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I am a globetrotter, a wayfarer and a wanderer. I have visited twenty-two countries and made my home in four. For every traveller, the most fascinating part of travelling is experiencing the local culture of the places we visit. I have wrestled (unsuccessfully) in an impromptu wrestling competition next to a clear blue river in Mongolia, survived a 7.2 earthquake in The Philippines and enjoyed the dubious pleasures of long-drop toilets in the hills of Venda, South Africa. I have ridden a very grumpy camel under a moonlit Saharan desert sky and had a full-blown panic attack in a crowded, chaotic Moroccan medina.

Planning to set up a school on a tropical island seemed a good idea when I was living in the suburbs of Johannesburg. However, when I disembarked from a local ferry onto a seaside market on a small Philippine island, with the smells of dried fish and mangoes heavy in the humid air, I realised I hadn’t quite taken the cultural difference into account. This was a very different world, one whose norms I could not comprehend. I knew instantly that this society worked in ways that I had to learn and understand.

There are commonalities between cultures, especially today in the age of globalisation and easy online access. In the middle of a very deprived community in Addis Ababa, I swapped Facebook details with a local teacher. Last month I connected with a teacher in Botswana – we met over WhatsApp and shared our areas of interest. I scroll through TikTok as I relax on my bed and am connected with a myriad of different cultures whilst dressed in my pyjamas.

Today, almost worldwide, there is a common dress code; jeans and T-shirts, business suits, tracksuits and trainers are found wherever you go. However, when you are in a different country, the subtle and not-so-subtle differences are there. Architecture, music, transport, language, clothing, and food, all tell us where we are. These things tell us what is important and what is expected.

What Is Culture?

Culture is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as:

  • The way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time:
  • The attitudes, behaviour, opinions, etc. of a particular group of people within society:

Culture is built through shared experiences. It comes from the stories told, the lessons learned and the relationships with the people around us. As wonderfully diverse and beautiful as world-wide cultures are, how does culture apply to us, in early years?

The Ingredients of Company Culture

We need an understanding of what comprises workplace or company culture and BetterUp, a virtual business coaching company, explains this concept very well.

‘Company culture is the shared values, attitudes, behaviours, and standards that make up a work environment. It is about the experience people have at work and how that experience aligns with the external brand and messaging of the company.

Culture is what creates the day-to-day experience at a company. And when an organisation has a good company culture, employees are engaged, committed, and excited to come to work. And that stretches from brand-new employees up to the leadership team.

That's because, in a healthy culture, there are clear expectations. Expectations around how work gets done, why that work is important and how teams are expected to treat each other. There is also a sense of alignment between the company vision and core values and how those values and vision show up in the workplace.’

Every nursery has a culture, even if it is not recognised. In my work with nurseries, it is clear that many have lost their way with regard to culture. This is understandable as owners are consumed by ever-tightening financial constraints, managers have to deal with very stressful recruitment situations and early years teachers have to work long hours for basic pay. Mental health and wellbeing are day to day concerns. Sometimes, just getting to the end of a day without mishap is a huge relief.

Where does it fit into this demanding workplace and who is responsible for developing this culture?

Denise Lee Yohn (Harvard Business Review, 8th February, 2021) writes that "Company culture is everyone’s responsibility". She goes on to say "Shared responsibility for culture throughout an organisation involves different people and functions within the organisation playing different roles in developing and maintaining the culture."

Owners and managers should play the lead in identifying key attributes of their nursery culture but involving every team member gives common focus and encourages a sense of ownership.

Assessing our current culture is the first step. Examining aspects of nursery life, being truthful in our discussions and making sure all voices are heard is the foundation on which we build.

Our examination begins with three simple questions;

o   what do we look like?

o   what do we sound like?

o   what do we act like?

We can break these questions down so we get to the nub of what makes our nursery tick. A sample guide is below;

 

What do we look like? What do we sound like? What do we act like?
How do we present ourselves and our environment; what do people see? How do we communicate with colleagues, parents and children?

How do we behave at work?

Which attributes are evident?

Our dress code – can we express our individuality? Language – what kind of language do we use in the staff room/on the floor/with parents? gossiping helpfulness
How does our dress code reflect the brand? Listening – do we practice focused listening? idleness kindness
What does our learning environment say to children and parents? Tone – does our tone positively reflect our culture? disrespect consideration
Body language – what are we saying without using words? What message is being received by others? bullying punctuality

 

Once we have a clear picture, negative and positive, we can identify what needs to change and what we need to hold on to.

An exciting journey follows this exploration of our culture!

The questions we now ask are;

  • what do we want to look like?
  • what do we want to sound like?
  • what do we want to act like?

We can then formulate some actions to ensure a difference is made and our workplace culture is the best it can be. In doing so, we come back to joint responsibility.

Denise Lee Yohn states, ‘At many organisations there is a gap between the existing culture and the 'desired' culture - the culture needed to support and advance the company’s goals and strategies. In a new culture-building model, everyone is responsible for cultivating the desired culture.’

This desired culture Yohn describes forms the basis for our core values, the creating of which is another joint endeavour and one which we will discuss in our next article.

Once we have identified our core values, we can draw up our ethos. This then gives us a firm foundation for developing our pedagogy which feeds directly into our curriculum. There is a natural flow from culture to curriculum.

Summary

On a personal level, we know we are unique and there is no-one quite like us. Knowing who we are as individuals enables us to reflect, adapt and grow. Knowing who we are as a nursery, pre-school or childminder setting allows us to do the same.

When we are in that secure place of working within our identified culture, our teams thrive. Our strengths are evident. Expectations are understood. There is clarity, unity and richness. We have a unique identity that is all our own. It is what draws families in and keeps team members content and committed to excellence.

It is who we are.

About the author:

Pam McFarlane, a remarkable individual that wears the hats of an Educator, Coach, and Global Explorer. With a deep-rooted passion for nurturing well-being and mental health in the realm of early years, Pam's journey is one of profound impact and meaningful exploration.

About the author:

Pam McFarlane, a remarkable individual that wears the hats of an Educator, Coach, and Global Explorer. With a deep-rooted passion for nurturing well-being and mental health in the realm of early years, Pam's journey is one of profound impact and meaningful exploration.

About the author:

Pam McFarlane, a remarkable individual that wears the hats of an Educator, Coach, and Global Explorer. With a deep-rooted passion for nurturing well-being and mental health in the realm of early years, Pam's journey is one of profound impact and meaningful exploration.

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