Early Learning Leadership For All Levels

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Episode 146 – Leadership in child care has evolved and become a hot topic of conversation in the field recently. In this episode, we chat with Lori Buxton, Managing Director of Early Learning Leaders, about how good leadership in child care directly correlates to program quality. She shares her view on trends in the space as well as strategies for current and aspiring child care leaders on how to develop their talent personally or within their team.


Episode Transcript


When you see the potential, when you see the interest, when you see the opportunity to encourage, to affirm someone else’s goals, someone else’s dreams, do that. You never know when your words or encouragement are going to be the trigger, the impetus for them to take that step in to their future.


Lori welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Why, thank you very much, Ron. It is always a pleasure to be with you and your team.


And I should be saying, “Welcome back to the Preschool Podcast,” because we had you on the show over two years ago – which is unbelievable, that two years have passed. And that was on Episode 25, when we talked about recruiting and developing top talent. Today we’re going to talk to you about how successful directors lead, something that you are very well versed in as Managing Director of the Association for Early Learning Leaders.

Again, really excited to have you back on the show, Lori. Let’s start learning a little bit more about you as a person and how you came into this role at the Association for Early Learning Leaders [AELL]. And maybe you can also touch on, for our audience, what the Association does.


So that is one of my very favorite questions to answer. In 2001 I had just been seated as a brand new director at a large program in the Houston area, in Texas. And I can tell you that the people that placed me there saw things in me that I did not even understand I possessed, and I was a little overwhelmed in that role. And my mentor at the time was involved with the Association, which is formerly known as the National Association for Childcare Professionals, or NACCP. Now, it did a rebrand about five years ago and it’s the Association for Early Learning Leaders. But no change in concept or content, just a brand name change.

But I was invited to participate in their national conference ,which that year was held in St.. Louis [Missouri]. And I remember walking in the doors just really not even sure what I was doing there, but knowing that I needed to know more in order to be able to fill the shoes that I’d been placed in, in my new role. And I was placed smack dab in the middle of leaders. It wasn’t a sidebar where they have leadership tracks but it was primarily focused on teachers. This conference and this association initially was completely focused on leaders, and it was what I needed very much at that time.

And while I was very overwhelmed and it was like taking a drink from a fire hydrant I was in sessions that communicated the things that I needed to hear. They were led by leaders, by experts, by people that were really passionate about what we do and why we do it. And they gave me the starting blocks for what would become my career. That was 2001 and it is now 2019 and I have not missed a conference since. I, within probably a year or two, started volunteering with the organization, still operating programs locally here in Texas.

But I really felt like I wanted to give back some of what I was given. And so I just started, you know, “Roll up your sleeves and dive in,” and started volunteering at their events. And that eventually led to a board position as my experience and my training career took off and what have you. I served on their board of directors for eight years. And they had, in 2017, some changes in their staffing needs. And in my board position I had worked very closely with the marketing, with the event management and planning. And when they had a vacuum come up I was asked to step off the board and come on in the role of Events Director and Communications Director, and did that for a year. And that led to my current position as Managing Director of the Association.

And what I love most is that all of the things that were so lovingly and generously placed in me that created the person that I am today in many cases – and certainly my leadership ability – it all came from the people in that association. And so it really is my joy and pleasure to be able to give back and to create – or at least be a part of creating – that same kind of space for new and emerging leaders.

So that is kind of the heart of what the Association is. We do training events and we do webinars, much like you guys do, and we connect these leaders with the resources that are both meaningful and relevant that are going to be real difference-makers in the way their programs operate, the way their teams perform and in their own professional growth. So it’s a pretty cool gig, if I do say so myself.


Yeah, sounds very cool. And the sort of tagline for your annual conference, from what I understand, is “How successful directors lead”. But on our podcast audience we will also have lots of teachers and educators. And if I’m listening to the Podcast and I’m thinking, “Well, I’m not a director, so this topic isn’t going to apply to me,” what would you say to those teachers who maybe are aspiring leaders?


Well, the first thing that I would say is that if there is one single person following you, watching what you do, taking their cues and clues from you, then you’re a leader. And it doesn’t matter whether that person’s two foot tall or six foot tall or anywhere in between. And what we do at Early Learning Leaders has direct impact on what teachers do in their classrooms.

The whole premise for what we do as early learning leaders, as an association and as leaders, is we develop the leaders that are going to come up and take the baton from us as either our career seasons change or our life seasons change. And so I will tell you that my career in this field started in the three-year-old classroom. And I promise you that I had absolutely no idea that – I don’t know, 20 years later – that this is the position that I would hold. And you just don’t know where your roads lead.

