I teach pre-K in NYC. My job is not babysitting. This is what I really do and why pay matters.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Tara Entrieri discovered her heart’s calling in high school, while working at a Staten Island community-based organization offering summer camp to neighborhood children. She worked with youngsters ages 3 to 7 and loved it so much, she returned four more summers. When there was an opening for an assistant preschool teacher, the director contacted Entrieri, certain she’d be perfect for the job.

Entrieri seized the opportunity, completing her master’s and passing the certification exams required to continue teaching. She is now a lead teacher, overseeing a classroom of 4-year-olds at the same community-based organization.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature Pre-K for All program, which offers free universal preschool to the city’s 4-year-olds and to some 3-year-olds, relies heavily on CBOs such as Entrieri’s to provide 60 % of the city’s preschool seats. The remainder are in public schools, where teachers are covered by the United Federation of Teachers’ contract.

Many CBO preschool teachers such as Entrieri aren’t unionized, and salaries can start as low as $42,000, compared to $59,000 for UFT teachers doing the same work. As a result, CBOs struggle to attract and retain talent, and the teacher turnover can be hard on children acclimating to a classroom setting for the first time, center operators say.

That pay disparity led to talks of a strike in April by CBO pre-K teachers. (For now, the walkout appears to be off as the city — which provides public funding for the programs — tries to reach a deal with operators and teachers.)

“My job is not babysitting,” Entrieri said. Instead, she said, her job is relentlessly demanding and critically important, requiring her to juggle everything from teaching basic skills like recognizing letters and their sounds and helping students grapple with strong emotions and manage mealtimes.

Still, Entrieri loves her job. But the process of becoming a teacher, she says, has left her with mountains of debt. And because her job doesn’t offer benefits, she is living paycheck-to-paycheck, forced to make tough choices about whether to pay back her student loans or purchase health insurance.

“I don’t want any more than other pre-K teachers in public schools,” she said, wanting only what’s fair — equal pay for equal work and “to be respected like any other teacher.”

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What drew you to teaching pre-K and students so young?

I love that these children have no past experiences with formal education, and I can create a strong foundation for learning in a fun way. I believe that if you create that early, the students will continue to look forward to school. And by focusing on emotional development and exposing them to new types of cultures and people, children will be able to identify their feelings and self-regulate those emotions. It is important to learn conflict resolution at a young age to foster positive interactions with others.

The opportunity to mold a young mind to be respectful of all living creatures and to keep an open mind to new opportunities, people, places, and food is exciting. There is a large impact that I have, and I take that very seriously. I also love my students’ love of learning. The students are always eager to share their experiences as well, and they tend to teach me a lot about myself and the world around me. I also love that at this age, children’s personalities are big and 100 percent themselves. I love meeting each new group of children and discovering all about them as they change and grow throughout the year. And finally, I love the opportunities to get creative. Not just creative in art, but in the way I teach, the songs we use, and the layout of my classroom.

What age do you teach and what is a typical day like in your classroom?

I teach 4-year-olds, but some students come in when they are still 3, and by the end of the year, some students leave after turning 5. A typical day begins at 8:40 a.m., when students start arriving. They begin by doing their daily jobs — unpack their book bags, put attendance cards in a pocket, sign in their name and the date, and get ready for breakfast by washing their hands and getting a cup and a napkin. We serve breakfast family-style. Once that  is complete, the students are asked to clean up and meet at the rug for “circle” — our meeting time. During circle we go over the calendar, review pattern work, and at this point in the year rhyming words or sight words. After circle, the students are given their name cards to use in a center choice chart and pick their own centers. The students have the opportunity to expand on their learning around the classroom, as the centers are filled with unit work, and words, as well as an art table where students can choose from different art based on a current lesson. For example, they might do a flower to go with a lesson on plants.

The students then participate in music and movement while the the assistant sets up lunch in the classroom. Then they go to lunch. Afterwards,  the students rest on mat — or as we say “relax your bodies” — because we all know a four-year-old isn’t going to rest! Next comes yard time, and if it is too cold or rainy to go outside, we get our bodies moving by doing exercises or yoga and mediation. This is followed by snack, story time — the story  is picked by a student whose job it is that week — center time again, and closing meeting. During closing meeting we review the lessons of the day and share information they learned while they were in their centers. The students are then dismissed at 3:00 p.m..

What do you think are the skills most necessary for teaching pre-K?

The CBO I work at does not have lunch aides, nurses, or janitors so it would be important to learn the skills of those jobs, as I have to a do a little of each of them. But some of the skills I believe are important are patience — that’s the biggest because the students are young, and the information they are learning may be difficult for them to process. It also takes time for them to learn to express their feelings, and become a good student by following the rules and routine. This is a new experience for most pre-K students, and you need patience in order to help guide them into this new experience. But you also need to bring excitement, caring and good listening skills. You have to be flexible because situations arise in the classroom at any moment. Students may not be ready to move on to the next unit of study, and you need to be flexible with your planning.

Sometimes an outside event such as a move or a new sibling may change a student’s behavior, and you need to understand that you have to be flexible with this child as he or she adjusts. Finally you need creativity, high levels of energy to keep up with toddlers, good communication skills both with children and the adults in their lives, and consistency. This last skill is important because children at this age learn best when predictability is present. When children know what is expected of them, they will have an easier time meeting those expectations.

What kind of training have you received to develop some of  these skills?

