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Professional learning journeys in early childhood education

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This video captures early childhood education professionals talking about their professional learning journeys, including: their motivation and passion for working in early childhood education and the importance of this educational phase routes into the profession and the importance of professional learning what they love most about working in the early childhood education sector.

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My journey, I guess, in early years, or teaching, really started at birth. Both my parents were educators. So the love for teaching and being in an environment of learning and teaching was very much part and parcel of my childhood. It was something my parents actively discouraged me from doing because they always felt once you entered this sort of sector, you were hooked, and it took over your life. And I didn’t quite believe that until I entered the sector myself. 

My mum happened to be a Montessori teacher herself. She wasn’t a practicing Montessori teacher when I was born, but a lot of her learning was part and parcel of my childhood. So the freedoms, the encouragement to do, to be involved, to be an active learner was something that was very much part of my childhood. I didn’t recognise it at the time, though. It was just what childhood was about for me. 

As I grew older and started my own family and my son was born, I started to think about education for him and next steps. And that’s really when I came back to Montessori, I would say, I started to sort of research… as the best sort of educational models for children. And every turn I took brought me back to Montessori. 

So I started to explore that a little bit more. I looked at some of the schools near me. And it was really inspiring to walk into those settings and see these young children doing so much and being so capable of doing so much. And I was at a, sort of, point in my life, where I was sort of thinking, do I want to carry on with what I was doing before I had my first child, or did I want to do something different? And the more I looked into Montessori education the more it drew me in. So I retrained, and I became a Montessori teacher and practised it initially on my own children. 

And then when I qualified in the early 2000s, I started working in a day care setting, something I never, ever, ever thought I would do. I didn’t believe in day care facilities for children at that time. I thought it was very unfair for children to be in day care settings. But when I started looking at day care settings and really seeing what they offer children, again, that sort of drew me in. And it was wonderful to be sort of involved in the, sort of, holistic development of children there. 

And that’s where my career took off, and I spent 15 years in early years daycare, Montessori early years day care. And as I developed and I became… I started to manage the nursery, I started to take a sort of more active interest in CPD and training for, not just for myself, but my colleagues as well. And I followed on by doing some other training courses. I took up my Early Years Professional Status, and then started thinking about adult education and really working with the adults who came into the earlier sector. 

Every child is different. Every child brings something new for me to learn every day. And I think that’s been the joy of working in early years for me. It’s something… you never have the same day twice, every day is different. And the fact that you have an opportunity and honour to be able to support the start of the children’s journey into life is, I think, something very special, and I love that every time. 

I believe my journey through early years started as a child myself. And interestingly, my mother, who is a businesswoman, was an intuitive teacher. And I understand now that what she provided me with, as a young child before I started school, she nourished my schemas. So she knew I loved containing. She knew I loved to wrap up my dolls. 

She gave me the space in the garden that I needed to hide in the dens to show the way that I liked to be enclosed and contained. So I think for many of us in early years, that love of the early years environment starts very much with our own childhood. 

I trained as a teacher in 1979 in Sheffield. And that’s really where my understanding of Piaget came in and that understanding that children need concrete experiences. So that’s really what, I would say, I learned from my PGCE year. 

I feel very fortunate that at the beginning of my career as an early years educator was in Sheffield. We had an amazing early years advisor, Ann Sharp, who had led the structuring play project in the 1970s. That sounds really formal. And it doesn’t give away the fact that it’s actually a constructivist approach to children’s learning and understanding. Very Vygotskian, but we didn’t talk about Vygotsky at that time because he hadn’t been translated from Russian. 

So we were really fortunate because Ann Sharp brought Chris Athey up to Sheffield in the mid-1980s, so we were able to learn directly from Chris Athey. And that’s where our learning environments were really changed into this notion of continuous provision. My early years journey took me to Pakistan, where I worked not only in Karachi but across the whole country, working with teachers in early years and looking at how we could provide more opportunities for children to be active in their learning and for learning through play. 

