Inspiring Professional Growth

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast

Episode 160 – Continuous professional development is so important, especially now as the sector is going through a labor crisis. In this episode, we chat with Susan Macdonald about her upcoming publication, Inspiring Professional Growth. She shares some pointers on vision-focused professional development, professional accountability, supporting the growth of different staff members and appropriate goal-setting that is ambitious and achievable.  


Episode Transcript


When people start experiencing positive growth and change they want to experience more of it. And people are not burning out because they’re working too much – they’re burning out because they’re not experiencing the growth in their work.


Susan, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Great to be here with you!


Or should I say, welcome back! We’re lucky to have Susan MacDonald back on the Podcast. She was with us last year in 2018. And we have her back this year because we’re going to talk to her about professional growth in early-childhood education. Susan MacDonald is an author of books specific to early-childhood education. She’s also the founder of Inspiring New Perspectives.

And today we’re going to focus on one of her upcoming books, Inspiring Professional Growth [Empowering Strategies to Lead, Motivate, and Engage Early Childhood Teachers] and focus on that topic of professional growth. Let’s start out, Susan, with why professional growth is important. And I’m going to take the devil’s advocate view: if I studied early-childhood education in school and I got my degree or my diploma and I got a job, why do I need to keep learning more things?


Well, I have to say that’s one of my favorite questions and something I always start my presentations with. Because what we see in our field of early ed. [education] right now is this amazing amount of research directly related to neuroscience and how young children’s brains are developing. We spent a lot of years in early ed. thinking we were getting kids ready for kindergarten. And that research – the neuroscience research – is showing the impact of high-quality early as is getting kids ready for life. They are seeing the impact of high-quality early-childhood throughout the lifespan.

So we’re learning more – literally every day, new research, new studies – about how to work with children; how their brains are developing; what are the best practices we can do. So even if you graduated five, ten years ago with a top degree that’s not current information that we know now.

So we need to be sure that everybody in our field is staying current, is continuing to grow, staying current with the research. And also, being a lifelong learner is modeling what we know is important for children. They’re going to watch and see how we’re learning, how we’re growing, how we’re talking about learning. And that’s going to impact their learning; it’s going to impact the culture of the school; it’s going to impact the families. So all of this is just vital to the work.


That’s the first time I’ve heard it put that way, in terms of getting children ready for life versus thinking about getting them ready for kindergarten. I really like that angle. Let’s talk about one of the things you mentioned in your book, which is the term “professional accountability”. What do you mean by that?


*laughs*, another big speech. But this sense of in the past few years we’ve really made progress… my first book was a lot of information about developing individual professional development plans, making sure every teacher has a goal. And I’ve seen a big change – five, six, seven years across our country – with our QRIS [Quality Rating and Improvement System] initiative of people writing goals for teachers.

What we haven’t seen is an increase in goal achievement. People, when I work closely with them, say they’re writing similar goals year after year. Professional accountability is not just writing the goals – it’s establishing the norms and expectations that people achieve the goals. So as a leader, how am I following up? How am I providing professional development? How am I observing and giving strength-based feedback? So that we know, at the end of this year’s cycle, that these goals are actually achieved so the outcomes are better for staff, for children, for families.

I have a great quote I love about this: “Professional accountability is a good thing. Without it excellence is merely a pipe dream, and even average performance isn’t a realistic expectation.” And that’s [from] Leon Ellis.

This sense of not having the highest level of performance be a realistic expectation is really crippling our field. We want to have teachers who understand the value of their own growth so that they can be showing up in our classrooms fully engaged and active in their own research and learning to model that in the classrooms.


So if I’m taking away some of what you’re saying, is it fair to say that planning and organization and process is a very key part of professional growth and accountability?


Yeah, I would add my one of my fundamental descriptors there: intentional planning. How are we being intentional with what we want to see? What is our vision for our program for this year? What is our vision in these classrooms? What are the professional development goals for every teacher, for every administrator? And then how are we following up so that piece of planning, that piece of time management, that piece of intentionality all has a positive impact on how we’re seeing this engagement with professional growth?


