The Very Hungry…Practitioner? – By Helen Haygarth

It is true, I am always hungry but this hunger does not refer to fruit and vibrantly coloured treats. Instead I refer to my hunger as a practitioner, to be the best I can be for the children I work with. To offer the most creative opportunities for play and engagement that I can find and in doing so really, truly make a difference in children’s development and well-being.

As I drive myself from work, I ponder where this hunger comes from and how it is satisfied? I am now in my mid 40s and reflect on how I got to this point. How I began as a teeny tiny caterpillar searching away, yet now I liken myself to the respective beautiful butterfly in terms of my practise. I no longer search for the right food…I know what that is now, I have found my leaf.

It took a long time to munch my way through it and I was reminded of my journey earlier today. I observed a BA Childhood Studies student in placement. There I stood smiling, revelling in this fresh faced practitioner taking everything in and trying so hard to find his way in a world so full of information and expectation. Yet he was calm and nurturing with the children, allowing them time and was able to naturally be intuitive to their wants and needs. His mentor was beautifully kind, honest and supportive in her feedback of him.

When I asked what he found the most challenging he immediately said “Storytime…I haven’t really done that yet”, he shook his head and looked terrified. Like a flash it took me back to my first job, my first day. I was a 19 year old Nursery nurse. I had completed my training, ticked the boxes and secured the job. Brilliant. Yet here I was, left to cover lunch breaks and was instructed to deliver a story session. As I stood there, my emotions spiralled; fear, uncertainty, self-consciousness. I was young and lacked confidence in myself never mind my ability to be a practitioner. I used The Very Hungry Caterpillar as it was on the top of the pile and actually attracted me as I remembered the brightly coloured book on the teachers desk, wondering if I’d be allowed to touch it. Now, several years later this was my chance!

Honestly, I can’t fully recall how that session went, but I can remember the fear and the question in my own ability. I’m sure my top lip stuck to my teeth and I fumbled to turn the pages and read upside down and probably dropped it and used a timid and tiny voice. I no doubt did not manage the children well. Fast forward to today and I can do this without the book and use my face, my voice and my body to tell the story and keep that engagement real and exciting. In fact, I feel most at home doing this. This is my awe and wonder! I am now secure in my role, my knowledge and how I know children learn. Where did I learn to do this though?

Some things we can read in books and find the answers to, but mostly we observe, we steal ideas like a magpie and pass them off as our own. This is precisely what I did. I watched closely the practitioners I probably hero worshipped at the time and I still to this day find myself using phrases they used or songs they sang. I remember three practitioners in particular who gave me their time and allowed me the chance to try, to fail, to grow and in doing so developed my confidence. They helped me eat all the fruit and I tucked right in to the treats! These practitioners did not judge, they nurtured just as we nurture our children. They taught me things that worked, things that were easy to remember and most of all to find the joy in the job. Like the Cocoon, they kept me reassured that it was ok to try and fail as long as you learn for the next time. This I now recognise as the reflective process and is now an innate part of my being. Whilst I had that support, there were times when I felt belittled, tiny and hungry. There is no room to grow with that. No room to spread your wings. I remember that feeling so well that I make sure my colleagues, my team, my students never ever feel it on my watch. I am passionate that with the right support practitioners can flourish and just be. The best resource within early years is the practitioner which is why it needs to be right…the caterpillar needs to be fed the right food and allowed to feel safe in order to grow wings and fly.

Standing in front of this student I tell him my story. I tell him my top lip stuck to my teeth and I dropped the book. I tell him it is fine to make mistakes, as long as we use the experience to make it better next time. The relief on his face was priceless. I tell him the fear will pass, because the only judgement that matters is our own. I tell him the failure is in not trying at all and that he will find his comfort in this role.

We teach children to persist and try and the framework we follow arguably pushes them out of their cocoons way before they are ready. With the right nurture from mentors, my hope is that new practitioners leave their Cocoons at the right time, with the right knowledge and the sense that they can fly.

(and I know it should be chrysalis and not cocoon but if its good enough for Eric Carle, then it’s good enough for me)!

“Eric, come out of your cocoon.” He meant I should open up and be receptive to the world around me. For me, it would not sound right to say, “Come out of your chrysalis.” And so poetry won over science!

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