Exceeding the National Quality Standards with philosophy and acumen at the core
Sheela Edwards, Founder and CEO of Aurora Early Education has made an interesting move from 25 years in the corporate, financial and business advisory sectors to creating a “holistic, hands-on learning environment” in Rowville, Victoria. The Sector Assistant Editor, Freya Lucas, sat down with Sheela to learn more about the elements that sets Aurora apart – the combination of Eastern and Western philosophies and approaches to learning, the high expectations of educators as service leaders – and about Sheela’s move from the world of IBM and Time Warner to early childhood education and care (ECEC).
Interviewee: Sheela Edwards, CEO
Organisation: Aurora Early Education
Topic: Exceeding the National Quality Standards, embedding philosophy into practice, high expectations and leadership, parenting, culture
Aurora – the beginning
Freya: Thank you for speaking with me today Sheela, can you start by telling me a little bit about your background, and how you made the move from the private finance sector into the world of early childhood education and care (ECEC)?
Sheela: Let me start with a little bit of background on myself. I was born and educated in India, and I left India when I was in my early twenties to go to England. I studied accounting and that’s been my professional background – I worked in finance, corporate finance, accounting for blue chip companies through my career in England. I also became a mum at 24.
I definitely experienced quite a lot of challenges with wanting to pursue a career and wanting to be a good mum. I was very lucky to have my ex-husband, my daughter’s dad, who was very supportive of that pursuit. He was very much the stable person to pick her up from dance school and do her schooling. I was always travelling a lot and trying to build my career.
So along the way, I realised that there was definitely a need for connection. Sometimes things take a long time to get to where they need to be in terms of fruition – moving into ECEC was not even a particular goal that I had at the time, but definitely something that I found myself thinking about.
“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if this happened or that happened” in terms of supporting women who are focused on developing their career.
Coming from a country like India where women are well-educated in certain sectors, they end up putting their careers aside because their main goal becomes mothering and making a home. Men tend to be the ones pursuing careers and women tend to take a fractional or lesser role.
So I think for me, it was very important to pursue a career. And that became a predominant sort of factor in my decision making.
Back in England, at that time, we didn’t really have arrangements in place to support working mothers, like we have now here. And now even in England, that’s much improved. But one of other things I also missed, because I’d left my home and my connections, was that I didn’t have any actual network that I could fall back on.
Somewhere that I could call on and say, “I’m running late from work today. Can somebody please pick up my daughter from her daycare or a nanny?” So that became very important.
As I was raising my family there, I tended to start to make the kind of networks that were supportive of that need that I had at that time.
That went on really well and in 2005 I moved to Australia. On moving to Australia, I decided that I would no longer work for a corporate organisation. I just wanted something for myself.
I think the move opened up opportunities for me to explore things that I may not have done in England because I think once you’re,I guess, on a ‘travelator’, you’re kind of going in that same direction. You literally have to hop off that travelator to kind of give yourself time to think. And that happened when I moved to Australia.
I actually started working for aged care, believe it or not. I started working for myself, but then I ended up with this group. And I was helping them commercially look at what their goals were and how they were managing that for aged care.
I had a friend who was in early childhood and she asked me a question, and said, “You’ve got the background to understand compliance and legislation and all of that. Why would you not look at early childhood?” And I sort of sat there thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting”. Early childhood is probably the right place for me because I have an opportunity to actually make impact. I have an opportunity to actually help the development of the human brain in whatever capacity I can. And that’s how I started exploring this space.
I ended up, of course, buying an early childhood long day care centre in Rowville. And at the time the business – that is now called Aurora Rowville – was part of a franchise. The Franchise gave me the stepping stone to getting into the sector and look at what it offered. And being from India and, obviously, being brought up in a very connected inter-generational family type of situation, I had lots and lots of amazing experiences that I brought with me.
And instantly, I started to look at what the gaps were – what’s happening in our society now and how we’re becoming much more insular – even families in Australia who have moved away from their parents experience the same sort of thing.
