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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.