By Helen Lye
In recent years, mentoring has become one of my passions and an enjoyable area of my own teaching and learning journey. I view mentoring as an opportunity to share from my own kete of knowledge and experiences; but also an opportunity to learn more from others and more about myself.
After attending a Summer Course at the Pikler Institute in Budapest, I had the revelation that Dr. Emmi Pikler’s ideas weren’t just about working with children; they provided a way of being in relationship with everyone in our lives. When I realised this, it was my ‘aha’ moment - the turning point for all the relationships in my life. Over the years, it has become abundantly clear that this is a way of being, and not just something that I bring to my teaching practice with infants and toddlers. When I completed the RIE® Foundations™ training in 2016, I wrote a piece on how I was still working on viewing adults through the same lens as I do children. This is an area I’ve continually reflected and worked on and what I’ve come to realise over the last three years is how much the Educaring® Approach has come to influence my leadership and mentoring style when working with adults.
Resources for Infant Educarers (widely known as RIE®) offers a way to translate the ideas of respect into action when caring for infants and toddlers. RIE® was founded in 1978 by Magda Gerber and Tom Forrest, who were dedicated to improving the quality of infant care and education around the globe. The roots of RIE® go back to Hungary in the 1930s, where Magda Gerber worked with paediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler at Lóczy (also known as the Pikler Institute). After the second world war, Gerber fled Hungary to the United States and took what she learned from her mentor, Pikler and created the Educaring® Approach which could be used by parents and their children. Respect and authenticity are the basis of RIE® and the Educaring® Approach, which form an integrated, multilayered approach that balances the need for freedom with the need for secure relationships. It encourages infants and adults to trust each other, learn to problem solve, and embrace the ability for self-discovery. When allowed to “unfold” in their own way and in their own time, children discover and inspire the best in themselves and in others (Hammond, 2009; Resources for Infant Educarers®, 2020). In Aotearoa, more and more centres are influenced by the work of Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler and their approaches to being with very young children.
In 2019, I had the opportunity to work with the Education Council (now Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand) in their Tuakana-Teina Induction and Mentoring pilot programme as a mentor for three provisionally certificated teachers in my local area. The programme coordinator provided mentor teachers with a guide and some templates to use for initial conversations. From here, we were able to bring our own style of mentoring into the programme and marry it with the format of the pilot. Each provisionally certificated teacher was funded for three hours of mentoring each week which included observations, reflective dialogue, support with documentation and reflections. As a mentor teacher I sent through monthly meeting logs and completed milestone reports quarterly. This year long opportunity allowed me to examine my own style of mentoring and to further develop it to ensure I was giving my best self to the mentees.
In working with one of the mentees in the programme, the topic of leadership came up and this was something we had a lot of reflective discussions about. I think it’s important to note that I had known this particular mentee prior to the programme; she had been a student on practicum at a centre where I was working and she now works. I had observed her journey from student to provisionally certificated teacher and was flattered when she personally requested that I be her mentor as she worked towards Full Certification. In discussing the topic of leadership, having been an observer and a player in her teaching journey over the last four years, I encouraged her to think about not only the leaderships styles that she had been exposed to, but also the way each of them made her feel as a teacher. This was an invitation to reflect on perhaps what her own needs were when it came to leadership, and how these needs may have changed over time; it was also a chance for her to reflect on how her own leadership style was developing and being figured out. I wanted her to realise that we are all leaders as well as learners even when we aren’t in a position of formal leadership. As a result, I was also encouraged to reflect on these ideas too.
I strongly believe that the type of leader that each person needs is not universal as we all bring different and unique knowledge, values, experiences and stories with us. Just like when we work with children, leaders need to get to know the people in their team and figure out how best to reach them in order for them to learn, grow AND to thrive. As teachers, we recognise the influence we have on young learners, their understanding of the world and the future well being of our society (Education Council, 2017). Sometimes we forget that we are all learners, especially beginning teachers, and so how we lead these kaiako is very critical in the future of our sector.
In doing some of my own reflecting on leadership, I really started thinking about how, without realizing, I had adopted an Educaring® inspired style to my mentoring. I wholeheartedly believe that an Educaring® Approach gives children the best start to life, so what if we applied these ideas to teachers as they started their teaching journey? Would this perhaps give them the best introduction to the profession? The remainder of this article is a closer examination of each of the principles of an Educaring® Approach and how these could be applied to mentoring and leadership in early childhood settings.
