Ask any early childhood educator what it is they most want and, the answer invariably entails professional salaries (rightly so), to feel valued, respected and treated as and, seen as a professional in their own right. They want to enjoy the status afforded to and enjoyed by other professions. In short, they want to see the professionalisation of the Early Childhood Education and Care sector. Ensuring that this happens rests primarily with Government who are responsible for creating the conditions that enable a profession to emerge and flourish. Such conditions include training and education. Considerable progress has been made in this area in Ireland including the introduction of a mandatory training requirement; setting a goal to establish a graduate led workforce by 2028, publishing Professional Award Type Descriptors (PATD) for QQI Level 5 and 6 programmes and, Professional Award Criteria and Guidelines for Level 7 and 8 degree programmes.
Professional remuneration – pay, benefits and working conditions are directly related to professional status. Unfortunately, in the quest to create a childcare infrastructure, successive governments have prioritised access and affordability over educator working conditions. As a result, educator salaries are among the lowest of any professional group and a source of much angst within the sector in Ireland. Government must do a lot more to safeguard quality provision by creating the conditions where educators see working in ECEC as a worthwhile viable career option and, where the sector is seen as a profession and not a stopgap until something more lucrative comes along.
However, it must be asked whether all responsibility for professionalisation rests with Government? Members of a profession also bear responsibility. They uphold their profession through professional behaviour which is an identifying feature of and, central to the integrity of a profession.
The recently launched Code of Professional Responsibilities and Code of Ethics outline the values and standards expected of the ECEC workforce. It recognises that educators are in a unique position of trust and influence in our relationships with children, who must be our first and primary consideration. Our professional responsibilities extend beyond the child to parents, family, community, colleagues, employers and, our profession. The service provided to children, parents and families must be of the highest possible standard. Our conduct (word and deed) should therefore be such, that it places the profession in the highest possible regard.
Using a range of practice scenarios, the Code of Professional Responsibilities and Code of Ethics urges us to consider how our behaviour reflects upon us as individuals and professionals and, critically, whether it can bring our profession into disrepute. In the 2013 documentary Breach of Trust, the consequences of the ill-treatment of and distress caused to babies and young children were evident. Throughout Ireland we distanced ourselves from the damning evidence and, vowed that such practice would never again occur. Regrettably, in 2019 another documentary Crèches behind Closed Doors revealed conduct that was far from nurturing or professional within a chain of services in Dublin. Yet again, we are aghast and again, anxious to dissociate from the practices uncovered. Although these documentaries are at the extreme end of unprofessional behaviour and, their detrimental impact upon the sector is all too apparent, we can undermine our professionalism and our profession in a myriad of other less obvious ways.
Take social media for example. In the current climate of high staff turnover, inadequate investment; increasing workload/accountability pressures and, an overall sense of being undervalued and underappreciated, it is understandable that educators are frustrated and upset. Social media presents an outlet to express this discontent. There is no issue with social media per se. It is when online interactions become abusive in tone and content that issues present. All too often our social media presence is saturated with contempt. Social media is not an anonymous or inanimate platform. Our posts are seen by parents, fellow professionals, employers, our community, policy makers; the list is endless. Once something goes online it can remain forever and follow us through our career. An online post written in haste can have unintended consequences. With regard to professional responsibilities, we must consider how our online presence reflects upon us as individuals, as professionals and, upon our fledgling profession. Ignoring unprofessional behaviour is akin to ignoring our professional responsibilities. We owe it to our profession to call out unprofessional behaviour. As professionals, we hold the line of what is acceptable. As a first step, when tempted to engage with social media, it would be useful to STOP and THINK. Ask: is this the right thing for me to do, could my actions have consequences for children, parents, families, my employer, myself or my profession? Then and only then ACT (or maybe not). The decision is ours. Remember, reflection is a professional responsibility and, a useful tool to guide professional behaviour.
Dr Mary Moloney is a researcher, author and lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care at the Dept. Reflective Pedagogy and Early Childhood Studies, Mary Immaculate College. Her research interests include Early Childhood Teacher Education, International policy and practice, professionalisation, governance and inclusion. Mary is the European convenor of the professionalisation special interest group of the European Early Childhood Education Research Association, chairperson of PLÉ, The Irish Association of Academics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Higher Education and chairperson of the Professionalisation sub-group of the National Early Years Forum in Ireland. Currently, Mary is working with key stakeholders in Ireland to explore the establishment of a professional body for Early Childhood Education and Care.