Yeah, and something I think every leader struggles with – and I certainly do, too – is you always have these daily or weekly tasks and activities you’re trying to accomplish. And I think, especially if you’re running a childcare program, there’s so many things to think about and to do that you forget some of the intentional planning pieces that actually have the highest impact. Is that something that you see in the field?


I talk about this, and I think this sense… I love Stephen Covey’s “Four Quadrants”. Quadrant Two – “planning, professional development, value-based work” – is essential. But in early ed. there’s this crisis-driven project stuff going on in Quadrant One that people don’t get into this vision-focused professional development planning work as much as they should, time-wise.

But the key is the more we invest our time there, the less we’re in this crisis mode. “I have to run down the hall; I have to help the teacher; I have to do this.” When we’re building confidence and confidence in teacher skills through our work with them there’s going to be less of a drain on the leader to run around and fix the problems. So we want to start really valuing that time and blocking it out in our calendars, giving that focused observation, having a one-on-one meeting with a teacher – even if it’s 15 minutes – is transformational to their growth.

So these things shouldn’t be an afterthought, or, “If I have time someday I’ll get to it.” This is the stuff. This is what we need to have right on our calendars and really block out as the work that needs to happen.


Yeah and that’s so on point. And so you mentioned booking time and calendars. Is there other ways or methods that I can really force myself as an early-childhood leader to ensure these things are happening?


One of the things I provide in my book, and I think people can develop their own. But having really clear, year-long plans… if we know our vision is to support emergent curriculum from children in a way that builds excitement and engagement in their learning then what am I doing at my opening staff meetings? What am I doing at my follow-up staff meetings? What am I talking about with my feedback from observations?

So that I create this one-page kind of flow sheets that really highlight the vision and the goals for everyone in the program and then create a calendar where this is integral to the program, that I’m not looking at my professional day in March saying, “Oh, I’ve got to call Suzanne, I heard she’s a great speaker.” Instead of saying, “Wow, I really need to find a speaker who speaks to the key topics that my staff are struggling with.”

So being intentional, not just with the time, but with that overall planning so that the teachers are stepping into the year saying, “Wow, this is exciting. We’re going to be exploring this topic as adult learners. We’re going to be using these resources. We have these speakers booked.” That everyone feels that energy towards the growth of the program and of every individual into it.


So you talk about energy and being excited about this process. What about folks who might be on the other side of the equation, saying, “Well, you know, my teachers just feel like this is a bunch of administrative work. And it’s like they are already so busy and I’m so busy, I don’t think anybody is really getting excited about this?” What’s your response to that?


My response is, you’re running down the negative spiral. As a leader our job is to bring people up. And if we have someone… I love Jon Gordon’s Energy Bus analogy: If we have people that are not on that bus, we have this great vision to move the work forward and someone is literally standing outside flailing in front of the bus, “We don’t need to go there. We’ve been through this before. People always say this,” and we let that energy of those one or two people hold the whole program back we are creating this negative vortex where the program is not going to move forward and grow.

So the biggest challenge to the leader is helping that person see clearly where that bus is going and helping them make the decision to get on it with us or not. And that’s part of professional accountability. So many programs I’ve worked with, whether in good times or in struggle, have given me really vivid stories of this one person who really created this negative energy that paralyzed the school culture. And when I say, “How long has this been going on?” They say, “Five to seven years,” or more.

And when we’re letting that happen as a leader everyone in the program is suffering. They know that we’re not being professionally accountable to what the expectations are. And when the issue is finally resolved people always come to the director’s room and say, “Oh, finally, what took you so long?”

So we can’t allow that negative attitude to paralyze and to prevent growth. So I think this sense of really starting the school year with this sense of, “What is professional accountability?”, creating a shared vision, moving people forward. And then as the leader not allowing that type of behavior that stops the energy is going to take some new skills, that’s going to take some new approaches.

