Olivia Karaolis

ECEC: Why joy at work is wonderful (but never enough)

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.

Defining Joy

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.

“Joy bursts in our lives when we go about doing the good at hand and not trying to manipulate things and times to achieve joy.”

CS Lewis

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.

Finding Joy

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.

What I learned from my first year of teaching

“Ring the bells that can still ring, 

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything, 

That’s how the light gets in”.*

Trauma walks to its own beat. As with adults, children and young people who have experienced trauma, or any other adverse experiences often seem to have a different rhythm than children of a similar age. This is because of the way their sensory system makes meaning of the information around them, the information they see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. I recall one of my students, on a school excursion, responding in horror when we walked into the education room. He pointed to a corner of the ceiling and called out, “they are coming…with big horns on them”. His distress so intense, I took him outside until he felt safe and settled. We then returned to our school; he was too distressed to join the rest of the group. No-one suggested another possibility for him to participate in the event. He was excluded.

My first-year teaching in a program for children with disabilities, was filled with experiences like this. It became apparent that all of my assumptions about children, about language, about the very meaning of the objects and situations around me, belonged only to me. The children in my class had other ways of communicating, of seeinging and of understanding the world that was uniquely their own. A uniqueness many schools interpreted as a problem, a “developmental delay”. A perspective, I found only expressed what my students were not yet able to do compared to other children. A perspective supporting the existence of two school systems in Australia, schools for specific purposes (SSP’s) and schools for everybody else.

Last week the disability royal commission heard about the experience of students and their families in both school settings. Despite the legal right of students with a disability to a free education, “on the same basis” as students without a disability, SSP’s appear to be increasing. A phenomenon that is at odds with the overwhelming research in support of inclusive education. Research that outlines how education can be accessible for all.

Education that is accessible for all is not about changing students. It does not problematize students by attempting to (as I did in my early career) correct their differences, their differences in language, communication, the differences in their literacy, numeracy, or the differences in the way they played. It should not be about “getting children ready for big school”, and attempting to shape them into a size to fit a school for which they had never been considered.

It is an approach, as one mother told the disability royal comission, “that will never work”.

Or until we learn to do otherwise. About a year into my teaching, I was introduced to AMICI Dance Theatre at an Orff Schulwerk Conference in Sydney. Wolfgang Stange, the artistic director led us through a series of workshops that for my thinking and teaching were transformational. At the heart of his practice, was a belief in the contribution of everyone to dance, a unique contribution that should be valued and recognized. It was an approach that challenged the notion that there was only one way to do things and explored the possibilities of many, including those dependent on spoken language.

I danced back to my classroom with not only a range of approaches and strategies for children to express their ideas, make choices and reveal themselves in a way that was uniquely their own. I had been given a way “to see” the children and everything that they were doing, a complete contrast to the view of everything they were not. Now the light was getting in.

A light that gave me the permission to bring my knowledge of theatre, drama, and puppetry into the classroom. The puppets helped me not only to “see” but to “listen” to the children. To discover their interests, their strengths and how much they could contribute to their learning at “big school”. I wondered how much “big school” would contribute to them. 

Twenty years later, I am still wondering, wondering if children and young people, walking to their own beat will belong in all our schools.  Testimonies by children, families and young people at the Disability Royal Comission speak of their experience of being excluded. My research told the story of how puppets and the creative arts could bring about alternative ways of teaching and connecting with ALL children. To remove the barriers to communication and self expression through the object of the puppet was a revelation and one that allowed the children and I to learn together, to see our differences and embrace them. 

Teaching is problematic. It asks that teachers be responsive, be reflexive and embrace the idea that every day is not the same and that every child is unique. To let the light shine in.

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.

Playground duty really is quality time: how joyful learning happens outside the classroom

The Quality Time Action Plan is described by the department of education as an approach intended to reduce and simplify administrative processes for teachers and provide them with more time for “high value tasks”.  It is here that I have a quibble with this document and its definition of playground duty or supervision at lunch and recess as a “non-teaching activity”. I see this definition as problematic and at odds with the important role teachers play on school playgrounds and the learning that takes place in this setting.

Teaching does not just happen in the classroom 

The playground is one of the most important places of learning, it is here that children and young people develop socially, physically and practice a degree of autonomy outside of the classroom. A learning that is as important as that which takes place indoors. The role of the teacher is far more than a provider of knowledge. Relationships are the heart of our work. The playground offers us a space to interact with our students, to observe them in a different light, learn about their interests, strengths and vulnerabilities- an understanding that is essential for building our professional knowledge and informing practice. 

Teachers on the playground have a role that goes beyond keeping children physically safe and opening yoghurt. It is here they can offer support to students as they negotiate new or challenging social and physical situations. The playground offers young people a place for autonomy and socialisation. It is here they practice important skills that contribute to their social competence, such as sharing, managing conflict, making friends and learning new skills. Teachers participate in this learning by ensuring students have appropriate equipment to play, such as balls, hoops and skipping ropes. They can make suggestions about how to communicate more effectively, self-regulate, take risks or de-escalate conflicts. 

In American schools, playground duty is provided by non-teaching staff, often a parent is paid to fulfil this role. In my experience this resulted in confusion as school rules were implemented inconsistently and according to the assumptions of the adult standing on the yard. I recall one officious parent banning children from trading pokemon cards for no apparent reason other than she did not like the game. Students had no idea when they could run, what they could play or often why they were in trouble. What happened on the playground often stayed on the playground and teachers remained unaware of the social dynamics and the impact they had on the children in the classroom.