I started to look at those from a service perspective. And I think even in the early days of being in the sector, I start to develop a philosophy that said that there’s so much knowledge – ancient knowledge – that we’re not looking at, whilst we have information given with the research and science-based research that help us understand how the brain works and how we grow and develop as humans. There are some really deep understandings that every culture has. And that is somehow I think getting lost. And it’s getting lost because I think we are lacking in time, no one is there to hand over that information to us. So we’re missing out on some of those things.
Freya: It sounds like there’s a lot of thought which has gone in to the underpinning philosophies at Aurora. I noticed on the website, you spoke about Aurora using a blend of Eastern and Western philosophies to work with children – can you tell me more about that?
Sheela: Absolutely. So, I think that’s where the question about philosophies really comes in. What is it that we can bring that will actually enrich the children’s lives and enrich our own knowledge in helping integrate Australians into the one community? As I go through looking at different suburbs, there may be a predominant culture or predominant background of people. But I think Australia is, by and large, a nation of migrants and a nation of many cultures.
For me, it was important to work out what’s within those cultures that is important to retain, and how do we bring that into the perspective of our Early Years Learning Framework? How am I going to embroider that into what we deliver in the service from a routine and a day-to-day perspective? So, I think that became the starting journey for me. And it was really a lot of time spending on my own inward journey in terms of asking myself those questions, firstly.
There was some respectful challenging and pushing back, I think, on one idea, “just because because it was there”.
For example, if I had asked someone, when I first bought the business, “Why do we do this?” and they say, “Oh, that’s how we’ve always done it.” Or, “That’s how we were taught” – so I started to work with my educators, and said, “Well, just because something’s been done that way all the time doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way we should be doing it, or that we should continue doing it that way.” And I think that there may be a lot of marriage in what we’re doing, but I think it’s good to question or to ask ourselves. These moments become the opportunities for reflections and change in our practice.
From the boardroom to the playground
Freya: So this is a time when you were new into working with your team in ECEC – can you tell me a little more about this part of the journey, and how you made the transition to working with educators, coming from a more corporate background?
Sheela: There had to be a shift in culture. Because I came from an accounting professional background with the corporate, things like delivery timelines and understanding accountabilities and understanding responsibilities, were the way I looked at it, and this was new learning to be applied for ECEC.
It became a process of helping educators to actually get a glimpse of what that looks like to begin with and to ask questions which are deeper – we all understand that there is a code of ethics. And I think if I walked into any service, they would be able to tell me that’s what they follow.
But when I look at practice, I think, “Well, I don’t think that is really following the code of ethics.” And the deeper conversations were about opening those difficult subjects up.
For example, the expectation within Aurora is that educators need to have self-motivation in their own learning. Why is that important? Ultimately, we cannot ask of children what we don’t have of ourselves.
If we’re asking children to be curious about their environments and helping them learn, we have to role model that. How do we role model it if we don’t have a brain full of fresh ideas to bring to them?
And how do we role model something that we have got static information about that we’ve been running year after year in this fine kinder program delivering the same stuff over and over again?
So without those self-accountabilities that show your own learning, that’s not going to happen.
Encouraging them to do research and having an expectation that they need to be prepared for meetings, and not coming into a meeting without their notes and without understanding that they have deadlines to meet and reporting on those deadlines, and all those things.
But that’s where we are now – nothing’s happened overnight. And I stress about this a lot because the change is so slow and gradual, and we grasp and encourage every little change.
Freya: You’d mentioned the role that your own personal growth has made in your leadership – can you expand on that for me?
Sheela: Alongside the growth of the team, the other thing that happened in my own personal life was that I was searching for something that I thought was there within. But I couldn’t put a finger to it, and it was these questions – what is it that makes me who I am, who am I? Those questions are some of the most important questions that we all ask ourselves at some stage of inquiry. And I think that led me to my philosophical journey and led me to get in touch with the ‘spiritual me’.
That became the conduit to bringing inquiry into exploring things that I hadn’t necessarily explored up to that point. So it gave me a working surface, if you like, a grounding where I could say, “Okay. Well, if I’m going to learn all of this stuff, how am I sharing this with other people? What does that look like in reality when I walk into the service?”
