How Child Care Center Directors Can Create Positive Work Environments

early childhood education mary jamsa

As an early childhood education director, you need to keep your staff motivated as they deal with really complex issues. Given limited funds, raising your teachers’ salaries or offering benefits that other corporate jobs provide to employees may be difficult. However, your ability to help them become personally invested in your center is critical.

Mary Jamsa, a professional development and training program manager at Southwest Human Development, gives a few tips that are easy to implement with a big impact.

Q: How do I build the morale of my staff?

MJ: One of the most effective ways to boost morale is getting to know your staff. You may think that you already know them, but asking pointed questions can be game changer. By simply asking about their interests or how they like to be rewarded, you’ll be communicating that you’re interested and value them. After getting feedback, make a plan of action to implement what you’ve learned, such as providing training, special classroom materials or favorite treats in the break room. You’ll be showing them that you’ve listened and care.  If you are having high staff turnover, you may be discouraged about trying this. However, this may help to keep your committed staff’s morale up and create a nurturing, friendly work environment that benefits staff, children and parents.

Another idea is to focus on praising good behavior. When you have interactions that don’t go as teachers planned, give feedback privately and present it like a coaching session. Writing quick, little notes of appreciation, praising them verbally, rewarding special achievements with a two-hour lunch coupon, saying thank-you or drawing attention to teacher-child interactions that you like to see at your center—all of these ideas will help encourage staff.

Q: What if I’m too burned out to put energy into my staff?

MJ: If you’re experiencing burnout, you need to make time to stop and evaluate what you can do to lower your stress and get refreshed. The morale of your center depends on you, so taking the time to do this is critically important. The behavior that you exhibit sets an example for all of your staff: from your teachers to the bus driver and the kitchen staff.  There is a trickle-down effect from leadership. A starting place is to evaluate how much work you’re taking on. Sometimes directors don’t know how to empower their staff and delegate different activities. When you encourage your staff to become problem solvers and ask them to bring you suggestions and let them work ideas out, you’re giving them a greater voice at your center. You’ll be supporting their commitment and investment while enlisting their assistance.

Q: What if I don’t know if I can trust my staff with added responsibilities?

MJ: This is where knowing your staff really comes into play. Again, find out what your teachers’ performance strengths are and areas of expertise. Find tasks that you could use assistance with and present these responsibilities to select staff. Make an agreement to do a trial run and review it in a mutual discussion. Remember that giving staff this extra experience, especially in areas that interest them, are career-growing opportunities.

If a teacher comes to you with an idea and you’re not sure about it, pair them up with another teacher and have them work on the project together. Collaboration is a great way to build a strong team. The more they can bring ideas and see them put into action, the more your staff will feel valued and invested while building a stronger team across your center.

As you learn more about your staff’s strengths, you can also review research on characteristics of certain age groups and generations. Some age groups are strong with technology, some are strong in building teams and communication. One place to start getting your staff involved is having your staff create a monthly team meeting. Let them help design the meeting and put the topics they are interested in on the agenda.

Q: What if things appear to be going well and staff seem to be happy?

MJ: That would imply that things are great. However, just be careful with that perception. Don’t think because you don’t hear complaints that everything is great. Sometimes staff become weary, and they think that if they try to express themselves, it won’t matter. Make sure you have a reliable way to take the pulse of your staff’s morale.

If there is conflict, please do not ignore it. Be a good listener, engage with your staff to problem solve and encourage open communication between yourself and all of the staff members. This takes time and effort, but it’s worth it in the long run.

The longer you can retain your staff, the more they will know the children and families at your center. When staff  know children and families better, then if behaviors start changing in children, they have relationships built on open communication in place to handle challenges. This will build the reputation of your center in the community and lay a foundation of high quality which lowers the need for suspension and expulsion for young children.

Do you want to learn more?

Funded by the Arizona Department of Economic Security Child Care Administration, Southwest Human Development offers a free series of classes to help early childhood education directors learn skills to manage staff and lower expulsion rates of students. The trainings count as DHS licensing hours and are available on nights and weekends. After attending the classes, you’ll have access to a technical assistant who can come to your center to provide support and access to a network of other center directors. For more information, visit www.swhd.org/expulsion or contact Jennifer Atkari-Benavides at 602.633.8730 or jatkari@swhd.org.

Mary Jamsa has worked in the child care field for 27 years at non-profits, Head Start and Southwest Human Development. She is currently a professional development and training program manager at Southwest Human Development. Jamsa has a master’s degree in special education for infants and young children and a passion for supporting early educators. To learn more about Southwest Human Development, visit www.swhd.org.

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