Leadership in ECE: insights from Lorraine Manuela and Celeste Harrington

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Leadership in ECE: insights from Lorraine Manuela and Celeste Harrington

Early childhood leadership is incredibly challenging but also exciting. It is primarily focused on supporting and encouraging individual teachers to work together to make a difference for children. Our webinar with Celeste Harrington (AUT) and Lorraine Manuela (Director at Tots Corner) provided key principles and ideas for effective leadership in early childhood settings. Below are some of the ideas discussed.

Relationships are crucial to successful leadership

A leader should focus on building effective relationships: Leading is all about relationships and an early childhood setting will not be effective without strong relationships. Think of relationships as triadic, and place equal emphasis on developing relationships with teachers, children and families. Building relationships means getting to know people, including parents and children, working to their strengths, and appreciating and being responsive to their individuality. 

Put children at the centre

Holding children at the centre of what you do helps the rest fall into place. This concept can be especially useful when situations are challenging, as it helps to develop cohesiveness through a shared sense of purpose. This is not to suggest that relationships with families and teachers are not equally important, but that children are the unifying focus of everyone in the early childhood centre community. 

The difference between leadership and management

This is a really important distinction. Centre leaders are often titled “centre managers” but it is important that centre managers see themselves as leaders rather than managers. Leadership revolves around people, while management is focused on paperwork. Paperwork is necessary and sometimes does merge with leadership, but leadership is focused on pedagogical work, and on supporting effective teaching and learning by encouraging and enabling teachers to grow in their teaching practice through professional learning. Leaders can promote intellectually rigorous programmes, inquiry and research in their centres, and create a rich culture of professional learning activity.

Which is best – distributed leadership or a hierarchy of leadership?

Early childhood centres don’t work well without an identified leader, but this doesn’t preclude individuals from taking leadership in a certain area. Te Whāriki explains that leadership is expected of all teachers, and in many of the strands discusses ways that teachers can take, share, and give responsibility. Some teachers will rise readily to these opportunities and some will need further support. As the centre leader, it is important to focus on sharing opportunities for teachers to take on different skills and responsibilities, which empowers teachers at the same time as it supports you as a leader. 

Guidance for taking on a new leadership role 

Never be afraid to ask other colleagues outside of your centre for support and advice. Leaders can really benefit from being sounding boards for each other. It is important to reach out to others, create a network, or seek mentorship from outside your own centre.

When leaders are promoted from within their own centre, it can be useful to talk to the team and coconstruct the leader’s role – what would the team like to see the leader do? This can help get everyone on board together. Be open, genuine and reflective, which might mean at times saying that you don’t know (and it’s OK to do so), in order to create a good foundation for the positive relationships which are at the heart of effective leadership.

Be wary of becoming “the compliance police”, checking on regulatory aspects or monitoring the production of learning stories, especially if you are new to leadership, as this is not helpful for building relationships. Instead try to trust and support people. Develop a clear vision because then your staff will understand what you are trying to do and their part within it, and this will help move you away from managerial policing. 

What to do when there are problems

When there are issues, it is important to investigate and try to determine underpinning factors. Again this means building relationships, getting to know people and what each teacher needs in terms of support. Problems and conflict can be very destabilising. Be open – you might not know the answers but it’s important to try to address issues, to say “it’s not working, what is going on here?” and “what can we do to make it better for the children?”. Courageous conversations, where you unpack a situation you are really uncomfortable with one-on-one are really important. Courageous conversations involve techniques such as making “I” statements (“I feel… “). There are good tips and videos on the Teachers Council website. 

Reflection as a tool for the leader

Reflection is a very important tool for effective leadership: constantly thinking about and questioning your practice, asking yourself how you might have approached a situation differently. However, it’s also important to maintain a focus on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative (as being a leader can be a solo and isolated role). Talking with other leaders supports your reflection as you can clarify your thinking as you hear yourself talk. Other people’s ideas also provoke reflection as you think about and evaluate their ideas for your own situation and context. 

How to encourage teachers to collaborate and work together well

Everything revolves around building those relationships within a team and within a centre. Build teachers’ confidence by observing teachers and discussing, praising and affirming things they have done. It is important to work from and build upon the positives rather than create a needs-based situation. Use staff meetings to build  team understandings, encouraging each teacher to bring their different perspectives and ideas and to debate and negotiate, perhaps in response to a reading. 

Pedagogical leadership

It is crucially important that someone in the team is driving the pedagogy, and each centre needs to work out who will do this. Everything will stem from your philosophy of teaching and learning so a really cohesive and clear philosophy for pedagogy that is shared and understood means that everyone can contribute. Pedagogical leadership involves ensuring the programme is intellectually rigorous, continually unpacking children’s learning and asking what is it you can keep offering children so that they are challenged to explore and investigate. The pedagogical underpinning of what you are doing is vital to quality of learning opportunities the children receive, and it needs to be led, either by the leader or by different teachers according to their individual strengths. It’s important to focus meetings on pedagogical work (find another forum for housekeeping matters), keeping children central. 

By Dr Vicki Hargraves


Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our early childhood webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our early childhood research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

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