It was work as usual on Monday for pre-school teacher Gretchen Fenton, despite it being the second week of the holidays when you’d expect Raglan Kindergarten at the bottom of Stewart Street to be all but empty.
The 38-year-old – described by head teacher Isabel Crawforth as “our amazing Whaea Gretchen” — was about to help her young protégés make cornflake muffins when the Chronicle called.
“You haven’t washed your hands yet,” one small boy reminded her before taking his turn to stir the muffin mixture. Gretchen agreed and duly got up from the child-sized seat on which she was perched to do just that.
Gretchen’s relishing her new role as teacher at the local kindergarten, even if the daily sessions continue now – albeit with reduced numbers – through the holidays. “Many parents are working these days,” says the enthusiastic educator, herself a mother of two. “It’s all changed.”
It was actually the chance to work school hours that attracted Gretchen – an untrained reliever – to the job in the first place, she admits. Finding jobs in Raglan is hard, she reckons, yet with her husband commuting and their young children at the area school Gretchen needed to work locally.
Disillusioned with physiotherapy in which she’d originally trained and practised, Gretchen was presented with the opportunity to teach only after she’d seen her own pre-schoolers go through Raglan Kindergarten.
She was working at the kindergarten part-time, doing the gardening, and “then I picked up a couple of days relieving”, she explains.
That has extended now to three days’ teaching with another day in the office doing admin work, although it will soon change to a day back in the organic garden which Gretchen hopes will ultimately get the kindergarten from bronze to silver stage under the “wonderful” Enviroschools initiative.
The work-life balance is “perfect”, Gretchen says of the arrangement. She has both flexibility in the workplace and the energy for her own family, whether it’s in the garden growing vegies or cooking a meal at the end of the day.
“I love working and earning money but raising my kids is most important to me.”
She’s unfazed at getting paid less than a qualified teacher, but doesn’t dismiss either the idea of adding a year’s post-graduate study in early childhood education to her resume at some stage.
Meantime it’s all about enjoying the world of the pre-schooler, she told the Chronicle – pointing out the small things in their environment like snails and insects, for instance, and acorns that fall off the tree onto the kindy grounds.
“It’s a wondrous world for them, and that’s what I love (about the age level).”
Gretchen also likes the challenge of relating what they do together to the early childhood curriculum Te Whaariki, designed in New Zealand to guide children’s learning opportunities. Although untrained she takes full part in the kindergarten’s planning process, writes up the children’s “learning stories” like every other teacher and takes pride in the child-led learning environment.
She acknowledges it’s “definitely good” to have the study and planning skills of an earlier degree to draw on. And when a bright little face calls out “Whaea Gretchen” in the supermarket it’s the nicest feeling, she laughs. “I’m their hero!”
Gretchen, who’s from Whangarei, also believes that teaching’s given her a broader awareness of the Raglan community she’s now lived in for 10 years.
Isabel is effusive in her praise of her latest recruit to the kindergarten’s five-strong teaching team. She says Gretchen, having transitioned from parent to gardener to reliever, is “a good role model for the children in their own learning journey”.
And that’s not all they have to look up to. Among Gretchen’s other accomplishments, Isabel adds, is her recent success in the novice women’s standup paddleboard race at the international Ultimate Waterman event organised by Raglan-based Surfing New Zealand.
“It was my first (SUP) race,” Gretchen explains, though she’s always been into surfing and watersports generally.
She entered the race online just two days before it was held at Mission Bay, thinking that she was in Auckland at the time anyway and had nothing to lose. “I always jump in head first … feet first.”
Not expecting much, she took second place among a field of a dozen or so, and on a board built for her by her dad.
Gretchen’s proud of having left entrants on flashier boards in her wake at the “mass participation” day, but emphasises that it was all “good fun”. Just like Raglan Kindergarten.