Leadership In Early Childhood Education Contexts: Looks, Roles, And Functions

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When discussing a term such as leadership which has been defined in many different ways, it is prudent to start the discussion with Hammersley’s (1998) advice that we should define the terms we use so as to acquaint the reader with “statements about how the author is going to use a term, about what meaning is to be associated with it” (p. 80). Whereas numerous definitions of leadership exist, one that appears to capture very well the central meaning of leadership is provided by Robbins, Millet, Cacciope, & Waters (1998) who say leadership is “the ability to influence others towards the achievement of goals that contribute to a worthwhile purpose” (p. 396). This definition appears to strike a code of consensus among leaders in the field that leadership is about influencing and enabling followers to work towards the realization of organizational goals. This is important because the organizational goals are the real worthwhile purpose for the existence of any organization. And so, leadership is about enabling change that helps followers to contribute to this change. This resonates well with Fullan (2000) who sees the new meaning of leadership as leadership which makes “each and every educator strives to be an effective change agent” (p. 13). Defining leadership this way makes it very clear to the reader that leadership is essential for the success of any educational organization. For example, Mulford, Silins, & Leithwood (2004) say, “Leadership we know makes all the difference in success or failure of organizations” (p. ii).

Similarly, Truskie (2002) asserts that, “there is a direct link between leadership, organizational culture and performance” (p. 1). Silins & Mulford (2002) also point to the important role of leadership when they propose that “leadership … (has) been shown to influence what happens in the core business of the school: the teaching and learning” (p. 443). Fligsten & Freeland (1995) extend the importance of leadership beyond the locality of the organization when they assert that the ability of organizational leaders to solve internal resource problems is a function of their abilities, knowledge and links with the outside world. This external linkage highlights the importance of leadership to coordinate and to harmonize the structural-cultural dynamics (Kivunja &Power, 2006) which foster organizational development and learning in a way that makes a positive difference to the lives of students in an ECE context. As well articulated by Pace (2002), leadership is such an important part of any workplace such that the workplace “cannot be understood clearly without understanding the function of leadership in the system” (p. 33).

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Scott (1999) also emphasizes the importance of effective leadership in the “effective management of educational change” (p. 50), within a school. Fullan (2001, p. 261), also agrees when he writes: Nowhere is the focus on the human element more prevalent than in the recent recognition of the importance of strong and effective leadership. (And he later added:) effective school leaders are the key to large-scale, sustainable education reform. (Fullan, 2004, p. 15) The importance of leadership is also well highlighted by Mulford (2003) who argues that “whatever elements of restructuring of public schooling … are employed, they all have in common a strong dependence on effective school leadership for their successful implementation” (p. 8). Moreover, Mulford, Silins, & Leithwood (2004) argue that, “leadership that makes a difference in organizational learning and student outcomes, is transformational and distributed” (p. 6). Barker & Coy (2004) also say that, “the success or failure of cultural change will depend on the attitude of the leadership team.

They must be prepared to champion the beliefs and values that underpin the emerging culture” (p. 13). Additionally, these authors affirm that at the heart of the cultural change process “lies the integrity of the leader, the example set by the leader and the trust established by the leader” (Barker & Coy, 2004: p. 61). As Hackman & Wageman (2005) rightly assert, “traditionally, leaders’ behaviors and decisions, have been viewed as highly consequential for effectiveness of organizations” (p. 277). Thus, there is a repeated pattern in consensus among leaders in educational change literature that leadership plays a key role in the structural and cultural dynamics designed for school improvement. Leadership is seen as the glue that holds together the structural and cultural dynamics within an organization through the execution of informational, interpersonal and decisional roles. As Scott (1999: p. 93) says: “Effective leaders know how best to shape culture, develop a positive working climate, communicate their service’s mission and priorities, coordinate quality assurance and enhancement in learning programs and reward staff as they grapple with ongoing change.”

Thus, leadership is about enabling followers to bring about desired change by setting up organizational structures which enable the cultural synergies within the ECE context to be shared and dispersed within the ECE organization between and among all members involved in ECE. Leadership is important because it is responsible for calling for a commitment and passion from every member of the ECE setting to make a contribution which results in a positive difference in the lives of the children in the ECE context and to help lay the foundation which will help them to develop into productive citizens who will be able to live and work productively in increasingly dynamically complex societies. This, according to Fullan (2000), is “the moral purpose of education” (p. 4).