And then progressing through to the ’90s, I opened a nursery class in Leeds in a primary school, where they hadn’t had a nursery before. From there, I moved on to Bradford and worked in an inner-city school there and was nursery lead. And then I… very excited about going into the nursery school environment, ended up as an acting head, and then took… a nursery school headship in Peterborough. 

I remember when the first early years curriculum framework guidance came out in 2000, and that’s when, in that document, we described children’s learning as a series of stepping stones. The very first stepping stone was show curiosity. And that’s what I think early years is all about. It’s about adults showing curiosity in the children’s curiosities and within the child’s context, and whether that’s within their family context, and the wider community, and beyond. So I think that’s really what’s driven me. 

I’ve studied many theoretical frameworks that support my understanding of children and their families. And in doing this, I’ve taken on further high qualifications. So for my Masters degree, I studied with Cathy Nutbrown at the University of Sheffield and also had the opportunity to visit the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia, which really taught me a lot about adult–child relationships and how to support children for whom English is an additional language. 

I really learnt the importance for the child that the environment should be safe and secure, and that they know what the materials are going to be that are set out every day. And also, I found out about… it was important to recast children’s dialogue from maybe a previous day to support them to then build on their spoken language. 

And then eventually, as head of a nursery school, which became an Early Excellence Centre, I went on the doctorate route at Pen Green in Corby with the University of Leicester. And that’s where I was able to really look at developing my specialisms in primary school leadership, early childhood, and multilingual childhoods, which sees me in my role now as a teacher educator. 

So really thrilled to be working with adults who are impacting on children in ways that are honourable and trusting and respectful. So it really thrills me to be supporting teachers like Antonio, like Zoe, and seeing how they’re taking the time to reflect, to unpick, and think about children, and how they can support them in a way that’s really positive for their learning. 

I’ve spent the past 15 years working in early years. Seven years have been as an early lead in my current school. I’m really passionate about working collaboratively with other early years practitioners in terms of supporting professional development. I’m particularly passionate about school-to-school support. And in that role, I also work as an early years SLE, so that I can support other schools and settings in terms of developing their early years provision. 

I also work as a trainer on the early years SCITT programme in Manchester. So I’ve got influence there in terms of developing teachers in their early years as trainees, which I really enjoy. I’ve also recently been appointed as an early years expert working for the Department for Education as part of their COVID Recovery Programme. 

Recently, I embarked on a project to look at raising boys’ attainment. So we looked at a number of different aspects of how we could use boys’ interests and look at boys as experts and the journey that they go on in terms of taking ownership for their learning and supporting their peers with their learning. And again, that was based on creating levels of high engagement, levels of wellbeing involvement, that enabled the children to really maximise their learning, and the opportunities that they could create themselves to see themselves as lifelong learners. 

The impact of that project helped to influence this one. So in terms of looking at those levels of engagement that we created with the boys and the fact that can then positively impact on the girls as well, generally in terms of the research that we did, girls will go along with it. They are much more inclined to want to write, to want to read, and to want to learn. Boys can sometimes be a little bit more reluctant. So a lot of those key elements of that practice, we were able to take forward into this project. So that was really useful for us. 

Other aspects, I like working in terms of action research. I like to take part in projects that enable me to trial something, put it in practice, and to see how it works, what we can learn from that, and then share that more widely. Recently, we’ve looked at an NCETM project that I worked on last year. So we completed action research on looking at embedding early maths skills through routines. 

So that, again, the children weren’t aware of the fact that they were learning maths, it was just part and parcel of our day in our timetable. My research project focused on subitising, which was brilliant because it was something that we knew was going to be coming up in terms of the revisions to the EYFS reforms. So we had a go at that early. So we were looking at implementing subitizing discretely within our timetable but also through all of those routines that we embed in our tidy-up areas and our timetable in the morning, when we’re coming in from outside, subitising all the time so that it becomes really embedded. And we’ve continued that on, so that’s been really successful. 

I absolutely love seeing children become learners. I love giving them that passion and that enthusiasm for learning. In reception, particularly, I think my pleasure is the fact that they come in, and they’re like little sponges. They come in soaking up all those moments of learning and taking all those opportunities and really thriving from it. 

And also, developing those really close relationships with children, particularly our children that might have difficult backgrounds. They come in they might not know any English whatsoever. And then spring term, you start to see these light bulb moments, and then come in brimming with excitement to speak in a sentence, and tell you something that they’ve learnt or a skill that they’ve embedded. And that, for me, is just… that’s a pleasure for me to be able to do that every day. 

I’ve been teaching for 12 years in primary schools and higher education. I’ve been mostly in primary schools teaching in Key Stage Two. But leadership roles, particularly lead in mathematics and PE, has taken me into the early years settings. And it’s an absolute privilege when that happens to be able to go down and work with early years colleagues. 

So when I’ve been working with early years colleagues, one of the main things that I focused on in terms of PE is ensuring that physical education is inclusive, and working with teachers to ensure that their pedagogical approach has inclusivity absolutely at the centre of it. If we get that right in the early years, the implications for learning through the PE curriculum, through the curriculum, as you work up through the school, are so much stronger. 

And then in terms of working with early years colleagues in mathematics, early years is such a wonderful environment for talk and physical resources to be put at the forefront of learning. And that’s so important for mathematics throughout the primary curriculum, throughout the year groups. It’s a real joy to be in those environments and see those early foundations of mathematical concepts being built. Because we know how important they are for the rest of the curriculum. The early years, though, is just that place where talking and physical resources are just… they’re just part of what people do. And it’s trying to extrapolate some of that sometimes to embed it further across the school because the skills are so well honed within the early years setting. 

So the two most significant pieces of professional development I’ve taken part in during my career are the Chartered College CTeach Programme. I was part of the pilot cohort. And it was a wonderful opportunity to really develop some skills in terms of engaging with existing research, critically looking at research, and understanding what might work in our context, and also really reflecting on how you can justify the approach that you’re taking in the classroom based on what is being done by the teachers and other academics around the world. 

Having done the CTeach Programme, it really gave me an appetite for, kind of, work in this area, which then led me to take my Masters in education. In that, I was looking at how leaders can support teachers to ensure that they’re doing wonderful things that they do in their roles, all based on self-determination theory. So making sure that teachers have a concept of being confident in their abilities, they have good relationships, and really feel part of the school community. If those things are set up then it gives those teachers the best opportunity to do the wonderful things that they do supporting learning for pupils. 

So it’s always a privilege to go down into the early years setting. It’s such a wonderful place to see those concepts being built that are so important for developing through the primary curriculum and beyond. And it’s where the culture is set… aspirational learning and really encouraging pupils to want to learn and be proud of when they’re achieving things. All that culture is built in the early years. It’s why it’s such a special place within a primary school. 

And then just the environments within early years, particularly in terms of teaching mathematics, they’re such a wonderful place because talk and physical resources to teach mathematics are really put at the forefront of what early years teachers are doing. And that’s so important for later on in the school. But it’s embedding those skills of discussing, explaining, talking about why you’re right, why things might be wrong, and building those skills in the early years, which are just going to set pupils up for a really positive path and really positive experience with mathematics as they go through the school. 

I would say that a lot of my inspiration, like even to be educated, is from my parents. My mother and father who constantly reminded me about the values of education and also giving those opportunities and not stopping me from being educated in India. There’s a lot of people saying that women are discouraged from studying. And thankfully, I am grateful to my parents for encouraging me. 

And almost on a daily basis, my mother used to remind me about how important it is to be educated. And I am totally thankful to her encouragement. And my father as well, I have to say, has constantly provided me with books, a range, a wide range of books, being a librarian himself. So that was a big privilege for us to be exposed to different types of books, not only… I think studying school books was the last thing that my father would actually encourage us to do. All the homework was something that we would be doing on our own. 

Studying in India and then starting my career in India working with disabled children in different settings in special school and also being engaged in the community in a small town, actually, it was a very enriching experience and lots of lessons to learn. From the perspective of diversity, from the perspective intersectionality, I mean, I wasn’t aware of the term intersectionality in those days, but then now I can strongly relate to that and how the intersections actually impacted on a particular child’s ability to develop or not develop as well, that’s based on the attitudes really. Yeah. And then coming to this country, I had different experiences working in volunteer organisations. 

