Having just celebrated her 60th birthday, Murrumbateman Preschool (MECCA) Educator Christine Armstead said she was not “ready to retire yet”, that she has a “few years left to work”.

“I thought to myself, what would I like the final few years of work to look like, so I thought, it’s going back to the teaching,” she said.

With the past 20 years in the preschool’s driving seat as director, Christine felt the urge to return to her original role of teaching young children, before she would finally hang up her hat.

On September 1, Christine stepped down from her role as director and into the role as educator at MECCA.

Christine’s journey for the preschool began two decades ago when someone she knew at the centre, approached her, as they were in dire need for a director.

Christine was at that time, working in Canberra between different teaching capacities, and two of her children were already attending the preschool.

Having led an entire life in the early childhood sector, including a college qualification back in England, Christine pounced on the opportunity and has “never looked back”.

Educator Armstead said when she was approached, it was a “dream come true”, that it was a great fit as she could work hours that suited her parenting duties too.

Murrumbateman preschool – MECCA Director Christine Armstead celebrates twenty years of service and is now changing her role to spend more time with the children

“I’ve never had an inclination to work in any other profession as it has always been about the children. Working with children is where my passion lies,” she said.

“When I was approached, I knew that Murrumbateman was my community, not Canberra.”

When reflecting upon 20 years of service, Christine is proud of the tight-knit community MECCA encompasses, that she is able to be part of generations coming through the centre.

The preschool recently welcomed a family to the centre; with the mother, Shannon Bradley, having also been taught by Christine as a preschool child at MECCA.

Shannon said being back, seeing the walls and seeing Christine, brought back a lot of good memories, ones that she is sure her son Levi, will experience too.

“[20 years] is great, from when I was a little three-year-old, I know my son will have a good time,” she said.

“He’s [Levi] only been here three weeks, and he’s already learnt so much, he comes home and tells me all these things he does, and it has made me really happy.

“Everything is updated with new toys and the playground that my son gets to experience. More importantly, I am grateful that he is taught by someone I know [Christine] that is such a great teacher.”

MECCA – (L-R) Nathan (Shannon’s partner), Jordyn, Shannon Bradley, Levi and Christine Armstead

When The Times asked Christine how she felt seeing her previous student enrol their own child, she said it was “even more special” that it happened on her 20th year.

“It’s a real privilege to be in such an intrinsic part of the community for so long,” Christine said.

“I’ll go down to the shops and a young person will come barrelling out of the car yelling ‘Christine, Christine, Christine!’

“[And] they are 18 or 19, but they remember you and they are happy to see you.”

In the year 2000 when Christine first started, the preschool was only operating two days a week, from 9-3 pm with a total enrolment number of 16 children.

At present, it operates five days a week, from 8-4 pm with an enrolment number close to 50 children and around 20-30 students graduate from the school each year.

This was mainly due to the increase in settlement over the years in the Murrumbateman area.

In NSW, preschool enrolment starts at the age of three, whereas in ACT, it is at the age of four.

This saw the area welcome many new families from across the border.

However, the exponential growth within the past two decades was one of the challenges Christine and her team of volunteers faced in terms of maintaining the quality of education with accommodating expansion.

When the numbers went up, MECCA could not accommodate the needs with only one classroom.

And outdoors, the front garden could only be classed as a local excursion due to the poor quality of fencing.

But in 2013, an outdoor extension was built, and the centre utilised the land on the side for the children to grow veggies.

The centre now has two classrooms titled Echidna Room and Wombat Room.

With a growth in the area, Christine mentioned the need for a primary school as “paramount”, although MECCA is not looking to expand into that market just yet.

And that is because of the significant impacts it would have, on the quality of education that MECCA prides itself on.

Even if the centre can increase its enrolment capacity, Christine argued it would impact upon the dynamics of the classroom.

“Young children can be quite eco-centric, being all about them. A sense of belonging is paramount to early learning framework, and all our services reflect that,” Christine said.

“If you are all about money, you could lose track of the attention you give a child, their interests and needs.

“We can’t make a lot of money that way [expanding], but this preschool is not here to make a lot of money because there is no one here waiting to take any profits”.

Established in 1983, MECCA has depended on a volunteer management committee whom, take on extra administrative duties to ensure any additional funding goes straight back into the children.

In March 2014, MECCA rated ‘exceeding’ in Quality Area 6 and 7 of the National Quality Standards assessment.

Quality Area 6 was ‘collaborative partnerships with families and communities’ and Quality Area 7 was ‘leadership and service management’.

Murrumbateman Preschool was the first early childhood centre in the area to achieve this.

Christopher Tan