Storytelling in Early Years Leadership: The Power of Sharing What We Do

Maddy Findon opens the event

Welcome everybody to our third online symposium for the Leadership in Early Years Education Research Interest Group. It is a real pleasure to see so many of you here. It does seem that one of the very few benefits to a global pandemic is actually the shift online has really widened the opportunity for engagement in events like this, particularly for busy practitioners. It’s great to see people taking advantage of that opportunity and joining us.

So for those of you who have participated in our events before will know that the RIG operates as part of BELMAS. We do highly recommend membership on the basis that it gives you access to high quality research and excellent networking opportunities, internationally as well.

So the trajectory of topics over our previous symposia has gone from identifying the changes that we need to make in order to be responsive to the needs of children and families in the post-Covid world, to then thinking about how we could go about making those changes. As a community we seem to have come into an agreement that this starts with consciousness-raising about what actually happens in early years education. So in today’s session we therefore focus on how we can use one of the oldest tools in human communication – stories – to get our message across. Whether that is to the wider public, the families that use our services or policy-makers.

Once again, we ‘ve been favoured with three wonderful speakers to share their thoughts and experiences with us. First up we have Jacqueline Lamb, she is the CEO of Indigo Childcare Group in Glasgow, Scotland. We have Dr Valerie Daniel, she’s the head teacher of Washwood Heath Nursery School in Birmingham and an EY advocate. And finally we have Nichole Leigh Mosty who is an American early years centre director, who is turned politician in Iceland.

Each speaker will be giving us a 10 minute talk after which I will hand over to my colleague Mona who will set up the storytelling activity in breakout rooms, and then shortly before 5.30 we’ll return to the main room to share our stories, and we’re hoping to wrap up promptly for 6 o clock so that we can all have our dinners and be with families etc. I hope you’ll join me in welcoming our first speaker. Jacqueline Lamb, we look forward to hearing from you. 

Jacqueline Lamb

Thanks very much Maddy. Thanks very much for having me today. This has actually been a really useful exercise for me. If I’m honest, until Mona and June O’Sullivan interviewed me some time last year and asked me about storytelling at Indigo, I guess I didn’t actually realise how important it’s been in our progress over the last five years since I started with the organisation. I’m hoping that just by sharing some examples of Indigo’s stories and how we use them, it might help you to recognise where it’s already been useful to you and how we could all do it a bit more moving forward.

As Maddy said, I’m CEO of Indigo Childcare Group. Indigo is social enterprise and registered charity, in Castlemilk, which is in sunny Glasgow and it is actually sunny today believe it or not!

Castlemilk is an area of serious deprivation where around 86% of those living in the community are experiencing in-work poverty, and around 54% of families in the community are experiencing the challenges of being a lone parent family. We’ve got two nurseries, two out of school provisions, a youth service, a family support service and a mobile crèche. We’re currently working on the development of two new nurseries. One that’s an inclusive nursery, which will include children with very complex needs, and one that will be a combination of an indoor and outdoor nursery.

In terms of storytelling, I guess that I’ve realised the strength of storytelling as a feature of strategic communications and as an improvement tool, as well as being a wider engagement tool for us. If there was a message worth sharing or one that I needed buy-in to, I knew I needed a story to go with it, to bring it alive and make it relevant to people. It made it more impactful, more memorable for people and I had a better chance of making progress with it.

So I was really fortunate that from day one, in my Indigo journey, I was able to make the space and time to speak individually with all 90 of the staff. I shared my personal story with them – where I’d come from and why I was there, and the thoughts and aspirations and values that I was bringing to the table at Indigo. But I also asked them to share the same with me, from their experiences. I learned so much from that exercise I can’t begin to tell you. I learned so much about the people in the organisation as individuals, but also as professionals. And also about the organisation itself, its strengths, its weaknesses, but also its potential. It really helped me to establish meaningful relationships with the whole team, also to dispel any debate, or myths or rumblings about the new boss. But it also gave me the information that I needed to start work on the first draft of the business plan for the organisation, and when they saw the initial draft of the plan, they were bought in from the early stages because they saw their ideas, they saw their language, and so we were off to a pretty good start from that point of view.

