Conversations with Dianne Seet-Swee

By Jamie Jian and Kelvin Sng

With her passion in the early childhood sector, Dianne Seet-Swee holds various roles as the Principal of Ascension Kindergarten, Pillar Head at the Early Childhood Development Centres for Anglican Preschool Services, as well as an Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) Fellow. Having had over 20 years of experience in the industry, she shares her advice for thriving in the industry and managing its challenges, as well as tips for aspiring early childhood practitioners.

There are three roles that I cover. Firstly, as the Principal of Ascension Kindergarten, we sow seeds and transform lives through curriculum, leadership, infrastructure and mentorship. We build innovative and sustainable practices as it is important to create and sustain new structures so that the teachers can thrive in the early childhood sector.

Next, we manage stakeholders such as board members and parents. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many disruptions brought about by the safe management measures. It is important to allay the fears and anxieties of parents and assure them that the school is a safe place for their children to go to.

We also network with like-minded schools to improve the learning experience of children and teachers. For example, Ascension Kindergarten has partnered with primary schools such as St Andrew’s Junior School and St Margaret’s Girls Primary School, where we got our students to go for canteen tours and sit in their classrooms. Sometimes, it is a delight when we see our alumni leading other students in the primary school and we can tell our students that they will eventually become like them. We also network with like-minded preschools to gain insights and share best practices across schools. We have done many seminars across preschools, such as Living Sanctuary Kindergarten and Sarada Mission Kindergarten, where leaders and senior teachers got to share their knowledge with their peers.

As of last year, Ascension Kindergarten has amalgamated under the Anglican Preschool Services. As director of the Early Childhood Development Centres for Anglican Preschool Services, I lead a group of 19 preschools and strategise ways to ensure consistency in standards. While we allow each school to thrive in their own niche areas, they can develop innovative programmes depending on the teachers’ skills. I also network with other organisations for effective partnership.

In my sector work as an ECDA Fellow, we work closely with ECDA to drive quality improvement in the early childhood sector. We also look to develop sector-wide resources. I am part of the publication called “Learning Stories: Making Visible Children’s Learning and Development”, which develops and deepens the educator’s skill as a writer in the context of local early childhood education structure and accountabilities. It also gives leaders a deeper understanding of how to implement Learning Story through a step-by-step structure and process. We want to equip teachers and leaders with skills to communicate with parents on what they observe about the children in class. In ECDA, we hope to drive professional growth for leaders, so we conduct many workshops and coaching sessions to lead positive change in the sector.

When I am in school, I start the day greeting children and meeting teachers which really gives me joy. Due to my music background, I sing with the children during morning assembly and allow them to respond. This activity awakens the children’s senses and activates their synapses. It also helps them to get excited for the day. During the morning assembly, I also role model for the teachers on the importance of starting the day well with the children.  

After being with the children, I will enter the classroom for observation. During my observation, I will look out for trusting relationships, positive dispositional language between teachers and the students, and watch out for the environment to ensure that it is safe and meaningful.  After the observation, I will follow up with the teachers on their performance and how they can improve on it. This helps them to learn and become a better educator. I usually do informal observations so as to not give stress to these teachers. 

On a weekly basis, I will meet with the leadership team where we have both teaching and learning meetings. During the meetings, we do pedagogical reflections and look into the wellbeing of teachers. We also discuss the curriculum, review current practices, and plan for new events. In Ascension Kindergarten, we have a practice called “actively caring”. We will talk about accidents that happened in the classrooms and facilitate the sharing of best practices among teachers without any judgement. These sharing sessions often allow teachers to feel validated and it creates a community of learners that are comfortable to share their learning and stories with one another. 

Lastly, I also have meetings regarding organisational responsibilities such as developing holistic and value-based programmes. We place a lot of emphasis on nurturing and enhancing our values-based education by looking into our teaching materials, taking care of our staff’s wellbeing, and ensuring a robust implementation of our programmes. We also discuss how to engage parents actively. For example, on a termly basis, we have workshops with the parents for them to pick up soft skills such as how to talk to their child and teach them how to set goals. 

In order to build a culture of trust, we have to build positive relationships with our staff. What is key is to be intentional and authentic. To quote Henna Inam in her book titled Wired for Authenticity: Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt, & Lead: “Authentic leadership is the full expression of ‘me’ for the benefit of ‘we’”.

As a leader, I usually have conversations with the teachers to understand them better and help them find their purpose. I make it a point to highlight the importance of teamwork in achieving our common goal of ensuring a positive pre-school experience for our children. I also ensure that the teachers are well-supported. For example, when COVID-19 struck, we promptly got ready the required laptops and resources for our teachers to conduct online lessons, as they pivoted quickly and learned how to engage children during home-based learning sessions. Even though some teachers were afraid of the change, they rose to the challenge. During this period, despite their own anxieties, we noticed that many teachers openly talked and shared actively about their best practices with one another. This created a culture of trust when they reached out to and supported one another. We were grateful that parents also acknowledged our teachers’ hard work through ECDA’s platform called #SGPreschoolsIUnited: Appreciating Our Early Childhood Educators.

I feel that work-life balance is a choice, based on our priorities. It is a moving target as we have different focuses and goals at different seasons. For example, as a novice teacher, you may choose to work hard during the weekdays and play hard during the weekends. However, as a more experienced teacher, you may want to learn more about specific domains in early childhood education to deepen your knowledge and master your craft. When you do something you love, it is no longer work. You are pursuing your passion.

For myself, I am intentional in setting aside family time during weekends, such as having dinner together. I also get myself active through kayaking and aerial yoga during my spare time. Ultimately, maintaining work-life balance involves making choices, setting goals and knowing when to prioritise which set of goals.

