Getting off the documentation spinning wheel of DOOM!

8th May, 2023
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Written by Sheryl Dale

Dip Tch ECE, 21 Years Teaching, 17 Years Managing
For the best part of my 20 years as an early childhood educator, including 17 years as manager, unlocking the key to authentic planning and documentation seemed a perpetually moving goal post. Just when I thought I had discovered the “right” way to appease the external powers there was never enough complexity in learning, never explicit progression evidenced in our documentation, and links between planning and documentation always required strengthening. Frustratingly, 20 years later, ERO was right!

Their feedback always left me doubting my position as a leader. In my heart of hearts, for the entirety of those 20 years, I always believed and espoused teachers are the most valuable resource in any service. I have never wavered.

Throughout those years I have led and mentored various teams and Kaiako based on what seemed the current sector trend around planning and documentation of children’s learning. I believed access to new resources every funding period and provision of more non-contact hours for Kaiako would complete the “quality” puzzle. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t entirely on the money either.

Today we have the most incredibly aesthetic services popping up on every street corner in Aotearoa, and I believe our tamariki deserve to thrive and learn in the most beautiful environment possible. However, within that same environment, they also deserve highly skilled and professionally crafted educators; anything else is just ‘’smoke and mirrors’’.
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At my very core I always believed quality achievement didn’t lie in the aesthetics of an environment, but in the people; he tangata, he tangata, he tangata!

In order to achieve the desired quality for tamariki and their whanau, I needed to create a team of educators focused on rowing the waka in the same direction as myself. A shared team philosophy, although different individually, sharing the collaborative goal of providing the best possible learning outcomes for tamariki.
For me personally it was always of equal importance to create quality learning opportunities for children whilst holding educators in the same regard. The goals and strands of Te Whariki apply equally to educators and tamariki alike – an environment providing educators with resources and tools allowing them to professionally “fly” to become the best Kaiako possible. This meant prioritising they had time to observe, document, plan and evaluate children’s learning authentically. 

This takes time!

Each educator received generous non-contact time each week (not a mythical creature), yet time was the enemy. Why? We were capturing magical moments in children’s portfolios including those hand and footprints and artwork parents cherish, and ensuring each child had a new story every month. So, what was the problem? Short answer, we were. We had all bought into the notion every child needed a story every month. I, as leader, banged that drum too, despite my gut telling me otherwise. Accountability must prevail!

I observed my team tirelessly documenting children’s learning, usually in isolation meaning a child’s progress was documented through one educator’s lens. Certainly, we had professional discussions, but ultimately lack of time challenged our ability to collaboratively assess each child’s progress.

Our current reality wasn’t working and although planning and assessment was evaluated it wasn’t authentically based around the learning outcomes of Te Whariki. Change was required and as the leader I needed to research, learn, reflect and offer change to our team. I had a deep desire to lighten their load, but also to ignite their professional passion.

This led me to ECE Learning Unlimited, a platform I’d visited frequently during my professional growth. Barbara Watson facilitated a webinar which discussed learning documentation in different ways. I cannot express how refreshing it was to hear someone put words to my thoughts. 20 years later it was time to take back control and say goodbye to the rod that we in ECE have created for ourselves; to ignore background noise and reignite our passion for the benefit of our tamariki and our professional integrity.
Our team is extremely experienced and, despite our diversity and professional backgrounds, we all believed every child needed one learning story every month. No exceptions. Or was there? And I was about to tell them that is not necessarily the case, nor a regulation! Children don’t learn in months, but at their own pace. Not because another month is looming.
I was careful to introduce this change because change can be uncomfortable for some. For the first time in a long time I felt like a leader! A leader wanting to effect change, a leader caring about teacher burn out and mental health and a leader always believing our educators are our greatest asset.

Anything lightening a educator’s documentation load piques their interest. I had collective buy-in from the team.

The first step was auditing each child’s portfolio and asking ourselves if we were authentically documenting their trajectories and learning progressions through the lens of the twenty learning outcomes in Te Whāriki. If so, was it evident?  We came to the conclusion that, although our documentation was based on authentic observations and was written from the heart, we were missing valuable content. We needed to make learning more evident and to explicitly demonstrate our strategies.

We next reviewed the way we documented our individual observations of children’s learning. We realised we were documenting too much. Yes, too much! We needed to document only what really mattered: progression and our role as intentional educators in that process. We still believed “more” equaled quality. It doesn’t.

So what really matters?

The answer was in the learning outcomes in Te Whāriki. As a team, we know what intentional teaching looks like. We practice it. We plan for it. But, we weren’t documenting the strategies we were using to support progression along each child’s learning trajectory. We discussed it during professional conversations but weren’t recognising the significance it played in the documentation. We were focused on a thousand ways we could teach children about the life cycle of a bee, or other similar “planning” exercises.

The result of these reflections, along with the willingness to create change, was a redefinition of our processes. Each child now has an individual planning document. We know our tamariki well and have identified 1-2 learning outcomes we want to progress. The evidence and learning examples in Te Whāriki are our compass and we use these to track each child’s trajectory. We continue to observe and notate anecdotal evidence of progression, but we don’t necessarily create a monthly story from this information. That’s right – no more monthly stories just because we think we must do so. We don’t!

Our stories are now fluid, and only when there is significant progression or change do we document this as a learning story. We still include those magical moments, special celebrations, and significant observations (Matariki, Chinese New Year, NZ Language Week), and my team is finally beginning to exhale!

The result of this journey is the ignited passion and professional discussion amongst the team. Everything we do is focused on learning outcomes, not a resource on the table. The team has a deeper relationship with Te Whāriki as was intended, and best of all, we’ve begun reclaiming time!

There is more to come, and we know there are challenges and learnings ahead. That is growth. We do know with certainty we are committed to creating a quality learning environment built on authenticity and progression. Watch this space!
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About the Author of this blog

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Sheryl Dale
Early childhood teacher, mentor, ECE Center Manager
The Secret Garden Preschool (Auckland)
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Sheryl is an experienced ECE teacher and leader who has contributed to the sector for more than 21 years. She is passionate about ensuring her team are supported so that they can be their best for the children they love and care for. Sheryl and her team have recently been on a journey of review exploring how they can reduce their assessment documentation burden while also maintaining quality outcomes for children and keeping parents happy too!