Start with ABC of teaching
Early childhood teaching is an important step in creating a fairer society, writes Julia Stirling
EARLY childhood teaching is ‘‘ incredibly rewarding’’, says Kerryn Jones, because you can make a difference to the life of a child and their family and the relationship they have together. ‘‘ I have a significant role to play in laying the foundations of a child’s learning journey and their development as a person,’’ she says. Jones also has a strong commitment to social justice and each day she goes to work knowing that she can make a difference in creating a fairer society.
‘‘ Kindergarten is a rather special place — it’s not an institutionalised learning environment, but rather, a personalised learning environment.’’ Jones says there is pressure to accelerate children’s learning in the academic areas to the detriment of their development as a whole person.
‘‘ There is no point in a child being able to recite the alphabet and count to 100 if they are unable to make a friend. Children have a right or entitlement to a childhood and I worry whether it is increasingly being taken away,’’ she says.
Jones is director of Pennington kindergarten in Adelaide, and says good ‘‘ people skills’’ are vital for the job. ‘‘ Each day I would have interactions with at least 100 people — children, families, staff members, and people on the phone — so good communication skills are essential.’’
One-third of the children attending Pennington kindergarten come from families who speak English as a second language, and Jones is learning to speak Vietnamese to help build stronger relationships with the Vietnamese speaking children, parents and staff.
Jones co-authored Persona Dolls:Anti Bias in Action and her teaching is strongly focused on working with children around rights and responsibilities and laying the foundations for behaviours that are socially just and fair. Social justice issues are placed at the heart of the curriculum.
When staff interact with children they keep in mind how best to help children learn patterns of behaviour or ways of being that are ‘‘ inclusive of difference and accepting of difference, and are based on principals of fairness and equity’’.
In 1984 Jones completed her four-year Bachelor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Sydney and has since worked across private, community-based and government sectors and in different service types.
Says Jones, ‘‘ The Bachelor of Early Childhood enables a graduate to consider a number of career paths in different early childhood education settings, such as long-daycare centres, preschools/kindergartens, and junior primary schools.
‘‘ These career paths can be in communitybased services, state run services/schools, or in the private or independent sectors. The pay does vary across these different sectors and across the different states, so I would advise graduates to investigate what the pay structures look like in their state. There are also possibilities in these sectors to work in management or in a range of advisory, or training or resource development roles.’’
There is a shortage of early childhood teachers in remote and rural areas and it can be difficult to attract early childhood education teachers into long-daycare centres because of parity of pay and conditions.
International research shows early childhood education gives the best start to schooling but many thousands of children are missing out on kindergarten/preschool. According to a recent OECD report, Starting Strong 11, Australia, compared with 19 other first world countries, has very low levels of investment in quality childhood services.
Monash University is now delivering an alternative model to their four-year Bachelor of Early Childhood Studies to help counteract the chronic shortages of early childhood teachers in remote and rural areas. TAFE graduates with a diploma in children’s services, who live and work in remote and rural areas, can upgrade their diploma qualification to a three-year teaching degree. The course is delivered in a combination of distance education and face-to-face intensive seminars held in the city centre twice per semester.
Experts agree that specialist early childhood teachers are vital to the delivery of quality care and eduction in the early childhood services.
Marie Hammer, course co-ordinator of Early Childhood at Monash University and president of Early Childhood Australia (Victorian branch) says, research into quality early childhood programs identifies the qualifications of specialist early childhood staff as the single greatest indicator of quality.
‘‘ Interactions with young children that are based on detailed understandings of children’s strengths, interests and the ways in which young children learn through play, are critical to developing children’s potential and skills for learning.
‘‘ Highly qualified staff need these skills to design, implement, and evaluate programs in early childhood settings that ensure the programs are meaningful and relevant to the children within the children’s social and cultural settings,’’ she says.
Fay Hadley completed a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education in 1990. She started out as a preschool teacher in a community-based longdaycare centre in Canberra where, in 1993, she also became the director.
The degree is transferable, and a brief stint overseas found her working in several inner London primary schools, before moving back to Sydney where she became director of a private centre which she ‘‘ set up from scratch’’. Post- graduate studies allowed her to find employment as a project manager and research associate at the University of Western Sydney, and Hadley has just completed her PhD and is currently working as an early childhood lecturer at Macquarie University.
Hadley’s first job taught her to be flexible in her approach to teaching and that a one-sizefits-all model doesn’t work. She dealt with families struggling with domestic violence, drug addictions, poverty and disability.
Hadley says she became aware of her biases and the experience in working with diverse families set her on a path to ‘‘ develop skills in fostering inclusion and connections’’.
While there are many rewards in teaching young children, Hadley says at times it can be physically and emotionally draining.
‘‘ You can have a parent walk in and burst into tears, and you take them into the office and (they’ll tell you) they’ve just been diagnosed with a serious illness — you’ve known those families for a long time, so you do become emotionally attached to them.’’
From a physical perspective, Hadley says people think you’re just sitting down ‘‘ having a great time in the sand pit’’. ‘‘ You really are physically exhausted by the end of the day, sometimes people work nine-hour shifts — you just get a very short lunch break — and the rest of the time you are there with the children, participating in everything they are participating in.’’
Both Hadley and Jones stress the need for teachers to be given time away from the children to critically reflect and set up programs. Because of the economic way services are run now, Hadley says ‘‘ it’s a lot about the bottom dollar, and the things that cost the most are those times you are releasing staff away from children. Because of ratios you have to replace (staff).’’
Education departments provide teachers with time away from children to program and critically reflect, but in private centres and community-based centres, Hadley says it would just depend on whether management thought they could afford to factor that in.
Early childhood educators need to be critically reflective people who enquire into educational practice, says Jones. ‘‘ There is no room for average teachers, we need people who are willing to think, learn and give 100 per cent to the profession.’’
Jones explains teachers in early childhood education need to speak up about what are in the best interests of the child. ‘‘ That could be around government policy, it can be around community planning in the local area, so helping to give children a voice. It’s about participating in debates and conversations about the rights of children because they often don’t have a voice in the community.’’
Hadley says students ‘‘ need to have a very good understanding of what policies are coming out and who is doing what. They need to be savvy around advocacy and be able to stand up and be articulate about what is needed.’’
Hadley says students are also surprised at how much power they have in relation to negotiating their conditions because of the shortage of early childhood staff.
Foundations of life: Kindergarten is a special place, says Kerryn Jones