Part of the vision and aspiration for all of us around that was about embedding a sense of ownership and pride within the organisation and to instil a belief that regardless of where we were from, where we were living, what experiences we had, that we could drive forward not just high quality, but outstanding, quality, if everyone took the lead with their own responsibilities. Language like that was key for us. In Scotland ‘outstanding’ is not one of our regulatory grades. It’s not a commonly used word. So you can imagine that in the middle of one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas, ‘outstanding’ was not really a word heard very often, so we needed to reinforce that ambition over and over again. Reinforcing that idea of being outstanding and that commitment to being outstanding and encouraging colleagues to use that kind of language really drove up the energy and excitement. This ‘outstanding’ was possible, because we’d heard stories of how it’s possible.

I think one of the key moments for us was in the early stages there was some prep going on for an inspection. I could feel the panic rising and rising and rising in the room. Eventually I pulled everyone together and I said ‘Where are we going with this? Why are you in a panic? Do you believe we can be outstanding? Have you got lots of stories to tell about how outstanding we are? About the amazing achievements that our children are making?’ And they all agreed that was the case. ‘So when care inspectorate come into tomorrow, welcome them in, take the lead on that and tell them those amazing stories that you have, because this is your inspection, not theirs.’ Having that confidence to tell those stories about what mattered to them and what was important to them has made just the most outstanding difference to the confidence of our team. The care inspectorate and lots of others have mentioned that, in terms of the welcoming environment they get when they come in, the gentle and calming atmosphere in the room whilst they’re there.

It was clear that we had a lot of work to do in terms of embedding that leadership at every level of the organisation and culture. There’s a story that Michelle, our lead officer for attainment, cringes at every time I mention it to her, but she’s given me permission to share it today. Again, in my early days, I recall a situation where Michelle was standing in the doorway of our office. She was telling me a story about bikes and trikes and handles, and something about six sets of it and £18. I couldn’t understand where it was all going. Eventually I said ‘what is it that you want from me?’. At that point, Michelle said ‘it’s about the rubber handles that go on the end of the trikes…’ and it got all confused again. So I said ‘you want to spend 6 times £18 on something that is going to get the children outside, develop their coordination?’. And she said ‘oh no no, it’s actually £18 for all six’. And I thought hang on a second I’m having a conversation here about spending £18 and it’s taken 15 minutes for us to do that. So that story in itself helped me to see the need for giving people ownership and putting processes in place. It wasn’t just about the stories and the culture, it was also about the processes that underpinned those stories that were really important.

We have a whole collection of leadership stories that demonstrates our commitment to developing leadership at every level. Whether it was Reuben who wanted to share his own language with our children and now teaches Spanish across all our nurseries. Or whether it’s Francis whose brother Anthony has severe complex medical needs, and she’s passionate about inclusion and she’s now our inclusion coordinator. Or whether it’s about Debbie who has a real gift for breaking things down and helping people to understand what outstanding practice is and she now leads on all of our in-service programmes. I could go on. But sharing these stories are what helped us to embed that leadership at every level.

Sharing these kinds of stories and the story of our growth and progress externally has helped us to secure a really fantastic calibre of directors on our board, and they’ve been an amazing source of challenge and support for me and the wider team. They’ve also saved us a fortune on consultancy fees. It’s also helped us to secure account management, to show examples of the progress the organisation has made – it’s helped us to achieve account management status with Scottish Enterprise which is the business development arm within the government. That’s brought us real business credibility as well as funding to help us support the growth of the organisation.

I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t all good stories that we shared. I think it’s important to have the confidence to share the not so good ones as well. One day early on, sitting in on one of our team meetings, we literally could have drawn a line down the centre of our table, with people on one side of the table who just ‘got it’, as I would describe it. And people on the other side who were very much old school in their thinking and their actual practice with children and families. The topic of the conversation was about a wee girl, 8 years of age, who had had a bit of meltdown the day before in out of school care when she couldn’t do the activities she’d hoped to be involved in. One side of the table was saying ‘it’s all for attention, she does it all the time’. The other side of the table were incredulous saying ‘we need to understand why she was behaving like that. 9 year olds don’t voluntarily sit under the table and miss out on play’. There was this ongoing battle going on between them. Where we took that story in terms of our progression was around understanding trauma-informed practice and resilience within our settings and our practice. We realised it wasn’t just about Indigo, it was about Castlemilk being a more resilient community. That wasn’t just us that could do that. So that recognition and that story has helped us share that picture with over forty different organisations to develop what we now know of as the Castlemilk Resilience Hub. It has around 40 different members – all of the schools in the community, the local government reps, health improvement, local health, GPs, police, fire, church associations, all the voluntary sector organisations are part of it. We now have a shared ambition to make Castlemilk a more resilient community and a shared action plan to achieve that. The relationships that that has built are pretty huge.

