Perceptions of teachers and teaching: A focus on early childhood education

Publication Details

The Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching study completed by Massey University professors Ruth Kane and Mary Mallon in 2006 serves as the “original study” of this report. The Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching research project (originally named Teacher Status Stage Two) was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Teachers Council to examine the relationships between key groups’ perceptions of teachers and teachers’ work in early childhood and school sectors, and the recruitment, retention, performance and capability, and professional status of teachers.

Author(s): Professor R. Kane, College of Education, Massey University.

Date Published: July 2008

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Executive Summary

The Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching study completed by Massey University professors Ruth Kane and Mary Mallon in 2006 serves as the "original study" of this report. The Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching research project (originally named Teacher Status Stage Two) was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Teachers Council to examine the relationships between key groups' perceptions of teachers and teachers' work in early childhood and school sectors, and the recruitment, retention, performance and capability, and professional status of teachers. The project responded to the need for research that clarified the nature and influence of key groups' perceptions of teachers and teaching and identified priorities for action with respect to recruitment and retention of quality teachers.

The Focus on Early Childhood research project was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to provide a separate analysis and report on the early childhood data generated in the Kane and Mallon (2006) project. This final report also draws on the early childhood related data from a national study conducted by the author and colleagues on initial teacher education in New Zealand (Kane et. al, 2005), thus bringing together data from those involved in the practice of early childhood education and the New Zealand initial teacher education context within which early childhood educators are prepared.

In a project such as this it is difficult to reduce the volume of quantitative data and idiosyncratic nature of the qualitative data to present a fair and authentic account of such a diverse group of people. Never the less, this is the task of this report and in a more focused way, of this executive summary. This re-analysis does not claim to represent or give voice to the very diverse participants within ECE. Rather, it provides evidence from a group of early childhood teachers, head teachers, management members and student teachers of their perceptions of the nature and status of early childhood teaching in New Zealand in 2005. When data were generated in 2005, those involved in ECE had been working with the Te Whariki (or its draft) for a nearly a decade and were two years into the implementation of the ten-year strategic plan. As such the early childhood sector was continuing to live with and through a period of focused political attention involving administrative and curriculum reforms. This report brings together data from a sample of early childhood educators to relate how they perceive the nature of their work, and to identify factors that may enhance recruitment, retention and the status of early childhood teachers within Aotearoa New Zealand.

This report is presented with some limitations due to its location within a larger study which necessarily affected its size and scope and impacted on the specific focus of questions and findings. Being a re-analysis of a sub-set of data from a much larger study which involved participants from the compulsory school sector as well as early childhood education has some implications both for the methodology and the findings. There are a number of aspects of the study that need to be drawn to a reader's attention including: the generic nature of data collection instruments meant that terminology was not always a good "fit" with early childhood; questions did not always specifically ask for responses related to a specific sector;  the size of the early childhood sample (146 teacher/head teacher questionnaires and 66 management committee questionnaires) required analyses that were validated through factor analysis of the larger population; and, in terms of the interview data there is also the need to acknowledge that interviews were conducted with 5 head teachers, 15 teachers and 4 management committee members.

It is not a claim of this study that such interviews are representative of head teachers, teachers and management across New Zealand early childhood centres. Early childhood centres within New Zealand are extremely diverse and one could not hope to encompass the breadth of perceptions through such a limited sample. The interview participants contributing to this study do herald from different ECE contexts including education and care centres and free kindergartens in different geographical locations (Christchurch, New Plymouth and South Auckland), however they are by no means reflective, or representative of the wide diversity of ECE settings and personnel. While questionnaire responses were received from home-based childcare and Te Kohanga Reo, teachers from these settings did not contribute to the interviews. Although some questionnaire respondents did identify as Maori or Pasifika they are under-represented in the questionnaire data and absent in terms of interview data. Thus the most notable omissions in this data are the perspectives of Maori and Pacific peoples.

The limitations imposed by the above require that the findings in this report are indicative rather than conclusive or representative. The findings are strengthened through the mixed method approach adopted and that the qualitative data do reinforce and lend a measure of authenticity to the broader-based quantitative analyses.

There is no doubt from the evidence provided that the nature of early childhood teachers' work in contemporary New Zealand has undergone significant reconceptualisation over the recent decades, is increasingly complex, physically and intellectually demanding, and may well be misunderstood by those outside of the immediate early childhood community. There is definite homogeneity in the ways in which teachers, head teachers, student teachers and management committee members construe effective early childhood teachers. According to them, effective teachers establish caring relationships with children, enjoy their work, and are trusted and respected by parents. Expertise in facilitating learning is considered to be inextricably linked to providing for a child's care, wellbeing and holistic development.

What can be said with absolute confidence is that early childhood teachers, head teachers, management and student teachers believe that they have responsibility for an important service within society. They give strong support to the notion that the sector would benefit from attracting well informed, caring and committed teacher candidates. While they generally embrace the goals of the strategic plan and view the adoption of Te Whariki as key evidence that early childhood is on an upward trajectory, they do have constructive suggestions of how the status of early childhood teaching could be enhanced.

