To mark National Apprenticeship Week, That Nursery Life caught up with Amina Njalira, a former apprentice who has since built a successful career in Early Years.
Amina started as an apprentice with London Early Years Foundation through Step Forward in 2015. She worked her way up to Room Leader by 2018 and is now studying Psychology for Education at Birkbeck University.
How long have you worked in childcare?
Six years. I started with LEYF when I was 17 and qualified and moved up to Duty Manager a year later. I then became a Group Leader in 2018.
What made you want to work in childcare, and what led to you applying for an apprenticeship?
It wasn’t really an option for me, initially. After I’d finished college I didn’t really want to commit to a university course, so I was under pressure from family to choose something! But then the opportunity for an apprenticeship came up out of the blue. I had done a day of work experience at a nursery when I was 14 and one of the apprenticeship options was childcare, so I kind of thought “Well, this could be something to go into”. I am actually at university now, though, studying Psychology for Education.
Did you find you had enough information about apprenticeships when you applied?
I feel like Step Forward, the company I did the apprenticeship with, gave all the information. They’re under the National Citizen Service so that’s how I found out about them, and they gave so much information about it. I’d been with them on a residential trip about a year before, so they had my contact details and they emailed me out of the blue, which is how I heard about it. When I went to sign up they were really good and gave me all the information I needed.
I’d heard the word ‘apprenticeship’ but it wasn’t really prominent. In secondary school all I heard about was college and university. I feel like a lot of people missed out, which is a shame. I don’t like exams and I get really anxious if I have to take one, so an apprenticeship was a dream come true. You learn and are corrected as you go and, from my experience, it’s very hard to fail an apprenticeship because you’re helped every step along the way. So it was really good but more attention could have been drawn to it. Now, apprenticeships are more of a thing but, before, not so much.
Can you remember your first day?
I remember that there were no children! I met my manager, deputy manager and then all the staff team. It was quite a mature team; everyone was in their 40s whereas I was 17, so I was a bit nervous and quiet!
Who were you learning from, an individual or group of people?
There were a lot of people. The apprentices were at work for four days a week doing practical learning and then, for one day a week, we were at head office doing theory. At head office we had a mentor and an Early Years teacher from LEYF. In the setting my deputy manager was my on-site mentor. In general the whole staff team taught me.
I learned not to take offence or take things personally. For example, sometimes I’d be doing whatever I was doing with the children and I’d get snap feedback like “Don’t do it like that; do it like this” and I had to learn quickly that it wasn’t personal — it was just because I was learning. And it was good because sometimes I’d go sit in the office and get my criticisms or notes for improvement slowly, but then I’d also get to learn in the moment, where you just have to get to it.
I was the only apprentice at that setting but there were about 15 of us all doing the apprenticeship at the same time. We’d all see each other at head office, which was nice because whatever we struggled or had issues with, or just wanted to complain about, we had a group of people all going through the exact same things.
Do you think you’ve changed since starting the apprenticeship?
I would say I’ve changed a lot. I’m a lot more confident than I was back then; I was quieter and not really sure of myself. Working in childcare has really helped me come out of myself — especially working with the children. I’ve learned that it’s ok to make mistakes. As adults, I feel like when you make a mistake it’s the end of the world, but children aren’t like that; they repeat things over and over again, but they do it until it’s right. Why does that apply to children but not us? So I feel like that’s reassured me that I don’t need to have it all figured out.
As adults, I feel like when you make a mistake it’s the end of the world, but children aren’t like that; they repeat things over and over again, but they do it until it’s right. Why does that apply to children but not us?
Did you find out anything surprising about yourself while on your apprenticeship?
It wasn’t necessarily something that surprised me, but I did learn that I needed to work on my self-awareness. I didn’t really understand the importance and impact of first impressions or how people perceive you; it wasn’t a big deal to me. But I remember my manager came to me towards the end of my apprenticeship and she said: “Sometimes, when I’m talking to you, you just look at me and I don’t know if you’ve understood me. It’s only when I see you doing what I’ve said that I know that you’ve listened.” So she told me to just be more aware of how I present myself in terms of facial expressions and body language, for both adults and children.
What was the hardest part of your apprenticeship?
It was finding motivation, about halfway through the course, to pull through. Initially, starting a 9-5 job just like that is tough! You’re prepared but you still feel like you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks. In the first three months I got sick a lot, which is one thing they don’t warn you about, but it’s very common. It was infections, colds, coughs, everything! My manager was like “You’ve just started, but in two or three years you’re going to be strong and you’ll be fine!”. I hardly get sick now. But, yeah, finding the motivation during all that was hard.
Are there any moments or events that particularly stand out, good or bad?
A very happy moment was watching a group of children I’d worked with go to school. I was with them from being in the baby room as one-year-olds. I’d moved up with them through to preschool, then watched them go off to school. It was really sweet and those children have a special place in my heart.
What did you find most valuable about the apprenticeship?
All the people I met and learned from. I don’t think you expect it but there are so many tiny things that I’ve picked up from other people. It doesn’t even need to be a big life lesson – it’s things like a trick to help children put their jumpers or their shoes on without a fuss. I really value having met all of these people, having learned all these things from them and, hopefully, then passing them on to someone else.
Is there anything you’d change about the course, or how you got into childcare?
I feel there needs to be more promotion about the apprenticeships. The apprenticeship was great — I just didn’t even know it was an option. If it wasn’t for them having my email on file then I would never have known. Sometimes I think, without that one email, what would I be doing now?
I do also think there should be some more in-depth training about communication, with your voice and body language. I think those are really key things that you should be working on before you start.
I feel there needs to be more promotion about the apprenticeships. The apprenticeship was great — I just didn’t even know it was an option.
Has your experience as an apprentice affected how you work with people doing apprenticeships?
I’ve worked with two apprentices in my settings. I feel like it was beneficial because I knew exactly what they were going through, so that helped with the motivation and with putting the theory into practice. I was probably the best person to help with that transition because I’d had to do it myself. It also allowed me to be a bit firmer with them because they knew I could relate to them.
What do you think is most important when starting an apprenticeship, both from the apprentice and the organisation’s point of view?
For organisations I’d say, if you don’t have the time to really nurture and teach an apprentice, don’t get one. I’ve seen it before where a business gets an apprentice, they don’t teach them anything, and then the apprentice moves on. It’s not fair because they come to learn.
For apprentices I’d say you need to motivate yourself to push through at some points, because it does get hard. I think there’s a misconception that childcare is easy and it’s not! So just be prepared for it.
Amina was speaking to Aimee White, Junior Editor at That Nursery Life