The goal of Educaring® is an authentic child – “one who feels secure, autonomous, competent and connected” (Gerber, 2002, p. 2). What if our goal for an induction and mentoring programme for a beginning teacher was an authentic teacher – one who feels secure, autonomous, competent and connected? Magda Gerber (2002) encourages us to help a child feel secure, appreciated, and learn that somebody is deeply and truly interested in them – and through this we influence the way that the child sees life. How can we do this with a teaching team? For the first four meetings I had with each mentee, this was my goal – to set the foundations for a positive relationship with each of them. It was a chance for me to show them that I was deeply and truly interested in them. I wasn’t there to just teach them how to be a ‘good’ teacher – I was here to walk alongside them and to help them uncover what was already within them. For me, this comes back to the importance of the relationships. It was important to me that I dedicated time to getting to know this teacher for who they were and what made them who they are. Relationships are a huge focus for me and the importance of these is echoed heavily throughout Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 2017). I encourage you to always go back to the relationship and focus on this when things aren’t working as well as they could be.
Another principle of the Educaring® Approach is basic trust. It encourages us to “have basic trust in the infant to be an initiator, to be an explorer eager to learn what he is ready for. Because of this trust, we provide the infant with only enough help necessary to allow the child to enjoy mastery of his own actions” (Gerber, 2002, p. 2). When working with children, I am often reminded of how empowering it is for a small child, to give them this trust. The same thing happens when we trust an adult - they feel empowered, and they feel more confident knowing that someone believes in them. I’m working with a teacher at the moment who has recently shared with me how grateful she is that I have trusted her – this reminded me that we must offer basic trust to the teams we work with; by creating a space for adults where it is okay to try things out, to initiate, to explore. This is so important. When we make mistakes or we find something challenging, this is often the time we learn and grow the most as we transform our thinking and thus our practice. The hard part for me was not stepping in and rescuing teachers because it was better for the child. So how do we ‘allow’ for what we know to be not best practice while still advocating for the children? For me personally, this was probably the hardest skill to learn – finding that balance between advocating for the children, but also allowing time and space in order to advocate for the growth in the teacher. It’s important that you create a space where people feel like they can safely make mistakes in order to learn and grow – just like we do for children.
The part of this principle that really makes me ponder how I mentor is the part that reads “Because of this trust, we provide the infant with only enough help necessary to allow the child to enjoy mastery of his own actions.” The thing that I need to be aware of when wearing my mentoring “hat” is that when faced with a challenge or questions, it’s not up to me to give the mentees all the answers just like it’s not a teacher’s role to give them all to a child. Instead it is my role to be patient, to listen and to maybe ask questions and reflect with the mentee in order for them to create their own answers guided by their unique set of values and beliefs. This part of the process is so important and not giving all the answers is key. I’m reminded of the ideas of David Kolb (1984) who discusses the notion that we cannot give someone knowledge, they must make it for themselves. When we work with children, we know from the research that the process itself of finding the answer is of equal if not more importance. Sometimes they need to get it not quite right a few times in order to figure it out. The not getting it right is the best part - they might not have the answer they are after but they have learnt something along the way. Then they go back to the drawing board, and draw on those same problem-solving skills that we encourage in our youngest children. When we give people the answers freely, it can result in them not fully understanding the ‘why’ behind their own practice. If we ask questions and take them almost on a guided reflection, they are able to own it that little bit more. If they see that you don’t always have all the answers, they will also come to realise that success doesn’t live in always knowing.
For me, this is one of the most important aspects of working with children, but also with adults. Magda Gerber (2002) encourages us to “observe carefully to understand the infants’ communications and his needs. The more we observe, the more we understand and appreciate the enormous amount and speed of learning that happens during the first two or three years of life. We become more humble, we teach less, and we provide an environment for learning instead” (p. 2). Through this observation we are able to learn and understand where the child is at right now and then plan for their learning accordingly. When you bring this back to mentoring teachers, this is one of the biggest foci as it is so important to meet the teacher where they are at right now and to grow from there. There is no point in rushing ahead and sharing with them all the information that you want them to have to set them up on their teaching journey. A child, and a beginning teacher, can only learn what they are ready for and through observing them closely, we are able be responsive to their needs.
