Working in harmony

Sue Legg is celebrating retirement after 52 years as an early childhood teacher. She shared some of her memories at the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Early Childhood Conference.

My early childhood teaching journey began in England with the childcare badge in girl guides. I realised I loved the learning process with the younger children and became an early childhood teacher when I left school.

In 1974 I came with my husband and two very young sons to Australia. I graduated from teacher to director in a short space of time. I enjoyed my working career and after many years decided I didn’t want that responsibility anymore and left full time work for casual teaching.

It didn’t last long though as I was willing to become a casual director and had a few years of short term employment which I just loved. I thought I was nearing retirement when I saw an advertisement for coordinator of a crèche.

The crèche was part of a new scheme for migrants learning English. While the parents were in class, we cared for their children.

Children teaching us

Some of these families had only been in Australia two weeks and some had come from refugee camps. We wanted to offer the children the opportunity to choose and create, while we cared and nurtured them and their parents. We began the enrolment process and soon realised that with so many different cultures and languages, it was us, the staff, that would be learning, and it was the children and the parents who would be teaching us.

The program provided 500 hours of English lessons and we provided 500 hours of care. TAFE recorded the hours the parents attended and we had the usual sign in and out procedure. The student that was enrolled in the English class was the person responsible for this signing. It was usually the mother and in some of the cultures we experienced this was a major issue as, firstly, this person did not speak English or write in English or read English! Sometimes she had not been educated at all and was illiterate.

The different cultures had different child rearing practises, but without conversation the mother handed over her precious child to a stranger. We had to build the trust between us and we felt honoured to be given that trust. We learnt ways to share and understand the needs of the parents and the children. We used signing and humour and lots of opportunities to share meals, as this was a common area that we could all enjoy. Our first Harmony Day was so different!

The Harmony Day organisers suggested sharing food from other countries, but we did that every day. So on our Harmony Day we ate Australian food! We invited the parents to join us for afternoon tea and we read and acted Possum Magic. We used a large teaching map of Australia, moved around the room, visiting the different cities and eating the food as outlined in the story. I intended to use our percussion instruments for the whole group to sing and dance to our CDs. But I had not taken into account the wonderful skills of the parents. Soon the scarves were wrapped around heads, the bells were being shaken and the drums were being beaten.

We were so lucky to be free to change our day to suit the children and the families. We used visual recording of the day’s activities and had the time to be there, in the moment, as it should be.

I was so fortunate to be part of this program. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!