And so what we do as an association is going to impact your classrooms because you can have a center full of outstanding teachers who are motivated, who are engaged and who are right where they need to be. But if they are not being led by a high-quality, motivated and inspired leader the program and ultimately the children don’t have the experience that they could and should have. And so our influence and our impact with leaders of local programs really does have far-reaching import.

Secondly you mentioned, what about their future and where their road leads? I will tell you that one of the things that I’m most excited about as we journey into 2019 and 2020 as an association is that we are expanding some of our training opportunities to include emerging leaders, to include classroom teachers. Several of us outside of the scope and scale of AELL… I’m a national trainer, as well, and I train teachers all the time. I go to schools and we’re all trained about their leadership and their teams. Many of us are very experienced teachers and trainers of our teams, and of course we were directors and trained our own teams.

But as an association we do want to cultivate and encourage these young people that have the hearts for our field and hearts for early education, we want to encourage them and equip them to become leaders, if that’s what their desire is. Sometimes they don’t know that they want to become a leader until they find out what a leader really is. Their perception of what the director does and what a leader does in an early-childhood education setting can be very different from what its reality is.

And we want to connect those things we want to really map out and paint a picture of where they can take their passion and where they can take their expertise and their education and make a long-lasting impact and leave a legacy for these children. And so all of those things are part of our mission as an association. And the planning that we’re doing for future trainings and for future efforts embody that.


Awesome, very important mission in early-childhood education. And in your many years of experience in the field, how do you think leadership and the view of leadership in early-childhood education has evolved over the last 10 or 20 years?


You know, that’s a great question. And probably my immediate answer would be that I am seeing, from my seat in the stadium, more of a desire from existing leadership – whether it’s an owner or an executive administrator or a side director – to really grow your talent. The world is a shifting place and certainly the job force world is a shifting place. And we’re in a season currently where there are more jobs than there are people to fill those roles. And so it is really forcing leaders to be very intentional and think outside the box when developing their talent.

And so what we’re seeing is much more of a concerted effort to grow what you want to see placed in your leadership roles down the road. And so I love that I’m seeing a more intentional investment. I’m seeing more, not just classroom training but the kinds of trainings from these leaders that are going to position two-year-old teachers, infant room teachers, the person who floats from classroom to classroom, even substitute teachers, that’s going to position them to become the leaders that we need in order for programs to grow, in order for our leaders to, again, change whatever their seasons are as they come.

And I’m just seeing more of a concerted and intentional effort to invest in the team you have rather than seeking outside first. And I think that it was born out of necessity, and oftentimes the change that really needs to happen comes from that place. And when we’re in the middle of it, it’s, like, “Why didn’t I do this to begin with?” Because you’re talking about investing in the people that have already invested in you, that are invested in your families, that are bought into your vision, that have alignment with where you’re going. Why would you reach first outside to fill those leadership roles? It makes complete sense to invest in the people that have invested in you.

And so I love that I see that trend, not just started within the last probably three or five years, but I really see it being embraced now by these leaders. I see their professional development plans reflecting, “Okay, I have this person that I just hired and I don’t just see the potential for what they can be in the classroom that I’ve assigned them. But I can already see the potential in them to be a department leader or to be someone who works with my administration team.”

And I love that they see that from the word Go, because if you see it from the beginning you develop it from the beginning. If you’re forced to look for it because you have a vacuum in your organization or in your team, you don’t always see everything there is to see. So it’s a particularly exciting position I see us in.


So do you think it would be fair to say that this increased investment in talent would also be sort of a change in perception from a childcare position or role as a job to more of a career where we’re talking about investing in our talent towards the next step in their career, whether that be within your organization or external to your organization but developing that talent to move into that leadership position?


Without question, I think that. And what I like about that is that it not only communicates the worth, the value of that investment internally – so for the people who already have buys into our field, the work that we do, the legacy that we leave and so forth – but also from the people that are outside looking in, it forces them to consider that there might be something important going on here.

If they see us investing in ourselves, it catches their attention and they say, “Hey, maybe there’s something here for me to invest in. Maybe this isn’t just a group of babysitters. Maybe these aren’t just quote-unquote ‘daycare workers’. These are early educators, these are educational professionals, these are people that are sitting in front of the future of our world each and every day. And maybe I need to invest some of my time. Maybe I need to assess my resources and what they’re doing.”

Whether it’s a corporate entity that can bring in sponsorship dollars or grant money or whatever, or if it’s philanthropic dollars, people have money to spend. They have people resources to spend. And I think that we’re making some noise. Our hashtag as an association going into the next 12 to 24 months is, “Make some noise,” because I feel like we’re being heard, finally. And the more noise we make, the more people are going to listen.

