Many early learning services operate with various leadership structures that are purposefully designed to help meet certain expectations and benchmarks set forth in quality area seven of the national quality standard. Whilst the process of a leadership structure supports educators to participate as members of a professional team, the realistic practices that are involved in the role of being a leader are often overlooked and are increasingly spoken about as assumptions attributed to the profession.
What do we mean when we talk about room leadership assumptions?
These are things that become embedded within the leadership role without any particular recognition of them being identified in job descriptions or amongst professionals in the sector. When we are thinking about these assumptions, we are considering the everyday routines and tasks that are completed without other team members necessarily knowing anything about them. In this light, we are thinking about the little things that just seem to get done without any specific acknowledgement. It is not until there is a change in leadership or a change in circumstance that teams come to realize the behind the scenes actions.
In the current day and age, there is an acknowledgement that leaders are active contributors toward multiple portfolios. This sees them as influential in their relationships with families, colleagues, community groups and the wider early childhood profession. The image of the educator in this light is also an assumption and not always clearly defined as an influential component to room leadership. With this, is also a recognition through research that leadership does not always come with a higher classed qualification – a fitting movement for a commitment toward a sustainable early childhood sector.
But what are examples of these day to day practices (or assumptions) that can sometimes be attributed to the room leadership role?
- Managing and balancing the network and flow of the educators during staff absences
- Modelling ways to program and plan for children’s learning dynamically
- Assessing and making decisions on how routine tasks such as bathroom cleaning can fit into the flow of the day without sacrificing other elements that are equally valued in the room
- Modelling critical reflection and ways this can be facilitated (in writing and in face to face practice)
- Engaging with all educators with empathy, yet still being informative and educational (this is significant when you are trying to maintain ratios in line with breaks and release time for instance)
- Transferring the service vision into daily practice as guided by the educational leader (this might be when the educational leader asks for more observations on children and how you then translate this into achievable practice with your team)
The list can be rather extensive or it can be deliberately scheduled and itemized. Either way, there are always going to be contextual influences on how this role in early childhood is viewed, valued and facilitated. Some of these can include:
- The services professional learning culture
- Their approach to teamwork and team environments
- The service philosophy and how this evolves around daily practice
- Recruitment processes
- The services access and availability to professional development for leaders
- The service’s time management procedures
The complexity of leadership in everyday practice
The difficulty in exploring leadership and governance is that traditional leadership styles often result in autocratic behaviours, where the sense of power is used as a medium to achieve an independent vision. In this light, we are thinking about individuals who are driving toward a goal that shows little inclusion or collaboration from others in the team.
More contemporary research showcases the positive and influential use of distributed leadership practices in early childhood, where individual leaders would assume and use their own strategies and styles in an effort to achieve the overall vision of the service. What this means is that educators are able to choose a style of leadership that works for them and their team, with the understanding that leadership is dynamic and always changing. This requires individuals to have knowledge on the various types of leadership that are appropriate for early childhood, acknowledging that what is defined as appropriate will always be reflective of the research and pedagogy that is current at that time. In this sense, it is easy to see the important role of professional development for those in leadership positions, particularly when the practice of distributed leadership is often well-intentioned but misinterpreted. The result is an increase in workload with less time accommodated for inspiring and enacting actual leadership.
What does a leader need to bring to the everyday routines?
There is a growing understanding of what it means to be an influential and positive team leader in an early childhood learning environment. Although this comes with a lot of flexibility and decision making, it may become difficult for educators to know what is expected of them. As a result, educators are increasingly accessing social media groups for ideas on how to enact leadership positions, particularly room leadership. So, what are some examples of how room leaders can translate theory on leadership, culture and professionalism into everyday practice? What types of things do they need to be thinking about?
Room leaders need to consider:
- Ways that they can achieve satisfaction from motivating and guiding their teams. This is the key to transforming leadership into an intrinsic state of mind. For some this comes when their team members share success with the strategies they had been working on together. For others, it can be through just watching how individuals find their motivation and passion for their work. Developing leadership intrinsically requires you to be aware of what motivates you and then investing time into this.
- That leaders guide decision-making processes with their educators through scaffolding professional conversations that allow them to practice the skill of critical reflection in a supported environment. Often operational decision making is necessary from a room leader, yet this can be easier to facilitate when educators are accustomed to collaborative critical reflection. This is an example of where the separation between leadership and management can be achieved because leaders guide educators to learn, develop and grow.
- The benefits of using the code of ethics as a tool to help promote and embed quality practice from professionals. This is easily achieved by saying to team members ‘I wonder where this links in with the code of ethics?’
- That you are not going to have the answers all of the time. However, you do need to be able to resource yourself and build your own toolkits of knowledge and strategies. This can be through ensuring you plan opportunities to read, discuss and unpack leadership concepts regularly – even when you think you have no more to learn because the profession as a whole is making a commitment to continuous improvement which means this needs to be represented by those in everyday leadership positions.
Culture as the base of support – the first actionable step as a team
Successful leaders work on a basis of trust, respect and support. Developing actions that are relevant to you and your service will require some flexibility with the acknowledgement that not all services operate the same way. In order for educators to own their room leadership roles and translate theory into practice, they need to come with respect for the place of a positive organisational culture. Without this as a foundation, services will find it more challenging to facilitate transformational change to include a focus on continuous improvement being embedded in the service. The idea of establishing a culture within an organisation is elaborate. It is clear in this sense how important it is to ensure that as a room leader, you concentrate specifically on ways to build this idea within your own team. Adopting a small-scale strategy as a movement toward enhancing the overall organisational culture is not only more successful in opportunity, it is also much more realistic to facilitate.
What does positive team culture look like in practice?
The first step to developing a positive team culture requires your educators to define what they want this culture to look, sound and feel like. This could be done through a team meeting exercise where all team members work together to build a mind map of words, phrases or expressions that relate to the topic. Examples of words or phrases could include:
- respectful conversations between each other
- opportunity to contribute to decisions
- coming back from breaks on time
- arriving 10 minutes before your shift commences to unpack belongings
Sometimes it can be difficult to articulate in words how you think your team culture should look. In this instance, it works to ask what it feels like to belong within a positive team environment. Some examples could include:
- the feeling that I am not afraid to ask questions – nothing is too silly to ask
- the feeling of being safe in that others won’t judge me negatively
- I trust and feel confident that I will be free from bullying
- I feel happy in my room – I want to come to work
- I feel ok with the idea that I can ask my team members for help
- I feel like I want to learn more from and with my team
The overall important message is that room leadership is more successful when your educators work as part of a team. If your role in leadership is skewed or blurry at present, starting with the vision of bringing together your ‘team’ is a valid commitment for the longevity of your individual educators growing as a unit.
Sarah is a university trained early childhood educator, who lives in NSW Australia. Sarah is the owner and operator of SREED, an early education consultancy business designed to enhance the access and availability of quality professional development in regional and remote areas. She also works as the educational leader in a long day care service, supporting and mentoring a team of educators to facilitate a curriculum that fosters children’s developing levels of wellbeing and involvement. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys family bike rides and walks with her husband and two girls aged 7 and 2.
Sarah is an advocate for sharing knowledge and understandings with other professionals which is the driving force within her passion for writing.