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Being an early childhood teacher: Images of professional practice and professional identity during the experience of starting childcare

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Being an early childhood teacher: Images of professional practice and professional identity during the experience of starting childcare
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  Being an early childhood teacher: images of professional practice andprofessional identity during the experience of starting childcare  Dr Carmen Dalli, Institute for Early Childhood Studies, Victoria University of Wellington  Paper presented at the NZARE annual conference, 6-9 December 2001, Christchurch ABSTRACT This paper draws on interview, journal and observational datacollected during 5 qualitative case studies of starting childcare toexplore how the teachers constructed their identities as teachersduring this event. The case studies involved 5 under-three year oldchildren, their mothers and their teachers in five childcare centresin a major city in New Zealand. Using an approach of "listen[ing]to the teacher's voice" it argues that the teachers constructed their identity with reference to societal and psychological discoursesabout motherhood and early childhood teaching. These discourses posit the mother’s role as primary and that of early childhoodteacher/worker as secondary / second best. They also constructearly childhood teaching as akin to mothering thus creatingtensions and contradictions which in this study affected the way theteachers spoke about their practice and enacted their "theories of  practice". This paper argues that early childhood teachers need toreflect on how this positions them in their working relationshipswith mothers as well as in their role as members of the teaching profession. Introduction and background Research interest in how early childhood teachers think and talk about their work hasnot been extensive. This is especially so in the area of how early childhood teachersmight experience their work during the process of settling in new children into their firstearly childhood centre. In a study which used a qualitative case study approach toexplore the lived reality of this event from the perspective of mothers, teachers andchildren, the focus on the teachers’ experiences yielded interesting insights into howearly childhood teachers constructed their professional practice and professional identityduring this time. This paper explores these insights.One of the earliest studies that sought to understand the “reality” of early childhoodteaching is the now classic sociological work of Ronald King (1978). During a three-year long study, King carried out non-participant observations in three British infants’classrooms. King sought to describe and explain the “world” of the infants’ teachers andthus understand the “subjective meanings” that they “assigned to their actions” (p. 6).One of King’s conclusions was that the infant teachers operated with “ideologies” abouttheir work. He argued that the “ideologies” constructed the reality of the classroom for the teacher as well as defined the child and the identity of the teacher. Elements of theseideologies included statements which drew parallels between being the infants’ teacher and being a mother: “we are their mothers while they’re in school” (p.72). King noted14/12/2001 1  also that some of the more mature teachers whose own children had grown up, spoke of the children they taught as taking the place of their own offspring. King reported thatwhen he drew the attention of some teachers to the fact that many of their classroomchores like cooking, sewing, tidying and sweeping the floor, were like being atraditional housewife, the teachers agreed.King (1978) further described the infants’ teacher’s identity as characterised by thequalities of professional pleasantness, professional affection and professionalequanimity. The infants’ teachers, moreover, used endearments such as ‘my love’,‘dear’, ‘little one’ and ‘sweetheart’, and exhibited that “remarkable feature” of calmemotional response in the face of such adversities as “paint spilt for the fourth time”(p.71), the hamster being let out and someone wetting their pants.In recent years, many writers (e.g., Apple, 1985; Ayers, 1989; Grumet, 1988; May,1990, 1997) have suggested that the perceived affinity of early childhood work withmothering, and therefore also with women’s work, may be a primary reason why earlychildhood work has retained the status of a poor relation within the educational professions. Yet, it seems that it is also this dimension that many early childhood practitioners find most distinctive about their role. For example, in drawing a portrait of a group family daycare provider called Chana, Ayers (1989) noted that Chana resisted being called a teacher:Don’t call me a teacher … I run a group family day-care home.