Employees in kindergartens often rely on each other

Why do employees in kindergartens work so well together? Maja Plum has studied Danish kindergartens and she has discovered that a great deal of the good work they do is due to the relationship between the staff members.

Text: SIW ELLEN JAKOBSEN / TRANSLATION: HANNE HERRMAN

Print

“In the kindergartens we speak a lot about caring for children and for their development. But the work carried out by the staff members is also characterized by another feature,” says Maja Plum.

“They don’t work alone. Much of the time the employees work together.”

“In kindergartens, the staff members experience that they depend on each another.”

In addition, Plum has become aware of how much knowledge there is in the relationships between the staff.

A MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORK SHARING

Not all kindergarten employees working close together, are particularly close friends. And maybe they don’t need to be either.

“But the pedagogues I interviewed, said it’s a quality to know each other on a professional level. If they don’t, they are unable to have a mutual understanding of the work sharing. An expression I find very useful.”

“In this study, I have noticed that those who have worked together for a long time and know each other’s ways of working, have an awareness of this that enables them to constantly unburden one another. If one of them is occupied doing one thing, the other one can do something else.”

Plum also noticed that the staff had ways of communicating that are not apparent to others. This is a kind of implicit communication that eases the workflow and consequently functions well, according to the researcher.

CHANGING PARTNER

The researcher followed the work in two Danish kindergartens. In both places she observed two kindergarten teachers who were used to cooperate. Afterwards she made an interview with them based upon the observations she had made.

Then the researcher made an experiment: The employees she observed, changed their working place; for two weeks they worked in a different institution together with a different partner. The researcher observed them as well and made an interview with the participants afterwards.

The idea was to introduce the kindergarten teachers to a daily working situation which wasn’t completely unfamiliar, but with unknown people and rooms. The institutions did not differ a lot from each other. Both places were well structured with clear plans and goals for the work in the institution. But by changing working place, the familiar became somewhat unknown.

This experiment made it clear to Plum how difficult it is for a kindergarten teacher to enter a new institution and just go on doing the same job as before.

“Not all kindergarten employees working close together, are particularly close friends. And maybe they don’t need to be either.”

WHEN SOMETHING FEELS UNFAMILIAR

This experiment also made the participating teachers reflect upon things that easily are taken for granted. The researcher was specifically interested in those situations where the teachers paused because they felt something was lacking.

“On a daily basis, they did not notice. But upon entering a new and unaccustomed situation, they started to wander why something felt unusual. They discovered something was lacking, a someone with whom they shared a mutual understanding of the work sharing. They felt incompetent, that they didn’t tackle a job they actually knew well.”

One example: After a meal, an employee comes with a small bucket of water and a cloth. Those working close together, register the signal and know it indicates that one of them shall wash the table while the other one shall sit down and talk with the children. When one of the colleagues was new in the institution, the two of them had to clarify this interaction with each other to a much greater extent. It was not clear who was supposed to do what task and the internal coordination did not appear.

SUBSTITUTES ARE NOT ALWAYS CONSIDERED A HELP

In the everyday life of a kindergarten, there are many things that just have to function.

“If you constantly have to talk to your partner about what the other one should do, the work becomes more rigid and rule based. The work runs more smoothly when the staff members know each other and are able to read each other’s signals,” Plum says.

When a new colleague starts working in a kindergarten, he or she will need some weeks to establish a relationship with the other staff. The effect might be that those working with the new colleague eventually will feel tired of being responsible for every area. They will be left alone to intervene, coordinate and establish order in the everyday life of the kindergarten. This might explain why substitutes aren’t always considered a help or a relief.

CHANGES MIGHT LEAD TO RIGIDITY

Plum has found that kindergartens are not like other working places.

“In other workplaces, in an office for instance, you might very well depend on others. At the same time there are tasks you are supposed to solve on your own.”

“The work in kindergartens is characterized by the fact that you depend on the support from your colleagues, they make you good – and vice versa. Even when three or four persons are working together, they nearly operate as if they are one consciousness.”

According to Plum, her study shows that changes in an organization leads to an immediate loss of knowledge, precisely because a high degree of it is embedded in the relationships between the staff members.

“This doesn’t mean that one shall not change things. But if the changes are thorough and radical, you will often need a lot of resources to get the pedagogical work back on track. Too many changes might lead to rigid and rule-governed institutions because the staff tries to re-establish the previous cooperative working system.”