A Need for Strengthening ELCC Leadership Practice in Alberta

Written by AECEA board member Dr. Susan Garrow-Oliver & published in the Canadian Child Care Federation Interaction Magazine (Summer 2018).
 

Leadership is a constructed phenomenon that is complex to define and understand; yet leadership in the early learning and care sector has been identified as a key area worth investing in and exploring. Here, I will explore strategies and initiatives to support the strengthening of leadership in the early learning and care sector in Alberta, and approach leadership understanding as practice, not position.
 

In recent years the Alberta government has shown an increased interest in addressing the need for affordable, accessible and quality child care programs. Financial investments in the province focus on programs and initiatives such as the Early Learning and Child Care programs, Alberta Early Learning Curriculum Framework, professional development subsidies for Early childhood educators, the AsAP coaching model, certification equivalencies, and Child Care Program Accreditation. Investments in these separate initiatives have made it difficult for an already fractured sector, that lacks a comprehensive system, to strengthen the workforce and build leadership capacity.
 

Current research continues to prove the importance of investing in the early years and that educated early childhood educators are a key indicator in providing quality early learning and care experiences for young children. However, investments continue to focus on addressing affordable and accessible child care, but quality and system change is less of a priority. While the importance of access and affordability is also important, quality should not be compromised.
 

As the provincial government implements its childcare strategies, the early learning and child care sector is also being supported by the efforts of various groups. The Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta (AECEA) is working to mobilize the sector and to work towards the development of a sustainable system, focusing on a childcare workforce strategy.
 

The Muttart Foundation in Alberta is another key supporter of early learning and child care. The Muttart Foundation has been investing resources in the Early Childhood Education and Care sector in efforts to:

“foster, promote and support the organizational vehicles and processes that will enable charitable early childhood and care organizations to play a full role in the development of public policy related to early childhood education and care; and to support the development of increased organizational capacity in early childhood and care charitable organizations with an emphasis on executive and management staff” (Muttart Foundation, 2017).
 

The Muttart Foundation highlights and values the need for strong leadership in early childhood education and care, so children have optimal early opportunities for school success. At the same time strong leadership will strengthen the workforce and support early childhood leaders to influence and inform public policy. In their report Advancing the Educational Preparation and Professional Development of Alberta’s Early Learning and Care Workforce (2014) they identify the need for additional qualifications for staff in management or leadership positions in licensed early learning and care programs (p.11). Alberta is fortunate to have these champions to support a workforce strategy.
 

It is often a taken for granted the assumption that leadership is viewed through a lens of managing and supervising; or position. The early learning and child care sector has inherited the business model of leadership, as a top down approach where one leader is viewed as expert and holds the power. Child care directors tend to rely on this understanding of leadership as they consider and engage in their own practice of leadership (Garrow-Oliver, 2017).
 

Reconceptualizing leadership understanding
 

Many educators believe that leadership is a lonely position that requires control and certain skills, training, and characteristics, thus they do not perceive it as a valued role they want to aspire to (Garrow-Oliver, 2017). However, in recent years, there has been efforts to understand leadership differently; from position to practice. The phenomenon of grassroots leadership is emerging where leadership is being reconceptualized.
 

McDowall Clark and Murray (2012) suggest that reflecting on leadership “as a social construction and experienced phenomenon, leadership can be a broad and changing notion. It has no fixed identity because it is in a constant state of deconstruction, interpretation and reconstruction” (p. 5). Traditional understanding of leadership focus on hierarchical top down approaches to leadership with individuals holding power over, while directing and managing employees and teams. According to McDowall Clark and Murray (2012), when we reduce leadership to a set of standards, traits, or behaviours, it does not consider the social context or the interplay of human relationships. The shift in viewing leadership as practice and process encourages shared leadership amongst the team and allows for a more collaborative approach to leading, learning, decision making and problem solving.
 

This approach to leadership could begin with early learning and child care students and graduates if we wish to see a shift in the profession. Current leaders need the support and time to critically reflect on their own leadership practice, so they may act as models and pedagogical leaders for early childhood educators.
 

