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Early years teachers play vital role

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Preschool teacher in garden with child

Credit: Goodstart Early Learning

Early childhood educators are making the overall greatest contribution to a child’s education, according to a 2016 study1 of American and Australian pre-service teachers’ perceptions.

While historically early childhood teachers have not been afforded the same professional respect as their colleagues who teach the older age ranges, the majority of participants in this study did not agree.

The results of this study join a growing movement voicing the importance of early years education and the value of highly qualified early years educators.

Brett Wigdortz OBE, founder of Teach First, has added his voice to those who agree that perceptions are changing.

Teach First is a two-year Leadership Development Program that provides world-class teacher and leadership training for people who are passionate about giving children from the poorest backgrounds a great education.

We very quickly realised this was a very different type of teaching and different opportunity than teaching in primary school. What we quickly learned was what an amazing opportunity this was for impact. When you’re teaching a four-year-old for a year you have changed them for a quarter of their life.
Brett Wigdortz OBE

Operating since 2002, the organisation began placing early years teachers about four years ago.

“It’s been a really interesting ride. We’ve all learned a lot through that process,” Brett says.

“First we learned just how different early years was from primary teaching. For those of us who weren’t involved in early years before that was a bit of a surprise.

“We very quickly realised this was a very different type of teaching and different opportunity than teaching in primary school. What we quickly learned was what an amazing opportunity this was for impact. When you’re teaching a four-year-old for a year you have changed them for a quarter of their life.

“You can really help a child go on a completely different trajectory in a way that teaching a 16-year-old you can’t do.

“What we’ve seen is it’s much more child focused than primary and secondary teaching. The best early years teachers are able to understand multiple children and what they need and through guided play help them all develop in very different ways.

“They can let the child lead a lot of learning and I think for many early childhood teachers that’s really exciting because you can be much more entrepreneurial and have a lot more fun with it and focus on what the child’s needs are.

“I think also the interesting thing we learned was around the brain science and neurodevelopment and just how much knowledge and skills a great early years teacher has to have. It’s been really exciting going into early years.”

Brett says the view that early years teachers play such a crucial role is evolving and that many people still believe that primary and secondary teachers have greater value.

“I probably had the same views a few years ago when we did a lot of work in secondary schools and you could see the impact a good teacher could make to a teenagers life which is genuine and real impact,” he says.

“One reason we then went into primary schools was we thought, okay a lot of young people with disadvantaged backgrounds are entering secondary schools not ready for secondary school so what else can we do to help primary schools.

“And then in primary schools we saw a lot of people were entering primary schools where the gap already existed, so what else can we be doing even earlier than that?

“I think that corresponded with a lot of the research on brain plasticity and just how children get into these cycles very early on and that also showed the importance of early years and getting children ready for school.

“I go back to the fact that if you are teaching a four-year-old for a year you just affected them for a quarter of their life. A quarter of their life, which would be 10 years for a 40-year-old, and an equivalent amount of impact on a child’s life.

“I mean you could really shift someone in a deep and substantive way and I’ve seen it anecdotally but there’s been a lot of studies around it. We’re a very impact driven organisation so that’s what’s driven us to go into early years.”

Participants across the age ranges and across both countries in the study Who am I in the eyes of the world? refused to agree that primary and secondary education was more important than the early years.

Similar large majorities (91% in Australia and 80% in America) did not agree that early childhood teachers were less knowledgeable than their primary or secondary counterparts.

Both country’s participants also supported the statement that in their view, early childhood teachers make the overall greatest contribution to children’s education. In the case of both countries, minorities disagreed (26% in Australia and 31% in America).

Significant majorities in both countries also dismissed the concept that early childhood is somehow an easy option within the teaching profession with only 18% of Australian participants and 7% of American participants agreeing with this sentiment.

However, the participants, while supportive of both the importance of early childhood teachers’ knowledge and importance, were also aware that within general society, the professional status allocated to early childhood teachers is less than that allocated to their colleagues who teach higher age ranges. Only 16% of Australian participants and 25% of American participants disagreed with this statement.

Brett says that while the sector itself is recognising the value of early childhood teachers, it will take more time for the community as a whole to recognise and celebrate its value.

“I think in the past, early years teaching was something you more fell into rather than making a conscious decision to do it.

“I’m hoping that changes because I think every successful early years teacher is someone who works incredibly hard. It’s a real leadership role, very entrepreneurial, very creative, very thoughtful and that probably hasn’t been the perception up until now, even though it should be.”

Brett points to an experience with a kindergarten teacher as a prime example of the outstanding contribution early childhood teachers are making and the influence they can have on education.

“I don’t often talk about what’s the best class I’ve ever seen, but one early years example was a lesson I went into where the kids were doing completely different things.

“Someone had told me this was an amazing teacher of four-year-olds. There were about 20 children in the room.

“The teacher was just standing there and the children were doing all these different things. I asked the teacher ‘What’s going on here. What are you trying to accomplish?’.

“She said ‘Oh well, that child is playing with that child. I put them together because that child doesn’t socialise well and that one is a very good socialiser and I want them to learn from each other. And that child is building blocks because he has a spatial issue.’ And she was able to go through all of the kids, all 20 children in the class and say exactly why they were doing what they were doing and what they were gaining from it.

“I thought that was absolutely incredible. In secondary schools we try to get our teachers to differentiate among children and say you can’t do the exact same thing for all 30 kids in your class and I think secondary school teachers really find it a struggle sometimes to figure out how to teach a lesson that is separated out for every child.

“I think a great early years teacher does it automatically. It’s a core part of their job.”

[1] O'Connor, D., McGunnigle, C., Davie, S., Waggoner, J., Treasure, T., & Cranley, L. (2016). Who am I in the eyes of the world? A comparative study of Pre-Service Teachers' perceptions of Early Childhood Educators' professional status in their community. Australian and American perspectives. 10th International Technology, Education and Development Conference.