Professionalism in the early childhood sector: when nice ladies speak will everyone listen?

by Freya Lucas

September 11

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.

As early childhood educators seek to achieve a 30 percent pay rise to bring their wages in line with the average weekly wage, its timely to reflect on professionalism in the early childhood professional community. The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas, explores notions of professionalism and the role educators play in how the early childhood sector is perceived.

 

In 1989, Anne Stonehouse articulated so eloquently an issue which continues to surface again and again in our sector – the finding of a professional voice. Ms Stonehouse, a respected presence within the sector, led with this thinking:

 

By and large, we are nice ladies, we do not like to offend, we like to please people. Whether because of our gender, our personality, or our training, we are mostly caring, considerate, warm people. It is hard to imagine people choosing to work with children who do not possess those characteristics, but perhaps that is one of the reasons we are not so good at fighting for our profession, at saying no, at asserting ourselves, at dealing with conflict” (Stonehouse, 1989, pp. 66-67).

 

In 1994, in her publication Not just nice ladies: a book of readings on early childhood care and education, Ms Stonehouse raised some powerful questions for those within the profession, ending with a call to arms, for leadership from and for the field, and for the sector to influence and direct change rather than adjusting to changes thrust upon them.

 

Whilst calling for change, Ms Stonehouse (1994) acknowledged that the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector had a “smugness”, and a tendency to expect others to know and understand the value of what it does. The reluctance to articulate the elements of its role in society  to those “outside”, or lack of ability by practitioners to articulate effectively what they do, limited the prestige, power and status of the field.

 

So what’s changed since 1994? 24 years down the track, has the sector found its voice, and are educators better positioned to communicate the complexities and value of the work they do?

 

In some ways, yes. The Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics now provides ambitious commitments, inviting those in the sector to consider the role of their actions as part of creating a bigger picture of the profession as a whole, and as part of compiling the image of what it means to be an early childhood professional. Revised in 2016, the Code of Ethics calls on practitioners to take responsibility for articulating their professional values, knowledge and practice, and to engage in critical reflection.

 

In other words, more than ever before, those in the sector who are responsible for shaping what it means to be considered a professional are being called on to consider what the word ‘professional’ in this space means to them – how do they want to be defined? What qualities, contributions, attributions and assets define a competent early childhood professional?

 

For those who have positions of power in this space the question of who is considered a professional becomes of paramount importance.

 

If we consider Ms Stonehouse’s call for leadership from and for the field – for the chance to set the direction of the wind, not just to adjust the sails – then those who hold the means of production also hold the future of professionalism in their hands. Educators, educational leaders, managers and owners all need to be a part of a conversation which seeks to define what it means to be a professional in the ECEC sector, and to use this conversation to set the stage for the next 20 years and beyond.

 

It’s not just a conversation for nice ladies any more.

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