We do see teachers at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Since burnout is a real issue in the sector, teachers need to be intentional about their free time. For some teachers, they work a lot of the time and find it difficult not to work. If they have a good mentor, the mentor will usually tell the teacher to plan their time more effectively so as not to affect their health and relationships. There is also a small group of teachers who prefer to do the bare minimum to maximise their own free time. Usually we will advise this group to re-evaluate their purpose of joining the sector and whether their behaviour has impact on their job satisfaction and more importantly, child outcomes.

To me, if you make your job your passion, you will enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy.  

The best example would be in partnering parents. A good teacher is able to share their insights with parents, such as improvements and achievements of their children. However, some new teachers might be nervous to do this because they have not earned that “street cred” yet. What we do is to have sharing sessions on incidents that happened in school, and how we managed these incidents when difficult parents were involved. Sometimes, the difficulty comes from parents who insist on meeting other parents.

Nowadays, young parents can easily access group chats and social media, which makes it easy to blow up minor incidents. Because of this, some teachers are afraid of talking to parents for fear of saying the wrong things.

What we do in response to this is to build relationships. In our school, we help parents understand their goals for their children. For example, for dispositional skills, we look into the seven executive function skills essential for children (from the book Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky) like taking perspective, self-regulation, self-control, and taking on challenges. We allow parents to see that it is beyond just the six domains of language, numeracy, and the child’s learning domain.

We then help parents set goals, instead of just minding their child. For example, when they say things like “Can you stand up straight?” or “Can you speak louder?”, it will leave the child feeling like they have failed. In such case, we would ask parents this question, “What occasions or platforms have you given your child to make him look and feel confident?” We would tell parents to look into the child’s eyes and use positive phrases like “stand up tall”.  We also do parent surveys, which allow teachers to find out what other expectations the parents may have of their child. Our teachers can then talk to parents during parent-teacher meetings to understand why they have chosen the goals for their child and to help them reach these goals.

With a good relationship between the teachers and parents, when accidents or incidents happen, parents are more understanding and believe that the teachers are already trying to do their best for the child. Dealing with parents should not be an afterthought; it should be intentionally done from the beginning. For a child to learn and develop well, there must be a two-way partnership between the parents and the teacher. And we are here to equip our teachers with the skills to foster a strong parent-teacher partnership.

Some people think that working as a preschool teacher is an easy job, while others think it is a demanding one. An effective teacher, however, must be able to engage children such that they love learning, are curious, and are confident about their own abilities. It really takes someone with a big heart to deposit that kind of love in every child.

The early childhood sector is dominated by women and there are very few men. Singaporean parents are generally not comfortable to have male educators in the preschool, especially when it comes to caregiving routines such as toileting. The role of male teachers needs to be carefully considered, such as placing him in classes of five to six year olds. Male educators can play a valuable role in preschools as they bring different perspectives and offer male role models for children. While women tend to foster a nurturing, calm, and positive environment, male teachers are more active and energetic. They often have a different way of thinking from female teachers. Sometimes the things they build with blocks are feats of engineering that are out of this world!

We need a mindset change for more males to realise that working with children is joyful and can be rewarding for them. Parents also need to see how male teachers can contribute meaningfully to our children’s learning such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It probably started when I was teaching music. Making a positive impact in children’s lives felt like a gift to me. I realised that not everybody can interact with children in such a way that they go home happy and want to come back again.

I recall that when my children went to school, the principal was looking for someone to join her to run the music program. I took the lead and joined Ascension Kindergarten. When they were looking for leaders next, I did a specialist diploma and a leadership diploma, and became the principal in 2010.

Did I think that I would be where I am today? I would say no, but I think it is important to keep an open mind. When I was a music teacher, I was already happy doing what I was doing. I did not understand why the principal asked me to join them when there were so many other teachers with early childhood background. But I trusted that it happened for a reason and that her crossing my path was a blessing as I got to grow, and continue to grow today.

It is important to have the heart for people in the early childhood sector. Connecting with people is number one. When I am in school, I know the children’s names. That shows them that they matter. For my teachers, I challenge them to become a better teacher. When you have that line of thinking, people know that you have their well-being at heart and that you want them to grow.

Besides networking with other professionals and having sound pedagogical practices, soft skills like communication are very crucial to help people find their purpose and their trajectory in this sector. Such conversations can help them avoid burnout or stress. Relationship building and having the intuition to even identify people who are at risk of burning out are transferable skills.

Another skill that I have learned is to challenge yourself to do difficult conversations. You cannot hide, you cannot run. If there are issues and you are not saying anything, there will be nothing to disagree on, but everybody is going to complain. But if you speak up and articulate your views, people know where you stand. You must contend that not everybody is going to agree with you, and some will leave. However the people who stay are those who truly believe in your passion and will walk the journey with you.

Acknowledge and aspire.

I am aware that more teachers are looking for higher pay packages, but I hope they do realise that it does come with strings attached, like longer working hours. Many teachers end up taking work home because of the deliverables. Give yourselves two years of doing so. If you feel like you are going to burn out, do not keep it to yourself. Be aware and acknowledge that you need help – Brene Brown reminds us that “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.”

Do not feel like you have failed. Never tell yourself that you have failed because you have been trained. You have passed that training. Perhaps that school is not the right fit. Look into your heart. What is your passion? What is your purpose? Reflect on these questions and acknowledge them. Make sure you resonate with the organisation’s purpose. If it does not resonate with you, make your choice, and give yourself options.

It may not always be the pay that fulfils you. I cannot emphasise enough about knowing what you want and finding your own passion and purpose. Give yourself a chance to explore different preschools. I am not telling you to change schools every six months. What I mean is within those two years, reflect and ask yourself what you aspire to do the next year. In the third year, ask yourself where you want to see yourself in the fourth year and so on. From there, keep challenging and improving yourself.