The teaching staff of an early childhood program determines its quality and guides the experiences of the children in its care. High quality staff are effectively able to address the social, emotional, and cognitive developmental needs of the child, which is essential in any early childhood program. In effect, these teachers lay the “foundation for children’s future success.” (Freeman, Decker, & Decker, 2017) While the benefits of quality early childhood educators are numerous, they do not often receive the recognition or support they deserve.
According to Hylton and Vu (2019), “high turnover has plagued the profession since its beginnings.” They found the following factors to be strong contributors to whether or not early childhood teachers remain in their position: low compensation, lack of benefits, administrative support, satisfaction with co-workers, and perceived value. Jaruszewics and White (2009) claim that the issue of retaining high-quality staff is “frequently linked to compensation, external accountability demands, isolation, perceived lack of support, and stress.” Freeman, Decker, and Decker (2017) further support this idea. They describe a recent increase in appreciation for the significance of the early years which has created an increase in the demand for quality early childhood educators. However, this demand has not been matched by an increase in pay, benefits, or support for these educators. In addition, this demand has created a range of fast-track options for teacher education that may be inadequate. This has worsened the already high turnover rate by producing teachers that are ill-prepared to enter a complex, demanding field.
With all of this in mind, it becomes clear that the responsibility of staff retention lies almost entirely in the hands of the director of an early childhood program. The aim of this paper is to explore effective strategies for directors to utilize to best support their teaching staff in such a way that makes them want to keep their position. After conducting research, I have found four major goals that a director can work toward which positively impact staff retention. They must communicate effectively; enhance staff knowledge and skills; create a positive working environment; and make staff feel valued, respected, and appreciated. These goals will be explained in greater detail below.
I. Effective Communication
Just as in any leadership position, an early childhood director must be effective communicator. They should be trustworthy, respectful, and considerate at all times. They must listen actively, and prompt further thought and discussion by asking thoughtful questions and following up later on (Jaruszewics & White, 2009). They ought to be flexible in order to meet the needs of their teachers. This could mean flexibility in terms of classroom planning, activities, arrangement, or management styles. As with students, each teacher has individual abilities, strengths, needs, preferences, and teaching styles. Directors should work with teachers to best utilize these, while still meeting the goals of the program. They should also work to support their employees’ work-home balance, which can largely be achieved by being flexible in terms of scheduling. (Hylton & Vu, 2019)
Whenever communicating, whether it be with staff, family members, or other stakeholders, directors should respond honestly and directly while remaining sensitive and respectful to the individual and their situation. With this director, everyone should feel comfortable and confident in seeking their advice and coming to them with questions. Directors should also promote communication among all of those involved in their program, and implement policies that strengthen the home-to-school connection. (Wilson, 2006) This connection benefits not only the children and their families, but teachers as well. Communication between educators and families allows teachers to broaden their perspective and possibly even to reconsider some of their teaching methods and strategies, which leads to professional growth (Jaruszewics & White, 2009).
II. Enhance Staff Knowledge & Skills
Another common factor in staff retention relies on a director’s ability to enhance the knowledge and skills of their staff (Freeman, Decker, & Decker, 2017). This includes regularly providing constructive feedback for staff, whether it be informally or during a scheduled review. Regular individual conferences provide teachers with an outlet for frustration. They also allow the director to show their staff that they are each valued, and deserving of their time. (Wilson, 2006) Classroom visits also provide excellent opportunities for directors to provide staff with feedback. They should take these opportunities to highlight observations of effective practice & describe their importance. This will help to builds self-awareness, and teachers will be better able to repeat these effective practices (Jablon & Dombro, 2015).
Whatever the setting, feedback should always utilize a strength-based perspective is required. Directors should recognize and appreciate the competence and abilities of their employees. “Focusing on strengths promotes trust and stronger relationships.” (Jablon & Dombro, 2015) Not only does constructive feedback provide an opportunity to promote staff development, it has the potential to positively contribute to a trusting working relationship between the director and teachers.
The enhancement of staff knowledge and skills should also include encouragement and support from the director in helping staff find professional development opportunities. Jaruszewics and White (2009) explain that directors should view professional development as a long-term investment, and that they should seek high-quality learning opportunities that support staff needs. While this may be time consuming and tedious, it has the ability to yield significant benefits for teachers and students.
Barnes, Hadley, & Cheeseman (2019) conducted a study in which they surveyed directors and teachers regarding who the leaders in early childhood education are, and how they “lead the development and implementation of educational programs”. Mentoring staff and supporting their professional development was rated as one of the most important practices by the majority of respondents. Specific practices included helping staff develop and arrange training, mentoring staff decisions, and reviewing performance regularly. All of these significantly contribute to the development of staff knowledge and skills, and motivate staff to remain in the profession.