And honestly it’s one of the reasons I wrote this book because it’s a I could write in, like, ten different versions of how this different character in the same play is creating this problem and how directors are allowing it to continue. Jon Gordon talks about them as “energy vampires”. And when I say that to a group of people I’m speaking with you see almost every head in the room nod. People know who’s sucking the energy out of the program but they’re not always dealing with it.


Yeah, the other way I’ve heard that referred to as if you have, like, a basket of strawberries and one of them is going moldy. All the ones around it start going moldy as well, is another visual representation.


Yeah, and how quickly that happens. It’s very visual and it’s very rapid.


And so if I’m a director, administrator, or a leader listening to this podcast – or even an educator, as well – and I’m thinking about professional growth plans, either for myself or for my team, can you help us make it a bit more tangible in terms of, like, what are good goals to have? Like, what is maybe too ambitious or not ambitious enough? Or how do I even start to think about that?


Well, I think that ambitious or not ambitious is enough. One of the things I write about and I really encourage people to take a new look at: We’ve talked about smart goals with children, but are the goals that we’re setting specific enough, measurable, achievable and realistic? That sense of creating this goal that’s so far-reaching we’re not going to get there is going to kind of create that negative energy that we’ll never get there. And then the “T”, the time-bound piece of it.

So helping people get a very specific goal, making sure they have parameters that they’re checking in. You don’t want to have sort of New Year’s-itis where people are saying, “Oh, we want a classroom that’s this and this and this and we’re going to do this and this.” And then what actually happens is nothing.

So we want to talk to people about what is something that is very important to them that they would like to see change and be supported in their growth in the coming year. That could be working with children with challenging behaviors, building stronger relationships with parents, creating more engaging environments.

And then break that down into a couple of realistic goals with very clear action steps. So we know, is there someone we could bring in that could support them? Maybe someone within the program or an outside consultant that we’re working with? What kind of data? If someone really wants to enhance positive relationships maybe we could do a class assessment and see where we are with that and then have very clear, defined goals based on what we learned from the data. Lots of ways to get specific, measurable, realistic.

So developing our goal-writing skills is, to me, is one of the key foundations. But it’s not just the goal of writing. Then getting teams to really sit down at their team meeting time – whether it’s once a week or once a month – and really saying, “How are we doing? What’s an example of this going really well? What is an area that we need to continue to grow on?” Not that these goals are written and put in the drawer till next year, but they become living, breathing parts of our conversations.

So thinking about that in the team conversation, “How are we supporting each other? How are we growing?” And then in the leadership model, same thing: “How am I checking in with people? How am I showing up in my work?” Many states require people to be observed every month or every other month. You need to observe related to the specific goal that they have set and give them feedback and help them grow so that professional accountability aligns with the growth that they want to see.

And the more we start seeing it, the really great news of this research is, when people start experiencing positive growth and change they want to experience more of it. And people are not burning out because they’re working too much – they’re burning out because they’re not experiencing the growth in their work.


Totally, totally.


Well, we can highlight that for them. We can create… really, I love people just putting up photos, sharing stories at staff meetings, creating teacher portfolios. Where we’re talking about their strengths coming to life, the engagement and learning and professional growth just shifts.


Yeah, and I’ve experienced it myself so many times where if you put a plan together with somebody with goals and they then go and achieve those goals and see tangible outputs – and the way you phrased it I think is nice, “they bring it to life and see the results” – there’s nothing more powerful than getting people excited and getting their buy-in to the value of professional growth and development, than seeing their own progress. And you challenging them and help and enabling them to get there is such a powerful process.


Yes. And even just having great conversations before the goal setting to say, “When was a time you felt this? Who supported you the most? Who helped you get to this position?” We get a sense of how they’d like to be supported and how they’d like to grow. But we tap into that energy even in a job interview. We want to be sure we have people with this growth mindset and that are excited about growth. And I know we talked about that in our last session together but it’s really vital to this work.


