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Becoming an Early Childhood Teacher – what to look for and why it’s worthwhile

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Some would say that there has never been a better time to become a degree qualified early childhood teacher (ECT). There’s a broad range of courses on offer to meet increased demand due to the sector’s growing needs for preschool teachers, but how do you choose the right course and what are the benefits of the study?

Amplify examines the incentives and barriers to becoming an ECT, which type of courses to look for, and what employers could do to make the pathway clearer.


More ECTs equals better quality for children… as long as the qualifications focus on the early years

For Associate Professor Marianne Fenech, Program Director of Early Childhood Education at the University of Sydney, the need for more educators who are degree qualified ECTs is clear – it comes down to quality.

“The research tells us that when there is a core group of early childhood teachers to lead a service’s curriculum and pedagogy, then the quality of education and care is likely to be high.”

But for third year ECT student Maroua Acherkouk, her motivation to start a degree was to gain confidence and knowledge to be a more effective educator:

“I really love helping children to learn, and I’ve learnt so much in the degree course – how to communicate with families and children, how to build a relationship with both parents and children and how to set learning goals.

“I understand children and their development needs at a much deeper level now – we went through in detail how to support children’s learning at every age and stage starting with birth.”

According to a recent report called ‘Upskilling in Early Childhood Education’ by Future Tracks and The Front Project, in order to meet the demand for preschool teachers, the sector will need to fill an additional 29,000 ECT jobs in Australia by 2023. The report says, “If action is not taken soon, one-third of preschool services will not have a trained teacher on staff within four years.”

This is a daunting prospect and has fuelled a surge in teacher training courses in TAFE as well as Universities. But this focus on increasing the supply of early childhood teachers worries Associate Professor Fenech:

“There is a dire need for more ECTs, but in terms of meeting the demand, it’s not just a matter of quickly churning out ECTs through any degree.”

“We need students doing qualifications that are rigorous and have a specialist focus on the early years”.

She says that the Australian Early Childhood Teacher Education Network is very concerned about the move toward Birth to 12-year-old teacher education programs:

“There is concern amongst academics that those programs are not substantive enough to prepare graduates to work in the early years.”

She cites qualitative research with 18 NSW early childhood service providers—small, medium and large— about their experience of how well prepared graduates currently are to work in the early years.

‘The consensus amongst these employers, unfortunately, was that they are finding ECT graduates are not as well prepared to work in the years leading up to school as they should be.

“Their knowledge of early child development is not substantive enough, their professional experience is insufficient, and the key finding was that early graduates are finding it difficult to think critically and translate theory into practice.

“Birth to 12-degree courses are problematic because of the need to meet the curriculum requirements relevant to the school sector; specialist early childhood content has been squeezed out.”

Another concern is that from July 1, 2020, students in these courses will only be required to do half of their professional experience (or ‘prac’) in an early childhood service (forty days out of the 80 ACECQA required days).

Fenech advises diploma qualified educators seeking to undertake a degree to enrol in a birth to five or birth to eight-course to ensure that they gain more knowledge and professional experience in the early years.

Barriers to getting a degree

Paid study leave could help support students

The Upskilling in Early Education report found that 84% of Educators they surveyed who wanted to undertake a teaching degree didn’t pursue it because of five major barriers:

  1. The benefits in terms of improved pay and conditions were not clear
  2. The challenge of managing the triple workload of paid work, family obligations and study was overwhelming
  3. Anxiety about being able to meet academic standards
  4. Limited employer support for intensive study
  5. Financial constraints and cost

Associate Professor Fenech believes more could be done by both institutions and employers to make the pathway to undertaking a degree less difficult.

“Time and money are the two key inputs that are needed. If providers could support students with paid study leave, that would be really helpful.”

She also suggests that a more consistent approach by education institutions on offering credits for Diplomas would help.

One bonus is that even full-time course loads are often set up to cover just 2-3 days in the week, so it’s possible and beneficial to continue working in the sector while studying for the degree.

Why it’s worth it

As a single mum Maroua is not currently working, but having children gave her the career break to take the step of undertaking the degree. She can really see the difference in her professional skills and expertise:

“When I finished the diploma six years ago, I wasn’t able to lead the room, I didn’t really understand the children’s needs or how to plan a curriculum or develop a Quality Improvement Plan. I’m now confident to go into a room and plan everything we will do that day – I’m able to think outside the box. I even give advice to friends who are educators – help them with ideas on how to set up activities for the children that will extend their learning. “

Associate Professor Fenech says the career benefits of completing an early years focused Early Childhood Teaching degree are very clear:

“Educators will have a stronger theoretical knowledge base to work from. They’ll be better prepared, have more confidence, and be able to lead pedagogy in early childhood settings.”

And more confident and knowledgeable early childhood teachers, will result in even better outcomes for children.

Where to study for an Early Childhood Teaching degree

ACECQA lists 80 institutions offering more than 500 early childhood teaching degrees across Australia, but many of them are historic and the institutions have changed their names and changed their course offerings.

If the institution is in NSW, Victoria, the ACT or NT, make sure you click on the link to the course website to see if their course is Birth to Five or Birth to Eight or Birth to Twelve. In Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia, courses are still most likely to be Birth to Five or Birth to Eight.

Fenech, M. (2017). Preparing teachers for the early years: Evidence, ideology or market-driven initial teacher education? Presentation for the ACECQA Higher Education Roundtable: 30 November.

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