PLAY IT BY EAR*FEATURE ARTICLE*Giiguy Gamambi: Embedded in the river bed
Nestled on the ridge of Gumbaynggirr Country on a small seaside village, Giiguy Gamambi Preschool is a purpose built 52 year old, 1 unit preschool whereby inclusion runs through every facet of it's being. Whilst there were not any children or families at the service when I visited in mid January 2022, I felt the history of play and connection to Country immediately as I hauled my training gear through the rain to be met by a proud group of people who opened the gates and allowed me in their place. My name is Rebecca Thompson and I have been working in early childhood for over 20 years in variety of teaching and inclusion support roles. I have a Master of Inclusive Education and I visit services as a consultant for my business Stone & Sprocket to not only share knowledge, but to gain new ways of knowing and being from wherever I go.
My clunky suitcase wheels came to a halt as they always do when I encounter a place that breathes history through the large trees and contemporary innovation via every undulation in the ground. Some parts carefully thought out, other parts carefully left alone to be what they are, every part treasured. The wonderful Director Rebecca Graham and I shared a moment by a puddle that was created by the drips off the guttering, we stood right there sharing in the joy of the imperfections that we love to 'leave alone' that create opportunities for children. Who doesn't love a drip and puddle right? I asked Rebecca (Beck) a bit more about about her place and she explained that most of the committee members and staff, or children of staff attended the preschool when they were younger and there is a strong sense of pride within the area (senior education staff have been the teachers of the current younger trainees). Giiguy Gamambi is a team of both Indigenous and non Indigenous workers, most of whom have been trained and gained a qualification through the preschool.
"...we live by the axiom 'Maam Miindalaygam' which translated means 'the learning place' "
Beck explained further that "we live by the axium 'Maam Miindalaygam' which translated means 'the learning place' and we are all about a whole community learning approach. The team are always keen to re-educate, to break out into various roles that support the various projects to support community, from playgroup and parent group facilitator, to operating ‘garden to table’ projects". I could see this in the outdoor environment when I walked in and truly believe that being purposeful in the approach to inclusion and setting up working groups and focus projects is what makes for high quality education and embedded practices. We simply can not leave inclusive practice to chance. As teachers we do not just fall upon inclusion but in the same breath we need to exercise caution and make sure that it doesn't end up being a seperate program to the everyday one. Inclusive practice inherently asks us to believe that all children are unique and have the potential to learn. Consultant Jennifer Ribarovski has been working with Giiguy Gamambi for a number of years (and with Beck years beyond that) and had this to say when we asked what it was she believes the team does in an everyday way to platform learning:
You can't leave education to chance: High expectations
"The team at Giiguy have high expectations for all children’s learning. This is driven by a strong philosophical approach that values culture as critical to children’s identity, and children’s strong sense of identity as critical to their future success. The team at Giiguy understand that the children and the community with whom they work face challenges, and centre their work with children on building a strong cultural identity, and a strong sense of themselves as successful learners. This is central to the culture of the service, and underpins children’s learning every day".
Not leaving things to chance and knowing 'your why'...breathing the values in to every practice is essential. Beck believes that at the preschool "We are driven by an intense desire for our children to begin school with the capital of their non Indigenous peers. The families in this community are very connected to members of the team, as they are all ‘mob’, which has incredible positives but also presents some dilemma’s in times of crisis. We want to work with families to advocate for a deeper understanding of the role educators play in the preschool setting". To simply gather people in a place without thought or reflection on how you will do this can be dangerous. The staff at Giiguy work hard to plan for environments that reflect the lives and 'being' of the people in it. Belonging will then be the beacon of the philosophy once we are thoughtful and reflective about what is meaningful to our community.
"...we want to work with families to advocate for a deeper understanding of the role educators play in the preschool setting".
Environments impact our being
If you have visited the Nambucca area you will know that the Nambucca River and Aboriginal Women's Heritage is a big part of life in the area. Director Beck has used the outdoor environment as an inclusive tool to support children's behaviours and 'way of being' by re-creating the river lifestyle in the yard.
Beck explains "The inside of our building (untouched) promotes fraught behaviours, and the educators have had to reflect on ways to understand that the behaviours were a response to the environment. minimise the sensory OVERLOAD that occurs when the children play inside. It is a rectangular open brink room, bright, noisy and echoes, very high ceilings, hard flooring, noisier fans.
We have created a space that is warm, dark, quiet and comfortable that allows children to ‘be’. They can access their sensory toolboxes, head phones, hourglasses, weighted blankets etc...We are becoming more and more skilled at using the general environment as prompts for fostering therapeutic practises such as resourcing the riverbed for play encouraging ‘heavy work’, and ‘working’ in the vegetable garden as a space for children to understand and learn to self regulate their emotions".
Everyone gets what they need, not the same
It can be challenging to embed inclusive practices guide children's behaviour when you have such barriers as the layout of your physical building and the resources available to adjust it. At Stone & Sprocket we support teams to build an understanding of behaviour as communication and that there are a variety of considerations outside of simply using 'words' or as we like to call it 'watering the leaves' when there are deeper rooted issues to address. Hence why we call our training 'Dig Deeper'. What I did notice while talking with the team, was that the considerations we believe to be integral to embedding inclusive practice; the team were implementing well and had wonderful examples to share regarding this. For example one of the considerations was 'attachment'. Throughout the reflection on attachment the team articulated the importance of constantly being in tune with how they teach children to have relationships with them and how each person likes to be treated in reciprocity. The team concluded that it is ok have expectations about how adults are spoken to and what responses are acceptable in response to behaviour guidance. We concluded together that you have to spend time knowing each child really well and that not everyone is going to receive the same type of guidance and attention, rather everyone will get what they need. I was very impressed that Director Beck had already introduced the concept of equality v's equity to the team.
