Professionalism, ethics and the meanderings of a secret nanna

After 40 plus years in the early childhood sector I am reflecting as a professional and a grandmother on some issues close to my heart, Conjoint Associate Professor Linda Newman, University of Newcastle, writes.

This has been stirred by recent centre visits, selecting places for precious grandchildren. I am therefore not afraid to provoke. During my career, I have wished to ‘bottle’ some centres: the wonderful atmosphere, active happy children and highly interactive, intelligent, caring educators. Unfortunately though, much of what I have seen and heard lately has embarrassed and concerned me. What do I mean?

I’ve seen bored, sometimes distressed children receiving little attention, harsh words to a child who had wet his pants (he looked under three to me), little or no evidence of a learning program in place, breaches of confidentiality, and weak answers to queries about curriculum or programing. I could continue.

All this when the sector is looking for higher pay, based on claims of professionalism and hard, complex work, and national efforts to increase quality. Concurrently, some educators spend time on social media, talking about how wonderful we are as professionals and how we deserve more respect and pay. They often also seek answers when they should check directly from policy or regulations. Here, I see supportive educators giving answers or steering the questioner to a source of information. The answers aren’t always correct! This sets up a misinformation cycle.

Meanwhile Senator Leyonhjelm (January 2017), said “and then they brought in this National Quality Framework and they [unqualified women] had to go and get a Certificate III in childcare in order to continue the job they were doing — you know, wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other. All we did was drive up the cost because of this credentialism.” (, 2017)

Our response? I witnessed many distressed, emotional educators: ‘I work hard, you hurt my feelings’. It would have been more professional and powerful to articulate a calm, clear response, as one educator finally did to great media attention.

Let’s consider/reconsider what a professional is. Dockett (2017, p9), recognising the constraints, sees a lack of professional identity: “There has been a tendency to refer to all educators in prior to school settings as a ‘teacher’ regardless of their qualifications. This has contributed to a lack of understanding of the pedagogical role of early childhood teachers and a lack of professional status, when compared with teachers in school settings. Coupled with often limited access to professional development opportunities, early childhood teachers may be professionally isolated and not in a position to advocate strongly for their own professional recognition”.

In 2005, I wrote a list of what I then considered a professional to be. I can see how much times have changed in little more than a decade, and I would refine some of these points, but they remain useful in explaining our work:

  • fulfils a social necessity
  • has specialised knowledge based on research gained over long preparation
  • specialised skill that allows a service to be offered
  • considered experts in their field
  • willingness to go beyond the call of duty
  • shows autonomy
  • identifies culture and core values of the profession
  • shows altruism
  • confidence, faith and trust from clients
  • relatively well paid for making the judgements autonomy requires, and
  • resolves complex issues, (Newman & Pollnitz 2005).

This prompts the question of whether we actually are a profession or rather, an occupation, that requires lesser qualifications, and little autonomy in acting on complex issues. The persistence of a ‘mothering’ approach (requiring low or no qualifications) pervades in our society, rendering our work as occupational. The Senator obviously agrees. We therefore need to be clearer about what our professionalism now is. In my view, what constitutes professionalism can/should be related to theoretical perspectives (post-structural, sociocultural, feminist etc). Some are outlined in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF).

Professionals also:

  • claim power and status within their practice
  • take ownership of their specialised knowledge and articulate this clearly
  • exercise autonomy over their knowledge and develop and perpetuate it
  • counter the dominant political agenda by taking charge of their professional learning
  • collaborate on their aims and interests
  • seek public recognition, and
  • work towards deep understanding of research, theory and policy (Dyer, 2018).

It pays to remember that professionalism is a social construct, changing with time, place and the values base, that can be challenged by performativity and accountability requirements and top down approaches.

Consider the implications of Vennin & Purola’s (2013) research in Finland (cited in Ward, 2018). They found three views of professionalism from their research: a Customer Standpoint, in which practitioners understand themselves as service providers – the parent is a customer whose needs must be met (45%); a Professional Standpoint, in which the educator is expert with parent less knowledgeable and less competent (20%); and a Partnership Standpoint in which parents and educators as equal partners both bringing valuable knowledge and expertise (20%).

There is general agreement that an important component of professionalism is ethical practice. A brief consideration of what ethics is (but is not limited to):

  • behaviour that is right, fair, good or just
  • what we should do, rather than what we must do
  • making tough choices through energetic self reflection
  • based on values
  • similar to morality
  • striving for a good life – pleasure, freedom, honesty, justice, integrity, productivity, efficiency and profitability
  • principle based, eg benefit, preventing and avoiding harm, autonomy, justice, fidelity (faith, truth and loyalty) (Newman & Pollnitz, 2005, p75)
  • standards of behavior grounded in values
  • not easy (can make us feel uneasy) grey rather than black and white, and
  • ethical professionalism involves making complex, difficult judgments.


The following provocations involve ethical professionalism. Perhaps you and your team could develop and rehearse your answers in a staff meeting to be better prepared next time you are put on the spot.

A reporter approaches you at a rally for fair pay. She sticks a microphone in your face and asks: ‘If you get a pay rise, struggling parents will have to pay more. Do you want this?’

A prospective parent/ grandparent/visitor asks: ‘I have heard that my centre should have a curriculum. I asked and the director said learning through play. Can you please explain what is your curriculum?’ ‘What is your approach to literacy in this centre?’ ‘I don’t want my child to just play. I want him ready for school. Why don’t you use stencils like my nephew’s centre?’

An authority asks: ‘How can you show that you are meeting the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers?’ A colleague: ‘The boss has called me in. Will you please say I was in the room all afternoon – you know I needed the time out to deal with family issues.’ ‘How dare they tell me I can’t put things about work on Facebook. That’s my private life – nothing to do with them.’ ‘The boss said all our parents sign to say we can use children’s photos so I can put them on our centre Facebook – it’s good publicity and they look so cute. Is this OK?’

Advocating our professionalism

Mind your language: If you talk about your service, you are adopting a ‘Customer Standpoint’ view of professionalism. This will most likely mean satisfying the family, rather than the child. Though of course we want satisfied families, complete focus on their requests does not allow you to contribute your research based knowledge from years of study, or your deeply held professional core values. Teachers who say ‘we must do (a certain activity) because the parents want it’ are adopting a Customer Standpoint approach to professionalism.

I constantly hear the terms ‘industry’ or ‘childcare’. An industry is staffed by somebody with an occupation (rather than a profession). Remember, occupations require ‘trained’ staff who do things in a certain way. Workers are generally highly supervised, and usually do not need to make complex and critical decisions alone. Is this you? If you work in a ‘profession’ you require all the attributes of a professional described above, and more.

Finally, don’t apologise, don’t whinge, rehearse your responses, know your stuff – don’t jump on the rumour train, and rebadge/reframe – speak loud, speak proud!


Dockett, S. (2017). Statement of Sue Dockett. Independent Education Union case to Fair Work Commission.

Dyer, M. (2018). Being a professional or practicing professionally. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. 26 (3). 347-361.

Newman, L. & Pollnitz, L. (2005). Working with children and families: Professional, legal and ethical issues. Sydney: Pearson.

Venninen, T. & Purola, K. (2013). Educators’ views on parents’ participation on three different identified levels. Journal of Early Childhood Education Research. 2 (1). pp. 48-62.

Ward, U. (2018). How do early childhood practitioners define professionalism in their interactions with parents. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. 26 (2). pp. 274-284.