How to Motivate Your Staff – Finally See the Change You Want!

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Chanie presents concrete ideas for how to effectively motivate early childhood professionals in team meetings and in the classroom. “Teachers WANT to contribute – give them the opportunity to have a voice”.

Episode 66

Recognizing culture problems and actively involving your team in pursuing change will prove far more effective than “leadership talk” with no action. Don’t just ASK teachers for their opinion, INCLUDE that opinion! Is there a secret to motivating staff? Listen and find out.

You can download Chanie Wilschanski’s School Culture Model Workbook here.

Full Transcript is available below. Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Fri. Oct. 13, 2017


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Chanie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. Great to have you back.


Thank you, Ron, it’s really great to be back. I’m excited to be here.


So this is the first time we’re having a guest return to the Podcast, so that’s awesome. And today we’re going to talk a little bit about staff and employee engagement within early-childhood education. It’s such an important topic. I’m personally very passionate about this subject. So let’s get into it. And the way I want to start the conversation is around difficult staff. What does that mean to you?


“Difficult staff” can mean so many different things, and it really depends on how the director’s going to define it. Some directors can define “difficult staff” as staff that doesn’t show up on time. Some directors can define “difficult staff” as staff that just has tons of opinions, are always contradicting or always have a different voice. Some directors think that that’s amazing, people that have a voice. So “difficult staff” is a very broad term, and maybe we could get a little bit more specific on some of the difficulties of what early-childhood directors would be dealing with now at the beginning of the year.


Yeah, maybe we can – to your point, which is very interesting – different directors might view certain behaviors as either difficult or actually the opposite and very contributory to the success of the program for the exact same behavior. So maybe we can go through what some what some of the things are that you believe are actually should be viewed as sort of toxic or difficult behavior, and stuff that some directors may view as difficult behavior but actually maybe they should change their perception of that.


That’s a great question. So I’ll start off with what the toxic behaviours are that a lot of directors see, and some directors don’t view this as toxic. They view it as, “This is just the way it is.” And it’s actually toxic. And it’s important to actually recognize and define it as toxic behaviour, because as long as you define it as “Well, this is just the way it is,” and, “This is the system,” and “This is just how it’s always been,” you will never, ever see the change that you want.

So it’s really important to define that it’s a toxic behaviour, and it could be changed if you’re going to change the environment. Always remember that as a director: you do not change people; you do not change their behavior. You change the environment. You cannot change a 30-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 25-year-old. You don’t change them. You change the environment and the circumstances that you create as a leader.

I’ll go with some examples, okay? For example, this happens a lot at the beginning of the year, where you can have a mixed bag of staff. So staff that have been veteran teachers in your school for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. And then you have some newbies that have been there for 2, 3 years. You have completely, fresh-off-the-bat, right-out-of-college first-years in your classroom. You have this mixed bag and you’re doing the staff development. And so what happens a lot is that the new teachers are very eager, they’re really listening. They want to learn because they don’t know. They’re not going to really challenge the status quo because they’re very new, and so they don’t know what’s acceptable in this culture yet.

The older veteran teacher – and this is one that just happened last week, where a director told me that at a staff meeting that one of the teachers were, like, “I feel like you’re treating me like I’m in first grade. I know all of this stuff already. Why are we going through all this?” And the director was really taken aback by the teacher’s response. And she didn’t respond during the meeting. But afterwards she contacted me, this director – she’s a private client – and she said, “What should I do? How do I respond to this teacher?” And I said, “Well, the first thing is you recognize that there’s the issue with the teacher, that she feels that she is being treated like a first-grader. Whether or not it’s true or whether or not you actually did it, that’s what she feels.”

And that’s a really important distinction to make, as a leader. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to hurt them or if you didn’t actually hurt them. If the person felt that they were treated a certain way, their feelings are very key. It’s very important to recognize that. So then I told her that, and she said, “You’re probably right. I might have been dumbing down the curriculum because a newbie teacher was there. So maybe I’m was doing too much scaffolding. And she probably felt like, “Why am I sitting through this?” I’m like, “Okay, that’s the first thing you’re going to recognize, that a teacher actually verbally expressed that maybe I was scaffolding the content into a lot of bite-sized pieces because we did have a lot of new teachers there. And I can understand how that made you feel uncomfortable. So here’s how I want to propose to go forward.” And I asked her to ask these two questions: “Number one, What would you like to get out of our staff meetings? And number two, How would you like to contribute to our staff meetings? As a veteran teacher you have a lot of experience, you’ve been in our school for many years. I’d love for you to contribute to our staff meetings as well. You don’t have to answer me right now. You can answer in a couple of days. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on these two questions.”