And I think that that is really… again, going back to that homegrown, that organic investment of our resources in the people that we have and the people that have already got the buy-in, I think that speaks volumes to the people on the outside looking in about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and it’s value for our future.


Very cool. And so you just recently hosted your annual Early Learning Leaders conference. What were some of the hot topics of discussion at that conference?


Well, again going back to the staffing issues, obviously we are all experiencing some of the crunch of having more positions than people to fill those positions and trying to find creative ways not just to find the people to fill those seats but to keep the people that are in the seats you have. And so that was topics not only being spoken about in the sessions but around the coffee pot and at the lunch table and after hours. It was certainly something that kept everybody’s attention.

And I think that the other thing is, we’re becoming more and more aware of how important it is as early learning leaders to also be business leaders. And so often people that come to our field will typically come from one or two, I guess, lanes: You’ll either have an ECE [early-childhood education] background where you came up through the classroom or through school, and so you have a dominant expertise and experience in education in the ECE aspects, or you’re a business leader that comes to the field and you see the business opportunity but don’t have the ECE background.

What we’re seeing is this desire now to become a more balanced person. For these leaders that are coming in the classrooms that are looking down the road at possibly directing a program, or being a leader, or maybe even owning a center someday, it is so important that you have acumen, knowledge and experience in business practices, H.R. practices, legal matters as well as best practices and understanding of early-childhood development. We best serve our children when we have all of those things at our disposal and when we can perform optimally, both in business and in early education.

And so a lot of the sessions that we have had that focus, we had a session [based on], “So you want to be a childcare owner some day,” and talked about, “Well, if that’s something that’s on your bucket list, what do you need to do to create the runway for that? What do you need to know? Who do you need to know? What how do you map getting there?”

The same thing with… we had sessions on going from being in the classroom to being in leadership. That’s an interesting transition. When you’ve been part of the teaching team and now you’ve made this transition into a leadership role, there’s all kinds of relationship dynamic. There are leadership principles that you have to put into play and understand. And so these are some of the focuses that we had as a conference, and those conversations carried over into everybody’s downtime. So it was very… it’s all exciting stuff. But it really is indicative of our changing world and the evolution of our practices. So, good stuff.


Yeah, and I think the word “balance” is a really good way to describe the necessity of business acumen and educational experience and expertise. Those two things are… you really can’t prioritize one over the other. They’re both very, very important and something I’m also very passionate about, in terms of social enterprise where you have to be successful as a business and sustainable as a business to deliver social good.

And in the case of early-childhood education that’s the development of our young children. And so [a] very important subject that I think we are starting to talk about more early-childhood education, which is great. But I think there’s a lot more discussion to be had there and progress to be made. So [it’s] great that Early Learning Leaders is taking thought leadership in that as well.

Awesome. And what about for those early-learning leaders out there? Whether you’re currently leading an organization in title or not –maybe you’re an emerging leader who has your sights on owning, operating a childcare, early-childhood education program – any tips or thoughts to leave with our leaders out there in terms of things to think about and what you can do right now to improve your ways of working as a leader?


You know, this is going to sound so cliché, but it doesn’t change the impact of the truth of this statement. And that is, what I say to a teacher that started today on the job or to someone who’s been in the trenches for many, many years, is dress for the job that you want. And what I mean by that is if you have a goal – whether it’s a goal that’s a year out or a goal that’s five years out or goal that’s 10 years out – dress for the job that you want.

If what you see in your future you have in your line of sight is to go from the classroom into some type of an administrative role, then start learning today about that role. Find out what are the responsibilities, what are the expectations, what are the costs going to be. Because there’s a cost when you advance, there are rewards and there are costs. What are the costs for that? What’s it going to cost you in time? What’s it going to cost you in resources? Make informed, thoughtful, intelligent decisions about where your road is going to lead.

And don’t wait for someone to come and offer you that opportunity. Position yourself to be undeniably ready for that opportunity. So I… again, when I walked through the doors of that conference in 2001 I so distinctly remember looking around there and seeing all these incredible leaders. And I saw this Director of the Year award ceremony and the finalists, they told their stories and all the incredible work they were doing for children and their programs all of this stuff.

And I [was] so new to the role. I was barely out of the classroom. And I remember thinking myself, “Wow, I want to grow up and be that someday, but that’s so big, it’s so huge. I can never get there from here.” And out somebody told me, and I remember somebody that I didn’t even know very well… I probably said something about, “Wow, this is so cool. I just don’t know that I can ever be that or get there.”

And they said to me, “Oh, but you can. You can. You just decide. You decide that that’s where you want to go. You decide that’s what you want to be, that’s how you want to invest your time and your talent, your educational resources, and then you take one investment at a time. “You invest yourself one day at a time in one role at a time until you get where you want to go.” And that’s how I start volunteering. That’s how I got involved in the Association.

