As most of you know, directing a program is often a thankless task. As I began to direct my first program, my eyes were opened wide. The center that I took over had been a custodial care program for 25 years. That means the teacher’s job was to care for children while their parents worked. The primary focus was on child care, not teaching. Since I had come from the Head Start community, they saw me as an expert, who they wanted to get knowledge from. They knew I was big on creating learning centers and they knew enough about them to be excited to get their rooms set up that way. After getting their rooms set up, I began to help them know what was expected besides just having great rooms, I began teaching them about best practice in planning curriculum for their classrooms. They soon decided that planning curriculum was way more than they had bargained for. Head Start had taught me all about standards and goals for children’s development. Quickly I figured out I needed to motivate staff.
Because of disgruntled staff, gossip was a real problem at this center. Every day I went around to each room, talking to each teacher. When I got to the last room of the day — and I started in a different place every day– the teachers all thought they knew exactly what I was going to talk to them about. They were very wrong because I was just interviewing them to find out the things they had done in the past and what each teacher believed about helping children learn & helping families know they children were not only well cared for, but helped to learn. I wanted them to learn about their successes and struggles. This would help me plan training around their needs. Unfortunately they made up things about what I had said to others. They thought they had figured me out, but they were wrong. The gossip was out of control. They complained about me and each other.
I participated in a Center Director’s Institute, which was led by University of Missouri at Kansas City. After learning strategies that I believed work work with staff, I met with staff and told them how unhappy I was about things at our program. I told them my dream for the program was to have a place where all staff were happy and content and were intent on helping children learn and grow and families love what they were doing. I wanted our program to be the kind of program where children, their families and staff love to come every day. I wanted it to be the kind of place where we could all work to together to make it a great place where we loved coming to work each day and we stood out in the community.
Then I said the program was not like that in its present state. I heard much complaining. Teachers gossiped about each other and about the director. I was disappointed because it was not the kind of place where everyone felt valued and comfortable enough with each other to talk about problems and try to solve them together.
Then I asked the teachers to name some things about the program they didn’t like, to name things others did that they didn’t like and weren’t comfortable with. Because I knew it would be uncomfortable for many people to name things out loud I decided they should write the problems they faced on small pieces of paper, which we put in a basket. Then we passed the basket around and each person drew things out. We then read those things and put them on a chart that said: Things We Don’t Like & Want to Change.
We got everything written down on chart paper. I heard things which I’m sure you can image. When everything was on the board, we made sure there were no duplicates and restated things to make them so everyone understood them.
I mentioned that when people work together day after day, conflicts naturally arise. We had generated a list of things that bug us. Then I explained dotocracy, a method to solve problems. I gave everyone 3 sticky dots, that I asked them to place them by the 3 things that bothered them the most. After this was complete we counted how many votes each problem got. We left the things that bug us on the wall.
Then I said something similar to this: “Since we want to provide an atmosphere of love and respect for each other, as well as for the children and families that we serve, I thought it might be good for us to talk about what each of you need from all of us in order to feel loved, supported, and valued each day. How do each of us need to act so that everyone will be able to collaborate with one each other even when conflict arises. What do we do to solve the problems we talked about above? I want us to be able to complete tasks that involves everyone and make our program better.” I told them we wanted to create an environment where everyone feels accepted and is willing to help solve problems. So we began to generate ideas for this. I asked each of them to name things they needed others to do so that each person felt valued and supported. They brainstormed things like:
- Give things back on time when you borrow them
- Don’t talk about others
- Respect others’ time lines
- Work with one another, do not compete
- When a problem comes up, be willing to talk about things and problem solve
- When someone else does something that you don’t like, be willing to talk to them about the problem
- When you’re upset about something the director does, be willing to talk to her, listen to her and share ideas about how else to do things.
As you can imagine, the list when on and on. Finally, we did dotocracy again. We then counted the dots and found those statements that had the most votes. We wrote those things a new big list. Then I asked the group to help decide if other things needed to be included.. Then we created a page called, Staff Covenants, that tell what staff will do to make our program a place where each person feels valued and accepted and all want to come to work every day. As this happened we found things we needed to work on. Here are some of the ideas they decided to do:
- Have fun together
- Respect everyone’s ideas
- Respect everyone’s privacy
- Everyone needs to participate
- Help one another
- Be honest with one another
- Keep confidences
- Respect time lines
- Return borrowed items
- If someone offends you, talk to them in private about it
As I started helping staff implement this, I learned different ways to work with staff. I read articles about how to get rid of gossip & other problems center’s have. I found ways to include staff in much of the decision making in the program. When I wanted to start something new, I let staff brainstorm about the good things about it and the challenges it might create. Then we worked to solve problems and decided whether or not to implement this new thing.