Last but not least, sharing the stories of our work during Covid has actually kept our organisations afloat. It’s kept us in existence. It’s strengthened our relationships with families. It’s done that in a way that we never could have imagined. It’s allowed us to develop our families support service much faster than we’ve ever planned to. And the commitment from the team has just been fantastic, with 98% of our colleagues saying in a recent survey that Indigo was a great place to work – something we’re all proud of. It’s also strengthened our position within the community. It’s strengthened the local reputation because we’ve got shared stories now, it’s not just Indigo’s stories, it’s stories we have to share about the trials and tribulations that we’ve had during Covid and how we overcame those. And it’s also strengthened our reputation at a national level, informing our strategic direction for our new business plan, the second version of that for the next three years. Not to mention that it’s helped see us through a global pandemic, and I guess nobody ever thought that would be a story we’d be able to share in the future.

All of those stories, sharing them and talking about what we’d learned from them has been really crucial in the progress of Indigo. And people across the organisation now are in a position to use those stories to introduce people to the organisation – to be able to help others understand our culture and where we’re coming from, as well as raise the ambitions and the aspirations of people across the community. 

Valerie Daniel

I will tell you that in human culture storytelling is a long established tradition. People tell stories for all kinds of reasons: to entertain, to pass on knowledge and information and traditions, to maintain cultural heritage or to warn others of danger. If you want to understand the power of storytelling we only need to refer to October 1938 when Orson Welles broadcast his version of ‘War of the Worlds’ prompting mass panic in the US. The radio broadcast took the form of a fictional news reports but large parts of the population believed an alien invasion was actually taking place.

We have to look at the fact that a fundamental aspect of storytelling is human emotion. The basic values of people and groups are projected into stories. Stories teach us to live and how to behave both consciously and unconsciously. They’re dynamic. They’re created by individuals, groups, communities, cultures and societies and nations. And they are powerful leadership tools. Most people would probably agree that language consists of a system of symbols. However, explanations of linguistic structures should also include the dynamical aspects that are involved in the use of language. We have to look more closely at the dynamics of language and how these relate to the symbolic aspects of language and storytelling exemplifies the fusion of these two aspects beautifully.

The neuroscience of storytelling. If you think of times when you can’t switch off after a movie or when you’ve put down a novel you’ve been reading and you can’t switch off from that story, or the times when you just can’t connect to a story at all. As human beings we’re actually programmed for stories. They are a part of who we are. It is how we evolved to understand our place in the world before we had written language. Essentially our brains run on electrical pulses and when we hear stories, our brains light up. When our neurones are triggered in this way, we remember more of the information that we are receiving.

I thought about four elements that would break down the context of storytelling and why it’s so powerful and those four elements are:

  • Relatability
  • Novelty
  • Fluency
  • Suspense and tension

Tell a story that is relatable and it’s powerful. If your audience relate to you, you remove barriers to them hearing and remembering your story.

Novelty is the state of being original, new or unique. Novelty is significant because the human brain is always on the look-out for something new or unique to latch onto. When we spot something new, it excites us and captures our attention. As a nod to the pandemic, let us use masks for example. This blue mask is functional, we know what it does: it’s there to protect us. But the other masks speak to us in a different way because it makes us want to look and hear and learn something else. So if your story has a frame of reference that has some originality to it then it helps the listener to retain.

Fluency is the concept of having pace, of having self-expression, of understanding. Of putting across your story in a way that holds people’s attention. Fluency adds to comprehensibility and this makes storytelling effective.