So important, and a good segue to talking a little bit more about your upcoming book. So I think this is so important and so relevant to early-childhood education. I want everybody that listens to the Podcast to read this book when it comes out. So it’s called Inspiring Professional Growth: Empowering Strategies to Lead, Motivate, and Engage Early Childhood Teachers. Tell us a little bit more, Susan, about when people can get a hold of this book and what it’s all about.


So the book will be out by November 1st [2019]. We’re having a release at the NAEYC [National Association for the Education of Young Children] conference that’s every year in November. So we’re aiming for that. I’ll be doing a lot of speaking around the book. But the key things… we touched on professional accountability, that’s Chapter One, professional accountability as a fundamental value. How are we helping leaders embrace that and understand that and have the language to develop it?

And then the rest of the book is really focused on, what are those leadership skills that we need to have to create this change? So I’ll highlight a few: One is really honing your own development as a leader, honing your leadership skills, really getting clarity on what you need to lead in this way.

The next one, I’m in love with the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey around being deliberately developmental, and how are we really understanding the areas of adult development? And just this sense that adults can continue to grow. Your first question, I have that degree – this is a lifelong commitment and building in that sense that if everyone continues to grow we are creating a better world for children and families and society to live in.

I also highlight something that’s come up over and over in my work, is this sense of supporting all generations. So many people like to say “Oh, those millennials.” They pick one group and they say it’s really hard to work with them. As a leader we need to work with everybody and we need to understand the traits and characteristics of each generation and then find the best ways that we can work with them around this growth in a very positive, collaborative way.


And Susan, can early-childhood teachers read this book as well?


Oh, absolutely. And I highlighted a really important piece that I don’t think we have focused on enough in the field, is how are we working with strength-based teams. So there’s a wonderful checklist in there around 10 characteristics of strength-based teams. There’s a reflective sheet on having strength-based team dialogue.

But everything there, when I think of who is a leader in early ed. teachers are leaving their classrooms, they’re supporting interns, they’re supporting families, they’re supporting children. We want to find ways that this work is getting into the field at all levels.


Yeah, and it’s the reason I ask – because I always like to stress that on the Podcast – is that everyone can and should be a leader. You don’t have to be a director of your childcare program. If you’re a teacher, you’re a leader. And to your point, you’re a leader of the children you’re serving, the families, and you can be a within your own childcare program.


Yeah, and a leader of your own professional life and professional work. And I think the more we enhance that… if I have a large group and I say, “Who in the room is a leader?” people start looking around for the director. And I say, “Everyone in this room is a leader.” Just embracing that fact and knowing the ripple effect that we’re having in the world when we know we’re doing high-quality early ed. is a really powerful message.


Yeah, and your point to being a leader of your own professional growth and development I think is an important one too, right? Sometimes you can’t look to your director to lead that for you, so you have to. And reading books like this is one great step in that direction. I also love, Susan, by the way, how you take leadership books external from early-childhood and think about how those principles can apply in early-childhood. It’s so important that we take external learnings from outside early-childhood because there’s lots we can learn there.

So many more things we could talk about and we’re out of time. We’re always out of time. Susan, thank you so much for joining us on the Podcast today. This book – and your work – is so on-point and is so important for early-childhood educators. Thank you for everything you’re doing and thank you so much for joining us today.


Oh, it’s wonderful to be here, and I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you and spread the word about the work. And I look forward to hearing lots of feedback about the book in the year ahead.


Me too. And if I’m listening to the Podcast, Susan, and I want to get in touch with you or learn more about your work where can I go?


Well, is my website, and so there’ll be a lot of information there. And Inspiring New Perspectives at Facebook as well – I try to keep active posting there. And honestly people can directly email me if they have questions or comments. I’m always responsive, and that’s


Susan, always a pleasure having you on the show. Thanks again for joining us.


Wonderful to be here. Bye-bye.

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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *