Updated: Apr 6
Aistear is the Irish word for ‘journey’ and it is no secret that, both here in Ireland and around the world, the early childhood education sector is on a journey towards professionalisation albeit on a road with many bumps and obstacles which can sometimes impede progress.
As an educator of early childhood professionals, I spend a lot of time teaching about the 4 themes of the Aistear early childhood curriculum framework which we follow here in Ireland. It has struck me this week that perhaps we could map the fundamentals of Aistear’s four themes onto our professional practice and even the sector as a whole. In doing so, a holistic approach to support the development of both our own professional practice and perhaps even professionalisation of the sector might emerge.
Aistear states that the purpose of the framework is to “plan for and provide enjoyable and challenging learning experiences so that all children can grow and develop as competent and confident learners”. We understand the value that a rich early childhood curriculum brings to children’s early learning and development and the value of the skills and dispositions that a holistic curriculum framework promotes. This holistic approach, founded upon research, may have valuable lessons to teach us which we could similarly apply to professional practice and the development of the professionalisation of the sector.
Professional Issues Mapped onto Aistear Themes:
The Aistear theme of communicating relates to “children sharing their experiences, thoughts, ideas and feelings with growing confidence and competence”. In professional practice, this might translate into practitioners having a voice within the team and being invited to make a contribution to the running of their own setting, therefore promoting professional development and leadership skills. Additionally, Government agencies could do much more to establish the practitioner as a professional partner and active participant in the process of sectoral change. For years the sector has been crying out for funding increases, reductions in superfluous paperwork and administrative tasks and professional recognition. In my view, these changes are happening much to slowly and without sufficient authentic engagement with the sector. This is resulting in major issues relating to sustainability with reports highlighting that 66% of practitioners earn less than a living wage, 20% of practitioners have a second job and as a result of these and other issues are experiencing worrying levels of work related stress. Increased communication with the practitioner on the ground, at the coalface of every day practice, is needed to address these issues significantly.
Exploring and Thinking
This theme of Aistear reminds us of the importance of interacting with others, investigating, questioning, forming and testing ideas. In my own experience of professional practice I found that effective team work, collaboration and peer learning can at times be lacking. We understand the value of the funds of knowledge which the children bring to the setting and we must now begin to explore and recognise the funds of knowledge that our practitioners bring. By establishing a professional culture and embedding a community of practice, both within our own setting and in the broader context of the sector as a whole, we can facilitate the sharing of knowledge and tap into practitioner funds of knowledge and utilise them to enrich our curriculum, our settings and our sector. Research on what it means to be a professional tells us that a shared understanding of the role, gained through professional training (Appleby & Pilkington, 2004) and the establishment of a community of practice are significant defining factors of a profession (Mazehoova and Kourilova, 2006). As trained practitioners, we have a wealth of knowledge and ideas which we can share both with each other and additional stakeholders to the benefit of our entire sector.
Identity & Belonging
Aistear highlights how important it is that children are supported to develop a positive sense of self and to feel valued and respected. Our sector is struggling to find it’s professional feet and this is hugely impacted by the lack of a professional title, insufficient role definition, the absence of authentic leadership opportunities and a general vagueness in broader society relating to who we are, what exactly we do and why we are/should be considered as professionals. These issues are not helped by a dual inspection process falling under the remit of numerous Government agencies and departments. The foundation of a professional sector is the nomenclature and accepted terminology used specifically in relation to a particular profession which sets it apart from other professions. This generates and supports societies understanding of who that professional is and what exactly they do. When the term teacher, nurse, doctor or engineer is used, there is a common understanding of the professional identity of the individual and the sector which they belong to. Until professional titles and professional identities are secure, the early childhood practitioner will struggle to feel they are valued and respected and to have a positive self-identity as a professional. This also exacerbates issues regarding remuneration, terms and conditions and ultimately sustainability of the sector.
The vital nature of wellbeing cannot be under-estimated. Aistear explains how the theme of wellbeing relates to children’s happiness, confidence and health. We must support children to be psychologically and socially strong so that they can have a positive outlook on life and engage in positive learning experiences. As practitioners, we should also be confident, happy and healthy in the workplace and this is supported by job satisfaction and lack of stress. It has been recently reported that early childhood practitioners are experiencing high levels of stress due to issues including COVID19, low pay and lack of job security and that this is causing many to leave the sector. The fall out means that those remaining in the sector have to work even harder for low pay and lack of professional recognition which only serves to feed into a vicious cycle and reduced levels of wellbeing.
The issues related to professional early childhood practice and the establishment of a professional sector are undoubtedly complex and will take time to tease out and address appropriately. However, viewing professional practice issues such as these through the holistic lens of the 4 Aistear themes may be a useful method to reflect on professional practice and professionalisation. If regulatory and funding bodies communicate with practitioners as professionals more effectively, if we explore and establish peer communities of practice and knowledge sharing, if professional identity is defined and practitioner wellbeing is promoted, then perhaps we can make some additional headway on the journey towards recognising ourselves as professionals and being accepted as a professional sector.
About the Author:
Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (www.thedigitalearlychildhoodeducator.ie), where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. Paula is also one of the creators of an ECE community of practice based on Twitter: ECE Quality Ireland (@ECEQualityIRL) / Twitter Contact Paula: LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator.
Appleby, Y. & Pilkington, R. (2014). Developing Critical Professional Practice in Education. NIACE, Leicester.
Mazehoova, Y. & Kourilova, J. (2006). "Art production as a tool to reflect on professional identity of future teachers” in New Pathways in the Professional Development of Teachers, eds. T. Janik & P. Knecht, Lit, Berlin.