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New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

  • 1.  New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-12-2021 03:36 PM
    Hello all, I have some major concerns that I really need to vent, and hopefully see some helpful responses about. I am very passionate about my work with children and I am feeling a bit overwhelmed right now. Before moving to New Mexico, I have spent my career teaching at very high quality programs and I intend to run my center that way too.

    I'm the new director at a center that has had a lax, unmotivated director for a number of years. We all know that a complacent director leads to a complacent staff. There's no vision here, no direction, no mission, no passion. I know that part of the problem is the fact that New Mexico struggles with education, mindsets about education, and a lack of quality in our education and educators at all levels. The teachers in my center seem bored and unmotivated - and I believe that part of that is that they are burnt out, and part is that they haven't had anyone expecting much out of them. Part of it is that the old director allowed them to treat low enrollment (due to COVID) as a chance to take it easy, rather than a chance to have more one-on-one time with children and do activities that wouldn't be possible/would be harder with bigger groups. I am also significantly younger than some of the teachers here. When they've been working in the field as long as I have been alive, they really don't like hearing from me that they need to change "how we do things."

    Creating lesson plans wasn't a priority for the previous director, so most of the day is impromptu or just the same as yesterday. I doubt the rooms have been rearranged in a year if not longer. I don't think they do any toy rotating; just keep a ton of stuff on each shelf. They sing the same 5 or 6 songs each day. Every day. They have the "bored" tone of voice when giving directions and sometimes when interacting with groups or individual children. There's a lot of standing around - teachers stand on the tiles while the kids play, which of course leads to reactive rather than proactive behavior management. The playgrounds need significant updates. The infant room is nearly silent, which is infuriating. I've also been having experiences in the infant room that make my heart jump into my throat. Propping bottles for infants, covering infants' faces in cribs...!!!!! "That's how we do it" is not a reason for endangering a baby's life!!

    Some of these things have an easy, direct solution - I've made it clear that things like propping bottles and covering faces are absolutely unacceptable, and will draw up disciplinary action up to termination if they continue (though staffing is a major problem and they know that I don't have anyone on deck to replace them at this point). I am helping teachers learn how to create and carry out engaging lesson plans that incorporate children's interests and a variety of opportunities to use and develop their skills. I'm working on clearing storage areas so that teachers can place toys there and rotate them regularly into and out of their classrooms.  I am creating photocopy-able diagrams of the floorplan of each room so that we can think through how to move things around to re-engage children's interest.

    If you walked in as the new director at such a center...where would you start? How would you prioritize? How would you go about making the changes and improvements that desperately need to be made? How would you go about adjusting teachers' mindsets and attitudes about teaching/children, and retraining them to use best practices? Right now, I would not send a child of my own to this center, and that is not at all acceptable to me. Thanks in advance for any thoughts and advice you all could share with me - I'm all ears.

    Valerie Stefani
    Albuquerque NM

  • 2.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-12-2021 04:02 PM
    Hello Valerie,

    I understand the need for help in this situation, I privately messaged you.


    Melanie Smith
    The Preschool Doctor

  • 3.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-13-2021 09:28 AM
      |   view attached
    First, build a relationship, get to know the staff. Find out their "why" for being in the field. Share your "why". Find connection & commonalities & build comradery and a team spirit of everyone being on board with the mission to provide high quality child care.
    If you are not familiar with the stages of change, I am attaching an article that I like to share with leaders & coaches to help understand the mindset.
    Share videos of high quality childcare, the 15-minute in service suites from Head Start's ECLK have great videos. Community Play things offers short play-based, child directed articles you could share also. And of course, being on this forum, you are familiar with NAEYC's resources. Perhaps putting an article a day or every few days on a table in the staff break room. Begin a book club for those interested, start with an article from recent NAEYC journal, invite staff to hors d'oeuvres after hours to discuss the reading & their thoughts on it. The Pyramid Model has good resources on building relationships, establishing program wide expectations & rules, and acknowledging staff accomplishments.
    Their habits & dispositions were years in the making. I suggest slow, baby steps with patience will serve you best.
    Would inviting someone from the state regulatory office in to assist in an action plan through an all staff development day be fruitful?

    DEBORAH Collette-Cromp
    Teaching Improves Performance
    Malone NY


    StagesofChange.pdf   78 KB 1 version

  • 4.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-13-2021 03:21 PM
    I agree that first and foremost you need to build a relationship with the staff (while correcting any situation that puts a child in harms way). Find out why they entered the field, what they are most passionate about and what about daily work with children brings them joy.
    It sounds like the work that needs to be done will take months and will be a slow process but steps can be taken each day to improve quality. Schedule some professional development time to spark their fire again. There are many resources online with quality videos and demonstrations, possibly your area has a Quality Improvement Initiative you can enroll in to get additional support.
    It will take time but you and the team can do it and improve the quality for all the kids in your care :)

    Christina Roseli
    Ventura County Office of Education
    Oxnard CA

  • 5.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-14-2021 12:57 PM
    This is a really difficult situation and all of the relationship building suggestions are great. Along those lines, check out the naeyc publication: Coaching with Powerful Interactions. The strength-based approach is really effective.

