Northland early childhood educators say a teacher and reliever shortage in the region means they sometimes have to call parents to do relief work, or go into work sick.
This week education union NZEI said there were reports that 30 per cent of ECE centres had unfilled vacancies for qualified teaches, and while Education Minister Chris Hipkins recently announced a package to address the teacher shortage in primary and secondary schools, the ECE sector was left out.
Suzi Rasmussen, a teacher at Hillcrest Kindergarten in Kaikohe, and Zoe Brown from Mission Place Kindergarten in Kaitaia, said they felt "undervalued".
"There's this perception that early childhood educators are glorified baby sitters and that's just not true," said Rasmussen.
"Not anybody can come and do this work, it has such a lasting impact on children. In the first three years the most important developmental changes are happening," Brown said.
Rasmussen said one of the biggest issues faced by the sector was teachers leaving the profession because it is no longer desirable.
"The money is not there, the support's not there. We've got children that hurt us in ECE and we can't do anything, we can't even restrain them."
Brown said the struggle to find relievers was so severe they sometimes have to ask suitable parents - who have already undergone safety checks and have been police vetted - to come in.
"Teachers have to go to work when we shouldn't be.
"We have hardly any sick days anyway. A lot of ECE have five which is minimum - even though we're directly exposed to many infectious diseases and bugs," she said.
Brown also said the privatisation of the industry made this worse as more centres were popping up, spreading teachers and children thinly.
David Wales, Ministry of Education National Director Learning Support, said since 2005 the number of ECE centres has expanded from 1754 to 2558. During the same period, the number of children enrolled in ECE centres has grown 83,889 to 132,221.
"While the number of new, privately owned services has increased, they still have to meet the same standards, implement the same curriculum, and are subject to the same reviews by us, ERO and regional public health officers, as other services," he said.