Creating your culture
Within your classroom or setting, various cogs and gears work tirelessly to create an overall approach that works for you and your children. We know it works, because children are happy and they learn. Where particular cogs or gears stop working, we tweak and grease and get it going again. Everyone's setting is different and each person has a different set of mechanics. I call this, 'culture.'
Classroom culture is the unique approach you take with your own room compared to a colleague in another school or setting. Sometimes there is a major overlap and occasionally you can't tell classrooms apart, but there are usually at least a few differences. I want to unpick this further and explain why your unique culture is essential and why you mustn't get too bogged down with what other people are doing..
For the sake of this post I will use the term classroom to mean a room, setting or home. Practitioner will also be used to describe anyone who works with children.
All too often people tell me they are so fascinated by the Reggio approach or the Scandinavian model and they want to copy this in their classroom. But so many struggle. Why? Teachers which try to copy a style from one classroom to another struggle because they have failed to recognise the culture of the classroom. In Reggio Amelia, the whole community believes in the approach and the education and the whole culture is geared towards the children. Similarly in Scandinavia, generations of children have grown up climbing trees and taking far more risks that their British counterparts. Those children have had their own children and the culture has become ingrained.
We have our own culture in the UK. We (UK population) generally believe children start school at about the right age. We want children to learn to read and write, to make friends and be successful. We want children to be happy and supported and for many, education is a pathway to employment. Our culture differs from others around the world.
In spite of this, many people still want to bring other cultures into their classrooms wholesale, that is, a direct copy without adjusting for the different influences that are dominant within our classrooms.
What influences our own classroom culture?
Classrooms in the United Kingdom are heavily influenced by a wide range of factors. These aren't just stakeholders in learning, but rather these are people who see education as being an integral part of society:
All of the above will have some impact on what you can do and what you believe about the way you teach. Obviously the children play an enormous part and most people would suggest that they are the most influential of the above groups BUT that has to be balanced with the needs and wishes of the other groups.
Personally, I feel that the biggest influence on practice within an Early Years classroom is management. The Headteacher is usually the most influential person within a school and they themselves are influenced by the other people around them e.g. following guidance from the DfE and LA as well as being mindful of Ofsted criteria.
It is a common complaint that headteachers don't understand the Early Years and this makes it difficult when they are influenced by so many others all vying to be heard. However we cannot escape that education is political and whichever party is currently in Government does impact on the approach (think the Gove era in particular).
Jack is a Nursery teacher in a large urban school. He started as an experienced teacher with 3 years in a similarly large Nursery but with more staff. This new setting has sit down snack time but Jack's previous setting had free choice snack where children came, served themselves and worked with an adult to develop skills such as chopping, spreading and pouring. He wants to introduce this in his new setting but the headteacher is concerned that this means an adult is taken up all of the time. Through negotiation, Jack limits the time a practitioner is 'on snack' to an hour and all children must eat during this time or take their food home. This was neither Jack's or the head's ideal situation. The headteacher understands that with staff ratios being tight (as well as budgets) there needs to be serious educational benefit to changing the snack routine. Jack understands these benefits and whilst he has explained those to the head, she is still concerned with how Ofsted might perceive this time and misunderstands that this is still 'learning time.'
Commit and limit the negative influences:
This makes it difficult for us as practitioners within a classroom. We want the best for children and we want to make changes as well as teach in a particular way. I have had conversations with a LOT of practitioners who list the lack of freedom as a significant reason for leaving a school or the profession altogether.
The most important thing is to really decide what your own approach to education is (not what your school's or setting's is..) Do you believe in topic or interest led? Do you believe in play-based learning or formal instruction? Do you believe children should sit at tables or not? Or are you somewhere in between with all of these statements? If you are, that's ok. Because you're unique as a practitioner and your views matter.
Then consider the setting or school. Does this school share the same ethos as you? If it doesn't, how are you able to adjust slightly to match the ethos without compromising on your values too much?
Now consider staff, what do they want to achieve? Do you colleagues agree with your own approach or are they less/more formal?
And finally consider parents. Will parents respond positively to what you're saying and doing and continue with this at home? Or do these parents see play-based provision as a waste of time? What can you do about that?
You will notice that I have left out the other 'big influences.' I do this because I think for the most part your leadership team's or school/setting ethos should be influenced by those already.
Beyond this, reject influences that you encounter which run contrary to your ethos and approach. Commit to what you have decided works in your classroom and when you encounter other approaches, be mindful of he culture and context and how this is not something you're wanting to do in your classroom.
This is particularly true of the 'pinterest' effect. This style over substance website is dangerous for practitioners who see something lovely but replicate it, sometimes removed from their own culture and without considered the learning.
When it all falls down:
That is not to say 'don't make changes.' Because sometimes you need to. Perhaps you had an unsuccessful Ofsted visit. Perhaps leadership has recently changed in your school and their ethos is evolving. Perhaps a cohort has come to you with very different styles and now you need to re-examine your approach. When this happens, make changes. But continue to consider the influences to your culture and the stakeholders in the learning. Staff, parents, children and you should all be involved in the process.
Schools and settings are under pressure to improve continuously and the standards often seem to be getting higher and higher. High stake events such as Ofsted mean we feel this pressure continuously but schools and settings should not be in a hurry to change things that are working. If everyone is following the same approach and the culture is right, your children are learning and staff are content - just enjoy the journey.
That old adage is particularly poignant -
it is ain't broken, don't fix it!