The accidental early childhood teacher

Recently retired IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Early Childhood Services Vice President Gabrielle Connell reflects on her decades of experience in the early childhood sector.

Yes accidental! Early childhood teaching was never a first choice for me. Educated back in the days when women had fewer choices and women’s careers were not as important as men’s careers, my parents decided I should do teaching, nursing, or join the public service.

However, my father did believe that I should have a university degree and encouraged me to choose teaching. Archaeology or science was my first love but that was never an option - there was to be no digging up mummies for me.

I followed the path laid out for me by my parents and embarked on an early childhood degree at Canberra College of Advanced Education – now University of Canberra – and everyone knows how easy teaching is – all those holidays and only working from 9-3, but here I am 35 years later retiring from the sector after having had the best of times despite the hard work, bad pay and general stress. I have loved every minute of it – and if that’s how you look back on a career then I did take the right journey after all.

I know I finished my degree with confusion and the sense I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or what a teacher was – but good mentoring and support saw me learn huge amounts in my first year and so I stayed and grew and hoped I didn’t damage those first few classes of children too much!

I worked in Canberra for several years and then here in Albury as a classroom teacher.

I was happy being a teacher and had no aspirations for leadership roles but family circumstances changed that.

In 1999, I became Director of Albury Preschool. I felt very underprepared and out of my depth but once again I received great mentoring and support from other directors. In fact, the other directors thought the new girl on the block should take on some roles within the group as well – and so my other journey began. I became an accidental leader and advocate for children and families.

Advocate for the profession

I have always been a strong advocate for children and families but also for the profession and in particular early childhood teachers. I have always believed that the only way to attract and retain qualified teachers in the sector is through recognition of the work they do and their value, as well as through better conditions and pay.

Because of this I joined the union in 1994 and have been a long-term union member. The best move I ever made. In 2004 I was asked to become a member of the IEU Early Childhood Services Council.

In 2006 I was elected to be the NSW Early Childhood Services representative on the IEU Executive. I have just retired from this position this year after 16 years.

Over the years of my union membership I became more involved in advocacy – for children, families and teachers.

As part of the union, I continued to fight for better wages and conditions for teachers as well as better funding for early childhood services. I was a part of many campaigns, one of which was the Teachers are Teachers campaign which aimed for pay parity for early childhood teachers in NSW, and I was a witness in two wage cases for early childhood teachers.

Through my role as a classroom teacher, Special Educator and Director/Nominated Supervisor, I also advocated very strongly for better funding, pay parity and for teachers in early childhood to be recognised as professionals and accredited and valued appropriately.

Grassroots work

I helped to establish a grass roots advocacy group called ‘Children’s Choice’ which eventually won $88 million in funding for NSW preschools. We managed to mobilise the whole state and staged rallies locally and outside NSW Parliament House as well as outside the Sunrise windows. There were many uplifting moments as we all joined together with the support of the peak bodies – IEU, Community Connections Solutions Australia (CCSA), Community Early Learning Australia (CELA), Early Childhood Australia (ECA) and others. From this the NSW preschool campaign group was established and it continues to support preschools today.

Between 2009 and 20I2, I worked for three years as a Project Officer for Riverina/Murray in the Preschool Growth Program with CELA. They were given the task of rejuvenating preschools across the state and increasing access and equity for children with this $88 million.

I was a founding member of the Albury Partnering Group – a combined early childhood services group dedicated to providing better funding, services and outcomes for children and families in the area and supporting each other through difficult times. These groups have since spread across the state.

We need to encourage, mentor and support new teachers if we want to retain them.

Gabe with husband Scoby and grandson Rafael

While I have retired from teaching, I still have my toes in the early childhood waters and will continue to make ripples.

Gabe with husband Scoby

I am currently contracted by NESA as a Teacher Accreditation Supervisor supporting and mentoring new teachers through the accreditation process and find this a very rewarding way to give back to the sector I love. We need to encourage, mentor and support new teachers if we want to retain them.

The friendships I have formed over the years are long and enduring. I have been privileged to have met very passionate, intelligent and caring people who have fought not only for children and families but for teachers and educators.

But now for children, grandchildren and travel!