The other part of this principle that I really like is ‘we provide an environment for learning instead’. As I reflect further on each of the principles, it becomes clear to me that each of these principles and what they offer to an induction and mentoring programme is beautiful. I am reminded of Magda Gerber’s advice that we “give to the adult what we want them to give to the infant” (Money, personal communication cited in Triulzi, 2009, p. 8). This links to the ideas relating to the previous principle too which talks about creating a place where it is safe to make mistakes. There are so many opportunities for learning and growth when things don’t go perfectly.
Within the Educaring® Approach, another principle places huge value on the Caregiving Times and looking for ways to involve the child as much as we can during these care activities (Gerber, 2002). With children, these care activities refer to diapering, feeding, bathing, etc., and Gerber (2002) encourages “even the tiniest infant to become an active participant rather that a passive recipient of these activities” (p. 2). Within these moments, parents and professional are “encouraged to create opportunities for interaction, cooperation, intimacy and mutual enjoyment by being wholeheartedly with the infant during the time they spend together anyway” (Gerber, 2002, p. 2). I believe that this is exactly how we should be viewing our opportunities to have individual catch up meetings with beginning teachers. There is so much value in these moments of full attention, a chance to further connect with teachers and our teams. What if we ensured we weren’t distracted, and we created opportunities for interaction and a two-way conversation, a time to for teachers to share where they are, what’s going well and what they are finding challenging? What if these meetings with our teachers became something not only they, but we also looked forward to? This becomes an opportunity too for the mentor to ask questions to help guide teachers toward discovering their own answers and actively contribute to the setting of their own goals. Refueled by such unhurried, enjoyable 1:1 meetings with each other, this “tops the teachers up” to return to their environment (their learning setting), to get stuck into their role as a teacher. They are ready to explore within their own uninterrupted time to “play” with freedom to explore and experiment and try to uncover the answers in their own way.
The next principle encompasses a lot of what I believe is needed within an induction and mentoring programme – “a safe, challenging, predictable environment” (Gerber, 2002, p. 3). Our role as the mentor, just like the adult in an infant and toddler space, is to create an environment in which the child (or in the mentor’s case, the mentee) can best do all the things that the child would do naturally (Gerber, 2002). Magda Gerber (2002) believes “the more predictable an environment is, the easier it is for them to learn” (p. 3). As teachers gain their confidence, they need a safe and appropriate space to try things out, to make mistakes and give things a go (Gerber, 2002). Their environment should allow them to thrive as a teacher, not the opposite. We want beginning teachers to be empowered by their space. I think this links quite closely with several of the previous principles as each of them influences the environment for learning that we create as mentors and leaders.
Uninterrupted Play & Freedom to Explore
This emphasis on environments links to the next principle, which is time for uninterrupted play and freedom to explore. When working within an Educaring® Approach, “[w]e give the infant plenty of time for uninterrupted play. Instead of trying to teach babies new skills while they play, we appreciate and admire what babies are actually doing” (Gerber, 2002, p. 3). From my experience in mentoring teachers, when you give people all the answers and tell them what best practice is… then when you are not there continuing to guide them, or move on… it doesn’t stick. When teacher’s understand the reasons behind their practice, because they have played with the different options through trial and error and been on their own journey of discovery, they create knowledge for themselves and make it their own. When teachers go through this process, I believe they are more likely to continue this way of being long after they achieve full registration because they have not only experienced the process of getting there, but they have also felt it in their play. This idea links again to the work of David Kolb (1984) who shares that “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38).
And last, but by far not the least, of all these principles is that of consistency; “We establish clearly defined limits and communicate our expectations to develop discipline” (Gerber, 2002, p. 3). Most people will agree that predictability brings about security and when we know what to expect from the people and relationships around us – we feel safer to be our true authentic selves. At first, I didn’t feel like this principle needed much explaining when applied to mentoring and leadership but on further reflection, I realised that it is perhaps one of the most important. In talking with the mentees from the very beginning, we always had a plan, we knew what the following few weeks would look like and what we each needed to do before we would next meet. There weren’t any surprises and both of us knew what the expectations were.
