“Welcome to the Bunyip Room!”
Karen McMullen crouches down to greet her new charge, a curly-haired blonde girl who takes in the chaos that surrounds her with a mix of awe and terror. It’s early on Friday morning and for the educators and children of Courallie Park Child Development Centre in Orange, NSW, the year has only recently begun, bringing with it a slew of new, anxious faces.
In this case, though, the anxious face belongs to that of blonde girl’s mother, who fusses over her daughter, taking too long to say goodbye. McMullen rises to her feet, laughing and joking with the girl’s parent, imparting in seconds enough calm and ease to allow the child’s mother to bid her final farewells with a confident smile and commit her daughter to Courallie’s care.
In mere minutes the transaction is completed, the blonde girl is guided to the Play-Dough table, and McMullen buzzes off to briefly plan the day’s activities with one colleague before rushing outside to rescue the less sturdy outdoor furniture from the looming threat of rain, then back inside again to examine a sobbing infant presented by another educator, and then gathers her charges together with an enthusiastic rendition of Rock-a-bye Your Bear.
It’s exhausting to watch, but for McMullen, Courallie Park’s Director, it’s a typical Friday morning. She whips around the room, going from activity to activity, task to task, child to child in the unceasing blur of a life lived seconds at a time.
“It’s not even eleven o'clock yet but I’ve dealt with twenty five children, probably ten families, ten drop-offs plus then we’ve had this injury, and we’ve had pay office ring,” she says when we finally sit down in the tiny wooden chairs at the colouring-in table. I fidget in the undersized seat, fussing with notebooks and recording equipment, trying to find some compromise between forcing my legs under the table or having them splayed out to the side, perpendicular to my spine. In contrast, McMullen beams comfortably across the table at me, a beacon of joy and serenity amid the squeals and shrieks of other people’s children. She speaks candidly and energetically, pausing only briefly as she rattles off her favourite colour (blue) and her favourite books (Hattie and the Fox and Bryce Courtney’s April Fools). By rights she should at least be a little out of breath or have her eyes darting around the room as she observes, assesses and responds. But where others might spend their Fridays slouching into work, coffees clutched like talismans and eyes watching the agonising progression of the minutes, McMullen laughs and chats like she’s at a picnic and all these tiny people just happen to be there.
“You never really know when you walk through the door what’s going to unfold. On an office day a lot of it is taken up with council bureaucracy, parent requests, needs, staff rosters, staff needs. Then Thursday, Friday, when I’m teaching in the room face to face I try to focus mainly on the children... but there’s always staff coming to me.”
McMullen checks today’s tasks off her fingers, listing off things that've happened or needed to be managed. “Today someone's been bitten quite severely in the other room in the other room,” she explains, “so that means parents have to be contacted, we have to make decisions about how we’re going to manage that injury both ways – so for the child that’s been bitten and the child doing the biting... I’ve just got to take it as it comes, try not to let everything get out of control or too dramatic. I’ve just got to try to take it, look at it, prioritise it, deal with it in the moment and hope you make the right decision at the end of the day.”
It’s a daunting task: for the children that pass through these walls, Courallie Park will be their first taste of schooling; the semi-structured play forming their earliest experiences of what will likely be thirteen years of formal education. Here they will learn to manage their routine, group interaction, gross-motor skills, and self-reliance. They will paint, draw, cut, ride, sing, shape and build; they will get dirty, get wet, get into conflicts, get bruised and get back up again, all under the guidance of Karen McMullen and her team of educators. So where do you start when you’re responsible for the earliest development of countless children?
“I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a teacher,” says McMullen. “In a year ten work experience my choice was to go to a school… I went to OPS (Orange Public School) for two weeks and loved every minute of it and knew that was going to be what I was aiming for as far as my HSC was concerned. I did my uni course as general primary and started teaching at Sacred Heart and I had year one and two as a maternity leave position.”
