Upping Their Game

Question: I’m a new director at a private child care center, and I really want my staff to get on board with raising the quality we are providing children and families. Some of the staff has been there forever, and basically just acts like babysitters. We have some new staff too, but they are young, don’t have much experience, and tend to follow the lead of the old timers. In the midst of everything else I have to do each day, how can I get my staff to take their jobs more seriously and professionally, and teach them what they need to know?

Answer: Sadly, yours is not an uncommon problem in Buncombe county, where many – if not most – centers struggle with hiring and keeping qualified teachers. There are many reasons for this we won’t go into here, but many directors end up with high turnover, under-prepared teachers, or teachers with lots of experience but little recent education or professional development.

As the director, one of your jobs is to create the climate you want in your center, and that starts with teachers who are competent, knowledgeable, and share a guiding philosophy of child care. Many centers offer financial incentives for teachers going back to school to start or finish degrees – even a small raise for every course completed can provide immediate motivation. A raise at the completion of a degree is common, but can feel like a long way off for a degree that might take several years to complete. Programs like WAGE$ and T.E.A.C.H. help support both centers and teachers by providing stipends to teachers who have attained degrees, and scholarships to help pay for classes.

Although some teachers eschew pursuing higher education – “you don’t need a degree to know how to love children” is a common sentiment – you can instill a climate of professionalism that encourages and rewards continuing education. It’s true, of course, that people without much education can end up in early childhood centers and do a fine job. But if the option is there to further your education and learn new approaches and information, why not take it? Being a well-educated professional and loving children are by no means mutually exclusive: in fact, more education can provide teachers with a better understanding of children’s needs and development, leading to more effective and responsive loving relationships.

Another step you can take is to encourage or require professional development above and beyond the licensing requirements. The Partnership offers a variety of classes and trainings to help improve teachers’ practices, and many teachers benefit from going to conferences and out-of-town trainings, too. Financial help for these ventures is sometimes available, so don’t hesitate to ask if you find a training or conference you think would be perfect for some of your staff.

Many teachers also benefit from participating in a director-led Community of Practice or study group, where they meet once a month at lunchtime or in the evening to discuss a particular book or topic, and reflect on how to implement new ideas in their classrooms. If there’s a topic you feel especially passionate about, or something you think would really benefit your staff, chances are you could find books or materials to support a group discussion.

Individual goal setting can also help with staff who are uncertain about trying new things. You can meet one-on-one with teachers to go over your specific expectations – what you want to see included on a lesson plan, for example, and how you will assess whether it’s being done correctly – and then set up a schedule for weekly check-ins to make sure goals are being met. These check-in meetings don’t need to be long; even a few minutes provides an opportunity for you to connect. Teachers may need more support at first when trying out new practices, so regular check-ins allow you to assess whether they are moving in the right direction, if the goals need to be adjusted, or if the teacher needs further training to be able to implement what you are looking for.

All of these ideas do take time and work on your part, but they can pay off exponentially in the end. The more your staff can step up as independent learners who are invested in their jobs and excited about new possibilities, the better it is for everyone.

 

Best Laid Plans

Question: I’m a toddler teacher and my director has been talking about how I need to do lesson plans for my kids. My center doesn’t have a particular curriculum we have to use, and honestly I think babies and toddlers are too young for lesson plans. By the time we get through all the diapering, feeding, changing clothes, going outside, and napping, we hardly have time for anything but just loving on them. Aren’t toddlers too young for a lot of formal lessons?

Answer: We are in whole-hearted agreement that toddlers are, indeed, too young for “formal lessons,” or any type of instruction that involves sitting and listening to teachers for long periods. Toddlers and young children are hands-on learners, and learn best through play and active engagement with materials.

That being said, when done correctly lesson plans can be very helpful, even with toddlers. This doesn’t mean you have to plan every moment of their day, or get so invested in a plan that you’re frustrated if you don’t get through it all. Lesson planning for toddlers often means just having a general idea of what you want to focus on for a day, week, or month, in order to keep offering creative experiences for them. In some ways, they’re more for the teacher than the children. It’s easy to keep pulling out the same favorite toys or sensory materials, because you have a thousand other things to think about, and the fingerpaint has worked before. But toddlers like novelty, too, and if you have a lesson plan in mind, even something as simple as “this week we’ll be talking about balls,” it can lead to new and interesting experiences for them. You might offer a box of plush balls indoors, focus on the circle puzzle, or share some books or pictures about children playing with balls. If some of your children don’t participate in any of this, it’s okay; it’s meant to be an invitation, not a requirement that they master the art & science of all things spherical by Friday.

