Despite 35 years on the job and some tough challenges, Bernie is as passionate about teaching as the day she started. “I’ve always chosen to teach in less advantaged areas. I love the minute-by-minute challenges that diversity provides. The people are amazing – the parents and children are so resilient. You know what happens in their lives, but they survive against some tough odds.”
Working with whole families, not just children, and being part of a larger organisation are just some of the things that make Bernie’s work satisfying. So is the holistic approach that kindergarten takes to children.
“It is not just about children’s brains – it’s their minds, bodies, spirits, hearts and souls. It’s what makes each child unique and individual. They are like wee seeds - it’s up to us to nourish and grow them.”
“We’re the first step on their education ladder. Those kids come through the gate as these shy, quiet little beings, and given a little time, they make the place their own. The challenge for teachers is to make it physically and emotionally safe for each child and family who comes through our doors.”
The strong foundations of a large organisation and the people working within it provide essential support to head teachers like Bernie.
“Having an umbrella organisation creates networks that matter. Teaching can be very isolating and you can end up hardly seeing anybody else except the team you work with. We’re linked to one another in many ways – through meetings, through emails, even just by picking up the phone. It means that you always have somebody else to bounce things off, to ask things like ‘what did you do when that happened?’, and ‘how did it work?’ and ‘where did you get that from?”
Bernie is one of only a very small number of Pacific people who have chosen a career in kindergarten – something she’d like to see change. She took a two-year break from Kidsfirst to join the Education Ministry in Rarotonga as an Early Childhood Adviser in Rarotonga, and the Kidsfirst commitment to quality standards and high levels of professionalism went with her.
It was a busy couple of years for Bernie, who counts the Early Childhood Curriculum Document for the Cook Islands amongst her achievements.
“I also set up a programme and managed to get most of the kindergarten teachers trained and qualified while I was there. It was great to be able to contribute, but it was also the best opportunity ever for me – I came back with new skills and learned a lot.”
Like so many of her Kidsfirst colleagues, formal ECE training and strong ongoing professional development are a key priority for Bernie. However, she says that the importance of life skills can’t be underestimated.
“People ask me what makes a good kindergarten teacher, and I tell them, if you’ve got patience, a good sense of humour, a load of common sense and enjoy spending the day expecting the unexpected; if you enjoy being busy, challenged and amazed, if you get a kick out of building sand castles; if you are a story teller, a housekeeper, a cook and a carpenter; if you have strong enough shoulders for tears and hugs; if you don’t mind being exhausted at the end of the day and then look forward to doing the same thing the next day – then welcome to kindergarten.”