Her stay in primary education was a brief one though. “I just found it too structured, I found it too prescriptive, lots of pressure for different outcomes… I didn’t feel motivated enough to stay within the school system to I had to look for something outside it.”
When a casual position became available at Courallie Park in the early 1990s, McMullen found her niche, quickly progressing from a casual educator, to a float position, to a permanent position, before applying to be Director in 1996. She attributes a great deal of her success to her earliest colleagues at the Centre who helped foster her passion for early childhood education.
“I was fortunate to work at Courallie alongside educators that loved a lot of literacy, so I was really empowered by their enthusiasm and it really resonated with me of how powerful literacy is for children,” says McMullen.
These early years helped form McMullen’s deceptively simple teaching philosophy. “Play is so important,” she explains. “Sensory is so important, care, kindness… authentic, meaningful education with a lot of respect.”
* * * * *
“It’s all about the kids,” says Louise Delarue. “She just wants them to have the best early childhood experience they can have. It’s all about the joy, the learning, finding out.”
Delarue has been at Courallie Park for twelve years, and spent six of them working through certificate training, diploma, and then undergraduate qualifications. She recently took on the role of Courallie Park’s Educational Leader during the Centre’s transition from the older emergent curriculum to the current Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and she has experienced firsthand the effects of McMullen’s philosophy.
“My grandson Eli was here a few years ago, and he wasn’t the most academic. But Karen, when she spoke about Eli, she just wanted him to be self-reliant and have so much self-resilience to go off to school,” Delarue explains. “She never saw it as a deficit that he couldn’t cut, that he couldn’t write, that he couldn’t colour. But to make sure that when he came to school, what she brought to him was joy.”
It’s a story that has been repeated many times, and with many parents. It’s far too easy to compare your child to another, to analyse strengths and weaknesses, to secretly despair because your child looks a little clumsy, doesn’t speak up, plays alone too much, or acts differently to everyone else and what if that’s all your fault? This is the existential terror many parents grapple with and it means that McMullen’s position entails supporting parents as much as she empowers their children.
McMullen recognises that her position is seen as one with expert knowledge. “I feel like I’m out of my depth every time they ask me a question,” she says, a self-deprecating laugh belying her twenty-odd years of experience. “Everybody’s circumstances are different. You’re only really giving advice or recommendations based on your own personal experience but it doesn’t always transfer to the next person… Every time somebody asks me a question I’m really mindful that this is important and not [to] be flippant about it because somebody could be making a decision based on my opinion.”
“It doesn’t always work out right,” she says, “and we’ll lose families because I have given my opinion and they don’t want to hear it… but you’ve got to wear that as well; you’ve got to accept the negativity as much as you love the positivity.”
McMullen cites encouraging staff to move on when they’re no longer meeting her standards as some of the hardest decisions she’s had to make. “I’ve probably had to do it a couple of times in my career and it’s resulted in not just one staff member leaving, but several staff teams sort of joining together and leaving… The first time I didn’t have a breakdown, but the second time I was really close.”
Her willingness to make these decisions and to stand by them has earned McMullen the respect of her colleagues. Delarue recalls a time when the Centre was plagued by a highly contagious infection that had spread to both children and staff. The infection, compounded by the loss of numerous sick staff, resulted in McMullen having to confront frustrated parents and request they keep their children at home.
“The Health Department said the only way you can get rid of it is if people stay home and you bleach the place. And she actually stood by the door and asked people ‘if you could possibly take your child home today, I know you still have to pay but we have to get the bug out of the service’,” says Delarue. “That was a brave decision.”
* * * * *
When these tough decisions arise, McMullen finds her solace in spirituality and her family. “I talk to my god regularly,” she says. “I like to read things about spirituality, and for me it’s about being a good person. I dabble in a bit of everything; I get my tarot read when I feel I’m at a loose end in a major way… When trying to make sense of something that I’m not in control of I will go and have a tarot reading or psychic reading or something like that.”
