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Early childhood teacher Leanne Mits with her preschool class. Photo: Meredith O'Shea.

Two foundational pillars – the Reggio Emilia philosophy and First Nations knowledge – have formed the basis of this Early Childhood Teacher of the Year’s joyful and deeply felt approach to teaching and learning, writes STEPHEN A RUSSELL.

When Pope Road Kindergarten teacher Leanne Mits looks back on her 36-year career in early childhood education, she settles on two foundational moments that have helped shaped the teacher she is today. The first was her trip to the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia during the 1990s, where she became a strong proponent of the educational philosophy that sprang from the region.

“It helped me to understand that the role of a teacher isn’t to transmit knowledge,” she says. “The role of a teacher is to be a co-constructor of learning and a co-constructor of meaning and understanding alongside children, with children. The children are the protagonists.”

Now a kindergarten director, nominated supervisor and educational leader, Leanne has returned to Reggio Emilia in Italy many times, and has been national secretary of the Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange (REAIE) for the past 12 years.

The second event to transform Leanne’s outlook on education was the first Reconciliation Symposium in 2014. “I went because the early years learning framework required me to embed this in my work with children, and I knew I wasn’t embedding it and it felt very tokenistic. So, I had a responsibility to do better.”

For Leanne, these two foundational pillars – the Reggio Emilia approach to education and First Nations knowledge and culture – support the same ideals: the importance of listening and participation, mutual respect and valuing diversity.

“I have been a teacher for 36 years, and I’ve never come to work on my own.”

“I’ve had these two highly influential, thought-provoking, inspirational, deeply meaningful – and well-researched – threads in my professional life,” she says.

She is now actively engaged with First Nations professors – Mark Rose of the Gunditjmara Nation, and Narungga man Lester-Irabinna Rigney – to help construct REAIE’s Reconciliation Action Plan. Leanne says she has been deeply inspired by their insights.

When we speak, she has been preparing students for Sorry Day and the kindergarten’s Reconciliation Week activities.

“We made an agreement together that we would read a book called Sorry Sorry, and I said to the children, ‘I need you to know, it’s not an easy book to read and to hear. It’s actually got some really tricky ideas in it, so we’re going to have to listen really hard and we’re going to need to talk about it.’

“I’m planting those seeds so that when Sorry Day does come around next week, it’s not just a day on the calendar where we put up a poster – it’s much more meaningful.”

At the start of every day, the preschool gathers together to acknowledge the Country they live, learn and play on. It’s all part of centring children in their understanding of the world, Leanne says. It is this dedicated approach that earned her the Early Childhood Teacher of the Year Award in 2019, though she’s quick to insist that it was a team effort.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to raise the teacher too,” she says, insisting that she’s the person she is today “because of all the people that I live and learn with”.

“I have been a teacher for 36 years, and I’ve never come to work on my own.”

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

And another thing… 10 questions for Leanne Mits

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… Honesty, transparency, happiness.

The most important things to leave at home are… I’m not two different people. I’m one and the same. Who I am in the classroom is who I am at home.

The best advice I ever received was… Be comfortable with uncertainties.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… To find a trusted, inspiring mentor.

My favourite teacher at school was… Her name was Mrs Duthie and she was my Grade 5 teacher in primary school. I enjoyed the way she taught. She showed me how to learn, not what to learn.

The people I admire most are… The people who can be their true selves.

The music or book that changed my life was… The Contesting Early Childhood series. It’s a great reference point I always return to.

In my other life, I am… An author of children’s picture story books. During COVID last year, I also did my Masters in Early Childhood Education, so I didn’t have time to write a book. But I’ll get to that.

If I met the education minister, I’d tell her… Young children’s democratic rights need to be upheld. That’s the right to education, the right to play, and the right to have a say in the things that affect them.

The most important thing the union does for its members is… Advocacy. I’ve been teaching for 36 years and I’ve been a member of the AEU since the day I graduated. I knew that joining the union was my responsibility and my opportunity.

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