My undergrad degree was in child psychology. This helped me to understand key developmental milestones, children’s social and emotional development, as well as different types of delays and disabilities. My graduate degree is in early childhood education, which gave me a grounding in the academic content for math and literacy at this age. I have also taken training in how to work with parents — both those from similar cultures as mine, and those from cultures that are different, as well as courses in childhood illness and disease.

I really like the curriculum materials provide provided by the city’s education department. I expand on their units of study, and their standards help me better understand where my students should be and my goals for them, and where they need to be by the time they go to kindergarten.

What aspect of the job is most challenging?

One of the most challenging parts is watching students leave the classroom at the end of the year. Because we are a community-based pre-K center not attached to an elementary school, I do not see these students when they graduate, except for when they come back to visit. After a full year molding and connecting with a group of children, it’s hard to let them go.

As far as day-to-day challenges, there is just not enough time in the day — or the year. The students are expected to learn so much starting at colors and letters, all the way up to sight words. It is difficult to make sure that you are not rushing that learning and meeting their individual needs while you are still keeping up with the standards and requirements they must meet in pre-K to be well equipped for kindergarten.

But the most difficult challenge by far is creating a positive classroom environment that meets all children’s needs. Delays and disabilities aside, the students are coming in at different ages, which means they are starting at different developmental milestones. It is very challenging to create a curriculum that will meet all children’s needs when one’s birthday is Dec. 28 and another student just turned 4 while a third is turning 5 in two weeks and has a whole year of living over his classmates. At these ages, you must determine the ability of each child and create a lesson that will meet each one’s needs.

Can you describe a particularly memorable moment or lesson in your class?

Students often start the year with little knowledge or awareness of letters and letter sounds. I remember one moment, after working hard with a particular student who was struggling with these correlations — as a team, we had worked with this child each and every day all year — there was a day in June the student brought in a level A reading book and read the story to the class. That made my heart swell with joy,  as I watched this once shy, struggling child, who had been uninterested in reading, reading a book to the class with pride and confidence.

Another moment was with a student with disabilities. This student was very bright but had a hard time communicating, expressing feelings, and using self-regulation skills to cope with strong emotions. After working with this child for a couple months, he was beginning to show improvements in all of those areas. One day during circle, he was not called to answer a question and began to lose his temper. Instead of throwing his body to the ground and having a fit as he might have done earlier in the year, he called out to tell me that he was not happy and wanted to go to the feelings chart. He moved his name from the green to the blue zone and walked himself to the cozy corner to use some coping skills we had been practicing. The rest of the class continued the lesson and after about two minutes, the child moved his name on the feelings chart back to the green zone, walked himself back to his spot on the rug, and announced that he was ready to come back to the rug and learn. That almost brought me to tears, seeing all the progress he had made in a matter of months!

What is it that most people don’t understand about your job — but is really important?

First of all, my job is not babysitting. It’s really hard, important work, requiring a broad set of skills and knowledge. I have grave responsibilities: caring for children, helping them reach important and specific developmental milestones so they are well-prepared for kindergarten and helping them learn the social and emotional skills that are just as critical to their future happiness and success in school and life. Although parents are the first teachers, it is my job to expand on those teachings and help them enter into the formal academic world. This is a major step for these children and it must be done properly — not only with great academic knowledge but with kindness and in a nurturing way.

When my job is done correctly, students gain a strong foundation for learning, feel confident in themselves and experiencing new things, and learn to be tolerant and respectful of all people in order to decrease cases of bullying in later years. Some of my students teach their own parents how to respect all living things — for example asking their parents not to litter because of the consequences it will have on the earth, animals, and ourselves.

Another thing people don’t understand is the importance of holding children accountable and also keeping your own word to them, so they learn to trust others and themselves. It is important to know what your children are capable of and then have high expectations of them within their means. The students may not understand it at first, but it is important to expose them to high-level thinking — not baby talk. Using proper speech will help them expand their vocabulary, which will help them describe their needs and communicate well with those around them. I make sure we discuss conflicts — what they can say or do next time to resolve an issue and then hold students accountable for doing it.

With recent talk of a strike by pre-K teachers who work at community-based centers, pay parity has become a big issue. How has this issue affected you?

This issues affect me greatly! In order to do the job I always wanted — teaching! — I needed to push myself to complete a master’s and certification exams. With that came a lot of student debt, and I was looking forward to being financially stable enough to create an eventual life for myself while paying off the $200,000 I have in student loans. I pushed myself to complete both the masters and exams within two years, only to find myself with little pay raise. I live by myself and have basic bills that my salary just doesn’t cover. I cannot save money to buy a house or pursue other life goals because I am living paycheck to paycheck. On top of that, teachers in community-based pre-K centers do not receive benefits. This past January, I turned 26 which means I am no longer eligible to be on my parents’ policy. Due to my student loan payments increasing now that I am out of school, I had to decide between paying off that debt or paying for health insurance. I chose living without coverage in a job where I’m surrounded by children who are still learning to cover their mouth when they sneeze, and who also shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from me.

What do you hope will come out of the negotiations between the city and pre-K providers?

Equality! I don’t want any more than other pre-K teachers who work in public schools. I worked hard to become the teacher I am. And I believe that I deserve what teachers directly employed by the city’s education department get: pension, benefits, and equal pay. These will not only help me live my day-to-day life, but it help reduce the stress I’m constantly under so I can be the best teacher I can for my students.

Are you in a union? Would you like to be?

I am not in a union. I just wish I could be part of the United Federation of Teachers like any education department employee working in the city’s schools.