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From PhD to Traineeship: University teacher pursues career in early learning

Belinda Hilton is pursuing a career as an Early Childhood Educator later in life. She's working towards Educational Leadership.

Careers and employment

Article by Deni Kirkova

She’s already accomplished so much in academia, work and life. Now, Belinda Hilton is going back to school as a trainee with Goodstart. 

Here, Belinda shares her story. Learn how she went from a PhD teaching at university for 10 years to pursuing a career in early learning. She’s a valued team member at Goodstart Hawthorne, QLD, and has big goals for her future. 

Traineeships * can be done at any stage. You can apply whether you're new to the workplace or want a renewed sense of purpose and a career change. Goodstart welcomes those who are passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of children. 

Inspired to start a career in early childhood education later in life 

Belinda's been inspired to join the sector (pictured with children who attend her centre)Belinda's been inspired to join the sector (pictured with children who attend her centre)

Belinda decided to join the sector after enrolling her own children at Goodstart. She realised the profound impact early learning can have on little learners. 

She said: “Goodstart was the first centre we toured, based purely off location, it was a very short walk away. We were really impressed by how warm the staff were. I remember one of the educators recognising that our son was teething. They were so lovely trying to sooth our fussing infant, while still attending to the other babies. It was very reassuring.”

Belinda’s son, who is an only-child, started in nursery and within a month, COVID hit Australia. There was a lot of change, adjustment, and uncertainty in their lives. It made social connection challenging. Attending early education was one of the only opportunities Belinda’s son had for social interaction during that time. 

She added: “He transitioned to Prep this year. At his Kindy graduation it was amazing to see how much he has grown and developed since he started at Goodstart. His class performed two dances during their graduation, and we watched him wiggle, move, and laugh with his friends. 

“I can remember when he was the kid who struggled with drop-offs. His Goodstart educators worked so hard to make him feel confident and comfortable separating. He has several friends from his Kindy class who attend the same school as him. Some of those children he's known since his days in nursery. 

"It's been a lovely journey and we've seen him grow and overcome many challenges with the support of his early educators. We can see the skills he learnt in Kindy helping him navigate the Prep year. 

Changing career pathways, from tourism to teaching and early learning 

Belinda started university right after high school, studying for a BA in Creative Arts, with a major in theatre and contemporary arts. She deferred in her third year due to doubts about job prospects. Then, Belinda had a colourful working life in various fields like retail, hospitality, and make-up. She ended up working at a horror themed tourist attraction. This improved her communication and creative skills. 

She said: “The job involved interacting with all sorts of people. A lot of domestic and international tourists, families, kids, quirky locals, and folks out for a big night on the town. Staff wore full costumes, make-up, wigs, and were part entertainers, part sales assistants.” 

In her late twenties, Belinda returned to university, switched to creative writing, and completed her BA. She then researched social media for her honours and PhD. This led Belinda to teaching in a course about new communication technology, then in the field of communication and media. 

For ten years, Belinda taught subjects like public relations, journalism, and children's media. This sparked her interest in child safety, ethics, and digital rights. 

She said: “When I was pregnant with my son, I taught a course on children's media. I eventually began working with an academic who is an expert in the field of children's media. This exposed me to lots of interesting ideas and research about the concepts of childhood. I learned about the issues that can arise around child safety, ethics, and digital rights. And I was inspired by the amazing opportunities for children's engagement and early education in this space.” Her transferrable skills help Belinda in her role today (pictured with a child at her centre)Her transferrable skills help Belinda in her role today (pictured with a child at her centre)

Belinda’s transferrable skills from her creative arts and communication background help her in her role today. And going from higher education to early learning isn't as starkly different as one might assume.  

Belinda said: “One of the key benefits is my experience communicating with diverse groups. This applies to those with linguistic, culturally diverse, economical, and accessibility barriers. Many adult learners that I've met while teaching at university had sadly had negative experiences with learning that had taken a one-size-fits-all approach. This is something I'm keeping firmly in my mind now working in early learning: each child is different. They are all learning at their own pace, on their own terms and in their own way.” 

Now, Belinda used her skills in creative thinking and individual-focused teaching in early learning settings. She’s passionate about the value and considerations of Edutech, critical media literacy for children, and developments in these fields. 

From teaching at university to a traineeship in early learning 

Belinda said: “People have been surprised that I've wanted to move from the university sector to early learning. I had a range of motivations. The university sector has become a heavily casualised industry, both in Australia and internationally. Secure work is hard to come by and most tutors are employed on short term contracts, for a small portion of the year. 