And this immediately switches the mindset of the teacher, where she sees that you want her to be on board. It’s not enough to tell the teacher, “Oh, I really want you to be a team player. I want you to be this.” Your actions and your work have to reflect that. If you want her to be a team player, then invite her to be a team player, and say, “How would you like to contribute to our staff meetings?” Teachers love that. Teachers want to contribute, especially veteran teachers. Everyone wants to share their ideas. Give her the opportunity to have a voice.


And it sounds like a key part of what you’re explaining here is that the first step is you have to recognize the problem and get over this question of “This is just the way it is.” Well, actually, no, you can change that as a leader by empowering your staff. And I really like that idea of asking them, “How do you want to do it? What recommendations do you have for us to do something differently?” Because that really does empower the staff, and shows them, like you said, with actions instead of just words that you want to hear their voice and have them contribute.

Yes, because a lot of directors are all about the talk of, like, “I want to hear your opinion, I wanted this.” But then when they ask their opinions, the director’s already made the decision before she’s even asked her opinion. And teachers know that, and they feel it. So if you’re going to make an executive decision, and then you’re going to ask the staff, “What do you guys think?” Don’t ever do that. Only come and ask your people for advice and input on things you’re actually going to take into consideration. Don’t come to the staff and say, “So when do you think we should have mid-winter break?” You’re not asking their opinion. You’re going to make that decision with or without their ideas, because that’s a decision that you’re making on the school calendar.

You’re not asking the teacher, so don’t ask them just to make them feel involved. They’re not five. They’re adults. They know that you’re making this decision without them. And that breaks trust, because then they know that when ask them, you’re not really asking them. You’re just asking to make them feel good, and you’re patronizing them. Don’t do that. That is bad for the culture.


And I guess I’m asking leading questions here, but what about other behaviour? Like, your staff members are not showing up on time, or they’re saying negative things to their peers. Does this come from a different source of an issue, or what’s going on with those situations?


So there are two completely different kinds of things. Showing up on time is one kind of problem, and then the other one negative behaviour, things like that. So the first thing is that… you ever watch a kid’s puppet show, with the strings of a puppet? And so when you’re watching a puppet show, sometimes you could see the strings and sometimes there are certain strings that are making the puppets move that you don’t see. And [for] the director as a school leader, there are certain strings that are consistently driving teachers’ behaviour. And you don’t always see all the strings. And your job as a leader is not to have all the answers, but to have great questions to figure out, “What are these hidden strings that drive these teachers’ behaviours? And then how can I create a better environment for these behaviours to change?”

So I want to preface by saying that, and then go into to the concept of time and teachers coming on time and not coming on time. One of the things that I gave directors in the private circle of directors that I work with, one of the actions that I gave them to do was that they need to go to the teacher handbook and take two policies that were in their handbook and change it to a standard. So by changing the word “policies” to “standards”, you all of a sudden hold teachers to a higher level. Think about yourself. Everyone has personal standards about them, whether they are religious standards or personal standards. Everyone has standards of, “I would never do that. Why? Because that’s not my standard.” Or, “That’s not what I believe in. That’s not part of my value system.” Everyone has that.

Now, in a school you should have standards, not policies. So one of the directors took one of the policies in her handbook, which is about, “Teachers need to come with adequate time before their shift begins.” Let me repeat that to you: “Teachers need to come with adequate time before their shift begins.” And I messaged the director and I said, “That is beyond vague.” That doesn’t tell me what the standard of the school is. That doesn’t tell me what I have to do. And so we switched it so that the school standard is, “Teachers need to come 15 minutes before their shift begins.” Do you see the difference between the two wordings?




