Cindy Lester calmly sat down on the child-sized couch with the 4-year-old who had been careening around her classroom all morning. He’d just flipped an empty soup bowl onto his head.

“You have a lot going on inside you today,” she said. “What’s going on? Are you tired?”

To a lot of teachers, a high-spirited boy like this one might seem like a problem — the sort of child who might spend preschool in timeouts, then graduate to the elementary school principal’s office. He might fall behind academically, his curiosity and creativity putting him at odds with classroom rules.

But Lester is determined to create a different future for this child and his classmates at Children of the Rising Sun Empowerment Center in Detroit. She devotes herself to that mission 10 hours a day, masterfully defusing tantrums, tying and re-tying shoelaces, and coaxing a roomful of 4-year-olds to sit relatively still for lessons in phonics and math.

Michigan leaders say the state desperately needs more skilled and committed teachers like Lester to prepare young students for the crucial transition to kindergarten. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has warned that if the state can’t recruit enough early educators, that could impede her plan to offer free preschool to all Michigan 4-year-olds by the end of her first term.

One big reason? Salaries for preschool teachers are extremely low.

Lester is deeply devoted to her job, but she’s also a mom burdened by long hours, a small mountain of credit card debt, and by the constant worry that the next rent payment may be out of reach. Spend a day in her classroom and it’s clear why some might be unwilling to take the path she has chosen.

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