“There is also a culture of overwork, long hours, and unpaid labour. I was unsure of what to do next after finishing my doctorate. I wasn't sure where I fit within academia. The pandemic led to a lot of change in the sector, an increase in work from home and I felt increasingly isolated within the industry.” 

Belinda was following what was happening in the early learning sector as a parent. She recognised that the sector needed more people. And she had been following the efforts within the industry to improve public perception of early learning and valuing early educators. 

Meanwhile, she was watching her son's Goodstart educators make connections between his interest in toy cars and construction toys with STEM concepts. Belinda learned that some had backgrounds in engineering or university training in the sciences. Some had made the switch for work-life balance after becoming parents. Others had retrained due to migration, their previous qualifications not necessarily aligning with the local industry. 

Belinda said: “This really opened my eyes to the benefits of the sector, but also the perceptions of what early education is and who works in the field. I also discovered that one of my former theatre lecturers had long ago moved into early learning. 

“When I mentioned the idea of entering early childhood education to academic friends many immediately responded positively. Especially those who had children in their lives. A weekend away with my family, spending time with my son and my nephews sealed the deal. The organic opportunities for learning that emerge around children are such a wonderful thing to experience. Following their interests, helping them navigate emotions and social interactions, and listening to their stories is such a privilege. 

“One of the really wonderful things about small children is how open they are to the learning. As a parent you suddenly find yourself pointing at diggers or leaves and you're looking things up to answer unexpected questions about how things work. It is a joy to see things through new eyes.” 

A new life and career pathway to teach under fives 

“One of the best things about the career change is that I'm no longer stuck at a desk. I get to move my body, spend time outside in the sunshine, picking up flowers and seedpods and watching bugs with my little learners. What a joy!”Belinda appreciates being mobile and exploring outdoor environments with the children as part of her new role.

Belinda started her traineeship in October 2023 and has since completed enough hours to be in ratio. She’s spent time in every room in her centre, Hawthorne QLD, and enjoys working with all the age ranges. 

She said: “I do particularly enjoy working with the Kindy and Pre-Kindy children. I love when I get the opportunity to read books with them, especially when it's a book that they love, and they want to finish the sentences. I also love being able to dance, sing and be silly. 

“There are so many opportunities to be creative when working in early learning, especially through imagination play. I love going on imaginary drives or train trips in the playground. Sometimes we're visiting a child's grandparents. Other times we're going to their favourite place in the city. 

“I get to draw from my theatre and improvisation skills, storytelling, and communication background.  It's a simple way to engage with the children's interests and learn more about their life and how the view the world.

Plus, there's lots of opportunity to work on social skills - joining a game, turn-taking, listening - in this kind of interaction. 

“One of the best things about the career change is that I'm no longer stuck at a desk. I get to move my body, spend time outside in the sunshine, picking up flowers and seedpods and watching bugs with my little learners. What a joy!” 

Is it better to study a postgraduate degree or work up from a traineeship? 

Eventually, Belinda will study a master’s degree, which will qualify her to work as an Early Childhood Teacher.  

She's working towards Educational Leadership as her long-term goal, with her chosen pathway to start as a Trainee.  

Belinda said: “I considered going straight to postgraduate study in early learning to become an ECT. However, I knew that I still needed an income and a break from universities. 

“My son's centre had recently hired some trainees, so I investigated traineeships. I liked the idea of getting on the job training. 

“Entering the industry as a centre-based trainee means I have day-to-day moments of mentoring. I get regular feedback and I also get to learn from observing the wealth of skillsets and experience displayed by the centre team.” 

Belinda has also utilised several employee benefits, discounts and incentives to help along the way. 

She said: “There are some helpful government incentives for trainees. These include small financial bonuses as you reach milestones in the traineeship. Plus, Goodstart offers an employee discount so that has helped our childcare budget. Receiving a uniform allowance has also been great. 

Belinda added: “Goodstart as a large, well-established company has a lot of infrastructure in place to support employees. The online Learning Hub is fantastic. 

I'm really fortunate that so many of my colleagues have been encouraging from day one. Not just regarding my current training in the Certificate III but in continuing studies in the future. From what I've observed, many are eager to continue upskilling and engaging with professional development. And Goodstart is very supportive of this.” 

Interested in a career in early learning? Explore Goodstart careers.

*Traineeships are organised in-centre. If you're interested in this, please find your local Goodstart and enquire about their Traineeship intake and capacity to take on trainees.

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