Jen Ribarovski further explains that "Children, families and the community are at the forefront of thinking and decision making at Giiguy. Leadership and educators respect families and children, despite, or perhaps in part because of, the challenges that the community faces. Rather than see the problems, and judge families in relation to their parenting, the Giiguy team is solutions focused, and seeks out ways to put the child’s learning and development front and centre. This calls for resilience and persistence, which they have in abundance. It also reflects a level of respect for families and communities that enables them to build strong relationships, so that they can wrap strong support systems around children. They don’t give up when relationships are hard, or prove challenging to build, but persist in thinking critically about what they will do next to build or sustain positive relationships. They know that in their context, these relationships are fundamental to opening up opportunities to support children’s learning and development".
The hard stuff is what makes us
In essence it really is a rocky road to steer the needs of communities, staff and children all in to a smooth sailing ride. I think they key to embedding inclusive practice is 'doing away' with that notion that inclusion is a 'perfect' destination, something to reach or attain. Rather view it as a constantly evolving path that presents with many forks in the road, potholes and even roadblocks! I do believe that one of the key elements that can assist with the smooth parts of the ride is strong leadership that celebrates uniqueness rather than one that steamrolls the road to try mandate everything and make it too smooth for people. The hard stuff is what we are made of and what makes us. Upon a closer look at lunch break time, I noticed a huge wild space encompassing the back yard, a big gate at the back that said 'let me out!'. I wasn't surprised at all when the educators told me they take the children 'walkabout' in the wild and while there are challenges with children who might run away or snakes that may approach, they do the risk assessment and get on with the job because they know the value it places on their inclusive practise. Everything changes when you go out that gate, I believe those wild spaces are a wonderland of inclusive education model opportunity. It takes great leadership to not see a 'walkabout' as a deficit to the program or taking away from the learning that takes place indoors.
Jennifer Ribarovski provided us with some more insight in to what she thinks makes Giiguy Gamambi such a great place and why Rebecca's leadership works so well here:
Start with relationships: Beck takes the time to get to know her team and the board members to whom she reports first and foremost. She listens and tunes in to the aspirations of educators and then works hard to enable them to grow professionally.
Putting people first: Beck is a cheerleader for her team, and implements very clear strategies to build their confidence and in doing so their competencies. Beck's leadership style is transformative; she engages all stakeholders in creating a vision that everyone is empowered to work towards.
Ongoing reflective practices: Beck is a highly reflective practitioner and ensures that quality early education and care is at the forefront of thinking for her educational team. She implements strong systems, such as whole team facilitated reflective meetings, focused on exploring practice as it relates to the unique context of Giiguy.
Walk the talk for social justice: Beck takes a coaching and mentoring role with her educational team, building their capacity to grow professionally. In teaching the process of critical reflection (and Bec would balk at this assertion, but teach she does!). She builds the team’s capacity to listen to each other’s ideas and opinions, to keep social justice and equity at the forefront of thinking, and to continually move forward.
Lead from behind: Beck is motivated by the best possible outcomes for children, families and the community, and leads from behind. She is emotionally intelligent, and this sees her working in partnership with her team, moving them towards creativity, dialogue and collaboration, inquiry and problem solving.
Collaborative approaches are more than 'teamwork': Beck cultivates a culture that moves individuals to go from ‘concern for me, to concern for we’. Essentially her leadership creates opportunities for collective leadership, building the team’s capacity to lead themselves. As someone who leads from behind, Beck gives credit for successes to her team. She diminishes her own significant contributions, and highlights the contributions of others, which is a key leadership trait.
What can we take away from Giiguy?
'...focus on the bigger picture, with children’s learning and development at the forefront, can reap great rewards. Too much focus on the minutia can make it really hard to see the wood from the trees, and can keep services from responding effectively to their unique context. Planning for big conversations, for deep thinking, is critical to responsive, high quality practice' Ribarovski J. (2022)
After my visit to this humble little preschool I am feeling so refreshed by the relentlessness of early childhood teachers and leaders as they weather these storms. Our sector has had so much thrown at it over the past two years. The COVID 19 pandemic has changed the way we interact with families and if we are put relationships first, then we were bound to come across some hard times. That is what relationships contain, hard stuff, good stuff and evolving stuff. It seems that by keeping a strong vision in place, remembering what is not negotiable and backing yourself is certainly the approach to take. I believe that we can learn much from a service Giiguy Gamambi Preschool. No matter what the barriers are; slip out of the constant thought about 'threat' and start thinking how each roadblock presents itself as an 'opportunity' to grow and learn together.
We would like to thank Rebecca Graham, Giiguy Gamambi Preschool Community and Jennifer Ribarovski for allowing us to share their thoughts alongside our reflections.
Find out more about JR Education Consulting Services here: https://www.jreducation.com.au/jennifer-ribarovski
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NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (2003) https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/cultureheritage/NambuccaWomensHeritage.pdf
•Westling & Fox (2012) Teaching Students with severe disabilities.