“Karen’s a very spiritual person,” Jessica McMullen says of her mother. “She’s a Catholic, but it goes beyond that. She incorporates it all into her life.”
Soft-spoken, the younger McMullen speaks of the strong sense of family she gets from her mother, painting a picture of meals eaten together with her parents and sister, of stories read together, of good health and nutrition passed on by her mother, and of the joy that her mother gets from being a grandparent.
“She doesn’t read a lot of fiction these days – mainly for work or health magazines. But she likes Netflix,” jokes McMullen. “She’s been watching a lot of Shameless lately.”
“She’s got a very strong relationship with her sister,” McMullen continues. “They lean on each other… She had to grow up very quickly ; she’s kind of the matriarch of our family. But she’s a very soft person. Everyone always asks her for advice. She’s always just nurturing people; she’ll always come up with a solution to any problem you can come up with.”
McMullen’s ‘nurturing personality ’ has, on occasion, proven to be a burden. “She tries to see the good in people and has been disappointed,” her daughter explains.
* * * * *
Part of this can perhaps be traced back to Karen McMullen’s own childhood. She explains her desire to choose a better life for herself and the people she cares about:
“I think I’ve been probably surrounded by not so much positive influences as negative experiences, which made me the person I am today,” she says. “It was a tough period for ten or fifteen years of a marriage breakup and alcohol abuse and living in housing commission, not having enough money and watching mum struggle. But that gave me the motivation to go ‘nope, not having that’.”
“It’s made me a much, much better person in every way. A stronger person, a stronger woman for sure, definitely more empathy, more understanding… When I see a family I can identify with I know how important it is to treat them like the families that come in and their mum’s a doctor and dad’s a lawyer.”
Her decision to make a better life for her own family – striving to be the caring, nurturing person that people look to for guidance and support – has meant that she’s now surrounded by a close-knit group of friends, family and colleagues who seem to want to share McMullen’s warmth and compassion at every opportunity. Indeed, McMullen is so respected that it’s difficult to get anyone to find any fault with her besides caring too much, which is the kind of character flaw you might expect during a clichéd job interview rather than of the Director of a council-funded child care service.
* * * * *
You could be forgiven for mistaking the fervent support of those around her as a sort of cult of personality. However her decision to actively seek a better, more stable life for her own family has meant that she has little patience for those who make different choices – or make no choice at all.
“Choosing to not get a job, choosing to not be role models for their children, to work or study or not get out of bed before ten o’clock in the morning,” she says, listing the character flaws that frustrate her. “When my mum was going through it there certainly wasn’t the services that are available for people today for families in crisis. There’s definitely this culture now of ‘the world owes me’, and they’re the people who frustrate me the most.”
The position has, at times, brought her into disagreement with her colleagues, even when her frustration is shared by them. But even then, it was short-lived.
“We’ve probably only had one or two disagreements, but we always just have it, say it, have a hug and walk away,” says Delarue. “Doing the right thing by little children is easy. I think that that selfish people, selfish adults, selfish parents goes against everything that she stands for.”
McMullen’s long-time friend and colleague Kym Johns shares Delarue’s assessment.
“There’s been times when we’ve had different opinions and I’ve thought maybe we need to step back a bit,” she says. “Sometimes I think we push that on because we have that high expectation that we push onto parents… There’s never been an all-in brawl of ‘don’t do that, don’t do that,’ it’s more a question of ‘why do you think we should go that way’, and she’ll give me a reason why.”
At the end of the day, it seems that McMullen’s managed that all-too-difficult task of learning from your experiences without becoming jaded by them, and it’s recognised in everyone who speaks of her.
“Karen’s biggest strength is how she is with people,” muses the younger McMullen. “She always sees the best in people.”
“She genuinely cares about people,” agrees Delarue. “She cares about the staff; she can be a friend, a co-worker and a director and you know which one’s talking to you… she’s the strongest person I know.”
