Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we discuss the crucial role of culture in child-care in early learning programs. We look to some external thought leadership about establishing core values, making your team feel valued, and nonverbal cues that are all highly transferable to leaders in early childhood education. Chanie Wilschanski is an early childhood strategist and leadership coach, and founder of DiscoverED Consulting, a results-driven company designed for progressive directors who want to build school excellence. With a decade of experience and extensive training in the Reggio [Emilia] Approach she has had the privilege of trained thousands of educators spanning six continents and 16 countries. If you’re a leader looking for resources to take your child-care center or classroom to the next level with positive change then stay tuned for this week’s episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Chanie, welcome so much to the Preschool Podcast. Thanks for coming on our show.
And so far what are some of the insights you’ve gathered in your time doing this work with Tucker and early learning programs?
There’s so much insight. It’s always fascinating for me when I get on the phone with directors and talk with them and really listen to what are some of the underlying struggles or core issues that go on in schools. It’s so fascinating because I’ve actually spoken to over 100 directors from all over the world – six different continents. There’s one thing that is this common thread no matter where you live in this world, and that is every director wants to build the right culture in her school. Every director wants to have a school where everyone feels welcome, everyone wants to be inspired, everyone does their best. I thought that that was really interesting as I did the research. That’s why I really dove into this, really helping schools create the culture that they want in their school.
Out of curiosity, when you had those conversations with those directors did you ask them what their main focus was, or the main thing they wanted to improve, and they said “culture”? Or did you kind of drive that part of the conversation?
That’s actually a great question. I ask a bunch of different questions when I speak with directors one of them is, “Please tell me what your biggest pain point in your school is right now?” That’s one question. And then the other one is, “What are some of your hopes and dreams for your school?” When I look at the two responses as I was sifting through all the data it keeps coming up. It all goes back to if you have the right culture this problem gets solved. If you create the right space this problem gets solved. All the big pain points and all those big dreams when directors spend the time to create the right culture and vision in their school, everything else falls in the right trajectory.
So you’ve got your favorite song they heard on the radio you sit down to have a guitar piano and just kind of figure it out because you’ve got this sort of ability to speak the language as opposed to sort of having to reverse engineer it from looking up a tab or looking up a cord chart and then playing it and then trying to sing that as you play it. So instead of just kind of reverse engineering music you can sort of just take it from the ground up and actually speak the language in a very fluid and natural kind of way.
They weren’t necessarily saying, “My biggest pain point is to improve my culture”?
Actually no, it’s more of, “this is the underlying cause.”
Why do you think that that is an issue in a lot of child care programs, or why maybe it’s not getting the attention that it may deserve?
There’s a number of things. I think one of them is that directors are extremely bogged down with a lot of responsibility. Multiple directors have a lot of different titles, or hats that they have to wear. Some directors are also teachers – they also have to get into the classroom. A lot of directors don’t have the right hope or support. Maybe they don’t have enough assistant support to help them do data entry or editing newsletters. Or maybe there isn’t the right cleaning crew in the school and the director is responsible to oversee how the staff clean up. I find that directors have so much responsibility on their plate. What ends up happening is, a lot of the time the director spends her day putting out fires and just trying to get everything running under control. And then if you tell her, ”We should create a culture,” she’s like, “That’s a really lofty concept, that would be great. But I don’t have enough kids in this class,” or, “I don’t have that, or I don’t have time to deal with that.”
“I’ve got a thousand other things to do right now, so I don’t have time for that question.” Fair enough.
“My to-do list is from here to Texas. Don’t tell me that I need to do this also.”
How do we deal with that, as a director?
The first thing is, you want to remove the concept that the culture is this unattainable goal – “This would be so nice one day.” You want to look at it that the culture is something that you create every single day through your gestures, your nonverbal cues, the emails that you send out to parents, what’s hanging up on the wall. All of those things play a role in culture. Marie Forleo says that success doesn’t come from what you do occasionally; it comes from what you do consistently. It’s the little actions that you take every day that create the bigger vision and culture. And so the first step that I would tell a director to do is really think about, what are the 3-4 core values that are really important for you have in your school? If you don’t have those then that person isn’t a fit, from the teacher all the way down to the custodian cleaning the building. They all need to have these values.
Zappo, the online shoe company, one of their core values when they’re hiring people is that the person has to be humble. The way that they test it out is that when someone comes for a job interview they have subordinates do the interviewing process. We teach these people to look for subtle cues in the person that’s being interviewed. If they’re uncomfortable with someone like a subordinate doing interviewing and they feel like, “Oh my gosh, the CEO or the manager should be interviewing me, why are you interviewing me?” If they’re uncomfortable with that, they don’t get the job. They’re not a fit, because you need to be humble to work here.
I think that’s fascinating because as a director, do we really take the time to say, “What are my non-negotiables? What are my real values?” Directors will say things like, “I want my teachers to be warm and authentic and progressive and takes initiative and [are] problem solvers.” And so my action step would be, “I’m past that.” What does it look like if your teacher’s warm? What does it look like if your teacher takes initiative? What does she have to do in order for you to view her as someone that takes initiatives? Make a whole list of all these things and then rate them from one to five. Really zero it down to, “These are the five things that are, like, “All my teachers, all the people in my building have to be warm,” or, “all the people in my building have to be their own problem-solvers because I don’t want to be the one solving everyone’s problems all day. I want people to know how to solve their own struggles and come to me if they need me. I don’t want to have to be constantly taking care of all these little things.”
