ECEC: Why joy at work is wonderful (but never enough)

By Olivia Karaolis and Cathy Little

Image courtesy of Joanna Crothers

Educators voted on Wednesday to take strike action on September 7 – Early Childhood Educators Day – to highlight the issues and stress that workers within the sector have been experiencing after “more than a decade of inaction”.The Guardian

The field of early childhood is currently facing a series of crises, including staff shortages, centre closures and unprecedented low levels of morale within and across the profession. None of these concerns is new! Although exacerbated by the global pandemic, the chronic challenges to providing quality early childhood care are complicated by funding, privatisation, ever increasing administrative demands placed on educators, poor working conditions, low salaries, and overall lack of recognition for the importance of the profession. 

Such issues have dominated the discussion of early childhood in the media, portraying an image of a field inundated with problems and at risk of being overwhelmed by them entirely. Together with my colleague at the University of Sydney, Dr. Cathy Little, we undertook a study that sought to hear the perspectives of this situation from the educators themselves, not just of the issues outlined above, but also of the field itself. The representation in the media seemed incomplete, too focused on the problems that beleaguered the sector rather than understanding the deeper issues at stake. We wanted to focus on what was also good, sustaining and valued in and by the profession. One of the emergent key findings, despite all the current challenges, was surprising. It was joy! This article discusses the notion of joy articulated by early childhood educators, its presence in early childhood programs and how it represents a way forward for the recognition and value of the profession in our society.

Defining Joy

C. S. Lewis understood. Joy comes to us, unexpected. A presence that we can neither manufacture nor control. Joy arrives and with it a fulfillment that is beyond the scope of pleasure or happiness and unlike those feelings, beyond our control. We may experience joy or hope that joy is waiting for us, however it cannot be manufactured, nor is its presence assured.

“Joy bursts in our lives when we go about doing the good at hand and not trying to manipulate things and times to achieve joy.”

CS Lewis

We mention C. S Lewis and his idea of joy as it resonates with the views expressed by the early childhood educators in this study.  A consistent definition of joy echoed through our research findings, one that connected with feelings of happiness or pleasure yet moved beyond these to a “Delight in everything I do”, “A feeling of lightness and emotional fullness”, “Serenity and peacefulness” and an “Overwhelming feeling of happiness that comes from within”.  Educators noted that joy “burst” into their lives as they went about their work with children. Joy sustains them, makes the work they do worthwhile and of inestimable professional and personal value. Joy is an occupational hazard.

Finding Joy

In listening to early childhood educators, we learned that the source of their joy was found in relationships, experienced always with children, families, and colleagues. They described this joy in the day-to-day interactions with children, the quieter moments or as one educator wrote, “certain times when I make a strong connection with a child or build on my working relationships with my colleagues”. Others found it by, “Being in the moment with the children” or “Being with children” and “When the children are interacting with me”. They spoke of the joy discovered when observing children, “Deeply engaged in doing something they enjoy” and about “Having fun, singing, dancing, meditating, doing yoga. Engaging in conversations with the children. Playing with the children” and the “Daily joy… from the moment I enter the gate… to children cheering my name blowing kisses”. 

Joy was seen as present in the wider relationships that surrounded the early childhood centre. The relationships with families of “Interacting with the children/educators/families. Sharing the children’s and educators’ achievements and learning” and “Daily conversations with family not just about their personal life but also about mine and my team”. Families contributed to educator’s sense of joy by their feedback about the program, in communicating their children’s happiness to educators and sharing in a sense of belonging. Educators experienced joy through a depth of feeling for their professional role, when they recognised themselves as central players in the bigger picture of supporting children to reach a goal or a milestone, in assisting families and children, or in actions they thought “Truly make a difference”.

Joy was and is everywhere, despite educator burnout, staffing shortages, low salaries, and poor working conditions. It is joy that remained after the educators responded to the needs of the children, at the same time as they prepared lunch, made beds, tended to children’s injuries, both physical and emotional, and tried to find time to plan, program and reflect. Joy could so easily be a casualty to these demands, and to the exigencies of the field of early education overall. All of which are a risk to joy, a risk that as recent events have illustrated, our society should not be so willing to take. The wellbeing of our children, their opportunity to grow and learn with others, to feel valued and appreciated is dependent on a stable and positive professional community. As one director said, “Being happy within really translates to the children”.

