Napier kindy teacher Steph McCallum says she fell into the profession almost completely by accident. And 52 years later, she's not going anywhere.
"A girlfriend and I couldn't decide what to do once we had finished school and she happened to live over the back fence of a kindergarten. Her mother said to us 'Why don't you be a kindergarten teacher? You can sit under a tree all day and read stories!' "
Delighted by the idea, Steph applied for – and was accepted into – the Auckland Kindergarten Teachers' College, graduating in 1960.
"Once I was in my first role, I quickly discovered there was a lot more to it than reading picture books all day. We were nurses, we were cleaners, we did the washing, the banking, the gardening and home visits. And, of course, we supported children's educational development. I loved every minute of it."
At a morning tea to mark her 80th birthday recently, the beloved Greenmeadows Kindergarten teacher spoke fondly of her 52 years as a fully trained and registered kindergarten teacher, who started her career at Mahora Kindergarten in Hastings in 1961. Her friends think she's mad, but Steph says she's happiest when she's working, and that her life as a kindergarten teacher is an absolute joy.
"If you want to be young at heart, work with children. That's always been my philosophy," Steph says.
Taking a break only briefly to have her own children, Steph remained committed to kindergarten throughout the ensuing decades. She recalls the early days of her career when the kindergartens' fortnightly mothers' club meetings would involve mums, grandparents and friends "showing up with their knitting, sometimes up to 80 people at a time".
Later, the impacts of the government-led Tomorrow's Schools brought a raft of changes, including kindergarten staff being tasked with writing policy and charters.
After her husband died in 2002, Steph continued to work up until her retirement in 2012.
"But stepping away was just awful. I thought 'oh no, I don't like this at all. I need to get out and do something.' So I visited the Napier Kindergarten Association, thinking the chances of them wanting an old duck like me were pretty slim, but they immediately offered me a part-time position at Greenmeadows. It's been absolutely perfect."
Steph continues to work two days a week as part of the team at Greenmeadows Kindergarten, despite her friends thinking she's "nuts".
"They'll say 'come on, Steph – why don't you knock off?' " she laughs. "But I tell them I love it, and life is wonderful when I'm at kindergarten. I'm very lucky to have been blessed with good health. If I didn't feel I could do the job to the best of my ability I would stop."
Steph says it's the contact with children, their parents and other teachers that she enjoys the most.
"I'm a people person. The children are so delightful and I love the innocence in the stories they tell. I also enjoy being within the amazingly well-designed kindergarten environments, which are set up entirely with children's play in mind so they're challenged, curiosity is enabled, and they can choose how they learn."
A firm believer in the philosophy of kindergarten, which offers preschool children excellence in education with 100 per cent trained and registered teachers, Steph says watching children blossom within the kindergarten model is extremely satisfying.
"Kindergarten education is an incredible gift to a child. Yes, children learn early maths skills, literacy, art, word recognition and so on. But it also teaches them how to work together, to be mindful of others, to look after their belongings, how to wait their turn, problem solve, develop independence – all those life skills that matter. Even learning to happily say goodbye to Mum or Dad is an important skill children who attend kindergarten develop."
General manager for the Napier Kindergarten Association, Helen McNaughten, is full of praise for Steph, her work ethic, care and consideration for her small charges.
"Steph epitomises what makes a fabulous kindergarten teacher. She's warm-hearted, passionate, respectful and full of empathy. She's also great fun to be around – we hope we have her as part of our team for many years to come."