Lifting quality at multiple services: Sarah Cooper’s leadership journey
Sarah Cooper is an early childhood education and care (ECEC) professional on a mission to make a difference in the lives of children and their families, and has been described as both a “transformational changemaker” and a “trusted custodian”.
Ms Cooper, who is employed by Goodstart Early Learning, recently won the Goodstarter of the Year Award for the VIC West and TAS region for her leadership, for nurturing the culture of her team, and for strategically organising people, procurement and operations.
In essence, her team says, the Award recognised the way she “so purely cares for each family and child”.
Under her leadership both Goodstart Early Learning Altona and Goodstart Early Learning Hoppers Crossing Morris Road achieved Exceeding ACECQA ratings.
“Sarah is an energetic and enthusiastic professional who lives and breathes high-quality education and care. Her ability to focus where it matters, recognise opportunities and stretch her staff to be better is exceptional,” comments from the Goodies judging panel note.
“In December 2022, Sarah led Goodstart Altona through assessment and rating and was awarded Exceeding in all seven quality areas. Earlier this year, she was asked to transfer to Goodstart Morris Road where she took the staff on a journey to improve practice and uplift environments. Through her skilled mentoring and ability to empower, Sarah trained her team and committed to individual relationships with staff to ensure practices were embedded. She is also committed to doing her very best for all the children and families, and she achieved another Exceeding rating.”
Tips for success – service level
Ms Cooper has worked in ECEC since 2005, and has some tips for other leaders who aspire to an Exceeding rating.
“For me, the essence of running an early learning centre is about doing – not simply telling,” she said.
“You’ve got to do things with your team. If you’re not there supporting through change or challenges, how can you expect them to thrive? You need to have respect and understanding for your people.”
Having a whole team approach to knowing the ‘why’ behind actions, policies and decisions is vital, she continued, along with “meeting people where they are”.
“You can’t expect people to go from zero to 10 when they’re at five. Some people might need a little bit more support with getting from five to six before we can get to 10. So, I focus on real individual-based learning.”
“I believe in buddying people up. As a Director, you need to be strategic about who you’re putting in rooms. Are they supporting each other? If you’ve got someone who is strong in environments but not so great in learning stories, and someone who’s the opposite, you can buddy those two people up. This way the room is balanced and they can experience real peer-to-peer learning.”
Utilising the talents of the team not only to support one another, but also to champion new ideas and initiatives is also key, along with being organised.
“We discuss anything we have on our quality improvement plan at every single centre leadership and team meeting. Even if it’s just to say, ‘we didn’t get to that this month’ or ‘we didn’t do anything with that this month’, we communicate on progress. As a Centre Director, it’s crucial to drive that change and really put transformation at the forefront,” she said.
Seeing the development in the team as whole is enormously rewarding, she continued.
“It gives me so much motivation. An educator may be struggling with something and, through the support that I’ve been able to give them or link them up with, I see their natural growth.”
“Our rating is a big way of being recognised for the work that we do. It’s always fantastic to have a good result there and to read the lovely comments from the assessor. The same goes for positive visits and kind words from your state managers, state performance leads and coach.”
Tips for success – leader level
Ms Cooper won her award based on her people skills and her capacity to connect with others. She offers the following advice for leaders who wish to develop in this capacity.
“Relationships are the basis of everything and must begin with trust,” she said.
“If families trust us as people, they then have more trust in what we’re doing. Families need to have a great experience from first contact, whether that’s a phone call or when they walk into the centre.”
“It’s also about being an individual. Not every child or family will orient in the same way so the experience shouldn’t be one size fits all. And we need to meet families where they are.”
“Sometimes the child doesn’t need any orientation and they’re doing fine down in the room, but it’s the parent that’s not doing okay. So how are we supporting them with this change and the dynamic of coming into the centre? How can we reassure them?”
“We tailor our tours and time to what the family needs. Asking those key questions like ‘What’s important to you? What are your fears? What are your aspirations?’ and then tailoring conversations to fit. Having everything ready so you can have individual conversations means families can feel like more of a person than a number.”
To learn more about working for Goodstart Early Learning, please see here. Picture shows Ms Cooper, pictured centre with Goodstart’s CEO, Dr Ros Baxter, and Deputy CEO, Jeff Harvie.
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