It’s easy enough, even without a specific curriculum, to Google “toddler + ball” (or any topic) and get loads of ideas for activities, books, and songs. There are also blank lesson plan templates available online aimed at toddlers, if you don’t want to create your own. You can fill in your ideas for the week – which activities or materials you will plan to offer each day – so you’re organized and prepared, rather than frantically searching for an activity in a chaotic moment.

Having a plan in mind can also make it easier for teachers to guide young children’s play intentionally. For example, imagine a toddler playing with foam blocks on her own. She might chew on them, stack a couple, throw them, and examine them. An attentive teacher playing next to can add so much to her experience. A teacher might encourage her to notice the colors, shapes, sizes, and textures of the balls, point out and naming these qualities for her. The teacher might toss or roll the ball to the child and encourage her to roll or toss it back, both to model play and also to get important information about the child’s development – does she favor one hand or the other? Does she have the hand/eye coordination to catch or kick yet? The child is getting an experience full of new language and conceptual development, as well as just enjoying the equally important emotional connection of having fun with a caring, attentive adult. The teacher is getting to offer a new experience, and some insight into a particular child’s developmental milestones.

Intentionality

Intentionality

Question: I am a director at a large center, and some of my teachers are showing signs of burn out. They seem uninterested in their jobs, and are not receptive when I try to talk with them about doing something different. How can I help them become more engaged and feel supported?

Answer: Being a teacher is stressful, no doubt about it. Many teachers do struggle with feeling burnt out due to many factors. As a director, it can also be hard to meet all your teachers’ needs in ways that feel effective. One thing that can help, though, is thinking intentionally. The authors of a book called Coaching with Powerful Interactions talk about this idea, as well as some researchers at the Fred Rogers Center. These authors provide a model for connecting with your teachers at a deeper level, rather than staying in crisis mode, making it possible for you to collaborate for change.

Directors are often used to leading from above – you notice something your staff member is not doing correctly, and you address it by pointing out the mistake and asking/telling the teacher how to correct it. Sometimes you might offer – or require – additional training or assistance, but you are essentially pointing out for the teacher what she is doing “wrong” and how to “fix it.”

Intentional coaching offers another method entirely for relating to teachers, one that focuses more on collaborating with the teacher. This starts with you being willing to dedicate some time to observing teachers, looking for strengths and positive behaviors. It also requires you to be reflective, and set aside some unrushed time to really have a conversation with a teacher, not just a few words at her doorway. For example, if you have noticed a teacher underperforming or seeming uninterested in her work, you might spend a morning observing her classroom, and then schedule a meeting at a time and place where you are unlikely to be interrupted. Start by inviting her to talk with you about how she feels things are going. If she feels frustrated or defeated about a particular area, let her take the lead to talk about that. Do everything you can to ensure that she feels that her concerns are heard and validated before moving into talking about solutions.

When you offer feedback and ideas, stay positive: for example, if the teacher is frustrated by her children not listening during transitions, offer one thing you have observed her doing well during this period, even if it’s something very small. Rather than agreeing with her that it never goes well, offer feedback such as, “When I saw your class in the hall the other day, I noticed that you were holding one child’s hand, and that child was really paying attention to what you were saying. That was great, because it’s hard to get that child to focus, but you did!” Help the teacher reflect on how she can use and expand on what is working to increase overall success: “I hear you that getting them through the hall to the playground is really frustrating. I wonder what you’ve done that has worked sometimes, because it’s not always equally difficult.”

These types of interactions do take time, something directors often don’t have much of. But you’re teaching valuable skills around self-reflection that can actually end up making your meetings and interactions with teachers go much more efficiently.  You’re also helping build a relationship of collaboration and trust, which takes you out of the role of being the “boss” or the “bad guy” all the time, and helps the teacher see you as an ally, someone with useful resources and knowledge. One of the big problems in the field right now is high teacher turnover, which many teachers attribute to feeling unappreciated and unsupported. Using powerful interactions with teachers can help keep your staff happier and more likely to stay at your center.

The other benefit of using intentionality with teachers is that it models a way for them to use similar techniques in their classrooms. Really connecting with children can help teachers who are feeling burnt-out as well, because it brings them back to the most important and satisfying part of the job – building relationships with children. Powerful Interactions is a book that focuses on teacher/child interactions, and can be a useful resource for you to work with.