And also, my big break was working in FE College in Manchester for about 10 years, during which I did my PhD as well. And then following my PhD to a HE setting, I think. And I’ve got to say that I’ve had lots of opportunities to learn from my own daughter as well, who, growing up in this country, properly, as an ethnic minority, young girl right from early childhood to HE now is quite interesting and quite a big learning experience, I would say. 

And moving to HE opened up a lot more opportunities in terms of developing my modules, in terms of going to conferences and meeting… having lots of very inspirational chats with colleagues who are experienced researchers, and also some recruited authors, and who strongly gave me a feeling that I could be writing as well. So that was quite a big encouragement and support. 

And some of the new modules that I developed actually focused on diversity and inclusion from a wider perspective, which was a step ahead of the norm when inclusive education mainly focused on children with disabilities. But then my module looked at gender, race, culture, religion, Traveller’s families, so I actually picked on a wide range. And it’s actually my students who are studying that particular module who complained to me, saying that there wasn’t any text that is focusing on this wide range of disabilities that led to my first stage publication, which came out in late 2012. 

And that actually opened up a lot more opportunities in terms of speaking in different conferences, invited talks by local authorities. And research-wise, I think research, I have to say, that was something that I was totally in awe. And I always wanted to do research. And so I tried to be engaged in research as much wherever possible. And that led to conferences. So it was sort of a… I wouldn’t say vicious cycle, but then it’s something which led from one thing to another. 

And I absolutely enjoy everything that I have done and am still doing, whether it is writing or research or conferences or sharing my understanding, knowledge, experiences. I still feel that there’s a lot more to learn from everybody else around me. But then having these opportunities to share is really great. 

I would say the first thing is to make my parents proud, really. And I remember all my conversations, whether it’s on the telephone or… especially when I shared all this information about my success, whether it is my PhD or whether it is my first book. My father and mother, they were very, very happy. And they were explicitly happy, I have to say. 

And again, especially from my father, it was very, very difficult to be praised, at least in front of me. Although my mother used to say that he was very, very happy about my success. And he used to share it with all his friends or whoever used to visit home… relatives or his friends. But then I think, for me, that is a big factor, which actually keeps me going. And I still miss my father, who passed away a few years ago, December 2016. And I still feel he’s with me, blessing me, and pushing me or pulling me up when I’m down. And whatever I do, I still feel inspired by him. And I think that’s a big thing. 

And following that, I certainly love gaining new knowledge. And I always am thirsty for new experience, new knowledge, and definitely unlearning and relearning my own knowledge. And that way, I will be filling gaps in my own knowledge and understanding. And perhaps if there is an opportunity to fill those gaps for others as well coming in from my own experiences. And definitely, it’s an opportunity for me to gain more academic and technological skills, although sometimes it could be a huge challenge. But then I certainly believe in wanting to take up those challenges and feeling satisfied that I have managed to get over those challenges, really. 

And certainly there’ll be a raised profile from my own self… personal perspective or faculty’s perspective and the industry as well and perhaps country, whether it is… I feel divided between India and UK, having close connections for a long time in both countries. So putting the countries on the international picture as well and perhaps being recognised to my fellow academics and professional organisations, which raises my profile, I think, and the university’s as well. 

I started as a developmental psychologist originally. And I was researching higher-order skills, the kinds of skills that are quite late developing in terms of the brain. They tend to come about between the ages of three and five. That was my real focus. So I say late developing from a developmental psychology point of view. But of course, that’s also the real beginnings of formal education. 

So I started to realise that we know lots of things about the brain and about learning but that, actually, there were also lots and lots of ways that we can support children and give them the best opportunities to develop those higher-order skills. So I then slowly moved into education and educational research. And now quite a lot of my work goes all the way from lab-based research right into classrooms and co-design and developing programmes alongside educators. 

I love how varied my role is. One day I could be reading some research paper that gets me thinking really in detail about a very specific skill, and then the next day I might be working with educators and hearing their amazing and often quite entertaining stories about what children have said and the surprising things going on in classrooms. 

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