Identifying and Nurturing Emerging Leaders
 

It is important that we pursue leaders apart from positions such as managers or directors. Leaders and emerging leaders can be everyday practitioners, parents, children, students and directors. While many early childhood educators will attest to leadership practice in their everyday work with children, it is important to consider the meso and macro system levels if there is a desire to lead, and influence change and policy.
 

As the aging early learning and childcare workforce considers slowing down and eventually retiring it is essential to engage emerging leaders in ongoing advocacy work. A career in childcare is still undervalued, while at the same time families lack access to affordable, accessible and quality child care options. In Canada there is still a push from researchers, families and early childhood educators for investment in a universal child care program, but this request and demand remains to fall on deaf ears as the Federal government and provinces continue to invest minimal resources and band-aid approaches to the child care crisis.
 

In a recent survey informally conducted in winter 2018, with current early learning and childcare students and Bachelor of Child Studies Degree students in Calgary, only 30% of those who responded said they plan to work in child care upon graduation. In conversations with the potential graduates, many cite frustrations with the lack of respect by government and society regarding early childhood education. The certification equivalencies in Alberta are a contentious issue as early learning and child care graduates are expected to work alongside peers who have less foundational knowledge in early childhood. With the recent introduction of the Alberta Curriculum Framework and pilot programs, early childhood educators and directors have argued an even higher priority and need for an educated workforce with includes knowledge that is specific to early childhood.
 

Throughout student course work and practicum experiences students are introduced to Early Learning and Child Care as a profession. Post-secondary programs have shared the challenges of finding quality child care programs to provide optimal learning for students. With a workforce that is already overworked and undervalued those model programs can accommodate only so many student placements. Early childhood graduates are often unprepared for the realities of the workforce. Their dreams of making a difference is frequently overshadowed by the bureaucracies of regulations, low wages, having to mentor and teach less educated peers, poor working conditions and lack of recognition in the important work they do.
 

However, there are emerging leaders that recognize these challenges and see themselves as a part of a solution. It is up to experienced leaders currently in the field to harness the passion, energy and determination of these individuals. Directors and managers must find opportunities to engage with emerging leaders in their programs. Perhaps through shared leadership where professional learning is extended, administrative tasks are offered, facilitation of professional learning communities, and Pedagogical partner or leadership models are created. As pedagogical leaders it is important to identify and acknowledge the individual strengths and gifts early childhood educators bring to the team.
 

McDowall Clark and Murray (2012) propose a paradigm of leadership that is non-hierarchical and includes catalytic agency, reflective integrity, and relational interdependence. “This leadership model shares the practice of co-learning and co-construction of knowledge through dialogue and intentional and reflective practice, similar to the practice of early childhood educators with children and families” (Garrow-Oliver, 2017, p.47). The idea of catalytic leaders, those with a ‘spark’, where they are responsive to the complexities in the early learning and child care sector, disrupting, questioning and holding policy makers accountable. Catalytic leaders are needed to take responsibility for change through influence of respect. As these emerging leaders are nurtured they are encouraged to participate, engage and share their ideas where they are acknowledged and valued.
 

In Child Care Directors Understanding of Leadership research study (Garrow-Oliver, 2017), experienced child care directors shared their lack of confidence and knowledge to engage in leadership practice beyond their role of director or manager. The directors also cited a lack of time and resources as much of their day was spent overseeing the day to day operations of their program. While directors acknowledged their desire to be more involved, along with mentoring and coaching new graduates, at the end of the day there wasn’t enough time.
 

Voice
 

Participant stories in Garrow-Oliver (2017) study highlighted some key areas that contributed to their lack of participation in leadership practice away from the traditional model or role of leadership. When reflecting on their advocacy efforts as leaders they identified their feelings of isolation, with pressure to take on sole responsibility and decision making in their programs; a lack of confidence to lead, and fear of speaking out.
 

When the early learning and child care profession and the role and work of early childhood educators is not valued, respected, or recognized as important (Bornfreund & Goffin, 2016), early childhood educators are hesitant to speak out and demand more. But often we hear early childhood educators say they are only one voice and therefore feel they cannot make a difference or influence change. On the rare occasion their opinion is asked, they feel no one is listening or values their ideas. It is important that early childhood educators are given the opportunity to have their voice heard and genuinely listened to.
 