…. Icould teach and believe me, life would be easier, but then I wouldhave abandoned something I’ve fought for for years (p. 40).What Chana had fought for was creating a family daycare home that was a “life raft for other families, something people need”(p. 52).Similarly, in describing their role with infants aged three to four months, two of thethree caregivers in an Australian qualitative study of infant care-giving (Berthelsen,Irving, Brownlee & Boulton-Lewis, 1997), highlighted the nurturing aspect of their rolethus:Sally: “... to be loving, to be really loving, to show love and let the kids know you’rethere for them ; ’cause with Mum going off to work you are the next best thing,and they need to know they can rely and trust you” ( p.6.),Jan: “I feel my role is the second place to the Mum … my role is just to care for themwhile they are here without their mum and to be an extension, I suppose, of her”( p. 8).The focus of these early childhood teachers on the connection of their role to the role of mothering brings to the fore these adults’ respect for the primacy of mothers inchildren’s life. By implication, this acts to position the teachers as occupying asecondary, or substitute position to mother, in children’s life. In Chana’s talk about her family day care role, her resistance of the label “teacher” further illustrates the oldtension between a view of early childhood work as ‘care’ versus ‘education’.14/12/2001 2  In discussing Chana’s personal narrative about her work, Ayers (1989) argued thatthrough the themes in Chana’s story it is possible to understand Chana’s work asconnected to her own life experience as child, mother and day care provider as well asto notions about the nature of early childhood work that prevail in society. Thisargument also forms part of an approach to studying teaching which Ayers (1992) calls“recovering the voice of the teacher” (p.266). According to Ayers, it is important tolisten to teachers talking about their work and to locate what they say within the contextof their life story. Ayers sees his approach of listening to the teacher’s voice [as] “anessential part of reconceptualising the field of early childhood education” (p.266). Headded:There is beginning to be a popular literature that illuminates teachers’ lives,insights and knowledge, but the scholarly research and writing fail to make acomparable contribution.… The question ‘What can these teachers tell oneanother and the world about teaching and about children?’ has largely beenignored …. At some point the goal must become an accurate portrayal of actionas teachers themselves experience it, an account infused with immediacy,conflict, and contradiction as teachers actually live it. (p. 266)The sense of “conflict and contradiction” mentioned by Ayers (1992) as part and parcelof teachers’ role emerged clearly in a study which explored the perceptions of parentswho were settling-in their infants into a childcare centre (Johnston & Brennan,1997).Johnston and Brennan were researcher-practitioners who wrote about their role thus:we came to examine the issue of babies settling into care from an emotional perspective. Both authors have children of their own, have cared for babies incentre-based long day care settings and are concerned that babies, the mostvulnerable group in the day care setting, receive the best possible experiences.We also recognise the often fragile emotional state of parents who are leavingtheir babies in an unfamiliar setting - sometimes for the first time since the baby’s birth. (p. 1)In this statement the voice of the teacher, intermingled with the voice of the mother,creates what Ayers (1992) would call an “accurate portrayal of actions as teachersthemselves experience[d] it.” In the case of the teachers referred to above, the actionsexperienced by the teachers were portrayed by them in images that connected their roleto that of mothers.   For reconceptualist early childhood scholars, however, the uncritical acceptance of themother substitute role is problematic. Miller (1992), for example, has noted the “pull of social and historical constructions of the early childhood educator as nurturer, mother,caretaker, as well as facilitator, captain, guide” (p. 104) and has argued that it isnecessary to “view our educational roles through critical lenses that enable us to focuson social, historical, and political forces that shape and influence our personalassumptions about teaching” (Miller, 1992, p.104). Miller has argued further thatteachers need to engage in “analyses of their own teaching practices, assumptions andexpectations within these larger contexts” (p.104) to bring about a transformation of thestatus quo. While Ayers (1989, 1992) saw autobiographical accounts as a way of tellinglives, Miller saw them also as media through which existing societal constructions of teachers’ practice could be deconstructed.14/12/2001 3   In similar vein, Perry (with others, 1997) reported on a researcher-practitioner project inwhich six Australian early childhood practitioners and a researcher began meeting todiscuss mutually agreed topics about “the increasing demands arising in their own preschool settings” (p. 1). Perry reported that after eight meetings the teachers appearedto