Success in the early years

March 2011


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New to early childhood education? Education Review talks to an award-winning teacher about starting your career on the right note.

Soon after Karen Cameron graduated with an education degree and teaching diploma she upped sticks, moving from Dunedin to Wellington in search of adventure, and a job.

“It was a good start for me, and as I left town, it was a fresh start. I didn’t know many people but I had a support network,” says the award-winning early childhood teacher with over a decade of experience under her belt. The early childhood sector is arguably the most diverse in terms of employers, so making a success of your first job takes care.

Karen landed on her feet in the capital, getting a job that gave her plenty of teaching experience and good support. After two years, she was a fully registered teacher and soon after gained promotion to a supervisor’s role.

Not everyone advances so quickly. Cameron says she knows young graduates who take more time learning about the sector before committing to a permanent position that suits them.

Cameron is now back in Dunedin as assistant head teacher at St Clair Community Kindergarten. Late last year, she was a national winner in the NEiTA Foundation’s Excellence in Teaching and Leadership Awards. That netted her a $5000 professional development grant, something still highly valued at this stage of her career.

“We’re always reflecting on our teaching – you never stop learning,” she says.

Her advice to graduates is to investigate the range of potential employers – which includes private and community-owned networks with varying teaching philosophies.

“When graduates come out they have to consider which part of early childhood they want to be involved in, and it’s quite diverse.”

Working conditions do vary, so before signing up to the first job offer, make sure you know what you are doing. Read the contract carefully, understand whether it is collective or individual. Check on working hours and other expectations.

Time spent ‘on the floor’ with children is only the start of a teacher’s commitments, with assessment and community meetings among additional responsibilities, she says.

“It’s not a nine to three job. I think that perception tends to be there, but teachers are constantly working. You have extra commitments outside your normal hours.”

Professional development is great to have, but don’t expect to get long periods off from your core work.

“For early childhood teachers, it tends to fall after hours, in weekends or in term break time,” says Cameron.

Sufficient support during your first couple of years is crucial. Check what sort of advice and guidance the employer offers to help you gain professional registration. Take opportunities to observe other teachers at work.

As well, identify someone who you can turn to for advice when you face challenges. This may well be your manager or a senior colleague, but could include staff at your old education faculty. Some regions have support networks for graduates.

Cameron says there was always someone supporting her during each phase of her career.

“In each position I held there was someone who was a mentor to me. I could make decisions for myself, but there was someone there to give guidance.”

But first, you’ll need to find a job. Cameron says early childhood centres look for the same skills as many other employers: good time management, initiative and a sense of humour.