Maria Pender is a woman who believes that if you can do something to make a difference, then that’s what you should do. Over her long and respected career as an early childhood educator, Maria made a difference in the lives of many children, educators and families.
CELA was fortunate to gain the benefits of Maria’s expertise and insights while she served as a member of our board. With Maria’s recent retirement from the board, we celebrate her incredible achievements and her contribution to the early childhood education profession.
Finding her calling
When Maria was 11 years old, she started working at a local kindergarten in Maroubra. She would go there every day after school and in the school holidays, helping out with whatever needed to be done. That turned into a full-time role when she left school at the age of 14.
“Then I had my own two children when I was 20 and 21,” recalls Maria. “A lot of children didn’t go back to that kindergarten because I wasn’t there anymore, so I ended up with between six and eight children at home every day, including my own.”
This was at a time before family day care existed, but Maria had intuitively developed a program for the children to follow.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Maria was 31, that she formalised her experience with a Degree in Early Childhood Education.
“I absolutely loved going to Nursery School Teacher’s College,” she says. “It was like I had a new life. I left school at 14, so I had to learn how to study, but I had so much support and help from the lecturers.”
Innovation and sustainability — leading the way at Clovelly Child Care Centre
When Maria graduated, she was employed by Sydney Day Nurseries, working at St Peter’s and then later at House at Pooh Corner at the University of New South Wales. She had a great deal of autonomy and often served in the role of acting director, learning about the administration and staffing side of early education centres. The late Robin Hallberg, the Director at Pooh Corner, was a dedicated educator who was a strong role model and mentored Maria as a beginning teacher. Robin’s commitment to the teaching and learning of young children was something that stayed with Maria for all of her career.
In 1985, Maria was offered the directorship at Clovelly Child Care Centre, where she remained for the next 26 years. It was a brand new centre at the time, and under Maria’s guidance, the centre went on to gain a reputation for innovation.
“I was always writing grant submissions,” she says. “One grant we got involved us working with all of the centres in the Randwick municipality. We worked with them to enhance the programs, specifically for Indigenous children, children with a disability and children from a non-English speaking background. We ran workshops and training and supported the staff in all of those centres.”
At a time when sustainability was still in its infancy, Maria also ran the Sustainability Street program for interested families, staff and people in the broader community.
“This was probably one of our biggest achievements,” she proudly says. “It was the early days of thinking about how we were going to look after the planet, and the program just flew.”
During her many years at Clovelly, Maria was dedicated to providing nutritious meals for the children and following sustainability principles – including using cloth nappies only. She also implemented the Reggio Emilia approach across the program.
Maria also credits these achievements to her fabulous team, who were open and willing to embrace innovation.
Dedicated to making a difference
Maria was always hungry for knowledge. She enjoyed reading journals and education magazines, learning from the research and thinking about how she could make a difference. She attended the World Forum over many years in many different countries and connected with global thought leaders from across the industry.
Maria invested all her time and energy into learning, implementing and then repeating the process because she wanted to make a difference. Despite many life challenges, including the death of her husband and later the death of her daughter Jo, also a celebrated early childhood educator, Maria never veered from this mission. Her enthusiasm for teaching was also a magnet for her other daughter, Fran, who became an accredited classroom teacher, specialising in Kindergarten.
“I’m particularly passionate about children with special needs, children from a non-English speaking background and children from an Indigenous culture,” she explains. “My husband was Aboriginal, and when we had children, I read everything I could find about raising my girls to understand their culture. My daughter Jo also had total deafness in one ear. Over the years, I helped so many families. I was just an advocate for trying to ensure people could have better rights.”
Wanting to ensure that the training and presentations she was delivering to adults were making an impact, Maria went on to complete a Masters in Adult Education. Alongside her daughter Jo, she was also involved in setting up a block teaching and learning program at Macquarie University for Indigenous students to become early childhood teachers.
Over her impressive career, Maria has also made an immeasurable contribution to CELA. She has influenced the careers of many early childhood educators and has significantly impacted countless children's lives thanks to her advocacy and innovation.
As Maria embarks on this next stage of her life, we thank her for her passion and commitment. She has been a formidable force in our sector and has left very big shoes to fill.