Listeners want to emotionally invest in your story. You’re able to hold your listener’s attention when they want to know what happens next. Tension is not a static force. Tension rises. It is the role of the storyteller to tell of the obstacles, the potential for failure, and the action to overcome. That keeps your listeners coming with you.

I have a story. My story as an early years leader. Stories have power on a level that facts and figures can’t. By thinking of my career as a narrative with a plot and characters, and by making my story relatable with its own unique twist, and the fluency that comes from authenticity, and the build-up of suspense, I might be able to inspire others to leadership in the early years. That’s the hope.

So this is me. I am a mother of two sons, I have an amazing granddaughter, who is four year olds going on fourteen. I am a head teacher and I’m 61 years old. So I’m at the stage of my life where I have no clue what I’m doing next. I may be old in body but definitely not in mind, and I’m now figuring what’s going to happen. I have some tension about what happens, about what the next phase of my life is going to look like.

But my journey… I’m an import from Jamaica. I came to study business management for a year. At the end of that year, my uncle who was then the deputy mayor of Lewisham said to me ‘there’s a chronic teacher shortage, we need your help as a qualified teacher’. I wasn’t sold on that because I’d spent my life running away from teaching. I grew up in a family of teachers and it kind of grated on me a bit that everybody just expected me to slot into the family profession and be a teacher, so although I qualified as a teacher in Jamaica, the first thing I did was go into hotel management, nothing to do with teaching. Coming here I did business management and still ended up being a teacher.

So I lived in London for 15 years and when my uncle asked, I became a supply teacher for Lewisham initially, and then I got a job in a school. I had to join what was called the overseas teachers license programme to complete my QTS year. After seven years doing that, I decided to open my own nursery and I did that for seven years. You may ask why? I knew I wanted to be in leadership but I wasn’t getting recruited for the leadership roles that I was going for, so luckily, I suppose, for me, my son’s nursery went up for sale so I decided to buy it and get on with it.

So after seven years, my husband decided that he wanted to come back to Birmingham to be close to his family. So here we are in our moving van moving back to Birmingham, I had to sell up my business.

There was trepidation coming here, I wasn’t sure where my journey was going to next. I have very strong beliefs as an early years educator. I was really worried that those wouldn’t translate when I came to Birmingham because I no longer had the freedom to do what I did owning my own business. My mother was an amazing early years pedagogue and I learned a lot from her. The thing that I found really difficult was that leadership in my PVI nursery was very lonely for me. It took a lot of courage and strength to encourage a culture that had a solid underpinning of early years pedagogy and directing that fell squarely on my shoulders. So leadership essentially was a very lonely place for me.

I had never heard about nursery schools until I came to Birmingham and the first time I heard about it was when I saw an ad for a children’s centre teacher, and as I  was saying, I really worried that as a school, I was going to struggle with my philosophy on working on early years. But that was not the case. In nursery schools it was a very strong ethos of early years pedagogy and continued professional development. So I was there for five years before I decided that I would take on headship for myself. Now suddenly, I found myself the head teacher of the largest nursery school in Birmingham, with over 50 staff, because it was also a children’s centre and I also had a separate site to manage. So all my dreams, everything I’d ever dreamed of, I now had.

I could tell you that leadership is easy, but that would be a lie. I could tell you that nothing would ever go wrong, but that is also not true. What I can tell you is that you will never be bored. You will always be learning. You will learn how to respond and how to manage change and how to create and develop a vision with your staff. How to use strategic thinking to achieve the vision and deal with challenges along the way. How to manage people – even the difficult ones, and how to work with their strengths and how to persuade and influence your team towards a vision you’re developing. You find various ways to communicate and grow your skills and grow the skills of the staff you have with you.

