“That’s What You Want to do as a Teacher, Make a Difference, Let the Child Be, Have High Expectations”: Stories of Becoming, Being and Unbecoming an Early Childhood Teacher

November, 2019

Source: Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 44(11)

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper reports on research that explores factors that attract individuals to become an early childhood teacher (ECT), and how their experience of being an ECT led them to unbecome.
The study aimed to explore the lived experiences of becoming and un-becoming an ECT from individuals’ who had recently left their EC career to pursue other occupations.
The insights of this paper aim to cast light on issues pertaining to the attraction and retention of ECTs in the Early Childhood (EC) profession.
EC education in this study refers to degree-trained teachers who taught children aged 4-5 years within long day care kindergartens and free-standing kindergartens.
Narrative inquiry was identified to be a suitable research methodology as it allowed the researcher to explore the individual within the story alongside the temporal, social and institutional influences surrounding their lived experiences of becoming and un-becoming an ECT (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007).

Research Methods
A strength of narrative inquiry is the use of conversational storytelling rather than more formal interviews (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).
Conversational storying is an interview technique that generates a narrative based on a conversation between the researcher and the participant on a selected topic.
In this study, the interviews were structured with some pre-determined questions that invited participants to discuss their reasons for becoming an ECT, their experiences of being an ECT teacher and reasons for un-becoming.

Four individuals participated in the study.
The participants were all female, worked as a teacher within a Victorian funded long day care or free-standing kindergarten, held a teaching degree at the time and left the profession within the past five years.

Findings and discussion
Participants became ECTs as career changers in pursuit of work that was compatible with family life. Although three participants of the current study did express interest in working with children, these motivations appear to play in the background of their story while pragmatic reasons present as primary motivators.
The pragmatic motivations of the participants are extrinsically driven and are in contrast to the dominate themes amongst literature that identify contributing to society and working with children as primary motivators for individuals to enter a teaching career (e.g., Bastick, 2000; Wyatt-Smith et al., 2017).
This suggests that career changers may hold different values when choosing to become an ECT, compared to those entering teaching as a first career, supporting Richardson and Watt’s (2005) argument that “family circumstances and responsibilities play an important role in the pull into teaching as a career change” (p. 487).
As such, the need to change careers for personal and professional reasons may act as an initial push, with the intrinsic interest in young children and EC education helping to steer the change of direction.
The findings highlight that alternative pathways into EC teaching are important to support individuals who may find themselves interested in becoming an ECT later in life.
Participants undertook varied educational pathways into EC teaching, including vocational education and training combined with an ECT degree, or post-graduate ECT studies.
They were highly appreciative of their opportunities to fast-track their studies, and also balance paid work with study.
However, the benefits of these opportunities for ECT’s professional identity may be called into question if they are not receiving effective mentoring upon employment.
In particular, participants who studied 12-month post-graduate courses reported feeling not fully prepared to be an ECT.
Supporting previous research, the participants found support and guidance from mentoring and relatedness with colleagues as essential to supporting their transition and clarifying their expectations of being an ECT (Nolan & Molla, 2016, 2017).
Unfortunately, not all ECTs have the opportunity to receive such support which the current study shows may leave beginning ECTs vulnerable and with mismatched expectations.
The participants entered their teaching careers passionate and optimistic that they would make a difference to children’s learning and development.
Their narratives describe an expectation for what they believed they would achieve as an ECT.
This emerging identity of themselves as a teacher thrived with the support of mentors, colleagues and managers.
Comparatively, findings of the current study reveal an absence of the conditions that support and sustain ECT’s identity and practice.
Instead, circumstances of deficient managerial support, minimal professional autonomy, inadequate administrative allotments, long working hours, and disrespect of teaching identity and practices were found.
These conditions inhibited participants from embodying their professional identities while being an ECT.
The narratives explored in the current study suggest that allowing ECTs to commence their careers with the assumption that their professional learning and emerging identity will be well-nurtured when entering the field may be short-sighted, and in actual fact be detrimental to their experience of being an ECT and their retainment in the profession.
In the current study, participants were disempowered due to absent professional recognition from their managerial leaders.
In turn, participants felt disrespected, devalued and questioned their positions in their workplaces.
Devaluing experiences impinge on ECT’s professional integrity and “challenges them to the point of breaking, silence their professional voices, and force them towards early retirement and premature career changes” (Overton, 2009, p. 8).
The disruption of professional integrity was found to compromise the mental health and wellbeing of participants in the current study.
Alarmingly, all participants recognised their experiences of being an ECT negatively impacted their wellbeing which led two participants to seek psychological support.
An underlying thread of absent professional recognition is found throughout each participants’ narrative.
This brings into question the degree of recognition the EC profession is given if destitute conditions such as absent support and inadequate working conditions are permitted despite ECTs holding the same qualification level as primary and secondary school teachers.
Absent professional recognition for the EC profession is reflected in the divided system that ECTs work within, which is “highly stratified and beset by inequalities”.
Participants did not leave EC teaching in response to a single event, but rather in response to constant and accumulative challenges.
Although some persevered for up to seven years in their teaching positions, the continuing challenges of absent support, inadequate administrative allotments, long working hours and debilitated professional agency contributed to participants’ protracted processes of un-becoming an ECT.
They experienced an inhibited ability to teach, which led to issues of arrested development and professional isolation, leading finally to demoralisation.
It was not until participants were no longer able to healthily deal with their circumstances, and believed things would not improve, that they decided to leave.
While the findings of the current study are comparable to previous research that explore teacher attrition, this study provides unique insight into the conditions of EC teaching.
This contribution of knowledge is significant as teacher attrition research focuses on primary and secondary school contexts and are devoid of EC perspectives.
Primary and secondary teaching contexts are not reflective of EC contexts, where different regulatory authorities, curriculum, salary and conditions are applied.
Of particular concern is the lowered professional recognition of ECTs in comparison to primary and secondary trained teachers which may affect attraction and attrition.

Bastick, T. (2000). Why teacher trainees choose the teaching profession: Comparing trainees in metropolitan and developing countries. International review of Education, 46(3), 343-349.
Clandinin, D. J., & Rosiek, J. (2007). Mapping a Landscape of Narrative Inquiry: Borderland Spaces and Tensions. In D. J. Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp. 35-75). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications.
Clandinin, J., & Connelly., M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.
Nolan, A., & Molla, T. (2017). Teacher confidence and professional capital. Teaching and teacher education, 62, 10-18.
Nolan, A., & Molla, T. (2018). Teacher professional learning in Early Childhood education: insights from a mentoring program. Early Years, 38(3), 258-270.
Overton, J. (2009). Early childhood teachers in contexts of power: Empowerment and a voice. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 34(2), 1-10.
Richardson, W. P., & Watt, M. G. H. (2005). I’ve decided to become a teacher: Influences on career change. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21(5), 475-489.
Wyatt-Smith, C., Du Plessis, A., Wang, J., Hand, K., Alexander, C., & Colbert, P. (2017). Why choose teaching? a matter of choice: Evidence from the field.

Updated: Nov. 18, 2020