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People and places in early childhood education

Michelle Gujer

In this interview, Michelle Gujer (Early Learning Manager, Gowrie Broadmeadows Valley) talks about working in ways that are consistent with the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) practice principle of 'high expectations for every child'.


Michelle, if we walked through the door of your service, what might we see?

We are a 128-place children’s centre that includes long day care, integrated kindergarten and sessional kindergarten. We are part of a broader education precinct that includes a primary and secondary school, a special development school, Collingwood English Language School, and Kangan Batman TAFE across the road. This makes it an exciting place to work because there is a lot of opportunity for us to connect with other educators and service providers, which in turn allows us to better support family connections and transitions. 

We have six rooms in our early learning centre. They are structured around multi-age groups, so we have children birth to 36 months grouped together, and then funded Kindergarten programs, with a wide range of teachers and educators across these programs. When you walk into the service, you are always welcomed by a team member, which creates a homely feel where people feel like they belong and are welcome.

There is a strong visual presence of Indigenous culture, which reflects the fact that we have more than 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. There are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in our broader community, so we ensure that we have artefacts that represent Indigenous culture respectfully displayed as part of our surroundings. It is important that children and families see their cultural identity represented in our space.

Each year we take a snapshot of our centre. The most recent snapshot showed that 62 per cent of the children here have an additional need or special right. These children and their families require a wraparound service for 'complex needs', although I don't like the word complex. I think we need a word that indicates that we are required to engage with other professionals so that we can holistically respond to the child and their family. It's important to remember that family needs can be complex, and this complexity can be expressed in many different ways.

One of the eight VEYLDF practice principles is 'high expectations for every child'. What does it look like in your service when you work with a high-expectations mindset?

We have explored this deeply across our service over many years. We know that ‘face-to-face’ relationships between adults and children make a difference. At one stage, I noticed that our leaders were constantly out of the room because they needed to meet with other professionals. This made the program inconsistent for both the children and staff teams, and communication in the team was breaking down. We changed how we structure our children’s spaces, so that in each room we now have a lead educator and a lead support educator. The lead educator is the overall mentor and responsible for all room operations. They also have a health and wellbeing focus, which might mean working with child protection professionals, integrated family services professionals or other allied health professionals. The lead support educator is focussed on and responsible for pedagogy and curriculum.

This distributed leadership model is also seen in how I have structured the organisational aspects of the service. My role is the overall service manager, and there is an assistant manager who manages the operational requirements, such as rosters and payroll, and we also have a full-time educational leader. The educational leader supports the lead educators and lead support educators. The key thing is to work in ways that empower leaders to lead. When I recruit, I try to select people who also push me to think in different ways.  

It’s interesting that we think about high expectations in relation to children, but it sounds like you also recruit with high expectations for staff. What does this mean, Michelle?

When we're recruiting, we really think about the values we want in a team member. They might not all be developed yet but team members should be ‘hungry, humble and smart’, which means motivated and willing to learn. If someone expects to just come in, change a few nappies and do a few jobs, I don't have a lot of time for that  children deserve more. 

I've worked to build a supportive culture, where mistakes are viewed as an opportunity to learn. I would also add that if you're not a team player, you're just not going to survive in the early learning profession. To reach your full potential, you must be open to sharing your own learning, your own mistakes and who you are.

Do you have any practical tips or strategies that might help educators to practice the idea of high expectations for every child?

There are two things to consider.

Firstly, we need to remember that the educator is not at the centre of decision-making. We always position and hold the child and family at the centre of any decision. We involve children in everything, whether it's developing our philosophy, getting the lunch trolley or doing the programming – our educators do their programming with the children, so that children own their portfolios. This supports their learning and helps them to understand more about the work of the educator.

We see this idea of educators holding high expectations for children in many other ways across the day. For example, children have a tag on their backpack with a picture and their name. When they come to their room, they can choose whatever locker they want. This means we don’t have educators saying, ‘This is your locker with the little boat on it.’ We don’t support that approach. By allowing the children to choose which locker they want to use, we empower child-directed decision-making. The same applies at sleep or rest time; they get their bed and put it in the room wherever they want – there is no ‘bed plan’ developed by the educators.

Secondly, we create environments to support learning and development but also to reflect what children might see in their home environment. We have adult-sized tables, chairs and couches in rooms – even in rooms with children under three years of age. I have visitors sometimes say, ‘You've got adult-sized table and chairs’ and we're like, ‘Yes! They've got them at home, haven't they?’ Getting on and off the chairs is a great learning opportunity that we can facilitate.

Thinking about some of the advancements in early childhood education and care, what have been some of the big changes you have noticed?

When I think about my early career, we regarded ourselves as the experts and had these kinds of discussions with colleagues: ‘What would parents know? What would the parent of a one-year-old know?’ My view, and I guess it was the same for the majority of my colleagues, was that we are here to teach children and their parents. That's just how it was. Involving children or families in any decision-making did not really happen because that would've caused us grief. So, we missed opportunities to get to the core of each individual family’s needs and how we could support them.

I have learnt in my career that families know their children best, not us. We need to look at children in the context of their everyday lives. You've got to work together in partnership with families, and when you have authentic relationships with families, that's when the really great work happens. That's when families will open up and tell us things – important things – because you have created an environment of trust and shown that you value and respect the relationship. Sometimes I just stop and think about how many stories are shared by families; that means a lot of children are better supported and protected.