Dr Sue Cherrington began her career as a kindergarten teacher and has worked in early childhood teacher education for more than 20 years.
She has been responsible for the early childhood teacher education programmes at Victoria University of Wellington.
What was your early life like?
I had a very happy childhood, the youngest of three children in a very typical New Zealand middle-class family. I have strong memories of regular picnics at the beach and bushwalks and although I’m not particularly sporty or “outdoorsy”, our outdoor environment is very important to me – and I think it’s particularly important that our children get to experience natural outdoor environments (where they can be active and get dirty) as part of their ECE experiences.
My mother was widowed at an early age (when I was 11) and became an active advocate for widows and widowers – throughout my life she has been a significant influence and role model, especially around women’s rights, social justice and advocacy.
Describe your career path and jobs held
I began my teaching career straight out of school, gaining my Kindergarten Diploma at Wellington College of Education. At the time I only ever thought I’d teach for about five years but the roles I’ve had in ECE have been so satisfying that I’ve never wanted to move out of the sector.
I taught in three kindergartens in the wider Porirua area – Tairangi, Ascot Park, and Discovery – all three in very different communities. After about seven years, I became a senior teacher when the senior teacher scheme was expanded. I worked for 3 ½ years as a senior teacher with kindergartens in the Wellington Region, Wairarapa and Marlborough Kindergarten Associations.
I began lecturing at the Wellington College of Education in 1992 in teacher education and since 2005 at Victoria University of Wellington when it merged with the college. In this time, I’ve held a variety of roles as lecturer, senior lecturer, associate director, director of ECE programmes, Head of School for ECE, and now Associate Dean (ECTE). In these latter roles I’ve been responsible for the early childhood teacher education programmes offered by the College and University, as well as overseeing ECE professional development contracts delivered on behalf of the Ministry of Education.
Research has been an increasing part of my work, particularly since the merger between the College of Education and the University in 2005. My research interests are focused around teachers’ professional and pedagogical practices – projects I’ve been involved in include ethics and professionalism, diversity within NZ early childhood services, teacher thinking and reflection about their practices, and professional learning communities. I’ve also been involved in evaluating MOE-funded professional development programmes.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
As Associate Dean (ECTE) my current role is primarily administrative, overseeing the development, implementation and ongoing improvement of our ECE teacher education programmes. This means working with the ECE lecturers in the VUW Faculty of Education, with other senior management within the faculty, and with the other parts of the university on aspects such as recruitment, enrolments, student learning support, quality assurance, and programme development. I have quite a lot of contact with students, including assessing almost all the applicants entering our programmes, and with ECE centres and services. At the moment, I am also working on some international projects to offer programmes overseas.
I also undertake some teaching, mostly around teacher reflection and pedagogical practices, assessment and planning, and ethics and professionalism. I don’t have the opportunity to do very many practicum visits anymore, which I miss.
I aim to spend at least one day per week on my research activities. At the moment I am working with two colleagues on a project investigating “professional learning communities” in ECE and we are in the midst of an extended period of data gathering. Alongside this work, I am currently writing articles from my PhD on teacher thinking and reflection, and from our diversity project.
Who or what put you on the path to your profession or career choice?
When I was at secondary school I was able to participate in a work experience programme and over several months I spent one day/fortnight at the local kindergarten. This confirmed for me that I wanted to teach in early childhood, rather than in another part of the education sector.
Three people have been significant mentors at various points in my career. At teachers college, Val Burns was the Director of the kindergarten programme (before she moved to be Director of ECE at the then-Department of Education) and was a mentor for me, particularly early in my career. Lynne Bruce was my senior teacher in my third year of teaching and I later worked with Lynne for many years as a senior teacher and when lecturing at the College of Education. Professor Carmen Dalli has been a mentor and close colleague for 20 years, since we worked together as members of the Code of Ethics national working group in the early 1990s. Each of these people has supported me to take on new challenges – study, work roles, research – over my career.
What is the most interesting aspect about what you do?
I’m passionate about ECE and about quality teaching and learning so I find most aspects of my work really interesting – the whole purpose of my job is to contribute to quality ECE and to make a difference to the lives of young children and their families. Hopefully I do this through making sure that the teacher education programmes we offer are of an excellent standard, that we select fabulous people as our students, that the courses I teach are as good as I can make them, and that the research that I undertake and disseminate helps both students and teachers to be better teachers. I also really enjoy the opportunities that we have to undertake research that involves teachers (especially when it involves field work in ECE services), and to share our research with teachers and practitioners. Working with students and teachers in these ways helps me to stay connected to the realities of teaching in ECE.
Have you found that there are times when it gets very stressful in your job? If so, how do you cope and get through it?
I think there are always times when work gets tough and stressful, usually around trying to do all that I have on my “to do” list – I’m always over-optimistic about what I can achieve in a day! In my role, it’s also frustrating at times when I have to respond to others’ demands for my time/input and it gets in the way of achieving the development plans that I have – when I have to be reactive, rather than proactive.
In coping with stress, it’s the people around me who help me manage – my colleagues who are a wonderful group of people, and my family – my fabulous husband and son. I try to take some time out to do things that I enjoy in the weekends, such as watching my son play sport, getting in the garden or spending time with friends.
What would you say would be your biggest achievement?
That’s a hard one! Personally, it’s probably completing my PhD. If anyone had said to me when I left school that I would achieve my doctorate I wouldn’t have believed them. Tied up with this, is feeling that I’m beginning to be a reasonably good researcher, and I like having the opportunities in my work to pull together my knowledge and experience as a practitioner with my newer research skills.
Within my work, it’s probably being able to work with and lead a team of amazing colleagues in developing and delivering our teacher education programmes (both pre-service and professional development). I’ve been really privileged to work with so many stunning people in my roles in teacher education, and it’s great to have been a part of so many innovations with our programmes over the last 20 years – such as the first teacher education programme (and later the first teaching degree) to have a centre-based option, the first degree qualification in any discipline in NZ to be jointly awarded by two institutions (the college and the university), the development of our four-year conjoint BA/BTeach(ECE) programme, and the development of our BEd(Whakaako)ECE Whāriki Papatipu programme in partnership with Te Ati Awa.
And what would be your biggest regret?
I don’t really have any regrets professionally. As a parent, I sometimes regret the impact that my work has had on the time available to spend with my family – I think they have made some sacrifices for my career.
For anyone considering a similar career as yours – what two gems of advice might you suggest to them?
Being passionate about and loving what you do is what makes work less of a job and something that you’re happy spending hours doing. It’s also what makes you a far better teacher, which is what children and their families (and your colleagues) deserve. So, you have to really want to be a teacher (not do it because you can get a TeachNZ scholarship) and you have to think that young children are fascinating, exciting and incredibly competent… and let them surprise you each and every day.
Focus on relationships – with the children, their families, your colleagues, other people involved in ECE and the wider community, and your own family and whānau. Building and keeping strong the relationships you have with all these people is what makes it all worthwhile, and it’s foundational to effective teaching and learning.
Would you ever consider changing careers or your role from your current one, and if so, would better pay/money be the main consideration?
Not at this stage – I like my work too much to change. If I did change in the future, money wouldn’t be as important as doing something that I really enjoy and gain satisfaction from.