The other thing that comes to mind when I think about consistency is in respect to the relationship. As the programme progressed, I could see that these teachers had come to learn that I was a secure base for them. They would share with me between meetings when things were going well, and naturally when they were facing challenges too. Even if it was before a catch-up, they knew that they could always return to the safety of our relationship. They knew not to expect the answers when they returned, but came to learn and appreciate that I would be alongside them, that I would listen to them and ask questions in a way that might help them to uncover the source of the challenge. Te Whāriki states “children need consistency and continuity, especially at times of transition. A foundation of remembered and anticipated people, places, things and experiences will give them the confidence to engage successfully in new settings” (Ministry of Education, 2017, p. 26). Just like children, teachers need this same foundation as they transition from a student to a beginning teacher, to a fully certificated teacher. By the time this process is over, these teachers will have formed conceptions of themselves and it is important that we give them the consistent gift of us showing up and believing in them.
Conclusion: Weaving the Principles
The beauty of these principles is that they are so intertwined – just like the five strands of our early childhood curriculum coming together to weave the whāriki. When we apply these principles to the way we are with children and adults, they create a solid base for learning and growth to happen. As Magda Gerber (1998) says, “A respectful beginning is an investment in the future of the relationships between your child and you, your child and other, and in your child’s exploration of the world” (p. 228). I highly recommend you to put this same investment into your teaching team, your leadership team and furthermore into your induction and mentoring programme.
Within our teaching and learning journeys, especially at the beginning, we spend so much time thinking about our practice with children. How can we treat them as a unique human being from the beginning? How can we involve them and encourage them to be a participant? How can we engage them and encourage them in a way that allows them to be their most authentic selves? My question for kaiako, and even more importantly the leaders, is this: How are we ensuring that this same respectful practice based primarily around the relationships is being applied to the adults we work alongside? Especially the beginning teachers we are not only leading, but being alongside as they learn and grow. It is these teachers who will be the future leaders of the sector; how are we setting them up to succeed? How are we instilling in our beginning teachers the way to be learners and leaders? We often lead the way that we have been led ourselves rather than how we were taught to lead – and often we mentor the way that we have been mentored. It is crucial that we start mentoring our beginning teachers and leading our teams the way that we want them to lead and grow our early childhood sector in the future.
What leadership and mentoring look like is going to be different in every setting but I hope that the sector is truly able to tap into the ideas that Magda Gerber shares within her Educaring® Approach. They are echoed within Te Whāriki and we are already using these principles to underpin our work with children. If we revisit the quote already discussed that encourages us to give to the adults what we wish them to give to the children – the clue to how we mentor and lead is in our national early childhood curriculum. Underpinning this document is the vision that children are “[c]ompetent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society” (Ministry of Education, 2017). I encourage us once again to allow this vision to also infiltrate your vision for your beginning teachers. Just as each child is on a unique journey, so too is each teacher, who learns by engaging in meaningful interactions with people, places and things – a process that continues throughout their lifetime (Ministry of Education, 2017). Let’s think about this when creating induction and mentoring programmes for beginning teachers (and experienced ones too). Let’s make the goal for our teachers to be one who feels “at home in their skin”, knows who they are, and sees their own value. When respect is the foundation of our interactions and communication with our beginning teachers, we make space for their authentic selves to blossom. That is the greatest gift we can give to those who will pave the way for early childhood education in Aotearoa in the future.
Education Council New Zealand. (2017). Our code our standards: Code of professional responsibility and standards for the teaching profession Ngā tikanga matatika ngā paerewa: Ngā tikanga matatika mō te haepapa ngaiotanga me ngā paerewa mō te umanga whakaakoranga. Author
Gerber, M. (2002). Dear parent: Caring for infants with respect (2nd ed.). Resources for Infant Educarers.
Gerber, M., & Johnson, A. (2011). Your self-confident baby: How to encourage your child’s natural abilities - from the very start. Wiley.
Hammond, R. A. (2009). Respecting babies: A new look at Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach. ZERO TO THREE.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Prentice Hall.
Ministry of Education. (2017). Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa Early childhood curriculum guidelines. Author.
Resources for Infant Educarers®. (n.d.). Educaring® Approach. https://www.rie.org/educaring/.
Triulzi, M. (2009). Do the Pikler and RIE methods promote infant-parent attachment? [Masters Thesis, Smith College]. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/446/
Helen Lye is an NZITC Board Member and she completed her RIE® Practicum in 2020.