be undertaking a form of “interrogation of their practices” (p. 5); she suggested thatalthough the teachers were not aware in a formal way of the debates occurring in postmodernist and reconceptualist writings, the issues they were highlighting in their discussions about how their practice was being challenged by an increased “diversityamong children” starting preschool, were very similar to those in the literature. Perrycommented that the teachers were creators of practical knowledge more than consumersof theoretical knowledge.In a study in which I explored mothers’, children’s and teachers’ experience of startingchildcare I did not attempt to engage with teachers in the type of transformativedialogue that Miller (1992) and Perry (with others, 1997) engaged in. However, thestories which emerged of the teachers’ experiences of settling-in, feature themes whichhave strong connections to the arguments made by Miller and by Perry(with others).The themes appear in the teachers’ discourse both around the nature of their  professional practice, as well as in their talk about the nature of their professionalidentity. The research approach The research project that yielded the data in this study, used a qualitative case studyapproach. The teachers’ lived reality of starting childcare was explored through journal records kept by the teachers, and two semi-structured interviews held one atthe start and one at the end of the child’s period of attendance at the centre without ahome adult. My intention was, like Ayers’ (1989), to listen to the teachers’ voice asthey talked about their experiences of settling-in a new child and thus gain an indepthunderstanding of the meanings teachers created from their practice during this event.The five case studies in the overall study were conducted over a period of 10 months.Each case study varied in length from 8 to 16 weeks depending on the number of orientation visits of each child. The five children in the study were aged between 15 to26 months at the time of starting at their childcare centre. The case studies wereconducted in childcare centres chosen from an official list of licensed centres on the basis of travelling distance for fieldwork purposes, the centre’s interest in participationand the availability of an under-three year old child about to have its initial group- based childcare experience. Two of the case study centres were full time centres andthree offered morning-only sessions, or separate morning and afternoon sessions. Allfive centres employed mostly trained staff.Six teachers took part in the study, one in each of four of the case studies and two inthe other case study.14/12/2001 4  Table 1 sets out the case studies in numerical order, the names and relationshipsamong the study participants, and the type of centre in which the case studies wereconducted.CaseStudyChild’s nameand age inmonths at startof studyParent/s Teacher/s Type of CentreCS1CS2CS3CS4CS5 Nina, 16mMaddi, 15mShirley, 17mJulie, 18mRobert, 26mJeanHelenDeborahLynPaula &MichaelSarahAnna & SamJoanPattiLorraineHalf-day communitycreche; community hallvenue, parent co-operative managementSessional communitycreche; community hallvenue, parent co-operative managementHalf-day; parent co-operative managementfull-day; incorporatedsocietyfull-day; age-segregated privately-owned Table 1. Names of participants, their relationship and type of centre in which case studies were conducted.  Data analysis was guided by principles from narrative inquiry, grounded theory anddeconstructivist analysis. Narrative inquiry suggests that subjective experience may beaccessed through the narratives that people tell about it (e.g., Bruner, 1987; Mair,1988; Sarbin, 1986). This notion was used in my study to produce stories of experience from the analysis of "actions, events and happenings" (Polkinghorne, 1995, p. 6) reported in the data. The principle from grounded theory that the researcher's firsttask is to discover "first the world as seen through the eyes of the participants and thenthe basic social processes or structures that organise that world" (Hutchinson, 1988, p.124) was also adopted in this study. I sought to "capture the worlds of people bydescribing their situations, thoughts, feelings and actions .… and [to] learn how theyconstruct[ed] their actions, intentions, beliefs and feelings"(Charmaz,1995, p. 30). Inthis, I started from the symbolic interactionist position that meanings exist and arecontinually negotiated in interactions between people. My position also assumed asocial constructionist stance on the nature of meaning which, deconstructivists haveargued, is connected to dominant discourses in society (e.g., Burman, 1994; Cannella,1997). This paper explores some of these connections as they emerged in thenarratives of starting childcare recounted by the teachers in the study.  Introducing the teachers Three of the teachers, Sam, Joan and Patti, were trained early childhood practitionerswith many years of experience behind them. Sam and Joan had become early14/12/2001 5
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