Leadership is an action

Working in an early learning setting can be emotionally, physically and intellectually exhausting. Educators say that they are undervalued and that their very complex work does not always attract the level of professional status that it should.  This combined with low salary, a profession that often does not meet staff expectations and an onerous amount of paperwork, it is, therefore, no surprise to learn that within the Australian context 1 in 5 early childhood educators plan to leave the profession within the first 5 years. 

Add to this, issues of disparate staff qualifications, ad hoc funding models and regulatory requirements and it would be fair to say that the early learning sector is filled with many ‘messy’ complexities. While recent reforms in the early learning sector have seen far-reaching positive changes to the way early learning is delivered and to the workforce that delivers it, the struggle for pay equity and the raising of the professional status of our early childhood workforce remains ongoing and complex and these issues can contribute to a general lack of enthusiasm for leadership responsibilities.  

Leadership has become a critical topic in the sector and the importance of getting it right is evident in both the way it benefits the profession broadly and the impact it has on the quality of programs delivered to young children and their families. Research suggests that early childhood educators are reluctant to take up leadership positions in part due to the working conditions described above as well as a general reticence to add the role of leader to their workload. Educators feel mostly underprepared for this role and pre-service qualifications also offer little in the way of preparation. 

There is a very old saying, sometimes attributed to a Chinese proverb that says, ‘A fish rots from the head’. What can be interpreted from this is that poor, ineffective leadership is the cause of failure and discontent within an organisation or team. All problems start at the top. This is a view that can suit some, as it can absolve those who are not in leadership positions from any responsibility. There is someone else to blame. It is not your fault, but someone else’s. I think in the early learning space this idea can be prevalent.

The theory of collective leadership might offer to us a way out of this type of thinking and move us to a model that places an expectation on all educators to be leaders. Collective leadership is shared decision making, involving all staff, not just a few, it is ethical, transparent and can provide multiple access points for staff to come and go in leadership roles. Kagan and Bowman’s work on leadership offers to us the idea of specific leadership specialisations that focus on particular aspects of practice such as pedagogy, advocacy, administrative etc (Kagan, et al, 1997). This approach to leadership as an organisational strategy focuses on leadership as a practice and says that because people hold different levels of skill and expertise it makes sense to distribute these with intent. Leadership should not be a thing that you do but rather an action you might take and attention to semantics here is important. Leadership can be a verb.

Distributed leadership in early childhood

Key to working this way is respect, trust and a commitment by all to create spaces for others to demonstrate particular skills and competencies. Particularly;

  1. Leadership must be chosen. There is very little ‘buy-in’ if you are forced to do something. Lead according to your area of expertise.
  2. Leadership is a socially constructed process. It relies on the exchange with others. Working autonomously or in a silo does not support leadership skills development. This is a role that requires multiple lenses.
  3. Leadership should reflect Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development. What can you do without help? What do you need help with?
  4. Leadership can be transient. Instead of thinking about leadership roles consider leadership moments. It is ok to move in and out of leadership responsibilities.
  5. Leadership should recognise different levels of knowledge and expertise. All people have strengths and capacities. Find out what they are

To take an approach that considers leadership as a collective responsibility is not always easy and can face some resistance, the benefits, however, are many. There is a quote I have seen at the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre in Reggio Emilia that says; 

“per fare un passo avanti bisogna perdere l’equilibrio”

To take a step forward you first have to lose your balance.

karen hope consultingKaren Hope Consulting was established in 2014 and provides a disruptive approach to professional development workshops and teaching that aims to challenge dominant discourses and taken for granted practices. Karen is an early childhood consultant, associate lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. Karen’s consultancy practice and writing are strongly influenced by the Reggio Emilia project and this is reflected in her work and writing as a point of reference, resource, inspiration and difference. Karen writes and delivers work that is specific to each individual service developed in consultation with you. The delivery of sustainable professional development that results in real change is a key feature of her work. She can be contacted by email or via website at: karenhopeconsulting@gmail.com  and www.karenhopeconsulting.com

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