Kimberly Moore (2001) further describes the importance of a director being an effective coach and mentor to their staff. She explains that teachers who receive minimal or no mentoring leave the field as a faster rate than their counterparts, and that effective mentoring has the potential to “[cut] the dropout rate as much as 35%”. Effective mentoring helps new teachers reflect on their experiences and handle the emotional aspect of teaching. It helps them become more objective while remaining supportive and caring. In the end, it can support them to “teach in more relaxed, innovative, and developmentally appropriate ways.” (Moore, 2001)
A significant part of being an effective mentor focuses on intentional modeling. Staff look to the director as a role model for behaviors, attitudes, and skills (Jaruszewics & White, 2009). The director must model positive attitudes and behaviors. They should be optimistic and professional (Wilson, 2006). They should show a willingness to go above and beyond; display intellectual curiosity and risk-taking; and demonstrate openness and respect for all stakeholders (Jablon & Dombro, 2015). Over time and with consistency, these behaviors and outlooks will rub off on teaching staff. During classroom observations, directors should support teachers in observing children, reflecting on their knowledge, skills, and dispositions. They should utilize these opportunities to show teachers how to use these things to stimulate growth, which will in turn promote development in their own teaching abilities. (Moore, 2001)
III. Create a Positive Working Environment
The third factor that is quite common in regards to staff retention is based on creating a positive working environment. A positive environment is relaxed, featuring open communication that is often spontaneous and/or humorous. In this environment, teachers are actively aware that children are central focus. In a negative environment, children are loud and overactive, and teachers are strained and stressed. (Wilson, 2006) For these reasons, it is of the upmost importance for directors to create an environment that teachers are happy and motivated to work in.
In creating a positive working environment, the director ought to facilitate a sense of community. They should model and support open communication in which everyone conveys respect and appreciation. (Hylton & Vu, 2019) A major part of determining a working environment relies on satisfaction with co-workers. As Hylton and Vu (2019) explain, “People don’t leave jobs; people leave people.” In order to hold on to quality teachers, directors must cultivate positive working relationships with and among staff. They should build on individual strengths, and provide opportunities for staff to use their skills to support co-workers. One way of doing this might be to pair teachers with specific strengths with others who seek support in that area (Moore, 2001). This will help the less experienced to develop their skills, and the more experienced to gain recognition and appreciation. Directors could also encourage staff to share their experiences, whether they be professional development, work-related, etc. They should share these experiences with each other, supporting an environment in which “intellectual dialogue about their goals and aspirations infuses their work” (Jaruszewics & White, 2009). In this community, everyone values the collective wisdom of the group, and each member is a resource.
Of course, as in any occupation, there will always be conflict. Teachers will not always agree on how to achieve a particular goal, or address a particular issue. It is important that the director always help staff work through conflict, no matter how minor, in order to avoid building resentment. The expectation should be that everyone must work together. As Hylton and Vu (2019) explain, “A team’s power is in its diversity of strengths, personalities, experiences, and knowledge.” In order to build more positive relationships, the director ought to create opportunities for staff to build relationships outside of the classroom. These events should have no agenda. They might take shape in the form of a staff breakfast or an after-school hour. (Wilson, 2006) This time away from the classroom may create opportunities for those who have had work-based conflict to grow an appreciation for one another in a stress-free setting. All of these strategies should create not only a positive working environment, but a positive working community of educators.
IV. Make Staff Feel Valued, Respected, and Appreciated
The final factor that is commonly found to support staff retention relates to making staff feel valued, respected, and appreciated. Many of the above strategies also work to achieve this goal. Effective communication relies heavily on being respectful. Enhancing staff knowledge and skills required individualized supports and attention. Creating a positive work environment involves modeling and utilizing a sense of appreciation and value. Most of what has already been discussed should effectively work towards this goal. However, there are additional practices directors could employ to further prove their appreciation for their staff.
Personal signs of gratification, whether they be verbal, handwritten, or on a bulletin board, can all convey respect and value. Special treats such as a small gift, tasty food, or act of service can work toward the same goal. Major life events and accomplishments should also be acknowledged. For example, a director might provide a recent graduate employee with flowers, or some paid time off. They could also provide intellectual affirmation and support by seeking ideas from staff, showing that their thoughts are valued (Wilson, 2006). As Moore (2001) explains, a director ought to expect high-quality work, and subsequently show recognition of effort in order to sustain it.
Staff retention is an ongoing struggle. An early childhood director has the power to create an environment of respect and appreciation in which staff want to participate. They must carefully integrate the right amount of challenge, opportunity, and recognition regularly. They must communicate openly and clearly, building positive and trusting relationships with and among their employees. Regardless of a director’s actions or behaviors, every staff member will leave their position at some point. It is the director’s job to ensure that the environment and supports are not the determining factors in their departure.