    That said, sometimes there needs to be a stick as well as a carrot. I'm assuming that your center participates in some form of a rating and evaluation system. The rating of the center depends not only on health and safety but also high quality student/staff interactions. Bringing in an outside evaluator could be useful in delivering the bad news to the teachers who aren't taking advantage of positive coaching. This can allow you to refer to authority outside of yourself, be on the same team as "non-compliant" teachers, but be clear that low score areas in the evaluation bring down the whole center, and the center can not function without addressing quality improvement.

    Karen Lefkovitz
    Independent Consultant
    Philadelphia PA

  • 6.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-14-2021 11:20 AM

    My hat's off to you for taking on this challenge. I worked in a center very similar to this before. I was one of the motivated staff members with a worn out staff waiting for a new direction. We then were given a new director. The first week she observed and let things continue as normal. The second week we had a meeting that focused on the strengths of the staff. The following week we had age group brain storming with her during this time she shared her story and background with us. This meeting built a whole level of respect for her and the vision she had for our program. She instilled in us there that it was our program and that we were a family. Our first goal was to build a work family so lots of team building exercises. We also were given the task of building the class portfolio for accreditation. 

    I think sharing with us the ultimate goal of accreditation and giving us team building and other trainings worked for the entire staff. Changes were made. We learned there has to be some sort of uncomfortable to grow. There were lots of consequences for those who weren't on board with moving in a positive direction. Training was offered to show how the proper ways to fulfill the different criteria in the portfolio. 

    This is a super challenging thing to take on but it is possible put advertisements out to hire on more staff and have them waiting in the wings if possible.

    Just taking the time to get to know one another builds empathy and helps each person value their team and leadership and take the perspective of one another.  

    Drawing clear lines of acceptable behavior, while still acknowledging differences in a respectful manner can help staff react with compassion to all the interact with including children and parents as well as their fellow staff. If they are I powered as professionals they will take pride in their work (at least that is the ultimate goal.)
    hope this helps someone! 


    Amanda Roy
    Preschool Teacher
    Harmony's House
    Stafford VA

  • 7.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-14-2021 12:07 PM
    Hello Valerie,

    This is will a challenge in your career that teaches you so much! As others have said, relationship building is critical. When I started at my center, I met individually with each teacher and my office manager and did 20 questions. The questions are a combination of fun personal questions and professionally oriented questions (I'm happy to share it with you). This just opened up the lines of communication in a non-threatening way. They got to know a little about me as well. I tried to do this short meetings outside of my office when possible.

    I also had each teacher email me the 5 most important things to them as an educator and their teaching philosophy. I then held a full staff meeting (after hours, that they got paid for, with pizza) and shared any comments that were connected or related to show that we all have similar priorities related to working with children. I then shared my "theme" for the year (I do a new theme every fall). The first year I started the shared theme was "Joy." I told them that I wanted to see joy in their interactions with the children, the families, and with each other. It took some time and a lot of communication but the culture did change positively.

    I gave lots of individual praise for any great lesson idea or activity and especially kind or thoughtful or joyful interaction with a child or with a co-worker. I shared their successes with the whole team so that others could get a concrete idea of what I was looking for. I shared articles and asked everyone to send me 1 thought they had about it to ensure everyone was reading them. Generally, just lots of relationship building and communication. I'm happy to talk more if you want to message me privately. You can do this!

    Dawne Morison
    Gainesville FL

  • 8.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-17-2021 06:34 PM

    Hi Dawne,

    I need the very same information. Will you email me the list a give some more direction on you path you took to this positive outcome.
     I would be very thankful.

    Catherine Wildes

    Catherine Wildes
    Jax Bch FL

  • 9.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-19-2021 09:57 AM
      |   view attached
    Hello! Here are the 20 questions I now use with all new staff.

    [Dawne] [Morison]
    [Assistant Director Administration & Research]
    [University of Florida Child Development & Research Center]
    [Gainesville] [FL]


    20 Questions.docx   13 KB 1 version

  • 10.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-14-2021 06:23 PM
    Thank you so much for all the support and advice. I am definitely prioritizing building relationships around the center and demonstrating my excitement to work with them all. I'm working one-on-one with each teacher to get to know them, find out what excites them about working with children, figure out what challenges and obstacles they perceive in their work, and introducing lesson planning strategies and resources. I want my teachers to feel empowered to improve our center and feel proud of their accomplishments. I know that all the changes we need will take much longer than I wish they would, but it'll be so worth it. The previous director really did a number on the morale in the building over the last year or so, and there's a lot of rebuilding to do.

    I really appreciate all the links and resources - I've bookmarked them so that I can go through them more slowly over the weekend! If anyone has any other resources advice on supporting, training, and engaging with teachers and/or improving and revitalizing sluggish programs, post them! Thank you again for all of your input.

