5 tips for building a better workplace culture

If you were to take a poll of your employees and ask on a scale from 1-10, how positive and joyful their work environment is, what would the majority response be?  As Directors, it is not only our job to create a safe space for children to grow, but it’s also equally important to create a healthy culture amongst your staff.  You want it to be a place where staff are happy and their joy is contagious (sorry if that word contagious is triggering!). When I came in as Director of my program in 2010, I thought I was on an episode of Real Housewives. The staff all talked behind each other’s backs, the previous Director was a micromanager to the point that no one could make any decisions on their own, and the parents “tolerated” enrolling their children there because the “price was right.” It was toxic

I wish I could say that I was able to turn it all around in a matter of days and everyone is still on staff, and we all sing “Kumbaya” while holding hands (actually, that would be creepy). But, the reality is that we had to have a BIG culture shift. I had to do some “pruning” by firing some staff who were not willing to change, and I had to put many strategies into practice before we saw positive change. But guess what? I love my job, and my staff love theirs. Are we perfect? Nope. Do we still have an occasional Real Housewives moment? Yep, but we address it head-on, and we move forward. 

Here are five tips that can help you build a better workplace for your program, no matter where you find yourself. 

1. Be present

Something I noticed when I came in as Director was that the staff got super nervous when I would walk into their classroom. It was an obvious tension that I was surprised by. When I asked one of the teachers why everyone seems so tense, she explained, “well, the former director only came in to correct us and spent the rest of the time doing paperwork in her office with the door closed.” My heart sank. I had a whole lot more damage repair to do than I realized. 

While I understand that paperwork is important, it is more important to normalize being present with your staff. Do walkthroughs often. Learn every child’s name. Come in and comment on the work you see, the great things that are happening, and affirm every team member. Also, pull staff aside when you see something that isn’t okay. But try to do this discreetly and make it a teachable moment.

When not walking around, keep your office door open. Create a culture where you are interruptible. Your main job is not to have all your files in order (you can even delegate that! See #5 below). Your main job is to be the coach of your team. If your door is closed and you seem annoyed when you’re interrupted, staff will not be able to approach you, and they will keep what they are feeling inside. Trust me, you don’t want that to happen.

Practical Takeaway: Keep your office door open for at least 80% of your day, and do three walkthroughs a day- morning, late morning, and afternoon. Spend less than 5 minutes in each classroom. It’s good to get up and move! Start there and add more when needed.

2. Hold a high standard

There is certainly a way for you to be loving but firm.  When we can be authoritative in our role, it shows staff that we care enough to hold them to a high standard. When it comes to the super important things that could get your program shut down, make it non-negotiable and make it the minimum requirement. So for instance, when it comes to being in ratio, being on personal cell phones, being tardy, responding to parents in a timely manner, etc.- these are all non-negotiables that your staff must know. If you let these things slide in any way, it will set the standard lower. It is so important that as the leader of your program you model these non-negotiables.  When I am asked to cover a bathroom break in any classroom, even if it is for five minutes, you will never see me on my phone. You will never see me leave the room. You will never see me yell at a child. You will see me sitting with the children, using a loving tone, and being present with the class. Don’t ever expect your staff to do things that you aren’t willing to do yourself.

When a new staff member is hired, it is important that they understand the expectations from the start. Have a handbook that is simple to read and outlines what is most important. Assign a teaching mentor that can go over these standards, and have a new teacher orientation so that it is obvious how important these high standards and expectations are. 

What if a staff member fails? Well, of course, it depends on the situation, but most instances are learning opportunities. If you find that a staff member made a mistake that is fixable and forgivable, have that conversation as soon as possible. Pull them aside (make sure there is coverage to do so), and have a meaningful and quick conversation that helps them to know that you care and that you want to see them do better. Brene Brown said it best when she said, “Clear is kind.” So have the tough conversations as soon as possible and make sure it is very clear what the obstacle was and what the solution is. Then, when you see that same staff member doing it right, praise them for it! Confrontation is usually something most of us avoid, but having tough conversations tells your staff that you care.

Practical Takeaway: When you see it, say it. This goes for positive and for negative behaviors in your staff. If it is positive, praise in public. If it is negative, correct it in private.

3. Offer professional development opportunities

The wonderful Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.” There is always room for growth when it comes to our staff. When a teacher comes into your program as a new teacher or a seasoned teacher, they are always a student. We should all be learning and growing on this journey. Make sure you give opportunities for your staff to get training in various ways- webinars, in-person conferences, group book reads, guest experts, etc. There should be a good mix of topics that they can choose from and ones that you assign to them. Have a system for how you keep track of their training hours, and even if you are not required to have a certain amount of hours of training for your staff, create a standard for them. At my center, we require 12 hours per calendar year of approved training that is kept organized electronically in a software program. I am able to log in at any time and see what my staff has completed, and I also require that they give me their “five takeaways” for each training they complete. 

There are so many great and approved platforms for professional development, one of them being the HiMama Academy. With platforms like HiMama Academy, you can easily complete on-demand training that is accredited, and the program tracks it for you! There are all kinds of topics for every staff member, from teaching assistant to Director. 

Practical Takeaway: Set some time aside in your staff meetings for these hours to be completed. Use snow days or any closing days for this as well. It is hard for teachers to complete required training “on their own time” and it will not be valued as much if it has to be when they are not “on the clock.”