Implications of Joy

The reverence that educators expressed for children in our study should be reflected by a reverence in our society for the work they do, reflected in their qualifications, financial compensation and in the day-to-day experiences in each and every program. Day to day experiences that expand on the opportunities for the reciprocal learning that takes place between children and the adults who nurture them. Adults that are well qualified and extremely knowledgeable about the value of quality education in the early years, education that is holistic and which nurtures the whole child. Our early years programs move beyond compliance with standards, rather, they are environments, developed through rich, quality programming that allow educators to observe the children and engage with them in a range of creative learning experiences.  Our work seeks to develop educators’ professional autonomy and provide them with the time to make pedagogical choices that are informed by research, the unique context of their program and not directed by standardized curriculum alone. To restore to them their joy, their joy of being with the children, playing with the children and their joyful pedagogy.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

 Cathy Little is the executive director of Initial Teacher Education at the University of Sydney. Her areas of interest are autistic spectrum disorder, high support needs, and positive behaviour support. She lectures at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and is supervising a number of research students.

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3 thoughts on “ECEC: Why joy at work is wonderful (but never enough)

  1. Roslyn Happ says:

    Joy at Work – “What goes around comes around”

    Fifty years ago, kindergartens were independent of the education department. The ‘training to be a ‘kindy teacher’ was independent. This age group was intensely studied and had to be understood by those who trained to be kindy teachers. There was a huge emphasis on the importance of music, movement to music, rhymes, singing, storytelling, creating, painting and encouraging children to play imaginatively with suitable play corners. There was no emphasis on intellectual pursuits like reading or numbers. Some kids learnt to put their name on their paintings … others didn’t and that was ok.

    I saw this slowly begin to change in a negative way, more so over the last couple of decades. My eldest, now 51, went to an independent kindy. One of the ‘aids’ was generally sitting in the play area watching the children when it was playing time. I loved the way the children would come to her whenever they needed consolation or just for a little cuddle. She radiated a warm and friendly presence. No doubt there was a lot more going on than that … but I am trying to paint the picture that it always seemed very relaxed and happy.

    Then kindy began to be taken over by the ‘education department’. There were not enough trained ‘kindy’ teachers for the increase in classes, so grade one and two teachers were used. Gradually, more and more formal learning crept in, and less and less play, music, games etc. By the time there was full time pre-primary, there were ‘learning centres’ which were supervised, and the children were required to spend a certain amount of time doing ‘learning and intellectual’ activities. The amount of free play became less and less. The stress on the teachers, as well as on the children who were not ready for this, has played out to a situation where that ‘relaxed atmosphere’ has been severely reduced.

    To be able to connect ‘with joy’ … or even just ‘watch with joy’ is such a delight. Children are special, they learn in different ways to adults, especially in these early years. If we don’t push them to do what is unnatural for them, they are by nature, full of joy and creativity.

    They just need an environment which is calm and uncluttered with plenty of nature around them. Their aural learning skills are so amazing that they can learn several languages if exposed sufficiently to them. They will pick up rhymes and songs so quickly if exposed regularly. They love dancing, singing and stories. We need to give them good examples … not teachers who sing out of tune or in the wrong pitch for their little voices. Basically, we need teachers who really ‘understand’ this age. These 3, 4 and 5 year olds are not the same as grade one and two students.

    In Finland, they don’t try to teach reading until the child is seven. Other educational methods recognize this, such as Steiner. If you start teaching reading in a creative way at this age, then everyone learns more easily because they are ready. Pushing letters and numbers and reading when children are too young, leads to a whole group of children feeling that they are failures because they just don’t ‘get it’, when in actual fact, their brains are wanting to learn different things in different ways. We are the ignorant ones! So … who exactly are the ignorant people who are insisting on this? Finland have shown that starting later, as well as less time actually in school, produces better results.

    Demands made on teachers to do what is unnatural for children, leads to massive stress.
    All the measuring and accountability of learning required today, is taking time away from what good early childhood teachers know they should be doing for the children. This is why they want to leave. Worst of all, they feel powerless to do anything about it.

    Yes, they want joy in their work; they also want to do what is ‘best’ for the children.

    To be rested, able to afford accommodation and time with their own children, teachers simply need to be paid well for this very important job. I hired help for two morning a week when I was teaching four days a week! How else would I have had time to spend with my own children? What goes around, comes around. When are we going to wake up?

    “Pay me a bit more, and I will spend it on someone else … simple … and be healthier and happier … and therefore a better teacher!”

    Roslyn Happ

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