A lack of professional recognition of early childhood teachers has led to preservice teachers developing an apparent aversion to working in the sector early in their careers. Bedrock Journalist Sara El Sayed explores the factors that are devaluing the work teacher qualified staff do, and what can be done to attract and retain graduates in early childhood education.
With graduate teachers reluctant to pursue careers in early childhood education, research into graduate career pathways and aspirations is essential.
The Early Childhood Graduate Teachers go to Work (ECGTW) project, led by a research team at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), will be the first of its kind to collect longitudinal quantitative data on early childhood graduate employment destinations, along with their career aspirations.
This research aims to identify the factors that shape the career aspirations of preservice early childhood teachers’ careers over time, and develop understandings of the ways in which graduate employment destinations align or misalign with career aspirations.
QUT academic and project team member Dr Megan Gibson said the study will track students throughout their four year Bachelor of Education degrees at six monthly intervals and ask questions about their career aspirations: where they want to work, why they want to work there and what is informing or influencing that thinking.
“The study aims to bring more clarity to the influencing factors so that all early childhood degrees can be preparing students and preparing our future workforce optimally for working across a whole range of early childhood contexts.”
Dr Gibson said a factor that is anticipated to emerge is the validation and valuing of the work.
“This valuing of the work of early childhood teachers is shaped by discourses that form people’s understanding of the work, including the media, and government policy.”
Dr Gibson pointed to her PhD project Heroic Victims: Discursive Constructions of Preservice Early Childhood Teacher Professional Identities as a precedent in anticipating the issue of valuing the profession.
Interestingly, while Dr Gibson’s PhD research did not find that wages and conditions were explicitly talked about by the preservice teacher participants, pay parity between primary school teaching and teaching in long day care was an unspoken frustration.
“It’s almost implicit – preservice teachers and teachers themselves are frustrated that there isn’t pay parity between prior to school settings and teachers in schools – they’ve been saying it for so long that they’ve almost stopped saying it,” Dr Gibson said.
Perceptions of teachers
Dr Gibson said early childhood teachers have a great sense of the worth of their work.
“Research that has come out in the last decade shows us that there is a very strong case that the early years matter, and working in teaching in the early years matters.
“Teachers themselves know this to be an absolute and it’s irrefutable that the work of early childhood not only matters for very young children but it actually matters now for the economy and for society.
“The exasperation comes from others not valuing the profession as it should be valued.
“Until we have pay parity and condition parity across early childhood contexts then we are not going to attract and retain teacher qualified staff.”
Dispelling myths and misconceptions
Dr Gibson’s study sits alongside a growing number of research projects that focus on issues of early childhood education and care workforce, including the Exemplary Early Childhood Educators at Work: A Multi-Level Investigation, a study for which IEUA is a partner organisation.
This project aims to dispel the myths surrounding early childhood education by identifying, highlighting and documenting the distinct and complex nature of educators’ work. It will produce the largest database ever collected about the work of early childhood educators.
Dr Gibson said this study intends to look at what exemplary early childhood educators do.
“Using a number of methodologies, including a smart phone app, to capture the depth and breadth of what it is that early childhood teachers do on a daily basis, the study aims to highlight the value of the work they do – making it clear to policy makers and to the broader community, and educators themselves that issues such as pay parity and conditions need to be addressed,” Dr Gibson said.
Research leader Professor Frances Press said in a media release that skilled and knowledgeable early childhood educators are the key to high quality early childhood education.
“But despite the importance of early childhood education being recognised by governments throughout the world, the working conditions and pay of early childhood educators remain poor.
“The work of early childhood educators is beset with myths and misconceptions. Often the work is constructed as an extension of mothering and instinctual for the predominantly female early childhood workforce.
“In addition, the emphasis on learning through play is at odds with the more structured, teacher led examples associated with the school classroom. As a result, the thoughtful deliberations that underpin early childhood educators’ actions as they set up the environment, work with small and large groups of children, and interact with children to support their learning, may fail to be recognised as teaching.
“The outcomes of this three year research study will contribute to the retention and further development, of a skilled, appropriately remunerated and valued early childhood workforce.
“We hope our findings will be used to support pay equity, well targeted professional development and preservice early childhood educator preparation, and the effective management of high quality early learning environments. It might also help address the ongoing shortage of qualified educators,” Professor Press said.
With the growing number of research projects being conducted in Australia, it is evident that there is a great focus on shifting the landscape of perceptions of the profession.
Dr Gibson said this is beneficial for children and their families in continuing to receive quality education delivered by teachers who feel their profession is valued, and remunerated accordingly.
“Our research is committed to professionalising the profession,” Dr Gibson said.
Gibson, M. (2015) Heroic Victims: Discursive Constructions of Preservice Early Childhood Teacher Professional Identities, Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 36:2, 142-155, DOI: 10.1080/10901027.2015.1032449