A leadership program is offering educators and early childhood teachers across Australia valuable professional development, a chance to network, and a renewed sense of purpose.
Participants have given positive accounts of their time in the From the Ground Up program, co-designed by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia (ELACCA).
For the program, participants were enrolled in pairs with one an experienced leader and the other an emerging leader. Educators said the program helped them tap into best practice and share experiences with colleagues from the sector.
Jennifer Bell is the service manager at Busy Bees in Chinchilla, 300 km north-west of Brisbane. She explained she was eager for the opportunity to join the program but was nervous of the time commitment.
Ms Bell had considered leaving the sector because of competing pressures. But having completed the program, she’s declared: “I’m staying.”
She said From the Ground Up had given her improved management skills, a toolkit of resources, and an expanded peer network. It also sharpened her focus on her leadership role at the 75-place early learning service.
Ms Bell shared her journey with a Busy Bees colleague in Kalgoorlie, WA, and a colleague in Brisbane. They researched how to sustain leaders in the sector by addressing educators’ wellbeing.
Their project findings showed that better administrative support and optimising work-life balance is good for business and for educators’ wellbeing. Findings and data may support practical changes for their provider and support discussions with regulatory authorities.
“If you build happy, healthy, balanced educators, that will feed down to the children and their families,” Ms Bell said.
Centre director Paige Smith and assistant director Catherine Asquith, from Goodstart Early Learning at Mount Hutton near Newcastle, NSW, explored how to better include children’s voices in early learning.
An example was in reviewing risk assessments.
“Rather than make assumptions, we sat down with children and asked them how we could ensure experiences such as climbing, water play or going for a bush walk were safe,” Ms Smith said.
“So, around water activities, they said ‘always have an adult close’. We incorporated this mind-mapping with them in our review of documentation.”
The training has inspired Ms Smith to research early childhood educators’ capacity to enact First Nations perspectives for a Master’s degree at QUT.
Ms Asquith said they also received positive feedback from sharing their research with colleagues and neighbouring services.
“The goal ought to be to create not just great educators for early learning but great educators for life,” she said.
QUT’s Associate Professor Megan Gibson, the program leader, saw the need for an online leadership program that could leverage the experience of existing staff and quickly upskill new recruits.
She worked closely with QUT team members and experienced early childhood educators Dr Julia Mascadri and Ms Cathy Nielson, and ELACCA to deliver the program.
A total of 78 participants have undertaken the six-month leadership program, delivered for the past two years. A third round of educators will undertake the program in 2023.
“The program has sown the seeds for a more engaged workforce and with the high probability of better outcomes for children,” Associate Professor Gibson said.
“We’ve found that participants have really thought about their career development. It is giving them a sense of worthiness in the sector, that they are valued.”
The member organisations of ELACCA, which represents the larger providers across Australia, fund the program.
From the Ground Up aligns with the National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy goal to support the supply, attraction and retention of a high quality early childhood education and care workforce.
ELACCA chief executive officer Elizabeth Death said a strength of the program was how it built leadership skills through collaborative learning at a local level.
“Our members are committed to engaging and retaining their workforce, and From the Ground Up ticks a lot of boxes for them,” Ms Death said.
“We know that making a difference in children’s lives is what motivates our teachers and educators. The program’s linkage between QUT, the workforce and providers, is a critical success element, closing the collaborative loop and providing support for the early years’ workforce.”
Goodstart’s Ms Smith said the program helped her stay connected at a time when services had to also juggle staff shortages, COVID, and community expectations.
“In short, we’ve had to sell this sector pretty hard. But for people who are looking at career options, you can’t beat having an impact in the daily lives of children and the community.”