We interviewed Tracey O’Connell, who works as a pre-school manager at Ladybirds Pre-school in Gillingham, Kent. Ladybirds is a term-time pre-school, providing care for children aged between 2-4 years old. The setting is supported by a staff team of 7.

How did you first come to work in childcare?

I first started my career in banking and hadn’t been interested in childcare initially.  After having my second child, I became involved more with her pre-school and was asked to join the committee.  I started my role as vice-treasurer and quickly became the treasurer.  This was a role with a lot of responsibility, as it still is today.  I had to quickly learn the tax, National Insurance and pro-rota pay system.  I became heavily involved with the group through staff/committee meetings and volunteering.  I became a support worker for a child and this gave me a good insight into the day-to-day running of the setting. 

The deputy supervisor suggested that I put in for my childcare qualification through the Pre-School Learning Alliance.  I was successful in getting a place and have continued since then, working my way up to manager.

Tracey O’Connell

When gaining your childcare qualification, how did you find fitting this in around your work and home life?

When I was studying for my level 3 qualification, my children were still in primary school.  I was working every day (training one full day). My studying and essay writing were completed after the normal evening chores of homework, dinner, bed. The children didn’t understand and still needed my attention so studying had to wait.  I can remember still writing essays at midnight and working the next day. We didn’t have a computer initially so they were handwritten and could not have any errors within them.  Eventually, we managed to get a computer.

By the time I studied for my foundation degree, things had moved on a lot.  The children were at secondary school and understood a lot more.  They were old enough to help around the house with chores and cooking. They were happy for me to work in an evening or on a Sunday.  Technology had moved on as well, but unfortunately I hadn’t. They were both extremely supportive with the presentation, layouts of work, creating booklets. 

What does a typical day look like to you?

The setting is quite fortunate that we do not have to pack away every night, which means that some mornings before children arrive we are able to have feedback sessions, small staff meetings or planning discussions.

Children arrive at nine and every day is different.  As we are a sessional pre-school, children stay all day, just morning or morning and lunch.  I try to be accommodating and flexible where possible.  Some parents need your attention to discuss matters on arrival or children can be unsettled.  The morning session is free flow between the two halls and garden.  Children are encouraged and supported to explore their environment. 

I am included in the staff ratio, like a lot of managers, so once things have settled and if I have time I will quickly check emails or catch up on some paperwork.  However, this is not always possible especially as our two-year-olds normally attend the morning session, and often this paperwork is completed after the afternoon session or at home.

What unique qualities do you think have helped you in being a successful pre-school manager?

I definitely feel that, as a manager, you need to be a good listener and have endless patience, not only for the children but for their parents and your staffing team around you.  Allowing time for those who need to talk with you and not rushing them, I believe, makes them feel confident to share their worries or concerns.  With parents, you need to build that trust and confidence, this is supported also by the key person system. 

My staffing team are confident now to come to me at any time to discuss issues or also through the regular supervisions that take place.  I am often told by my team that I am very tactful with the way that I word things or deal with a situation.  This has developed over the years and has not come easily.  Being flexible to new changes and new ideas. 

What is your favourite part of your daily routine?

I do enjoy all my day.  Some days are more challenging and stressful than others.  But I do enjoy mat or carpet time when we all come together to share our day, sing a favourite song, show and tell.  I do particularly love to see that shy /quiet child that has listened and watched over a couple of weeks confidently start to join in with the actions to a song, or a child stand up and sing their song in front of the group.  It is heart-warming.

If someone working in childcare wanted to move into a pre-school management role like yours, what advice would you give them?

Definitely be prepared for a lot of paperwork, responsibility and working out of hours.  If possible, work in the deputy role/management team first to become familiar with what the role entails first.  I was fortunate to be able to do this myself.  To go on as many training courses as you can that can help to support you within this role.  Also, if possible, to visit other settings to see how they operate as doing something a different way may be easier for you.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from colleagues or the Early Years Team.

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