Schools DIY mentorships in disability and early childhood education

  • By Suzanne Taylor
  • This article was published more than 5 years ago.
  • 3 Jan 2019
Disability support workers Tracey Hamilton and Sue Cummins. Photo: Anthony Webster

Mentorships don’t have to be formal or even particularly structured. The AEU meets members creating their own versions of skills exchange on the job.

Sue Cummins and Tracey Hamilton, Disability support workers, Vivid Living, Echuca

Sue Cummins, mentor

From a young age, my daughter had very complex mental health issues, which required a lot of care from me. Back in those times there wasn’t much support for adolescent mental health. Every week I’d take her down to Melbourne to see specialists, and that sparked this awareness that I had a nurturing and caring spirit within me. A girlfriend of mine was working in disability and I thought, ‘That’s something I could be good at’. That was 12 years ago.

Supporting my daughter taught me the importance of forming good relationships and finding ways to extend people. Whether you’re working with psychiatric, intellectual or physical disability, this support role is about empowering people, not doing everything for them. Now my daughter’s doing really well. She’s become an early childhood educator, with the same passion for her work as I have. Providing the right kind of support is about instilling self-confidence, helping people fulfil their potential. Sometimes it’s also just about being there, and not feeling like you have to fix things for people.

That support needs to extend to our colleagues as well, because disability work can be emotionally and physically taxing. My mentorship of Tracey has been unofficial; it’s not a formal program. I try to lead by example.

Tracey already has so many qualities and has overcome such adversity in her own life, I don’t need to ‘teach’ her anything. My mentoring has been more about supporting her recovery and her return to work after she experienced a serious incident. I checked in with her regularly to see how she was travelling. I quite often Google little encouragement quotes and send those through. We have one day each year for R U OK? Day, but shouldn’t that be part of human kindness, to look out for your co-workers every day?

I’ve also tried to empower Tracey to speak up more, to have a voice. I admire her; she could have received a pay-out and never returned to work but she did, because she loves it. Her level of care comes from a similar place as mine. It’s come from a place of pain as well, of having to get herself and others through hard times.

“Until you’ve had a panic attack or anxiety, you just have no idea. Sue showed me how it felt to receive that support, and now I’ve learnt how to be there for other people at work too”

Tracey Hamilton, mentee

I met Sue when I first started at Vivid. Being new, you walk in there blind, not knowing who’s who, what their disability is… so mentorship plays a big role. Sue would give me a heads-up, answer my questions, but then she’d step back and let you try things out in your own way. That approach taught me to trust my own judgment and instincts.

It’s really inspiring to watch how Sue works. She just gets it; she’s open-minded and flexible in her approach. A strategy you might use with a client one day may not necessarily work the next, or with someone else. You often need to have a plan B and a plan C up your sleeve, and Sue always does.

I had a serious workplace injury that’s left me with an ongoing disability. It was quite a horrific thing I experienced, and there’s definitely no way I could have returned to work without Sue’s support. She knows if it’s getting too noisy or too frantic for me, she’ll be there checking in, asking, ‘Do you need five minutes?’ If I’m showing signs of anxiety, she’ll message me that night, saying I did well at work, that it’ll get better, things like that. I can have a rant with her when I need to.

Sue understands how isolating it can be, how misunderstood you can feel. Until you’ve had a panic attack or anxiety, you just have no idea. Sue showed me how it felt to receive that support, and now I’ve learnt how to be there for other people at work who are having a hard time too.

The highlight of the job for me is the teamwork, knowing we have each other’s backs. I’m also humbled by our clients and what they overcome every day. It is a reality check. They really look forward to the weekly walking group I run. We chat, we walk through bush tracks and sometimes through town, listen to music. It’s nothing exciting but they love it. It helps me remember to appreciate those little things, things that probably don’t look like much to other people. I love what I do, and I’ll do it for as long as I can.

Kindergarten teachers Linda Churchyard and Leo Xu. Photo: Meredith O’Shea

Linda Churchyard and Leo Xu, kindergarten teachers, Brenbeal Children’s Centre, Footscray

Linda Churchyard, mentor

I’m at a point in my career now where I still love working with children, but it’s not enough to satisfy me. I just need something more, and being a mentor is a way of extending myself in another direction. I feel quite pleased that I can do that. As a teacher, your instinct is to want to guide and help people – whether it’s a four-year-old or a 40-year-old!

We’re often isolated in early childhood; most of us are in fairly small workplaces so there may not be more senior educators who can mentor you. This , through the formal VIT process, I mentored a young woman who was the only teacher in her service. I had to visit her four times, she had to visit me once; it was very structured.

I know a lot of teachers would think: ‘I can’t mentor someone who isn’t in my workplace’. It is a commitment, but I got a lot out of it. If you can do something to help another teacher get better and stay in the field, it makes you feel you’ve contributed to the broader community.

What I like about the mentoring I do with Leo is that we see each other every day, and so it’s more of a two-way exchange of ideas. He’s been in the room with me for two years now. We have some challenging children, so there are lots of conversations on the fly around, ‘How do we deal with this?’

Leo’s very calm and accepting. He has a good way of anticipating a problem and intervening before it escalates. He’s just got a natural talent for it. Leo will spend half an hour running around outside with a little guy who likes ball play, to avoid a meltdown. I’d just last five minutes out there!

A few times Leo has asked for my help to understand the wording of questions on his uni assignments, but mostly the mentoring has been informal. He’s been working in the field for quite a few years while he’s been studying, so his insights are really valuable. He’s just as much a mentor to other staff as I am to him.

“I wouldn’t have felt confident to run a kindergarten room straight away if I hadn’t had a good mentor like Linda”

Leo Xu, mentee

I did my Diploma of Children’s Services in 2009. To be honest, at the beginning I didn’t think I could be an early childhood teacher but after I started the course, I really enjoyed it. I like listening to what the children tell me, and to see their improvements.

I’m very active, I like to give them more confidence to join in physical play outside. That’s the thing I really like. I think it’s very important to have the balance of role models. Sometimes parents say: ‘Oh, a boy teacher!’ It’s a rare thing, but more male educators are coming through, which I’m glad to see.

I’ve been working with Linda since 2017. I will finish my Bachelor degree in 2019 and I wouldn’t have felt confident to run a kindergarten room straight away if I hadn’t had a good mentor like her. She’s very knowledgeable. When Linda sees an issue, she looks at it very deeply, not just at the surface. That’s the thing I admire.

This year we have a child with autism and ADHD symptoms, and we work together on different strategies to help him with other children, and with the curriculum. We’ve actually had a lot of difficulty, but Linda’s got good judgment and she notices those small details about what the child likes to do. She’s always on point.
Before I met Linda, I didn’t understand about

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