Now this is what my vision looks like. This is my school with forest schools and all kinds of exciting things that you can see happening. With my team, we took the school from good to outstanding in a year and we did the same with a children’s centre and the same with daycare. I know you’re looking at that and thinking, what the heck does Neapolitan ice cream have to do with learning? At least I hope you are…

That is a leadership story that I tell about children’s learning. So in a nutshell, building cognitive competencies is about the deeper understanding of the information and the ability to apply knowledge in different contexts. That means far more than the capacity to regurgitate rote and surface knowledge. And this is addressed by the concept of deeper level learning, which  because I’m a foodie, comes down to Neapolitan ice cream. We can skate along on the vanilla bit, if we’re just touching the surface on the learning. We can dip down to the strawberry, when we start unpicking it a bit, or we can delve down into the chocolate which is where the really good stuff is. The deeper level learning is about dialogue, making time to talk about the children’s interests, their learning and their development.

I have a number of these stories for different aspects of my leadership and I feel honoured today to share the path to my leadership. But I have stories about finances, barriers, people management, resources, loss, victories, struggle, friendships, parents. The Reggio ethos is based on the philosophy of Loris Malaguzzi and he speaks about the 100 languages. He is of the opinion that education is overly reliant on one language, the verbal language, to the exclusion of the languages of dreaming, playing, questioning, exploring, music, dancing. All those different languages. I believe that our storytelling is enriched with these languages, since these experiences are infused with experiences of children.

Childhood is perceived as a special time for love, socialisation and protection of children, but we know that childhood is not a fixed universal experience. It is a relative experience that is dependent on a number of social factors. As early years educators we have a duty to ensure that we hold onto childhood for children and that we fight for an education system where children thrive, they have equal opportunities to learn. Children have joy, children shine and they’re happy, and I have one more slide…

Because the story does not end there. My story is a continuing story. I successfully applied for my doctorate in education at the University of Birmingham. I wrote my thesis on the perceptions about the leadership crisis in the early years sector - very topical in the current times. This pandemic has presented further opportunities for me to evolve. Just before lockdown, I was asked by my friend Aaron Bradbury what I was going to do with my research and he just wouldn’t let me rest. In the end he set up an evening with Dr Valerie Daniel and live-streamed it on twitter. If you know me, I had no idea what was happening. That happened and my life has never been the same since.

George Floyd’s death made me a fierce advocate for children’s rights and speaking up about equality, diversity and inclusion in early years environments. I now work for Nottingham Trent University, developing and delivering their diversity, equality and inclusion module. I’m regularly asked to present conferences. I write blogs, and I do podcasts, and I get interviewed for radio shows. And I’ve also done a stint as a host for teacher hug radio for the childhood chatter segment which comes on a Saturday, so this is me – old, but definitely not cold. So thank you for listening to my story for early years leadership and I sincerely hope there was a message in my story. 

Nichole Leigh Mosty

I’m trying to find my language. I’m a native English speaker but some days my brain doesn’t know what language it wants to speak – English or Icelandic!

In preparing for this talk today, I took a few moments to reflect on what I really wanted for you to take away from this, from my experience, from my story, my vision. As we all know, stories are visions, that’s where they start. At the end, when you look back, someone else sees the importance of your vision. And I wanted to really talk about how my passion for early childhood education could perhaps inspire someone else to write another story or take my story further.

My journey is pretty long, actually quite crazy with lots of elements, coming from America, living in Iceland, having travelled the world in relation to different things, related to early childhood education. But probably one of the most important things was early on I realised that early childhood education and strong leadership has to do with community and building community, and I think that some of the things that both Valerie and Jacqueline spoke about, and the roles they play, and the different programmes that they’ve run, this echoes through towards what I’ll say here.

Just in relation to my journey, to the one centre that I ran, I will just say that I took over a school that was defined as ‘in crisis’ or as one director had said to me ‘you don’t want to apply for that school, it’s broken.’ At the time I left the school, we were featured on CNN as an answer to equality and working against child poverty, with the practices we were doing in the school. CNN isn’t in Iceland so it’s a pretty big deal.

Anyway, my reflections – I landed on the idea that I really wanted to convey here to all of you the opportunities that we alone as early childhood leaders – because I believe we’re all leaders, whether we work as a director or as we work as the leader in the kitchen or gate control, whatever it is we do, we all have a role in leadership to play and how we can change society - I’ve really come to understand that ECE is the soil in which we plant the seeds of change. We do not only care for and educate young children and their families, but we prepare them for society, and through our actions and through our advocacy we can prepare society for them. It’s my belief that in our leadership roles, and in our organisations, centres, institutions, schools, whatever we choose to call them, we need to take as much space as we can to share and create our stories about what we do and what we learn with the community and with greater society. Leaders who view the role from a social perspective, take part in empowering everyone to lead in early years. We do so through developing methods to share ownership and creating change based on the needs and ideas of our community, whether that community be in our school, our neighbourhood, the city we live in, the state we live in or the country we live in. Because we do know, a lot of people that are here, they’ve taken on these roles – they are advocates.