So now they’re holding the teachers to the standards. So if she doesn’t come on time, when you bring this to the office and say, “Okay, our school standards said [to] be here fifteen minutes before. This is the third day you’ve arrived only 5 minutes before. Talk about that, because the standard is 15 minutes.” Now you can hold her accountable to a standard, not a vague description of “adequate time”. “Well, I think 30 seconds is adequate time.”


So it sounds like – pulling things together – a key part of sort of the journey here, if you’re the leader managing staff in a childcare or early-learning setting, is you need to take responsibility for your programs by setting up the right environment. And at that point then you can hold your people accountable for very specific standards that you’ve set. And if you’ve set the right environment then you can sort of differentiate between, “Is the responsibility on me for not asking the right questions and having the right environment? Or is the challenge actually this specific staff member?”


Yes, and you nailed it when you said “This specific staff member,” because a lot times directors overestimate the problem. They magnify. They’re like, “All my teachers are coming in late.” I’m like, “Really? Look at your roster. You have one teacher who comes in late out of 15. That’s not all teachers.” And that’s how you know that’s not an environment issue; that’s a teacher issue. Because if 14 people are coming on time, you’ve created the right environment. It’s this one person that’s struggling with it, so now let’s work with this one person. Let’s help this person rise to the occasion.


So the example you brought up about creating very specific standards around what time to come in before your shift I think is a really good example of how you can set up clear responsibilities for the educators on your team. What about some of the let’s say less tangible things, like inspiring and motivating your staff? That’s hard to do with something like standards. Is there are other things that we can do as leaders, in regards to that?


Oh, yes. This is another thing when it comes to mindset checks. So as a leader, this is something that Simon Sinek said when I hosted the Early Childhood Leadership Conference, back in February. One of the things that Simon said when I interviewed him was brilliant. He said, “The job of the director as a leader is not to take care of the kids. Your job as the leader either to take care of teachers, whose responsibility it is to take care of the kids. And what happens is directors spend so much of their day worrying and being busy with the kids and the curriculum and this and that and things that are not their responsibility. Your responsibility is to take care of the teacher. When you take care of them they will take care of the kids, the curriculum and all of the things they need to take care of.

And so when it comes to motivating and inspiring your staff, at the beginning of the year before the kids come in there’s a lot of this motivation and inspiration going on, right? Directors are running these staff meetings, and they’re bringing in this professional development, and they’re setting up the classroom, and they’re doing all these game icebreakers, and connecting days, and they’re buying lunch for the teachers every day, and all kinds of stuff like that. And then what happens when the first day of school comes and life throws twenty curveballs in the teacher’s face, twelve kids are crying, there’s three accidents, one kid threw up, this mom is yelling, and it’s chaos. And then everything that you worked on for the past two weeks, you feel like, “Oh my god, what did I do? There’s mayhem here.”

This actually happened this year where school started – two days before Labour Day was the first day of school, and [the director messaged me to say], “We’ve got such a good staff, we’re so excited. All my teachers are really collaborating together and they’re really vulnerable and they’re really sharing a lot of stuff. I’m really excited about the year.” And she messaged me 48 hours later and [says], “Oh my god, I spoke too soon. Everyone was running into my office with emergencies and problems and all kinds of crazy stuff.” And I was, like, “This is supposed to happen, because that’s the natural order of things. All the kids come in and the teachers feel all this pressure.”

I said, “The way to bring back that feeling is to be consistently bringing that feeling into the school. We have these professional development weeks in September; maybe they have one other day in January, and they do reflection in June. And they expect teachers to stay motivated and inspired. Imagine if your husband bought you flowers in the beginning of the year. Six months later he said, “I love you.” And six months later he took you out for dinner and expected there to be some kind of relationship going on there. Are you kidding me? You can’t do that – you can’t check in three times a year and tell me that you love me. That doesn’t work. So why does that work with a teacher-and-director relationship? You can’t just check in three times a year and expect your staff to be motivated and inspired. You can’t do that.

