Sarah Cooper, pictured centre with Goodstart's CEO, Dr Ros Baxter, and Deputy CEO, Jeff Harvie, shares her inspiring leadership style.
She is a transformational changemaker at Goodstart and a trusted custodian for families who leads from the heart.
The accomplished Centre Director and mother-of-one nurtures her team culture and strategically organises people, procurement and operations. And she so purely cares for each family and child.
Under her leadership, both Altona and Hoppers Crossing Morris Road achieved Exceeding ACECQA ratings.
And Sarah also just happened to win Goodstarter of the Year for the VIC West and TAS region at the Goodies 2023. Congratulations, Sarah!
Could we start with your background; how long have you been in Early Childhood Education and Care?
I've been working in early childhood education since 2005. I always had a passion for working with children. As soon as I left high school, I studied for my Certificate III at Victoria University.
Once I completed this I started working for a few privately owned companies in the early learning s ector and completed the diploma. Unfortunately, I became disillusioned, and I wasn’t happy. The private sector didn't fit with my vision and beliefs, and I was looking to leave early childhood education altogether.
But my husband recommended I try working at a bigger company, because it would run more organised with set policies and procedures. Thankfully, I did.
I soon ended up working at Goodstart Point Cook as centre director. I was there for 10 years and then went on maternity leave. I was off with my daughter for a year and then moved to Altona where I directed for just under four years. In March, I was asked to move to Hoppers Crossing and help elevate the service. This location is actually closer to home for me more convenient.
Under your leadership, both Altona and Hoppers Crossing elevated their ACECQA rating. Aside from sprucing the space up, what are your tips for centre directors?
- For me, the essence of running an early learning centre is about doing – not simply telling. You've got to do things with your team. If you're not there supporting through change or challenges, how can you expect them to thrive? You need to have respect and understanding for your people.
- Your team need to know the ‘why’. Why are we doing what we're doing and why am I asking them to make this change? I think the ‘why’ is important in having that big transformation happen.
- Meet your people where they are. You can't expect people to go from zero to 10 when they're at five. Some people might need a little bit more support with getting from five to six before we can get to 10. So, I focus on real individual-based learning.
- I believe in buddying people up. As a CD (Centre Director), you need to be strategic about who you're putting in rooms. Are they supporting each other? If you've got someone who is strong in environments but not so great in learning stories, and someone who's the opposite, you can buddy those two people up. This was the room is balances and they can experience real peer-to-peer learning.
- Know where your champions are. If you've got somebody in a centre that does something fantastic, you can utilise their strengths to push it forward.
- Being organised is important. We discuss anything we have on our quality improvement plan at every single centre leadership and team meeting. Even if it's just to say, 'we didn't get to that this month' or 'we didn't do anything with that this month', we communicate on progress. As a Centre Director, it’s crucial to drive that change and really put transformation at the forefront.
These awesome tips are so valuable for our sector! Where do you find reward at work?
Seeing the growth of both our educators, the children and even families is very rewarding.
New families who are dropping off the most important person in their life are embarking on a big journey. Especially first-time parents. So, I feel privileged to share that moment with them and reassure them from enrolment right through to graduation.
It's amazing to see the children then actually graduate and go off to school. It was really nice at Altona, because we were so close to the school, we'd still see some of the children. They'd come to the gate, waving and shouting ‘Sarah, Sarah, Sarah!’ but seeing the children’s journeys from start to finish is very rewarding in itself.
And just to see the development in our educators gives me so much motivation. An educator may be struggling with something and, through the support that I’ve been able to give them or link them up with, I see their natural growth.
Our rating is a big way of being recognised for the for the work that we do. It’s always fantastic to have a good result there and to read the lovely comments from the assessor. The same goes for positive visits and kind words from your state managers, state performance leads and coach.
Also, I've been asked to help some other services through peer-to-peer support. It’s a great way that Goodstart shows they appreciate the work that you do, or that you're capable of doing.
The Goodies is another really nice way to be recognised.
Could you share any insights on your people skills, and the genuine way with families you are known for. How do you make a difference for them?
This involves my personal philosophy and that of the centres I’ve worked at.
Relationships are the basis of everything and must begin with trust. If families trust us as people, they then have more trust in what we're doing. Families need to have a great experience from first contact, whether that's a phone call or when they walk into the centre.
It's also about being individual. Not every child or family will orientate in the same way so the experience shouldn't be one size fits all. And we need to meet families where they are. Sometimes the child doesn't need any orientation and they're doing fine down in the room, but it's the parent that's not doing okay. So how are we supporting them with this change and the dynamic of coming into the centre? How can we reassure them?
We tailor our tours and time to what the family needs. Asking those key questions like ‘What's important to you? What are your fears? What are your aspirations?’ and then tailoring conversations to fit. Have everything ready so you can have individual conversations means families can feel like more of a person than a number.