As a leader, our goal should never just be about running a good centre, meeting educational standards set outside of our centre, or just being efficient in our management skills. It should be about creating stories and sharing them. You know it’s great to have your budget right on, but it’s more important to have courage to run a small deficit in order to create change that affects the lives of children and families in a positive way. I believe that true leadership reflects that ever important value at the heart of early childhood that is about taking risks to support development at all levels, setting precedents and proving points which strengthens ECE. Those are the stories that we want to read. Those are the stories that we want to read and those are the stories we all want to create.

Remember that at the heart of what we do are the human beings that we’re dealing with, our staff, all the way down to the babies and the families. Everybody and everything is in a state of development. Educational centres, especially early childhood centres, are at the heart of a community and development stems from the heart – we know this. There are families who live in the same community as your centre and the different ways that you can connect and insert the learning and development from your centre into the different areas of your community, and community development creates a space for more leaders to influence change. Development is something that always needs to be continuous. We can never allow it to be hindered. It can’t be static or contained. It has to always be in motion, even if at some times, it’s backwards motion. We need to grip those moments and reflect in those moments, and use that reverse motion to influence moving forward in a positive direction. Having then an ever more important effect on the stories that we create in development.

I think to myself sometimes that if Piaget could come back right now and he would look at what we’re doing today, would he say the same things? Would he be happy to see people parroting what he talked about way back when, without thinking more carefully whether it really applies to today’s world to today’s children, the communities that we are developing in. Education in my belief is the single most important system we have in any society to develop change and to empower individuals. It’s my belief that ECE and through ECE and the stories that we tell, that we’re the first stop in that system. We have a very distinct role to play in leading and at the very least, influencing change and the evolution of education.

We have the power to write our own stories. In many ways, we don’t get enough credit, or the credit we deserve and this can inhibit us from wanting to develop our stories. Funding at a local and federal levels doesn’t reflect the needs or potentials that exist within our field. Regulations can set limits to how we educate and develop our centres. The emphasis on how our teachers are educated is limited in scope in my belief. But we do have space to influence change and we need to take risks and set examples.

In my school we took steps to work with other institutions and to serve as providers in a manner that empowered my staff in understanding the importance of being passionate about children, development, education and community. We did things like creating a language course for parents of foreign origin, we invited nurseries and social workers into the centre to do their work or conduct interviews or get closer to families. We allowed the community to use our school for meetings. We took the initiative to bridge over to the local community to set our own standards for what school preparedness was, and to convey the wishes of our parents, for how they needed to be supported in adjusting to primary school.

Allow me to elaborate… for a lot of parents, young parents, or parents new to your neighbourhood or even your country, your early childhood centre – it could be the very first step in understanding how society works. You are the first person who could influence their story, their acclimation, their potential in the new society. We are an inlet and depending on how we view our roles and how we develop our stories, as this inlet to society, we influence how we support those families and the children and even our staff in understanding how we can be active participants in our community. In our centres, we take on a role of teaching both children and families in how to function and how to succeed and we have space to set norms and create safe windows to view society through. Because after all, what are stories?

I’ve worked and visited many centres around the world. In each centre, it serves a different community, and that really matters that we understand that. It influenced me a lot to understand that when it came to learning, the importance of the community, my centre was in and the potentials that I had and that centre had, that we were presented with as a leader to learn and grow. At each centre there was a different reemphasis because of the distinctiveness of the community and the people there. I was thinking about Fabido, a centre I visited in Dortmund where they worked for providing social opportunities for immigrants and refugees to learn German and connect with Germans, by creating a coffee and sewing club for women to drop into in the basement. In Greece, I worked in the only ECE centre set up in a refugee camp in all of Europe. It was set up by a charity organisation, SOS Children’s Villages, and the goal was to give children an escape from camp life and provide them with normal childhood and security and happiness. And for parents to understand the importance of education and social development that those children needed. In both of those places, there were leaders at every level of the centre who influenced those programmes and those families and those children.