And others might say, “You’ve got a really calm demeanour. You can address difficult situations. How do you do that?” And those would be the kind of questions that I started to think about, I thought, “Well, if I have a firm belief in this and I can see those benefits in my own life, then I mustn’t be selfish about it. I need to be able to share and be generous with information.” And so, it was just ritual practice.
When we re-branded into Aurora, that became, I guess, a place where all of this knowledge and all of the ideas and all of the thinking ended up. We worked on our philosophy for about, I’d say, a good 18 months, 24 months before we ended up writing what we did. It took many things. And I would say that – and I’ve said this to the consultant that I brought on board when undertook to rework the philosophy of the organisation. And we re-branded – she said, “Wow! This is a great philosophy. But how are you going to change a whole work group that were following a different philosophy into this new way of thinking?”
Freya: Very interesting question! So how did you go about that?
Sheela: I actually said to her, “I want you be the judge of that.” Because I think the transition had already occurred because even though it was a different name, educators were unconsciously practising what is the now Aurora Philosophy even though we were on the journey of still learning it. It was still Simone and my way of doing things. It was our understandings that we were sharing with our educators. And our educators were really reflecting on those things that we were bringing. So, it was like a melting, the substance was always there, the form simply changed, like when ice melts and becomes water.
I compared that with our journey and the way it was so fluid. It was transitional in the sense that there was never a starting or beginning, it just happened. And I think that was the most beautiful thing that I found.
And the consultant who worked with us said, “Yeah, you’re right because after delivering the session of the new philosophy,” she said to me, “I actually have no job to do here – the staff are already on board.”
All that needed to occur was to really unpack it and explain the nuances and the in-depth understandings of it. And we continue to work on that philosophy. It’s not static. It’s always moving with us. It’s always evolving as we think deeper in the question. I think that will also change.
What’s in a name?
Freya: It sounds like the philosophy is really embedded in the day-to-day practice of the service – a living, breathing thing. Can you tell me about how you decided on the name Aurora? Is there any special meaning behind it?
Sheela: So, in terms of the name, we were thinking about a name for a while, and we connected ourselves, really, to the elements of nature. That was very predominant in my thinking. Simone my daughter and co-founder is very fascinated with the Northern Lights and how those lights really engross your imagination and they suck you into this world of something you don’t know, something that is pretty real and you’re amazed by it, you’re in awe and you’re in wonder.
I believe early childhood should be about awe and wonder.
For me, that was how I experienced my childhood. And I remember my childhood like that. And I was fortunate to have a childhood where I could visit my grandparents who were farmers in India and owned a lot of land. I saw the rice being grown and peppercorns and I could touch and feel trees. All of those were very happy memories for me. I feel like that should be what childhood looks like for everybody.
Aurora, the name, came from the northern lights of the Aurora Borealis, but also eastern philosophies, and the five elements of nature. The five elements of nature is a core to a lot of other philosophies as well. And I see that as I explore other philosophies. I can see it. It’s there. It may not be talking exactly in that same language, but the essence is there.
The importance of light in our life, the importance of warmth and the importance of water; all that sorts of things. And so, the logo itself has got those elements. And when we designed the logo, it took a long time to get us to where we were. We didn’t want harsh lines. You will see that the colours actually flow into one another to become another colour.
So, the logo is very much about an upward rising of the human spirit of resilience and breaking through barriers. It’s also a symbolic of A, which is the first letter of the our name. We were particular that we didn’t want harsh edges.
If you look at the edges of the logo, it’s rounded off. or me, it represents a human being embracing a child or holding a baby. Take a look at the bottom of the logo and you will see that even though it is a strong image it also represents the softer side to the human nature. If you take a look at the image you will see the image of a human arms around the elbows with a space in between to hold a child within that space it’s the image that came to me.
As we worked on the various elements – we included our staff in these discussions and they love it. They are very much aligned with what Aurora represents. . So, of course, I wish I have the time to time to explain in depth to our parents when they come on a tour– but we try our best to try and give them a glimpse idea of what we stand for and I know the rest will come in their own experience with us. And that’s what we do, really. Reflective practice is something that is in-built into the service philosophy and like everything we need to give it time.