4. Prioritize fun

Sometimes this tip can get tossed to the side because there are “more important things” to focus on. But guess what? Fun IS important. If you’ve ever seen the infamous Pike’s Place Fish Market in Seattle, you know what I’m talking about. One would think that a fish market would be the last place you could have fun. But they have a philosophy of fun, and it is contagious! As fish are being thrown through the air and customers are laughing, you can’t help but smile and want to be there! This is the kind of culture you want to instill in your program. Staff should enjoy what they do and have many moments of joy throughout the day. This can be done with simple things like a smile and a compliment, and with more involved things like gifts, themed days, or yummy food provided! The most important thing is to not force it. You can’t force fun. But you can provide opportunities to laugh, relax, and build trust with each other which will lend itself to unforced fun. You don’t have to be besties with your staff. Actually, that is frowned upon! But you can have fun every day at work. It’s a mindset!

At our program, we have a group of teachers that call themselves the “Sunshine Committee.” They started this committee during the pandemic when we all needed a bit more sunshine. Each month they come up with some kind of cute gift for the staff. It isn’t expensive, and it’s usually something that makes others smile. For example, one day, the sunshine committee brought in individual bags of fresh tortilla chips and small jars of homemade salsa with a little card that said “nacho average teacher.” Since this wasn’t for a special occasion, it was a sweet surprise for each staff member and brought smiles to their faces. This makes a nice difference because it isn’t “Director driven.” Teachers do this for each other and it always feels genuine and fun to be part of. They’ve also done S’mores kits, a hot cocoa bar, etc. 

I’m not sure about you, but we love food at our program! And we have some amazing cooks! We like to do potluck lunches where once every few months on a Friday, everyone brings a dish that is around a theme. It’s super fun, easy to plan, and brings community. 

Another idea to help foster fun is to have get-togethers with NO agenda. Host a game night, go ax throwing, bowling, etc., and just have fun. As a Director, I always try to keep boundaries so that we don’t cross any unprofessional lines, but it is very possible to have fun. 

Lastly, try to do some kind of retreat or conference that is away from the center. It will have a balance of fun and learning, and it can really help your staff to bond and build trust with each other.

Practical Takeaway: Ask your staff what would make work more fun. Send them a survey that can be anonymous if you’d like, and give them the opportunity to give ideas for how to make work more fun. If you’re brave, ask the question, “What keeps us from having fun at work?”.

5. Delegate, delegate, delegate

I know it seems like giving our staff more things to do would have the opposite effect that we are trying to promote here, but that is not true. Your teachers and staff want to feel empowered and want to feel trusted. The key is not to just delegate busywork, but instead, find what each staff is passionate about, and hand over those tasks that match their talents to create trust and teamwork. 

For example, one of our teachers always remembers when someone’s birthday is coming up, and for me, it would always sneak up on me, and I would be scrambling. When I noticed that this one teacher always had a card ready when it was someone’s big day, I pulled her aside and asked if she could be my “birthday queen.” Giving her a fun title and empowering her to organize birthdays with a card and a favorite treat brought a big smile to her face and made her feel needed and important, which she is. 

Another example is that one of our staff is so organized with her lesson plans. They are color-coded, filed beautifully, and always on time. I asked her one day if she loves organizing, and her face lit up. (Let me tell you, if you asked me if I loved organizing, I would not look so excited!). So, I asked her if she would like to help me organize student files and keep track of when updated information was needed. Again, she was so excited to say “yes” to this. 

When we figure out what employees’ passions are, even if it feels like it is outside of the box, it sends the message that they are seen and they are needed. What are some areas that you as a Director are weak and your teachers and support staff are strong? In the corporate world, there is the 70% rule. If someone can do a task 70% as well as you can, then you should delegate it. Will it get done exactly how you would have done it? Nope, and that’s okay. Perfection is not the objective here. Delegating tasks that suit our employees’ talents and passions will help them develop and build increased trust. This makes the 30% of loss in perfection well worth it. 

Practical Takeaway: Have each staff member fill out a survey with all kinds of questions when they are first hired (favorite birthday treat, favorite restaurant, favorite holiday, etc.). Include something on that survey that asks “what are you good at? brag on yourself”. This question will allow for teachers to share if they’re organized, can bake, love to sing, etc. Then you can take a look at the needs you have and delegate! 

Our lives are too short to dread going to work. We all owe it to ourselves to love the job we have and help others feel that same joy when they are around us. When we have joy as Directors, that same joy will trickle down to our staff, which will then trickle down to the families. Remember, this doesn’t happen overnight. Culture shifts take time, but it is possible, and if you can get your staff to identify the areas of improvement and be willing to work to change them, you will be so glad you did! You’ve got this! 


How to Address Staff Burnout Webinar

Missy Knechel

Missy is a professor in the early childhood department at Eastern University and director of Victory Early Learning Academy, a childcare center that she started ten years ago. Prior to that, she taught Kindergarten and second grade for a total of 10 years. She has been married to her best friend, Jason, for 18 years, and together they have four beautiful children ages 8, 9, 12 and 13 in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. In her spare time, Missy loves to bake, read historical fiction, sing karaoke and travel to Central America on short term missions.

One comment

  • BYSTORED says:

    one tip for building a better workplace culture, which is to focus on employees’ strengths. By doing so, employees will feel more valued and appreciated, and they will be more likely to contribute to positive workplace culture.

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