Key Findings

Being An Early Childhood Teacher

  1. Early childhood teachers are motivated to become teachers primarily through their passion for working with children, their desire to have a rewarding and worthwhile career and their commitment to contributing to children's development and learning.
  2. Early childhood teachers are at times recruited as parents whose involvement in the early childhood centre that their child attends serves as the initial introduction to the importance of the role of an early childhood teacher.
  3. Student teachers report that they are also attracted by the perception of job security, regular family-friendly holidays, a reliable income, and the possibility of having a lifelong career.
  4. Early childhood teachers love the core aspect of their job, the interaction with young children, colleagues and parents, professional development opportunities, and daily opportunities to make a difference to the lives of children and parents.
  5.  Early childhood teachers identify building relationships with children as fundamental to their role, they celebrate the collaborative nature of their work and their partnerships with parents.
  6. The capacity to contribute to the work of the centre in a collegial and positive way is an essential element within ECE where teachers operate daily in concert with colleagues, parents and others.
  7. Early childhood teachers and head teachers perceive the highest levels of respect from parents, from the children they teach and from their colleagues.
  8. Early childhood educators are confident in the efficacy of their own contribution to children's development and learning and hopeful that the recent attention afforded to early childhood education as signalled by the Government's ten-year strategic plan, Pathways to the Future: Nga Huarahi Arataki, (Ministry of Education, 2002) and associated administrative and curriculum reforms, are evidence of an upward trajectory for the early childhood sector.
  9. Early childhood teachers promote professional development and ongoing learning as critical aspects of being a successful early childhood teacher. The centre environment is pivotal in this goal as it influences the extent to which professional development is valued by management and colleagues and is facilitated for teachers. There is an over-riding sense that early childhood teachers view professional development and feedback from colleagues as essential elements of their work.

Challenges Within Early Childhood Teaching

  1. Early childhood teachers are concerned about the degree to which their role is widely misunderstood by both members of the general public and, perhaps more importantly, their colleagues in primary and secondary schools.
  2. While aforementioned reforms, including those related to curriculum, qualifications and registration are generally welcomed, the associated changing expectations of the early childhood teacher give rise to concerns regarding escalating workload and what are perceived as inadequate, and at times inequitable, support in terms of resourcing across different types of early childhood services.
  3. Early childhood teachers look forward to more consistent and favourable  teacher/children ratios and equity in terms of salary, working conditions and holidays within the system.
  4. Appraisal of early childhood teachers is variable in nature due in part to the wide diversity of contexts and contracts within which early childhood teachers operate. Some teachers welcome the Kindergarten Association's adoption of teaching standards and view these as an opportunity to gauge their own professional advancement with the support and mentoring of centre leaders.

Retention Of Early Childhood Teachers

  1. Early childhood educators remain in the profession due to perceived rewards that are intrinsic, altruistic and collegial.
  2. There is a clear sense that even though early childhood teachers find the workload has increased in recent years (in response to new curricular and reporting requirements), is demanding physically and is not yet rewarded financially at a level they would prefer; there is little that would cause them to leave the profession that they judge to make such a critical contribution to society.
  3. There is a sense that early childhood educators are more than willing to be active in "growing" their own profession and are very likely to encourage others to consider a career in early childhood.

Enhancing Recruitment Retention And The Status Of Early Childhood Teachers

  1. Develop public education programmes (including use of television and other media) that promote children's early years as a time of critical development and learning for young children and consequently, early childhood teachers as pivotal to children's development.
  2. Promote early childhood teaching as a rewarding and challenging career through making explicit how early childhood teachers are valued in our society thus enhancing the intrinsic motivation, satisfaction and self-image of current teachers and presenting a positive and informed view of teaching to potential teacher candidates.
  3. Promote early childhood teaching as a job at the cutting edge of society's achievements and challenges. Thus demonstrating that the government and wider community do in fact value the contribution early childhood teachers make and the importance of the work they do with children in our society.
  4. Promote early childhood teaching as a complex, challenging job that requires candidates to have multiple skills and capabilities – this is not a job for just anyone, it requires intelligent, competent, confident, skilled, enthusiastic candidates who would step up to and enjoy the challenge and privilege of working with parents and colleagues in the care and education of young children.
  5. Continue to promote and support professional development and ongoing professional learning opportunities for early childhood teachers.
  6. Do not disguise the complexity and challenges early childhood teachers face daily. Acknowledge the challenges of working with children from all facets of society and responding (with appropriate and informed support) to the challenges they bring to the classroom, whilst also supporting their development and learning – do not construe early childhood teaching as being just about fun.
  7. Use current successful and motivated early childhood teachers to advertise teaching. Make explicit the motivation behind these dedicated teachers who thrive in these complex working environments – reveal what makes them stay teaching in the face of the daily challenges, the heavy workload and the long hours.
  8. Invite early childhood teachers to talk about what the wider community including senior students contemplating career choices cannot intuit – the core reasons and intrinsic satisfaction gained from working in a dynamic, collegial, demanding but rewarding career.
  9. Be open about the variable working hours and holidays and acknowledge that they are more generous (for some) than what is available in other professions – have early childhood teachers talk about how there is time with children and time away from them, where you can plan, read and think. Emphasise that depending on the area within the early childhood system, there can be flexibility and regular planned breaks to engage in other interests, to spend time with family, to gather energy and plan for another term ahead.
  10. Confront the ambiguity and scope of early childhood teachers' work. If early childhood teachers are primarily expected to support children's learning, development and achievement  then it is important to identify other duties that can be withdrawn from the teacher's day to day responsibilities, or, alternatively, that teachers are given the support to accomplish these tasks. This could include administrative and cleaning duties so prevalent in the work of some centres.
  11. Explore the range of flexible working arrangements possible so that experienced teachers who are seeking to transition out of full-time work as a lead up to retirement or due to physical demands of the job can continue to work on a fractional basis. Thus, signalling the value of their experience and enabling current teachers to view early childhood education as a lifelong career.
  12. Continue to work towards salary consistency across the early childhood sector. This would counter current feelings of inequity among some early childhood teachers, especially those in child care centres.
  13. Use evidence from current research to work with providers of initial teacher education, teacher unions, head teachers and teachers to consider ways to enhance the quality of initial early childhood teacher education across the number of providers within New Zealand.

Footnote

  1. Bearing in mind that this is probably a reference to Kindergarten, where teachers receive regular school-based holidays rather than  for other centres who offer child care and education all year round.

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