From little things, big things grow
Freya: Do you have any examples of how your philosophy has empowered your staff to grow as ECEC professionals?
Sheela: I just came out of a conversation I was having as we’re planning for our open day, and one of my team who helps with our marketing quickly said to me, “I’m coming up with ideas et cetera, et cetera.” She said, “The centre down the road had a celebrity somebody or the other came to their open day, and they were able to bring so many people because of that.”
And of course I had to come and take this call with you and I said “Okay, whilst I’m having a call chat with Freya I want you to think about why you need a celebrity. Why is it important? Does it fit with our philosophy? What is it that we’re actually trying to do, et cetera?”
It will be interesting for me to go back and see what she’s come up with. But that’s the level of reflection we do. We bring reflection into everything. – Of course, like every other service, we also need to be commercial, we also need to understand that if we don’t have children ,using the service , we can’t live our philosophies to the children or the families. So we do understand that there’s a commercial reality that we work with also, just keeping ourselves balanced and aligned helps with our decisions
Balancing business and ideology
Freya: How do you reconcile those tensions? For some services, philosophy is paramount. For others, viability and profit are the core drivers. How do you find the balance?
Sheela: I know that when I first worked in the service the purpose was about making the service work because that’s what you buy a service but if the focus is only that or if that becomes a very important part of what drives you then you lose touch with what the real purpose is.
The mantra that I tell my staff is “If you do all the right things, then you do not need to worry about the financial problems or the financial challenges that you have. It will resolve itself”
In the beginning, when we bought the service and the culture was probably not where it is now, we were tested through the fire of change and we were not immune to this and had to go through this period too.
We went through that difficult period because we had to iron out the challenges and bring about a cultural shift. We did buy a successful service or a financially successful service, but all of a sudden we realised that the success was built on very flimsy ground. Core principles of professionalism and mindfulness were still a far fetched idea and was not part of the foundation, and to me this is what was very important.
So when look at any service, I ask myself some critical questions? How would it perform without me and without Simone? Do the service and its leadership have the strength and maturity that is needed? I want the Aurora Leadership to be resilient and strong and independent with that in mind. Only when you can build the strength into your core team and strength in the team below that and the layer below that, that’s when you build a really, really strong foundation.
So to me, I think that’s where the work is going to be over the next years. It’s to translate everything that I’m learning, to share the knowledge and experience in guiding and supporting, but also knowing when to step back and allowing for my educators to take risks so that they can develop their own sense of who they are.
On building leadership
Freya: What advice would you give to others who are seeking to build that leadership capacity in their teams?
Sheela: I often talk about your own personal barometer. You need to develop that because that’s what is going to guide you. That’s the only thing that’s going to be there to say you need to turn left, you need to turn right, you need to go back, you need to go forward.
I think that’s what my life journey or my life quest is, to help the educators to give them the strength and the knowledge that they need to be able to be strong leaders.
We do mindfulness in our service. We actually have mindfulness classes for our staff and we have a very big mindfulness culture with our children. Every day we practice mindfulness with our children. And obviously we can all – from a teaching perspective – we can read a book and we can come to a classroom and we can try and deliver that, but until we actually believe in it and until we actually really use it in our own lives, we actually don’t experience the benefits of it.
he discussions are very superficial until we incorporate practice this is when it becoming real and effective. And I have seen that growth with my educators, when they first started the journey and when they talk about things–now, the growth is evident.
My educators can do a whole presentation to a whole group of parents. At the beginning of the year when they do a curriculum night they can talk about their beliefs and how strong they feel and believe in what they have to deliver over the coming year. And that’s something they haven’t gained in one minute. It took them time to experience it, and when they talk from their lived experiences it’s stronger, it’s personal and it’s their story so you don’t have to embellish it with anything else except for the truth which is always going to come out. So, yes, that’s really been our own journey.
Expansion and growth
Freya: Wonderful, thanks Sheela. As we finish up, can you tell me about your plans for 2019? Are there any tangible plans or initiatives or programs?