Playing is learning 

The wording in the action plan denies the important role of teachers in supporting this learning. The playground is a valuable resource for students and teachers as it is the primary place for playing. Play, in its many variations in primary and secondary years, offers much more than a place for children to “let off steam”. Vital social and emotional learning happens when children play and interact on the playground, they develop their awareness of themselves, of others and their capacity for acting with responsibility and kindness. Teachers can model this for children, to facilitate play in the early years, and in the primary and secondary years, encourage social inclusion and give emotional support when needed; this can be as simple as putting on a band-aid to address complex matters such as bullying. The playground is the heart of the school community and a place for students and teachers to play and come together for the wellbeing of all. 

Our duty when schools reopen 

Studies show that student wellbeing should be the highest priority for schools when they re-open. For many students, learning from home has been a period marked by significant anxiety and social isolation. Reports show what our students missed most about school was playing with their friends and their teachers. Removing teachers from the playground takes away their opportunity to reconnect with their students, to be present with them as they return to school, to share their concerns and more importantly experience the joy of being together again. Surely this should be considered as “a high valued task”.

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.

Main image: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6427507

What I know about racism. What I learned about bullying.

I am waiting for my daughter on the playground, amid the chaos of three o’clock, enormous backpacks hurtling over tiny shoulders, tenni balls are flying through the air and  kids are running to their mums, Dads and baby brothers and sisters. Finally the one I am looking for is bounding towards me. Her arms go about my waist and her head plants straight into my chest. I know immediately something is wrong and resist the urge to ask. I wait. Once we are a safe distance from the playground, out of the school, across the road and down the street my 7-year-old daughter begins to share with me an incident in school. How a group of girls, including her best friend, playing a seemingly innocent game in which the rules involve finding something of a certain colour, ended up with her friend, telling the other three girls, after a whisper to, “touch something brown”. Laughing, they ran to touch my Rosie’s face.

Rosie is African American.

Through silent tears as we make our way home, Rosie tells me she knows that I tell her to be “black and proud” . . . …”But I want to be white.”

I emailed her teacher, something I rarely do, and she called me straight away and then went to discuss the matter with the school deputy. She phoned me again to inform me of the school response, which involved a meeting between the girl and the deputy. She mentioned she ‘might’ follow up with a book and some additional discussion about ‘difference’.

“I don’t want to hear about ‘difference’ ,” said Rosie. “Every time they talk about it I am reminded of being different and I don’t want to think about it anymore. I thought we are all different”.

Valuing Difference: The concept of bullying in the early years.

We are all different, but the moment above is not really about “difference” it is about power and the perception that those who are “different” are less because of their difference. It is about bullying. Schools and early childhood programs are critical spaces for children to learn about social relationships, to explore their identity and value the identities of others. It is natural for children to explore their own power and bullying  behaviours may be part of this process. It is also essential that adults support them in this exploration.

Australian Institute for Teaching and Leadership (AITSL) defines bullying as Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm. This definition is aligned with that in early childhood settings, with educators agreeing that bullying involves an imbalance of power, an intention to diminish or hurt another repetitively, bullying is not fighting, it is the ongoing expression of dominance over another viewed as weaker

A recent study of 95 early childhood educators showed that many were able to define the characteristics of bullying, yet unsure how to distinguish it from other childhood behaviour. When educators do respond, the focus is typically on addressing the actions of the child or children involved in bullying at the individual level. I think we need to do more and consider the learning communities we want to establish for every student.

As with children in other studies, my daughter did not want to be the focus of a discussion about bullying, she did not want ‘help’ from the teachers. This response makes her the problem and also problematizes the actions of the other children, her friends. The reluctance of children to report bullying is highlighted in recent research. My daughter did not want to “be a snitch” this would only have added to her low feelings of self worth as well as her value in the eyes of her peers. She was exercising her power perhaps not to disclose. Yet understanding what took place on the playground, how she felt about it and the other children’s feelings are essential to address bullying. 

The Problem of Bullying

It is important for educators and parents to listen to children share their experiences of being bullied and to talk about bullying. It is here that we can learn to identify bullying and understand its causes in each context as well as prevent children from engaging in bullying behaviors and developing their social selves in a way that respects others.

It is particularly important right now, as many of our children are learning online and we have seen a sharp rise in cyberbullying. The impact of Covid 19 on young people has made the need to consider all forms of bullying even more important.

I argue that as educators and parents, we need to explore these concepts early and throughout schooling. To engage children in social justice education and prepare teachers to understand, identify and respond to bullying as part of their professional development. My recent research included the use of puppetry to expand the play behaviors of a group of 4 year old boys. The boys were described by their teachers as engaging in bullying-like behaviours, with repetitive acts of aggression and exclusion of other children during outside play. A series of puppet workshops opened up the space to learn about the boys’ perception of their actions, to support their understanding about the concept of bullying and provide them with the support they needed to expand their repertoire of play. 

Bullying is about exclusion, it is about power. Educators are in a unique position to model caring behaviours and devote time to supporting children to value their own difference and the difference in others. This should include the classroom, when learning online and on the playground. It is here that we can understand and support children in learning how to interact and respect one another, to explore the factors that influence their behaviour and their intentions. While the evidence on the impact of anti-bullying interventions is mixed, some actions by educators have been shown to be beneficial for creating a positive learning environment. These include using pedagogical strategies that help children and young people to collaborate, learn from each other and work independently. In many cases, teachers may need to guide children and young people by creating spaces in which children can ask questions and feel equipped to take responsibility for their own learning.

All of which takes time, time for teachers to spend with students, time for schools to work with families and time for schools to work together in creating spaces that welcome and value all. This asks us to do much more than just respond to bullying after an incident, it requires us to cultivate relationships that are caring, thoughtful and a reflection of the classrooms we wish to build in schools and online. 

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.