“You can stand here and argue ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine’, and she just keeps looking at you going ‘really?’ and eventually you break down and go ‘oh Karen this is what’s happened!’” laughs Johns. “She has this amazing ability to read people. She knows how far to push people, but she knows what to say to people and how to say it in a way that gets her meaning across but it’s not taken in the wrong way… she’s got this belief and she’s so passionate about things. She’s just a beautiful soul.”
This is the word that comes up the most when you speak to people about Karen McMullen: passion. I hear it so often, in fact, that I’m tempted to check the dictionaries at Courallie to see if the definition has been replaced with a colourful crayon-scrawled image of her. It certainly explains why she’s lasted as long as she has. After seeing so many faces – young and old – come and go, it would take a dedication, a strength of character to remain as vibrant and upbeat and McMullen does. I’m reminded of the various Courallie Park events I’ve seen her at; the Christmas parties and fundraisers and information nights, and the image of McMullen, dressed in colourful primary colours, bouncing from group to group and chatting effortlessly for hours on end with children and adults alike is a clear memory from each one. This passion permeates all that she does and everyone that knows her – even to the point where they obstinately refuse to find any fault with her.
“There’s this passion in my gut,” McMullen says (there’s that word again). “I love being with the children, I love talking to people, I love being with the adults and hearing about what’s happening in their lives… I walk through the door in the morning and I get this feeling that I love.”
* * * * *
Later on Friday morning, the Bunyip children are gathered in a circle. “It’s Friday!” McMullen says to the assembled group. “It’s time for Yarn On! Remember to say your name and tell us something about yourself: something you like, or something that happened to you.”
A pinecone is passed around the circle, possessing it is an invitation for the child to have a turn at sharing their news. Most speak softly, haltingly, and require prodding. But one by one, each opens up. The children – particularly those new to the Bunyip room – watch the pinecone’s circuit with a mixture of curiosity and consternation.
It reaches a particularly recalcitrant girl, whose mouth says determinedly shut.
“Tell us all your name so we know who you are. My name is…. Mopsy! Peppa!” McMullen coaxes the child, supplying increasingly ridiculous names until the girl’s resolve finally collapses and, giggling, corrects her.
* * * * *
“I can’t see her anywhere apart from here, doing this,” says Jessica McMullen. It’s a sentiment shared by many others.
Karen McMullen and Courallie Park Child Development Centre are so inextricably linked that most have difficulty imagining one without the other. It certainly seems that way to hear McMullen herself talk about the service. She speaks energetically of plans for the children, and of successes past. She shares memories of telling fairy tales to the children and making a big deal out of the real-life fairy tale of when Prince William and Catherine Middleton got married, and jokes about how everything is exciting, everything is teachable, and how she has too many endorphins running through her head.
The only thing that makes her pause is the thought of the memories she created with the children she cares for being lost.
“I can’t think about that, because it would make me cry.” She gives a wry smile – the closest thing to a frown I’ve yet seen on her face. “They’re not going to remember; we’re just another part of their very busy lives. But if every child has one memory – and I only expect one – whether it’s a smell, or a food, or something about their early childhood… That’s our job: to make memories.”
Which begs the question: if it’s about making memories, what will hers be?
“I reckon her strongest memory will be the transformation of children,” says Delarue. “Seeing shy, introverted children leave out the door confident, ready for school.”
“Just the strong bond that she’s had with not only the staff, but the children,” offers Johns. “I think she’ll walk away really proud of the service that more or less she’s created.”
And McMullen herself? The simple pleasure of having been a part of what she sees as so important a part of a child’s formative experience.
“I have days where I walk around and the children are doing things and I go ‘I am so blessed to be witnessing this’. The parents are at work, doing what they’ve got to do to make ends meet and I’m the one that’s blessed to be witnessing a baby walk for the first time, or discover they can draw a sheep, or all those tiny things I just see as being monumental.”