'I'm an early childhood educator. This is why yesterday's shutdowns were essential.'

After a tumultuous few years for the early childhood sector, Early Childhood Educators Day (Wednesday September 7) will this year be used to highlight the urgent issues faced by the industry with an Australian wide shutdown of facilities and a series of rallies.

Recent research by the United Workers Union showed that 99 per cent of surveyed educators feel burnt out because of staffing shortages and burgeoning workloads.

Helen Gibbons, Director Early Education at the United Workers Union, says that reform is urgently needed

"The results are in. Educators cannot afford to stay in the sector, and the sector cannot deliver quality early learning without educators," Gibbons said in a statement. 

The union is seeking federal government reform with a focus on three key areas: paying educators what they're worth, valuing early learning as part of the overall education system, and putting children before profits.

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Janine Kelly is an early childhood teacher and director of The Big Treehouse Early Education and Boutique Preschool in Newcastle. Kelly agrees that reform need to be made across the sector.


"I've been working in the early education sector since the mid-90s, and wages and respect for the profession have always been an issue," Kelly tells Mamamia.

"When I moved from my job in a bank to fulfil my passion and work with young children, a family member said, 'Why would you leave your secure career and pension to become a babysitter?' They just didn't understand what was involved."

The evidence for quality early childhood education is clear. We know that the size of a child’s brain reaches 90 per cent of an adult’s by the age of five. But Kelly believes we have undervalued the work of early educators for too long.

"We need to build more awareness of the work that we do and why. There's so much evidence to support how powerful quality early childhood education is for young children. 

"We're not just changing nappies. We're not just playing with play dough. When I'm playing with play dough with a child, I'm actually looking at how their fingers are moving. I am seeing how they respond if I ask them a question and if they actually understand and keep that question on target. So we might play, but there's so many things that I'm thinking about and looking at as an educator.

"I'm not just a playmate and I love my job."

While Kelly supports the shutdown and the union's focus on reform, The Big Treehouse is choosing not to shut down.


"Part of me would like to shut down in solidarity, but our provider has helped us to find a healthy balance at work and has been financially supportive, so I want to find another way to voice my viewpoint."

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the sector, and the ongoing effects of the pandemic continue to cause repercussions today.

"It was so challenging because at the start of the pandemic, our trainees had to leave. I had a great student with two weeks to go before she finished the practical part of her university degree and I had to tell her we could no longer have her in the centre. I was so sad and sorry. All that time and effort. She would call me crying asking to come back and I had to say no because of COVID. 

"So now we've got this backlog of all these students that should have been rolling out, coupled with huge staff shortages because so many people have left the sector but we haven't been able to replace them. 

"As a director, I also have a problem when a staff member gets sick. Or if their child gets sick at home, they are the ones to take sick leave as they are often the lowest income earner in the household. My partner works for a cleaning company and the cleaning award pays higher than an early educator on a diploma award."

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To reduce the stress on her remaining staff, Kelly talked to parents about their expectations and tried to change some of the admin demands where possible.


"I have over 414 regulations that I have to adhere to as centre director and if I am in breach of one of these, we will receive a fine that can be anything from $1,000 to $50,000 which is obviously stressful as we want to do the right thing, but it's a lot. 

"With COVID issues on top, at one stage we were down to only seven casual eductors per day, and we had forgotten to really look at the climate. We were in crisis mode and dealing with too much. 

"I liaised with parents who wanted to help and reduced some of the reporting. I explained that while there were essential checklists we had to complete, I wanted to ensure our educators were on the floor as much as possible. Because if educators are off the floor, writing up reports, there's an opportunity cost for the kids."

With wages, Kelly believes they should come in line with primary school teachers but that it is not as simple as just raising the amount of pay across differing levels.

"While some educators come straight from school or college, others have gone to university for four years. University educated staff get paid less than teachers, but we probably do as much work, if not more paperwork than they do!

"I think too that we need to look at how we respect ourselves as educators, because there's always been that connotation that we are just 'babysitters' or 'child carers'. And now we're 'early childhood educators', we're taking small steps forward." 


Janine believes that if nothing changes, staffing shortages and dissatisfaction will only get worse.

"In my last workplace, I was so burnt out there were days I would come home in tears. I was working 50 hours each week doing paperwork at night, and it was completely unsustainable. And while I am passionate about the work, it is not always an easy job.

"In the past when I have worked with unsupportive management, I have had to deal with extreme behaviour from kids. I've had furniture chucked at me and seen educators go home with clumps of missing hair. We don't come to work to get beaten up and we can't focus on teaching if we are short staffed or working in unsupportive environments."

Ultimately, Kelly is hopeful for the future of early education in Australia - as long as all stakeholders communicate effectively.  

"Across the industry, we need change. But change will only be possible with strong advocates working directly with the government. We have the data and the evidence and we know how important a universal, quality early education is for the next generation. 

"And on a personal level, there is nothing else I would rather do than work in early education. I love my job."

Laura Jackel is Mamamia's Family Writer. For links to her articles and to see photos of her outfits and kids, follow her on Instagram and TikTok.

Feature Image: Getty.