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3 May 2016

Teacher Feature – Jess Staines, early learning educator

Jess Staines is a Wiradjuri woman and educator from New South Wales who has worked in early learning services throughout Sydney’s Inner West. Jess talks with Tessa Keenan from the Narragunnawali team about her passion for supporting other educators to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into early learning programs.

Tessa: Tell us a little bit about the work you do in the early learning sector?

Jess: I became passionate about embedding Aboriginal perspectives in early childhood programs when I started taking care of a little girl in respite care. I started questioning a lot of the experiences that I was providing in early childhood settings and thinking about what kind of meaning that held for her. I thought, for her and then for me, how do we really connect with our culture? For her as a two-year-old, it was things like sourcing books that reflected herself and her family, for example dolls that had the same skin tone as she did. There wasn’t anything. So I began to try to source things from community and connect with community, and the further along I went in my journey, I realised that other educators in other services were having the same sort of challenges. Together over time we built up resources, and now we want to share that as widely as we can.

Tessa: What does an early learning service engaged in reconciliation look like to you?

Jess: I think it’s about the whole team valuing reconciliation, which is challenging as we all have different experiences and levels of knowledge. One of the services that I’m working with, Explore and Develop Lilyfield, are doing it well—you can see reconciliation embedded across all the rooms, and as a team we’ve created a shared knowledge and understanding of culture and how that translates into practice. Once we embarked on having those critical discussions as a team and reflecting on our practices, we broke it down more and thought about how we could connect with our local community. We were able to connect with our local council liaison officer and discovered an Aboriginal Worker’s Circle that was running close by that meets once a month.

Tessa: What advice might you have for early learning services and educators who are starting out on their reconciliation journey?

Jess: Connect with community—sometimes it can be a struggle because you don’t know where to go or who to ask. It’s not necessarily about getting community to come to your centre and having performers come in, but you as a service, as a professional, as an educator, investing your time and doing the legwork and going out to community events, meeting Elders, talking to organisations, being part of the community, so you’re able to understand the values and beliefs. As you go back time and time again, those relationships strengthen and people are more willing to have a chat and share their perspectives. Take children outside of the centre walls and involve them in community. I guess that’s what I would do, that was the starting place for us.

Tessa: How do the early learning services that you work with celebrate National Reconciliation Week?

Jess: We try and do things every day with our kids so it’s no different from any other day. What we do try and do is release our staff to go to events in the community so they can form relationships. Last year we had a parent gathering and invited an Aboriginal performer to come in and play the didgeridoo and talk to us about reconciliation and what it meant to him. We started to talk about developing a Reconciliation Action Plan with our families and encourage them to share their insights about their understanding of reconciliation. This year during NRW we are repeating this gathering with our families to talk about how far we’ve come in the last year, and what they would like to see continue.

Check out Jessica's website or get in touch with her here