When you’re in the classroom, when you are investing, start with high-quality investment in the lives of those children. Do more than is expected. Minimum is just that, and minimum should never be where your bar is set at. Your bar should be set it, “How can I make maximum impact in my role, in my position in the work that I do?” And that prepares you for whatever the seasons are and the opportunities that are going to present themselves to you.

And now many, many years later I’ve had such an incredible opportunity to mentor and to teach and to train and to bring up leaders behind me. And at every opportunity, when I saw that little sparkle in someone’s eye that they might want to stretch their wings out and expand their current responsibilities or their roles, or they were starting to think that maybe there’s more than being in the 3-year-old classroom or in the after-school program and that maybe there they have something, I said that thing.

I love the saying, “If you seed it, it will grow.” When you see the potential, when you see the interest, when you see the opportunity to encourage, to affirm someone else’s goals, someone else’s dreams, do that. You never know when your words of encouragement are going to be the trigger, the impetus for them to take that step into their future, take that step into a new role, into a new destiny.

And so I know that I grew in my role today and the opportunities and influence that I have today are a direct result of those people speaking life into my journey, speaking encouragement into my journey, into my dreams. And I want to encourage everybody, everywhere to start with doing that with young children and make that a part of who you are and speak life into your dreams and into journeys along the way. It really is a wonderful way to spend your life and to spend your influence.


Such good advice, and [I] hope everyone will take that to heart. Very cool. Lori, any recommended resources for early-learning leadership for our listeners out there?


Obviously our association is a tremendous resource, and we have resources both for leaders and by way of membership. And one of… I mentioned that we have some initiatives in 2019 and ‘20 that I’m very excited about, and one of those efforts is our new… it’s called Lead!, and it is a regional training event that we will be bringing all over the place in the next… we’re birthing it in summer of 2019, and by 2020 and ‘21 we’ll be all over the place.

National conferences are wonderful and it’s an awesome treat when you can get away and come for three days and just immerse yourself. But there’s a large population that will never be able to find the resources or the approvals to go to do those things, or don’t have the staffing to get away. And so we created a model where we come to you with an abbreviated program, with all of the high quality training. And we’re doing training for teachers, we’re doing training for leaders so that those resources are immediately at your disposal.

The other thing – and I preach this from the rooftops – is I really encourage you, whether you’re in the classroom or you’re leading a program or somewhere in between, I really encourage you to read. There are such tremendous books being released every single day that teach you about leadership, that teach you about life. You know, I always have a book. I just am always reading. And whether I’m just learning a new perspective or if I’m learning a new technique, stay ahead of what’s going on. Don’t be behind it.

The Internet obviously is a tremendous resource. I Google like nobody’s business, But probably my greatest resource, and what I would recommend to everybody, is to connect with the people who do what you do. Connect with other teachers, connect with other leaders who are walking out your journey. Nobody understands our world like we do.

And some of the best counsel, some of the best information, some of the best experience that I have came from people I was doing life with in early education. I encourage you to join local groups of teachers, local groups of leaders who are getting together on a monthly or quarterly basis, connecting with them. Yes, technically, I suppose in a community we’re competing with each other. But I’m going to tell you that there are more than enough children out there for us all to have a role in providing quality care and education.

It is very important for our field and for those children that we lock arms and lock hearts and work together to create excellent programs for them to participate in and excellent environments for them to learn in. And so the best resource we have is each other.


Yeah, peer groups are for sure always the best resource because everyone can relate to each other. And you’ll learn a lot, for sure. Lori, if I am listening to the Podcast and I want to learn more about the Association for Early Learning Leaders – specifically in some of the cool things you’re doing, including this regional training program that’s coming up – what’s the website, or where can I go to find out more about the Association?


You can find out all you want to know and more at www.EarlyLearningLeaders.org. It has all of our trading events, webinars – we have free webinars several times a month. We have training events coming up, there are vendor resources. HiMama was at our conference, we were so glad to welcome them to Dallas. And we have just tons and tons of resources that will help you in classroom, help you in your leadership. And I’ll tell you that my phone number is there and you can call me, email me anytime. My world is about making your world work, so I am here when you meet me.


Oh, that’s so kind of you, staying true to your advice of staying in touch with our peers. Also putting your own phone number in email for people to get in touch with you is very kind. Lori, as always it has been a great pleasure having you on the Podcast with us here today to hear about your wisdom and experience and advice on leadership in early-childhood education. is such an important topic. Thanks again for coming on the show.


Thank you so much, Ron. Have a wonderful, wonderful rest of the day.

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!