Every month we profile an outstanding early childhood educator to showcase the extraordinary commitment and energy of Aotearoa's early childhood workforce.
This month we are proud to introduce Valerie Joyce Morrison, from Small is Beautiful, the longest running preschool service in Devonport, Auckland.
What is your name and which centre do you work in?
My name is Valerie Joyce Morrison, the children call me Val, and I am 72! Small is Beautiful Pre School is the name of my centre. We are licensed for 20 two to five year olds and have a morning session till 1pm, with six children staying till 3pm, that is, from 1-3pm we have only six children.
What is your professional background and career experience?
I trained at Wits University in South Africa and taught a few terms at Rynfield Primary until I was seconded to a remote boarding school in the Northern Transvaal.
Being about to marry, I was not keen on the idea of living and working on the same premises, nor was I keen to leave my hometown. So, after negotiating with the education department which required me to teach at secondary school level, I began teaching senior English at Hugenote Girls' High School then moved to Boksburg High School to teach Biblical Studies where I spent several happy years until my husband and I emigrated to Australia. I taught briefly at a South Sydney Primary School until I became pregnant with our daughter.
After two years in Sydney, we moved to New Zealand, settling in Devonport where my great uncle had been a butcher's boy at the turn of last century. In 1982, I opened Small is Beautiful in our family home, starting with eight children, increasing to 16 in the 90s, then a few years later, to 20.
What attracted you to a career in early education and care?
Since my teens, I had envisaged running a preschool from home as that would combine parenting with my love of instilling the joy of learning in others. It would also be terribly convenient - so much for my earlier reluctance to "live and work on the same premises"!
What does a 'normal' day look like?
A "normal" day is all about embracing whatever comes from left field, whether it's learning about a parent's concern that their child isn't making friends, discovering that three little boys are halfway out of a window in an attempt to hide in the tree house to avoid tidy up time (who would have thought?), or examining a bumblebee hive and inadvertently letting the very annoyed creatures loose in the music room, we can never predict the day's events, but throughout the excitement of the day we never lose our sense of humour and delight in the children's voyage of discovery. To add perspective, the above are the only type of "mishaps" in a 30+year career!
On a serious note, a typical day sees children of all ages involved in small groups, playing imaginatively, problem-solving, resolving conflict climbing, balancing, laughing chatting to teachers. In the words of a reviewer, "with learning happening everywhere".
What makes your centre unique?
The size of our centre makes us almost unique. When I started, there were seven local centres, none with more than 20 children. There are now two of us.
Our truly unique feature is the highly effective assessment system I have developed over the decades. It was well-developed decades before the current Learning Story idea was introduced in New Zealand and promoted as an assessment tool. Small is Beautiful was detecting neuro-diverse children even before the NZ Ministry of Education recognized dyslexia as an atypical way of learning. Our assessment system featured in a workshop Waiariki Polytech Early Childhood Education lecturer Qilong Zhang and I presented at the Early Childhood Council Conference in 2015.
My staff are completely committed to and inspired by, the unique assessment system which I train new graduates/staff to implement. Our professional development introduces them to a research-based understanding of the foundations of reading, writing and mathematics. The effort teachers put into it is seen to make a significant difference to our neuro-diverse children's school achievement.
The information gathered by our system and passed on to the parent has at times, influenced their decision-making during their child's schooling and produced some high-achieving academic scholars.
I have been enormously supported in developing this system by Move to Learn in Australia with Barbara Pheloung's early publications providing me with an understanding of Learning styles/difficulties when such information was just not available in the education sector. Rick Cheng, Associate Professor in Occupational Therapy at Beijing Normal University has been another amazing source of information as has Liz Yeats and the late Barbara Kalshoven, founder of Pro Ed, North Shore.
Together, we have been able to turn our passion for educational success into concrete action.
As a result of our united team of teachers, close ties with the parents, our small group size and 95+ per cent positive feedback from clients, Small is Beautiful has received the Hall of Early Childhood Excellence Award from ChildForum for the last three years running.
What are some of the advantages of working in the education and care sector?
I think we have more autonomy than the primary and secondary sector and just a little less paperwork.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the child care sector?
Out-dated understanding of neuro-diverse children, lack of recognition of the vital importance of the first five years and no practical or financial response to this knowledge. Licensing of centres that far exceed the ideal size for healthy development.
How has your centre changed to deal with these challenges?
We have all accepted the lower wages that a small centre can offer as our teachers recognize the immense satisfaction they derive from working with learning-hungry children, but that doesn't make the underfunding okay.
How does the industry need to change to adapt to these challenges?
There is only so much the sector can do when the funding is so low that large centres are necessary to cover the huge expenses involved in compliance and staffing.
We need the government to regulate for much smaller centres, to fund in a way that recognizes that zero-five is the most important phase in brain development, to accept only the most suitable trainees, to teach them about the best, proven ways to manage behaviour in preschoolers, woefully lacking in my view, and to focus on research-based brain development so that graduates emerge who are well-rounded, more whole and self aware and able to be effective, joyful and respectful in the early childhood setting.
We need these graduates to be so well prepared to teach that the Powers That Be actually leave them alone to focus on teaching rather than having to produce a blizzard of paper for an inspection by appointment. Now that just doesn't make sense to me when you have inarticulate little ones who need to be safe in a centre far more than they need teachers who can tick boxes.
What advice would you offer someone thinking about a career or looking for a promotion in the education and care sector?
Work in a few centres, talk to teachers and, if you are still keen, follow your passion. It's sometimes exhausting and frustrating but always a privilege to encourage young minds. Gifted teachers receive the most rewarding, enduring returns for the time invested.
Go with the flow, take time to problem-solve and remember tomorrow is another day, be flexible, take time to rest and recharge.
Do you know someone who deserves to be profiled in an upcoming edition of the newsletter? Email email@example.com and let us know!