There are different families and different needs in every community and every school. It’s really important that we understand that and we support their stories through our leadership. We also have to recognise that people who work in early childhood centres are also members of communities. The more space you give in your leadership role and the amount of effort you place in empowering your staff to be active participants in the development of your centre, the more you open them up to the same thing in their communities. Empower them, because they can make the difference beyond just your centre and in the wider community and in advocating for early childhood development, therefore creating more stories.

Just to give it a little bit of theory so it’s not just me, I reflect a lot about the fact that you put your centres into the Bronfenbrenner package as I like to call it and you look at your role as a leader, then you’re the mediator that moves between the different systems of context. We’re the influencers that move between contexts, through the micro, meso, exo and macro systems and back again. It’s my belief that in our roles, as leaders, if we don’t strive to carry everyone forward through the different systems and utilise from what we know from the micro, to influence the exo and macro systems, ECE won’t evolve and it won’t move forward and our story could perhaps become irrelevant, which I don’t really want to think about.

A final thought I’d like to inject here is how I view leadership in relation to ECE and our role in community development. That’s where it all started and I want to finish there. I want to mention how I’m so inspired by Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences. It resonates deeply with me because I worked in such diverse environments and I’ve learned it’s really important to always see and understand the multiplicity of interests and strengths among our staff and within our community. As a leader, I feel you need to be able to utilise these interests and strengths in order to motivate and empower staff while influencing change. You create opportunity for continual development and progress and you know, you’ll have fun doing so. Progress and continual development, coupled with having fun, they’re not only motivating factors within our organisations, they are outwardly motivating within your community. And they’re infectious and they’re empowering. Those are the stories don’t only want to read, they want to write and be a part of. 

Breakout room activity – instructions

In groups you are going to make up a story about early years. The story you think we need to be telling. You might find it help to think through these questions:

  • Who is the audience of the story? Who needs to hear this story?
  • What is the moral of the story? What message are you hoping to get across? Is there a call to action as part of the story?
  • Who is this story about? Who is the protagonist?
  • What journey is the protagonist on? What are they trying to overcome?
  • What are the critical moments in the story? What are the turning points?

Breakout room activity – feedback

Each of the three groups then fed back on their conversations in the breakout rooms. 

Group 1

We didn’t even really scratch the surface. There’s so many questions within those questions you posed. We spoke a lot about who the story is for and how we can get to the point where we can make some changes with this story and about whether this is about with local authorities, or whether it’s with national government, or is it within the wider society. Who do we need to speak to and tell these stories that all of us have? How to really define just how important the story can be from the impact of an early childhood education – from a high quality ECE then what can that do for adults and our society as a whole. Trying to focus in on that longevity of looking much further past just primary school, or following onto different points in their lives that can be pinpointed back to their early years and what a difference that can make. 

Group 2 

We looked at a couple of different types of stories that seemed to be quite common across early years education. We talked about the unfinished story, the unresolved story – which is quite an old story in early years education. You get these bright initiatives, there’s lots and lots of energy at the beginning, and then it just disappears into nothing. So there’s a lot of unresolved stories in early years education. We talked particularly about the current situation and the impact that it is having on early years practitioners and leaders, and I drew a parallel here with David and Goliath. We’re feeling like these small individuals who are dealing with something that is very very big. Or is it worse than that because there are all these handicaps because resources have been cut and he’s going about things blindfolded. So that was the other story we were looking at there. Finally, stories of both undervaluing the role of early years leadership but also feeling undervalued as well, and not feeling that we have the autonomy or the potential for leadership within that.


Group 3 -

We got stuck on who the stories are for and didn’t get past that point but decided that very much the people who needed to hear the stories first are those within the sector, so that we can build that confidence. We can show them that they are the protagonists. They are the ones with more power than they think and that’s what makes them valuable and that then will hopefully will give the sector the courage to come together to share those stories more widely within society and at policy level etc.