, we should elevate the term ‘care’ to highlight its worth across all societal aspects, not just in teaching.

To this day, if there’s one thing I emphasize about my job, it’s the care aspect of it. Because care and education are intertwined. Regardless of age, whether you’re a student or a teacher, there’s an inherent level of care in those relationships. Neglecting that element undermines the relational work we do in classrooms each day.

–Aidn White
Infant Program Director and Teacher
Amherst, Massachusetts