So what I told the director was… she had 12 classes. I asked her if she was going to school that night, and she said, “Yes, I have to go back in to do a couple things.” I said, “Great. I want you to walk into every single classroom and I want you to write one thing that you see that is beautiful about their classroom setup and environment, and I want you to write it down. Then I want you to come home and I want you to write an email that sends to all the teachers that says, ‘I just went around to all the classes, and I just want to highlight to all of you the beautiful things I noticed in each classroom’. And then I want you to list, ‘In this classroom I saw this, in this classroom I saw that, etc.’. And then I want you to continue to see how your classrooms evolve and be part of your learning journey.” She says, “It makes such a shift. We went right back to that week of inspiration that they had just a couple of days earlier.”


What I always find so surprising every time I hear examples like this is just actually how simple and easy it is, right? It’s not like it took like a week of effort or anything like that. It’s such a small thing but it means so much to people, right?


So much to teachers. It’s not earth-shattering science here. It took her 20 minutes to write that email, it took her 30 minutes to observe the classes, and it had a massive impact on the teachers because it showed them, “I’m here for you. I really notice how hard you’re working.” And as a director and an early-childhood professor you can do that in more than corporate offices. Teachers are one of the most underpaid professionals – they work so hard. You’ve got to give this to them.


Totally. They’re not being recognized financially or monetarily, so they need even that extra bit of recognition.

So we’ve covered a lot of great stuff. If you had to sort of summarize in a few sentences, what is your biggest advice to leaders out there in early-childhood education that are managing staff?


A loaded question. I think I’m going to focus on right here at the beginning of the school year, right here at September, a fresh start… I think the biggest focus as a leader is about building that relationship right now with your staff. Consider this the honeymoon phase. When you get married and you’re at the honeymoon phase you’re probably thinking about, “What else can I do to show myself that I love them? Can I write them a card? Can I put a secret chocolate in their purse? Can I do this? Can I do that?” You’re probably thinking about these things because you’re in this honeymoon phase, right?

So I think that right now, in September, even though you as a leader are so overwhelmed with everything that’s going on, and there’s so much that happens to getting here, and everyone’s loading on you like a ton of bricks… Make that time to build that relationship with your teachers. Find out about, first, is she having a baby soon? Did someone in her family just getting married? What’s going on in her life? And ask her about it, find out about it. Take the time to do those things.

And more importantly is, not just by acting but also by being genuinely showing that you really notice the effort that they’re putting in. In the beginning of the year teachers put in a ton hours than they’re paid for, a ton more hours. They’re working at home, they’re putting stuff in, they’re staying after school. Teachers are at school until 8-, 10 o’clock at night. I remember when I was a teacher, I was there until 1 o’clock in the morning in my classroom. You don’t get paid for that, and you don’t care that you’re not getting paid for that. You want your classroom to be amazing.

Recognize that. Email all those teachers personally. Those are important. It’s more important to take that time to send that email, to get that teacher the coffee, to buy her her favourite chocolate. It’s more important to do that than to take care all the other things on your to-do list. That can wait. That can wait an hour or two. Your staff needs it from you. It’s huge for them.


Yeah, that’s a good point just in terms of prioritization, because there’s always so many things happening. So many flyers to put out; so many operational challenges. You always de-prioritize just naturally this piece of recognizing your team, which actually is a top priority and should be at the top of the list. But unfortunately when there’s all these things that are so much more sort of in-your-face, you tend to deal with those first. So that’s a good point. And a lot of what you’re saying is around just treating your team like people and recognizing their work, and putting yourself in their shoes which I think is a great way to view things.

Now I also wanted to cover the other side of things, because a lot of our listeners out there are probably the staff members that were talking about – they’re early-childhood professionals that are working in this environment. What advice do you have to them, to try and create this type of environment or maybe support their peers or their directors of their programs?


So again, and I understand it’s very difficult as a teacher to think about other people because you’re very wrapped up in your own classroom. There’s a lot of kids coming in, a lot of kids are crying, a lot of new parents. You have to put up a good impression. It’s very difficult to think about anybody else. And I totally, totally get that. But even if you’re just recognizing the new teacher that’s next door in the classroom, just walk in there. She doesn’t live a plane ride away. She doesn’t live in China. She’s right next door. She’s four steps.