I do think that it’s super important to also have those values like humility in there in addition to the skill sets as you mentioned.
Yes, definitely. I’m so happy you brought that up.
So core values are definitely key. What else can I do to create an amazing culture in my preschool program?
The other one is really about making sure that all of your teachers and everyone that’s on your team really feel valued. And that’s a really hard thing to do if you just think, like, “How can I make everyone feel valued?” The way that you really could break it down is, Gary Chapman has a book called The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. Just to explain what it is, we want to understand how every teacher feels valued. Some teachers, they need to hear appreciation and validation in front of all their peers. When you do a staff meeting and then you say, “I just want to think Sarah for doing X, Y and Z, we’re so grateful for that,” that makes Sarah feel amazing that she’s being recognized in front of everyone. And then you can have another teacher that will be utterly humiliated if you compliment her in front of her peers because she’s not that kind of person. She wants to be thing in private, or with a hand-written note. Everyone really feels validation and appreciation in a very different way.
I actually have a PDF called, “The Teacher’s Language of Appreciation”. One director used it. When she gave it to a teacher, the teacher said, “You know what I want?” The director said, “What?” She said I don’t want any cash bonus. I don’t want any gift cards or massages or manicures, I don’t want any of that. I just want to go home an hour earlier so I can have lunch with my husband before my kids get home.” And the director said, “Done, no problem, we’ll have one of the floaters come in now and take care of your class. You can go home early.” And I was said, “Amazing! Look what you did, you made this teacher feel amazing. That was all she wanted.” This is a teacher working in this school for over twenty three years, and she’s never shared with a director how she really feels saying that’s all she wanted. This is one of the best ways to create a culture where teachers feel valued. Find out what teachers really want. What are their hobbies? What are their favourite foods? One director texted her teacher and said, “Hey, I just want to thank you so much for putting together those documentation boards. I’m going to be stopping by this coffee shop; do you want me to get you a latte or a cappuccino? It’s on me.” And the teacher wrote back this text that was so heartfelt that I was crying, and I didn’t know this teacher. The teacher could stop thanking the director for just getting her a cup of coffee that’s, what, five bucks? It’s when you do that personalized outreach where people feel so appreciated.
Are there any more specific points about how you can improve culture in a preschool program?
The last thing that I would say is from one of my favourite authors. His name is David Marquet and he wrote the book, Turn the Ship Around! For anyone that’s listening that really wants to become a leader in their school this is a fantastic book to get your hands on. One of the things that he writes about is the nonverbal cues that happen throughout the day. One of the questions that you can ask yourself is, do to your teachers take action to protect themselves, or for the better of the school? And really thinking about, “What my teachers do every day? Is everyone just trying to protect their own hides? Or is everyone really working together to make this a better place?” I think if every director really takes a step back and thinks about what happened this past week – “This teacher did that. Was that something that was good for everyone? Or was she just trying to save herself?” – those are questions to ask yourself. “What’s really going on? Am I creating a place where anyone wants to help each other when we collaborate? Or is this a place where everyone just wants to do their thing, protect themselves and then go home?”
Now, if I’m a director and I’m saying, “Chanie, this all sounds wonderful. I do want to do these things. But I’ve got all these things going on around me. I really just I don’t have time for it.”
Here’s my first thing when it comes to a teacher appreciation and validation. The first thing I always tell directors is, you have to start super-small. Look at your calendar and pick one day a week for a 30-minute block of time. Let’s say you pick Tuesdays. From 10 to 10:30 you’re going to be focused on your teacher-appreciation. What you would have on your desk during that time is the roster of all your teachers in your school. You would start making your way through the roster and say, “Okay I have a half-hour now. These four teachers right here on the top of the list, what can I do to do something that’s a personalized outreach to them? Can I send someone a personalized thank you email? Can I enter a voice memo? Can I write her a handwritten note? Maybe I can get her lunch today from the cafeteria? What can I do for her, based on what she wrote in her teacher appreciation guide? What can I do for her to make her feel valued? And that’s it. After the 30 minutes are up you go and continue doing whatever you have to do. And next-week Tuesday you come back to it again. By the end of the month you’ve done personalized outreach for every single person and it only took you two hours of your entire month, just a half hour once a week.
I think everyone can learn from that point.
Just really time-blocking in that way.
You have to be proactive about it, right?
Yes. There are certain things on your calendar, right? If you’re flying somewhere, it’s on your calendar that you’re taking a flight. You have an important meeting with the state or inspection, it’s on your calendar because you have to be there. It’s about putting it on your calendar that you need to be there for your staff. You don’t need to be there for them all the time. It’s about setting that time block on Tuesdays from this and this time. “I’m going to be focused and thinking about what can I do to really be there for my team.”