A conceptualization of leadership as an agent which enables the pursuit of this moral purpose by every-C. Kivunja1712. one involved in ECE sees leadership not as the preserve of one leader but as distributed across the membership of an organization such that “leadership is everyone’s business” (Kouzes & Posner, 2003: p. 383).

What Leadership Looks Like in an Early Childhood Context

Whereas the above section has outlined a generic understanding of leadership and its importance, the work of many leaders in the field of ECE (including Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, & Farmer (2007); Becker &Becker (2009); Belsky (1988); Ebbeck, & Yim (2009); Follari (2007); McCrea (2015); Ochiltree (1994); Sims(1999, 2009); Wood & Attfield, (2005), suggests that it is helpful to articulate what leadership looks like specifically in an ECE setting. McCrea (2015) deals with this topic very well when she suggests that leadership in an ECE context is about bringing improvement through influencing people, in places where ECE takes place, and engaging in and encouraging the conduct of professional and ethical practices.

People in Early Childhood Educational Contexts

People in an ECE setting influence what happens in the setting and likewise, the settings influence people in the ECE setting (McCrea, 2015). People who participate in one way or another in ECE settings fall in a wide variety of roles. They include children, parents or caregivers of the children, child center director, child center manager, administrator, coordinator, assistant, development officer, accountant, teacher, educator, bus driver, gardener, and any staff members that might be at the ECE setting on a casual basis. Quite often these people come from a broad range of backgrounds, socially, culturally, economically, politically, morally and in many other ways, and they are therefore culturally and linguistically diverse. These peoples’ norms, personal beliefs, values, and assumptions (Schein, 2005), have impacts on the children in the ECE setting. It is incumbent upon the leadership to ensure that the people charged with the responsibility for the wellbeing of children under their care in an ECE setting, particularly the professional staff, are equipped and empowered adequately to deliver high quality services that are not only child-friendly but also parent or care-giver-friendly, respectful and which meet the expectations of all stakeholders. Only when these people deliver high quality service can the long-term survival of an ECE setting be sustained.

Places That Comprise Early Childhood Educational Contexts

Places that comprise ECE settings are referred to by all sorts of names: kindergarten, preparatory, pre-primary, reception, transition (Dowling & O’Malley, 2009), childcare centers, preschools, playschools, nurseries, or just sites for early childhood education (Davis, 2010), family day care centers, play centers, integrated children’s centers, early learning centers, nanny services centers, or the more recently introduced term, early childhood education center (Ailwood, 2007). Irrespective of what label is used, we know that apart from the home, the ECE place is where children spend most of their early years. Leadership in such a place, therefore, has potential to mold a child’s approach and appreciation of humanity. This is the place where the child not only develops his or her mother tongue, but also can learn other languages through contact and communication with the other children that s/he comes in contact and communicates with at the ECE site. It is important therefore for leadership at this level to create a quality learning and living environment (Carnes (2011), in which the children can be allowed to be children, as they relate and interact with each other and with the caring staff, away from the hustle and hectic life of the fast moving economy of the 21st century).

Leading such a place also requires the leader to create a place in which staff enjoy comfortable or even amicable relationships among themselves and with the children so that high quality interpersonal relationships are encouraged, ideas shared, respected and considered honestly with due regard. The ECE setting leader has a duty to extend the ECE place beyond the immediate surroundings of the particular setting so as to create linkages with external stakeholders such as government departments, professional organizations, educational institutions, professional organizations as well as local and regional community and business centers.

Practices That Characterize Early Childhood Educational Contexts

The practices include all the professional roles that the ECE leader must deal with. As discussed further below, the different roles can be grouped into four, which McCrea (2015) characterizes as team stakeholder, policy de-C. Kivunja1713 signer, pedagogy creator and rights’ advocate. The practices that characterize the role of a team stakeholder include sourcing and recruiting new staff to fill vacancies, assigning responsibilities to each member of staff, providing support and mentoring for staff, creating opportunities for staff professional development, creating harmonious working relationships and if conflicts occur, resolving them amicably, organizing and conducting staff meetings, attending to each staff member’s needs and providing for occupational health and safety in the ECE setting. The practices that characterize the role of a policy designer in an ECE setting include a multitude of professional actions necessary to make sure that the policies designed to provide for governance in the ECE setting are legal, fair, just, democratic and transparent, minimize risk to the children and anybody involved with the ECE setting, provide guidelines for all stakeholders of the ECE site, and having protocols that are flexible for the efficiency of the ECE setting (Bryant & Gibbs, 2013).


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