Sheela: Yes, 2019 we’re going to see a new centre being opened. We’re building currently in Doncaster and that service should be open in 2019. From the building to the landscape to the structures and to all the materials that we’re using, we have taken a lot of time to painstakingly understand what is needed.
From the physical environment perspective for the setting, the landscapes are going to be very close to our philosophical alignment of the divine structures existing in nature and how to use that so there’s going to be a lot of central structures in the service that talk about continuity and life cycle and all of that.
There has been a lot of thought about what children, the teachers and educators are going to be doing there.. We have spaces for educators to go in and do mindfulness or meditation or just have a quiet space for themselves. We have focused our attention on the educators as well as the children rather than simply number of spots and yield per square metre.
We have carefully considered spaces for educators to feel that they are important as they are critical to making the service and amazing place to work. I think we often forget about this critical factor, and I talk about this with my staff. I say, “Well, if we think about a company like Apple, the focus is their products What is their product going to be doing?” I said, “If you’re going to look at a service organisation like Aurora, the product is you. So how am I going to package my product? How am I going to enhance my product? How am I going to make my product bug-free? How am I going to make my product strong and reputable?” All this means investing in my educators. So that’s the focus that I have.
Along with that investment comes very high expectations but I think that’s something that is acceptable because my staff are on board with this. . They say “ Sheela has really high expectations” she also has high levels of trust in us doing the right thing”. So – I see this as a collaborative, open, sort of transparent environment that we run. We give opportunity for families, for educators and for children to have a say in everything we do and we take feedback really seriously.
A good example of this is that in January, I will have my architect come and present a 3D model of the new Doncaster service to my current educators. And why is that important? Because, our current educators need to be part of the journey. They also need to feel valued. They need to feel that their experiences, their opinions will be taken on board when it comes to setting up Doncaster so that they feel that they are part of the new service even though they may not end up working there.
We also want to work in a fluid way. We want to encourage movement between services; we want knowledge management and knowledge transfer. We have big plans like creating an Aurora Academy. We have a few ideas bubbling away.
2019 is the opening of Doncaster and that’s important because often I can start to create a progression for my educators. , I hear educators say “What is my next step?” I might become a studio leader or the Educational Leader . After that what do I do? Obviously, these roles are becoming fewer as the triangle goes narrower . So for me, I think opening up spaces, settings and new areas, to grow and be innovative is important.
I identified with one of the educators who came to work for us that she’s has a strong sense of what she expects when she is served in a restaurant or when she goes to stay somewhere. I thought, she would be fantastic to run the marketing because she’s got the skills. She understands early education but she may never have explored marketing in an industry setting. We asked her if she would like to take on the marketing coordinator’s role?
We try and look at people’s strengths so the approach on recruitment is strength-based and it’s also philosophy-based. As an example we want to improve our understanding of how we can implement art with children. Art is not,can’t be a vocational thing. It’s got to be something that is exploratory, it’s natural, it’s inquiry, it’s learning, it’s all that out together. So let’s look at who has got that skill because if play-based learning is all about that exploration, e look for that in ourselves first, to have teachers who can help children do the same
Working with regulatory authorities
Freya: Absolutely. That embracing of skills and strengths is so important isn’t it?
Sheela: A lot of teachers say to me that they don’t have great artistic skills or imagination.They have an understanding of it but it’s not the same thing. So at Aurora we take our Educators to Galleries and Museums, give them new and exciting experiences As Van Gogh said to his brother Theo “Dear Brother rush me the paint as fast as you can….To the Educators “Put some paint out there let the journey of exploring begin., . Even when they leave us, I want them to leave being strong and amazing educators. It doesn’t matter where they are, they need to be just that.
My take on this is – I cannot open a service in every single suburb so therefore wherever we have a service are and wherever these educators end up , they need to take with them the knowledge they gained here at Aurora, this is a strong part of our philosophy.
In a Vedic Sense it is called “Shiksha Dhaan”, “Gift of a Student” to the Receiver, whoever that may be.
We are always sort of wanting to push the boundaries a little bit. Even with the Department (the Victorian Department of Education) when working with them I shared with them the perspective of the ECEC sector, that it sometimes feels that the department are behind these closed doors, these doors are so big and massive that you can’t get through them.