Sometimes I feel like teachers live in their own submarine. No, you don’t. It’s four steps. Poke your head in and say, “Hi, good morning. Is there anything that I can get you? Do you need help finding any of the supplies? Did you get all the paperwork?” or whatever it is. “I just wanted you to know, we usually have a staff barbeque and the director’s going to send a note about it, but it’s coming up in about a couple of weeks. Just mark your calendar.” Just let the person be in the know of what’s going on. Something like that such a long way to creating a warmer, cozier environment for everyone, because you care about them.

So that’s just one step. If you’re the veteran, go in there and be there for the younger teachers. Don’t be cocky and be, like, “Well I know everything I’ll just hand her the full information.” Don’t do that. Be there for the staff. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, also recognize that the director working really hard. And just like you like appreciation, she’s a human being and so does she. And you can send her an email and say something like, “I really appreciate you giving me time to do this,” or, “Thanks for buying us lunch today.” And it’s such a big difference. Or, “Thanks for letting me come 15 minutes late today. I had to drop off my son. It just made a big difference that you didn’t make a big deal about that. I appreciate it.”

The director is constantly putting herself on the line for you, and a lot of times you don’t even realize it. So maybe even just take this next week to try to open up your eyes to when a director is putting herself in the first line of defense, and recognize her for that, because she’s seen it also and it goes a long way.


It sounds like one of the key takeaways for me from all of this is we all need to recognize each other for all the amazing work we’re doing. Like I said before, nobody’s in this to make a ton of money. Nobody came into early-childhood education for that reason. We came in early-childhood education to help support the development of our youngest children, which we all know is super-duper important, and we’re all working super hard. And sometimes we get lost in all the challenges and difficulties of the day-to-day that we forget to recognize each other for all the amazing stuff that we’re doing because we’re always dealing with the issues that are at hand. And so I think that’s a great, great point.


Yeah, and I also want to just add one more thing: A lot of the directors aren’t on site all the time on the beginning of the year. They’re either doing life and things, or they’re just stuck in their office a lot, or they can’t even make it to the site. Don’t feel limited by, “Well, I’m not actually in the location,” and feel like, “I can’t thank them,” or whatever it is. We live in a virtual world. We have phones, we have email, there’s Skype, there is Zoom. There is so many different ways to show people that you’re there for them.

So I’ll just end up with this story: I was in California and I was doing this conference, and I was away for 3.5 days. My husband was home with our three kids. And one of the days I was in California, I called up the sushi place where we live in Brooklyn and I had deliver his favourite sushi dish with the can of Fresca that he likes to the door. And sent him a voicemail and I said, “Hey, I want you to know I really appreciate everything you’re doing with the kids, holding up the fort and everything. There’s a surprise coming to the door.”

That took me exactly ten minutes, costing me $15. It wasn’t about that. It was about, “I’m across the continent. I’m across America right now, and I’m thinking about you.” You don’t have to be physically building to show your people that you’re thinking about them and that you’re caring about them. You have to have that top of mind. And if you truly care about your staff, you will think of ways to show them: “I care about you. I believe in you. I’m here for you. I know I’m not physically in the building.” I know a lot of directors have multiple sites in multiple locations and you can’t be everywhere. You don’t have to be. There’s so many different ways to do that. The question is, Is it a priority for you?


Chanie, as always this has been a phenomenal conversation, and on a super-duper important topic about motivating, empowering, inspiring early-childhood educators out there. If I’m listening to a podcast I want to get in touch with you to learn more, or maybe I can use your help and in my own childcare program, how do I get in touch with you?


Sure. You can check out my website at But actually one of the things that I wanted to add is that I created a full culture model workbook, which actually defines all the different stages of school culture with strategies and tips for how to get your staff out of toxic behaviours, comfortable with all different levels of school culture. If you’re looking to figure out how to actually create a better environment for your staff, download that workbook to get those strategies and tips.


That sounds like an awesome resource. And I’m going to personally say to everyone that’s listening, you should definitely check that out. And I’m also very passionate about culture in early-childhood education. So, people, check it out. Get in touch with Chanie if you want to learn more. And Chanie, thanks again for joining us on the Preschool Podcast.


Thank you for having me, Ron, it’s always a pleasure. Thanks.


download the complete guide to hiring & retaining early childhood educators ebook

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.