    Valerie Stefani
    Albuquerque NM

  • 11.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-17-2021 01:03 PM
    Hello again Valerie,

    So what I didn't mention before is that the place I came into 13 years ago was my mother's "daycare" program which at that point she had owned and operated for around 25+ years.  Many of her staff had been with her for 10+ years and everyone, including my mother, were set in their ways.  I came from a business management background in healthcare and had worked as a speech pathologist for many years and also managed therapy clinics and home health services.  Both childcare and healthcare were similar in that they are both heavily regulated and in the rural settings had staff that worked in their settings for many, many years.  I experienced challenges in both settings getting employees to change how they did things and have a different appreciation for the environment they were working in.

    I spent the first year not making any major changes and just learning their systems, styles of communication, general scope and schedule of their days, and observing their interactions with the children, parents and their co-workers.  If there were any major licensing violations going on, those were addressed immediately.  In the second year is when the major changes started happening.  The building had been neglected for many years and needed a facelift inside and out.  I started out by renovating the baby room first. I informed the teachers in that room that we would be repainting, changing the flooring and modifying the changing and diapering area.  I selected some color choices that were more suitable for an infant room for them to look at and give input.  The previous colors were bright and almost neon in color.  Once, the paint was selected, I chose a weekend to remove everything from the room and painted the entire room myself.  The reason I painted it myself instead of hiring someone, is that I wanted to show them I was willing to put in the same amount of work that I was asking them to put into changing how they do things.  With an empty room and clear walls, it was easier for them to see how cluttered the room was before and that by only bringing back into the classroom those things that were absolutely necessary, it was easier to function in the room for both them and the babies.  It was a fresh start and the staff and parents were amazed at the transformation.  The teachers started taking pride in their work again and became very protective of how their room looked and how they interacted with the parents.  It wasn't long before the other teachers were asking when their rooms were going to be made over.  It took a full year to get the entire inside of the building repainted, new lights and ceiling fans installed, new furniture for some of the rooms etc.  Everything was done on a shoestring budget and we applied for grants where we could for some of the classroom equipment.  As the environment started changing so did the attitudes of the staff and then we also started seeing an increase in enrollments and inquiries.  The third year I started making changes to the exterior of the building and the playgrounds.

    3 years sounds like a long time, but it went by pretty fast.  By the end of those 3 years about half of the original staff were still around as those that wouldn't make the changes were either terminated or quit because of the new expectations.  Feel free to reach out as you start to make the changes at your center.

    Best of luck.


    Tim Kaminski
    Gingerbread Kids Academy
    Richmond TX

  • 12.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-15-2021 08:16 AM
    Dear Valerie:

    You have a hard job ahead of you. The first thing I would do is meet with each staff member separately for coffee or a meal to discuss with them what the Center  was like before you were hired as Director. Talk to them about their wishes and hopes for the future and their jobs. Next, I would look over the policies of the center and the teachers' and assistant teachers' contracts to see what has been required of them.

    You should also review the Center's policies and procedures: staff handbook; philosophy - mission of the Center, policy on discipline, etc.; and parent handbook.

    There are two books that you should read immediately. They are From Teaching to Thinking by Ann Pelo and Margie Carter and The Visionary Director by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter. In addition, another source of how to think about what needs to change and how you might think about going about getting change is The Art of Reflective Teaching by Carol R Rodgers.

    From what you have written, it appears that you are working with a group of teachers who have little background in ECE and teaching in general. Hopefully, meeting with each teacher and assistant teacher will provide you with information about what is required to improve your program.

    Another important task is to review the structure of the day and ensure that you can lock in some time for teacher meetings to begin the extremely important task of building up everyone's morale. The problem in many centers is that there is no time during the day for this to occur. The one thing you want to avoid, if possible, is using staff meeting time for mundane tasks. Maybe you can build in staff professional development every month, focusing on a particular important topic that affects the classroom and the children - structure of the day/routines; planning activities; classroom design (Community Playthings has free information to help in doing this - available on their website), etc.

    If you contact me personally, I can provide you with more ideas and sources for ideas.

    Best of luck. You have a hard job ahead of you.


    Nora Krieger, PhD
    Associate Professor Emerita/Past Chair NJEEPRE
    Bloomfield College/NJ Educators Exploring the Practices of Reggio Emilia
    Highland Park, NJ

  • 13.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-15-2021 11:34 AM
    I would concur that anything by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter would be of great help to you. I read everything that they authored when I became the founding director of a hospital-based child care center years ago. It was of immense help.
    There is a lot of help and support available to you and you and have a great step forward by asking for suggestions on this forum. We are here to help.
    image of The Visionary Director: A Handbook for Dreaming, Organizing, and Improvising in Your Center

    Eileen Donahue Brittain
    Retired Early Childhood Professor
    Baltimore, MD

  • 14.  RE: New Director at a Center that Critically Needs Improvement

    Posted 05-19-2021 09:35 AM
      |   view attached
    Hi again Valerie! I attached the 20 questions I use with my staff. I will say after the first 4-6 months of relationship building and getting the lay of the land, I did have to formally discipline a couple of teachers with write-ups and even let one teacher go. But at that point I was able to say to the staff, "you know me, you know our culture and our expectations. Everyone will be held to the same standard." By then, they trusted me and my judgement. Best of luck!

    Dawne Morison
    Gainesville FL


    20 Questions.docx   13 KB 1 version