So I shared with them they only get to see a service once or twice – a couple of times a year if that.. Once at Assessment and Rating and the other times if you have an incident, on a compliance visit. .
This is not enough to really uplift standards to really get an understanding of what you’re thinking and for you to actually get an understanding of what’s practical and what’s not? And they were nodding their heads – how that’s going to change or not change, I don’t know. But I think it’s important to advocate for this.
The overarching idea about having that feedback being a two-way street and being a transparent process I think has merit and has value. The idea of “how else can we involve the regulatory authority beyond that compliance and fact-checking sort of space, how can we move them from being those people who come in and find fault or penalise or look for negative aspects. How can we flip that narrative and make them assets in our journey towards quality and enforce change?”
For me it comes back to purpose, and I feel the purpose is always to get better outcomes for the families, better outcomes for the children, and improve our standards in Australia.
If they speak behind closed doors and they give us regulations which do not actually translate into practice how are we going to know what that actually means? So to me, I think that’s important.
In our process one of the things that I realised is that you cannot assume that the assessing officer will know what your philosophy looks like. Neither will they know what the actual truth; or the benefit of your philosophy to your centre, especially if it’s different or if it’s new.
As an example we moved away from spaces set on the basis of age of the child to a multi-age setting for our youngest age group e have our babies and toddlers in one space now. It used to be two different groups but we made it into a big setting and I felt that the authorised officer didn’t necessarily understand the broader concepts, the deep thinking, the transformation and she didn’t understand what the real benefits were.
We ask specific questions in our recruitment in accordance with our philosophy. So we say, “What do you know about mindfulness? Have you come across it?”
And to my surprise there are many people who actually hear about mindfulness for the first time. It’s important to ask those types of questions of the authorised officers too.
I had the opportunity to ask the manager of the region, “So what do you know about our philosophy. You tell me what you know about our philosophy. How has the QIP informed you about our philosophy and about what we do here?” And it’s an interesting question, because you can establish very quickly whether they have read your QIP, whether they have read your philosophy, whether they actually understand your service improvement plan ? And then you can determine where you need to start them off in the journey? Because you can’t just assume that they know it. And if they don’t know it then it’s okay we can take them through that journey but we need to know where to start.
Freya: Absolutely. That’s probably going to be one of the most powerful things from what I take from this – there are services who are high-quality and who are performing at that level who have the capacity to have that insight and to use assessment and rating not as something to be nervous about or afraid of.
It’s actually an opportunity for you to showcase your best practice and for you to engage in a kind of critical reflection and journey of discovering and one of them by articulating your practice, your philosophy, all of those things, it’s a chance to showcase rather than to be judged or concerned or afraid.
Sheela: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting when people come to our service, because you are the worst critic of yourself.
I’m always saying, “Really? Do you think we do it well?” I think we do it well we’ve got it.
I’m always on this quest to keep improving. But sometimes it’s also okay to stop and celebrate and that’s something I need to learn myself and something I’m teaching myself to be better at. Typically I am at the moment of , “I’ve done this now. What’s next, what’s next?”
The stopping and celebrating is a very important part because it’s the acknowledgement and it’s very powerful and I think if we don’t do that we lose everything we’ve gained in some sort of a funny way. We don’t crystallise it, we don’t crystallise the knowing.
Freya: What’s one of your key learnings from moving into the ECEC sector, and creating an Exceeding quality service?
Sheela: We don’t have the time in this sector – you hear that so often.That’s one of the things I found and I have built now a system of lots and lots of meetings and lots and lots of conversation with my staff. However there is a cost to this. . The staff are most appreciative of this “Wow. We’ve got so many meetings, so many opportunities to talk about things. So much time to really think about stuff.”
I know it can be hard for services that are not doing well to make that time, because time costs money, and they need to keep going in terms getting the job done and breaking even. I understand that community services have only a limited budget, I understand all of that but I think somehow if they can collaborate with each other, we can help one another we may have better outcomes.
Freya: We’re hoping to be part of that solution, the collaboration and the sharing. Thank you so much for your time today Sheela.
Sheela: Thank you.