You mentioned before that having an amazing culture the fixes a lot of the pain points that you might have on a day to day basis and your child care program. Can you explain a little bit more? How does that work?
It really depends on like some of the pains. For example, a lot of typical pain points that directors have, they’ll tell me, “My teachers aren’t creative enough. They’re not bringing new, progressive ideas into their classroom.” Or, “Teacher meetings are really a drag. My veterans don’t want to be there.” Or, “Everyone’s coming late and I’m always dealing with this punctuality.” Or, “Parents don’t appreciate us. We do so much and parents don’t value what we do.” Those are some of the pain points.
Now let’s go back to culture, if there’s a culture where teachers feel truly valued and appreciated. let’s say, for example, personalized relationships. When you feel valued and appreciated by your spouse or your partner, you will do anything. “Take out the garbage? No problem! Oh my gosh, I’m in a great mood today! It’s that honeymoon phase. Nothing is an issue. If you take it back to the school – if a teacher always feels like, “My director’s got my back. She really cares about me, she values me, she appreciates me,” they will they will toe the line for you. They will put themselves out there. They will work harder than you can ever imagine because they know that you’ve got their back. They know that you’re going to be there. They know that you’re going to recognize their efforts. Why do teachers not do it themselves? Because, “Why bother?” That’s what a lot of teachers tell me. “Why bother? Why should I? No one appreciates what I do anyways. Why should I come on time? It’s really hard for me. No one appreciates it anyways.” So this is really, really takes such a huge toll. If you really invest in it, you will see the results from it.
Got it. Any other closing thoughts about culture, to wrap it up? Let’s say I’m going to take one or two things away from this conversation as an administrator in a childcare program, what would those things be?
I think it would be two key things. The first thing is about the teacher appreciation, and that really opening up your calendar and seeing when you can really time-block to really do personalized outreach for your staff, just starting with something as simple as that. And I’ll just add, for the directors when I speak with them some of them say, “But I’m really introverted. I don’t like doing personalized outreach. It’s hard for me to do that.” That’s why I tell them, “Just pick a half hour. I’m not telling you to do this every day.” Always have your door open. Yes, for some people it’s really hard to constantly put themselves out there. I totally understand. That’s why [you should] time-block just a half hour once a week and then slowly build into it. Just like a muscle let you’re flexing – we don’t pick up 50-pounders right away. We start with a five pounder. So that’s my first action set, really do that. Download the guide, give it out to your staff and really understand what your teachers need to feel valued. The last action step would be to take some time when you’re walking around your school building to look at some of the nonverbal things that are going on. “Do I walk around like a manager, walking in to see everyone doing everything that they’re supposed to do? Or do I walk around trying to say, ‘Is there anything that I can help you with? Do you need support and something? How can I help you? Oh, let me take care of this child, I see your hands are full. I’ll take her to the bathroom for you.’” What is your nonverbal attitude as you walk around the building?
This is a question I ask everybody: What excites you most about early education right now?
The first thing is that it’s really on the rise. Much more people are becoming more aware of the value of early childhood education and how if we really invest in our young children – birth to six years old in the preschool years – the rewards are tremendous. What excites me most is that teachers everywhere – the young teachers that are getting, the older directors, even the young directors – are really coming with this mission of, “We want to create a good school. We want to create a place where every child thrives and shines and gets the skill that they need for life.” Critical thinking, playing skills, independent, being able to truly be unique and be themselves. Teachers get really excited about it. Directors say, “Yes I want that, I really want that.” And while it wasn’t so apparent even 5-10 years ago, everyone is really starting to understand more and more the value of being there for the child and being there for the parent. And so I’m really excited about where this course is going to take us. Where are we going to see early-child in a couple of years from now? What are the children going to look like because of teacher’s commitment and the director’s commitment to each child?
Totally. We’re seeing a big shift, for sure. Now, you’ve mentioned a couple of times about the guide which we’re going to put up on our web site, on HiMama.com, where we will put up this episode of the podcast. Where else would people go to find you online? Let’s say they wanted to have a chat with you and learn more about some of the things you’ve talked about related to culture today.
My website is discoverEDconsulting.com. On my website site there’s actually a place where you can book a free session with me. It’s a complementary strategy session. During that call is where I help the director uncover her core values, her culture, and I help her give her some really good actionable tips and strategies to drive her school forward.
For our listeners I would highly encourage that because you know there’s not that many free resources out there, especially with somebody’s time. That sounds like a great offer, so thank you.
I really love how you’ve used thought-leadership external from early childhood education and thought about how to apply that in a child-care and early-learning context. I think that’s a very powerful concept that I love to see. Going back to some of the specific resources that you mentioned for listeners – the book written by the Zappo’s founder, Delivering Happiness; The Five Languages of Appreciation; and Turn the Ship Around – sound like three really great resources for any early childhood educator to read. I know I’ve read a couple of those and I can recommend them myself. So keep doing what you’re doing. I really love it.
Thanks, Ron, this has been really amazing. I just want to wish everyone the best of luck. Every leader that’s listening to this has already carved out time to become a more effective leader. So just the fact that you’re listening shows that you care.
A hundred percent. Thanks so much, Chanie.