Advocacy Leadership
 

Early childhood educators often demonstrate advocacy in their everyday practice with children and families in their programs. Macdonald, Richardson, and Langford (2015) noted early childhood educators and directors prioritized “putting their energies into stabilizing their immediate work environment”. By providing and demanding quality learning and care environments for children they are informally advocating for the rights of children. But issues such as regulations, workforce disparity, affordable and accessible quality child care, and other social equity issues need to be made aware of and addressed. Political advocacy and increasing society’s awareness are key elements of leadership practice, that is, advocating for children and families, and, equally importantly, advocating for themselves and the profession (Ebbeck and Waniganayake, 2003).
 

A potential contributing factor to the lack of advocacy and leadership efforts of early learning and child care directors is a direct result of their limited skills to engage in personal and political advocacy because of their limited exposure to advocacy strategies and knowledge in their post-secondary programs (Bruno, Gonzalez-Mena, Hernandez & Sullivan, 2013). The same was discovered in Garrow-Oliver (2017) where directors in that study shared their lack of knowledge and skills to be more involved in advocacy efforts outside of their programs.
 

Preparing Students
 

Early learning and child care post-secondary curricula include some courses in development, play theory, planning, guidance and management. In efforts to provide ample course content to meet diploma, degree and certification requirements, there is minimal content in social justice advocacy in some two and four-year programs. Brunson (2002) surveyed over 700 early childhood educators and discovered that participants felt that more training and education on public policy advocacy is needed in their program of study. Early childhood educators in the Macdonald, Richardson, and Langford (2015) study were found that they “lacked the skills needed to advocate publicly or speak on bigger picture issues” (p. 7). Winick (2013) suggests that “advocacy as a part of a leadership plan needs to be a core component of pre-service and in-service programs” (p. 143). Hollingsworth, Knight-McKenna and Bryan (2016) noted this absence of curricular content specific to professional advocacy in degree programs.
 

Concluding thoughts
 

In my research, and from my own personal experiences working with the early learning and child care sector, I have seen child care directors and managers lose their passion and eventually burn out, leaving the profession altogether, from the unrealistic role expectations that all to often they were not prepared to undertake. Many early childhood educators enter the field because of their desire to make a positive impact on the lives of children and families; only to be undervalued, overworked and silenced in their efforts to advocate for themselves and others. And, many early learning and child care graduates avoid working in child care altogether.
 

Constant changes and shifts in the political landscape influences child care policy and priorities which leads to the unknown regarding financial investments in child care from year to year. Bureaucrats, decision makers and influencers at the policy level are rarely invested or genuinely interested in recognizing quality child care as a right. Minimal pockets of public investment are distributed towards band-aid approaches. There appears to be fear in making bold decisions around a publicly funded system such as education, which seems to be more valued. We are left to wonder why it is that when children enter kindergarten that this is deemed the optimal time to invest in them.
 

Early childhood educators are made to feel undervalued as they see those without foundational knowledge in the early years given the same recognition. There is little incentive to pursue post-secondary education specifically in early childhood education when this limits their career opportunities. Whereas in the province of Alberta a social work diploma, child and youth care degree or degree in kinesiology provides the same certification level to work in early learning and child care, and many other career opportunities. It is difficult to stay motivated, passionate and committed to early learning and child care as a profession with this lack of respect and perspective. Another example is the Alberta Learning Information Service, 2011 website that provides a description of the early childhood educator role in efforts to recruit employees to the field. On the website an ‘easy read profile’ is provided for those with low levels of literacy, in efforts to fill the gap needed to provide child care in the province. This is what those who genuinely wish to make working with young children in care their career choice face every day from society.
 

Strong leadership practice is necessary if we want to transform the child care workforce into a respected and valued career. Strong leadership practice is needed if we want to see more women in the workforce knowing they have access to affordable and quality child care. Strong leadership practice is needed for children to have learning environments where they are nurtured, cared for, and encouraged to explore and co-learn with peers and adults in a democratic setting.
 

References and the excerpt from Interaction Magazine can be found here.