Image courtesy of Joanna Crothers
Educators voted on Wednesday to take strike action on September 7 – Early Childhood Educators Day – to highlight the issues and stress that workers within the sector have been experiencing after “more than a decade of inaction”. – The Guardian
The field of early childhood is currently facing a series of crises, including staff shortages, centre closures and unprecedented low levels of morale within and across the profession. None of these concerns is new! Although exacerbated by the global pandemic, the chronic challenges to providing quality early childhood care are complicated by funding, privatisation, ever increasing administrative demands placed on educators, poor working conditions, low salaries, and overall lack of recognition for the importance of the profession.
Such issues have dominated the discussion of early childhood in the media, portraying an image of a field inundated with problems and at risk of being overwhelmed by them entirely. Together with my colleague at the University of Sydney, Dr. Cathy Little, we undertook a study that sought to hear the perspectives of this situation from the educators themselves, not just of the issues outlined above, but also of the field itself. The representation in the media seemed incomplete, too focused on the problems that beleaguered the sector rather than understanding the deeper issues at stake. We wanted to focus on what was also good, sustaining and valued in and by the profession. One of the emergent key findings, despite all the current challenges, was surprising. It was joy! This article discusses the notion of joy articulated by early childhood educators, its presence in early childhood programs and how it represents a way forward for the recognition and value of the profession in our society.
C. S. Lewis understood. Joy comes to us, unexpected. A presence that we can neither manufacture nor control. Joy arrives and with it a fulfillment that is beyond the scope of pleasure or happiness and unlike those feelings, beyond our control. We may experience joy or hope that joy is waiting for us, however it cannot be manufactured, nor is its presence assured.
We mention C. S Lewis and his idea of joy as it resonates with the views expressed by the early childhood educators in this study. A consistent definition of joy echoed through our research findings, one that connected with feelings of happiness or pleasure yet moved beyond these to a “Delight in everything I do”, “A feeling of lightness and emotional fullness”, “Serenity and peacefulness” and an “Overwhelming feeling of happiness that comes from within”. Educators noted that joy “burst” into their lives as they went about their work with children. Joy sustains them, makes the work they do worthwhile and of inestimable professional and personal value. Joy is an occupational hazard.
In listening to early childhood educators, we learned that the source of their joy was found in relationships, experienced always with children, families, and colleagues. They described this joy in the day-to-day interactions with children, the quieter moments or as one educator wrote, “certain times when I make a strong connection with a child or build on my working relationships with my colleagues”. Others found it by, “Being in the moment with the children” or “Being with children” and “When the children are interacting with me”. They spoke of the joy discovered when observing children, “Deeply engaged in doing something they enjoy” and about “Having fun, singing, dancing, meditating, doing yoga. Engaging in conversations with the children. Playing with the children” and the “Daily joy… from the moment I enter the gate… to children cheering my name blowing kisses”.
Joy was seen as present in the wider relationships that surrounded the early childhood centre. The relationships with families of “Interacting with the children/educators/families. Sharing the children’s and educators’ achievements and learning” and “Daily conversations with family not just about their personal life but also about mine and my team”. Families contributed to educator’s sense of joy by their feedback about the program, in communicating their children’s happiness to educators and sharing in a sense of belonging. Educators experienced joy through a depth of feeling for their professional role, when they recognised themselves as central players in the bigger picture of supporting children to reach a goal or a milestone, in assisting families and children, or in actions they thought “Truly make a difference”.
Joy was and is everywhere, despite educator burnout, staffing shortages, low salaries, and poor working conditions. It is joy that remained after the educators responded to the needs of the children, at the same time as they prepared lunch, made beds, tended to children’s injuries, both physical and emotional, and tried to find time to plan, program and reflect. Joy could so easily be a casualty to these demands, and to the exigencies of the field of early education overall. All of which are a risk to joy, a risk that as recent events have illustrated, our society should not be so willing to take. The wellbeing of our children, their opportunity to grow and learn with others, to feel valued and appreciated is dependent on a stable and positive professional community. As one director said, “Being happy within really translates to the children”.
Implications of Joy
The reverence that educators expressed for children in our study should be reflected by a reverence in our society for the work they do, reflected in their qualifications, financial compensation and in the day-to-day experiences in each and every program. Day to day experiences that expand on the opportunities for the reciprocal learning that takes place between children and the adults who nurture them. Adults that are well qualified and extremely knowledgeable about the value of quality education in the early years, education that is holistic and which nurtures the whole child. Our early years programs move beyond compliance with standards, rather, they are environments, developed through rich, quality programming that allow educators to observe the children and engage with them in a range of creative learning experiences. Our work seeks to develop educators’ professional autonomy and provide them with the time to make pedagogical choices that are informed by research, the unique context of their program and not directed by standardized curriculum alone. To restore to them their joy, their joy of being with the children, playing with the children and their joyful pedagogy.
Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.
Cathy Little is the executive director of Initial Teacher Education at the University of Sydney. Her areas of interest are autistic spectrum disorder, high support needs, and positive behaviour support. She lectures at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and is supervising a number of research students.