Enhancing Staff Morale - More Than Pizza and Donuts

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One key to staff retention in child care is creating a positive work environment. Making employees and teachers feel valued, respected, acknowledged, and appreciated fosters loyalty to the center and has a 'trickle down' effect on the care our children receive. 

Showing appreciation and acknowledging the efforts of staff need not always be expensive or elaborate, but it does need to be consistent and sincere to be effective in boosting morale.

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A sincere thank you goes a long way

We often say thank you without even thinking about it. Next time one of your child care staff members goes that extra mile, when you thank them:
  • stop what you're doing and give them your complete attention
  • make eye contact and smile
  • physical contact can be effective - a hand on their arm - if that is something that is within the comfort level of both people involved, and is a part of your style
  • specifically acknowledge what they did. ("Thank you so much for cooking this week. No one wanted to do it, and I'm sure you didn't either, so I wanted you to know I really appreciate the fact that you volunteered")
A note is also a nice way to acknowledge staff. This doesn't always even need to be when someone does something above and beyond; it can be letting that staff member who is always there and always on time know that you recognize that fact, and appreciate the effort that takes. Another small gesture can be jotting a personalized note on the back of the paycheck envelopes. ("Thanks for all you do, Julie!!")

Establish a "Staff Appreciation Day" or week

This can be anytime, or coincide with "National Provider Day" (June 1) or The Week of the Young Child (the first week of April). Ideas include having a potluck for staff with parents each bringing in a dish; small gifts or teacher pins; a breakfast in which the parents &/or children cook; copying an appropriate 'Teacher' poem on nice paper and having the children make their handprints around it, etc. Often, you can recruit a parent to organize these projects, which also makes them more meaningful.

One thing that I've done in the past to boost morale that turned out as a meaningful keepsake was to create a 'memory book' for each teacher. Parents were asked to write a note to their child's teacher(s) and include a picture drawn by their child if they wanted. I then added pictures taken at the center from that teacher's classroom. I put a "Teacher"-type poem on the first page and wrote a personal note myself acknowledging that individuals strengths. I was amazed at how heartfelt the notes were from parents. Sometimes we don't realize how appreciated we really are by families, and teachers do not hear this directly from parents often enough.

Select a "Staff Member of the Month"

Criteria should be defined and employees should vote for their peers. (Did you ever work anywhere where the director's 'pet' won every month and all the award did was alienate this staff member?) At a staff meeting you can have two small door prizes or gift certificates. Each staff is given 2 index cards (2 colors), and vote for who is the Best Teacher and who is the Best Center Employee. (As you know, these are two different things!) Recognition from your peers can be extremely powerful and meaningful. This can also be done more formally and can involve parents. If the same staff member continues to receive this honor over and over, you may want to A) clone them! &/or B) specify that it be a new recipient. The 'Employee of the Month' can be further acknowledged with his/her picture on an entryway bulletin board recognizing this distinction. One center designated an "Employee of the Month" parking place right up front, yet another 'perk', further reinforcing that staff member. An "Employee of the Year" can be selected from the monthly recipients and given an engraved plaque.

Recognize and reward accomplishments

Use your newsletter to acknowledge when staff members have completed another year of college, or have presented at a local conference. Frame and hang their certificates and awards in their classrooms. Do a press release when an employee earns a CDA.

Pass a "Congratulations" card around for all of the staff to sign to recognize employee achievements. Put up banners. Nominate your outstanding Teachers for awards within your community. Encourage parents to do the same.

Have the Teacher that is great at Science or Circle Time present a staff training. Have teachers-in-training from other centers in your area visit her classroom to observe.

Assist your staff in developing professionally. Encourage them to learn and grow, and let them know it is something you value. It also conveys to them your belief in their potential. Knowing that they can grow within a company is also an important staff retention factor.

Create a "TLC" or "Care" Committee or person

Build a sense of family. Often we spend many more hours a day with the people we work with than with anyone else. Make your center a place where birthdays, babies, and employment anniversaries are acknowledged and celebrated. Things like "Secret Santa" can be really fun. This is a great role to delegate to someone who is wanting additional responsibility, as it will illustrate for you his or her capacity for organization and follow-through.

Reward attendance and punctuality

With approval from your Area Manager, on a fully staffed day with little going on (!) relieve a Teacher for the morning or afternoon as a reinforcer for outstanding punctuality or attendance. With the unpredictable nature of our work, sometimes it is best not to plan for this, but to seize the opportunity when it arises. Even getting to go home an hour early can be a treat for a staff member. 

It is also good for the staff to see that we are not above sweeping the floor, changing poopie diapers or wiping noses. I think it's helpful to be able to honestly say, "I'm not asking you to do anything I am not willing to do myself." And "we're a team."

Praise and acknowledge effort and good work

Take the time and make the commitment to really see what areas your staff members are growing in or mastering. Everyone wants to know that their efforts are appreciated, and when they've worked really hard on something it is duly noted.

Empathize with staff

It is easy to forget we all were once Teachers and had our share of "Brandon's." Sometimes employees want insight, resources, and assistance. Sometimes they just want to know that we've been there and understand. There are times when it means a lot to have someone come up to you, smile, put their arm around you and say "Miss Tressa, I feel your pain." At other times the best thing that you can do for a Teacher is to offer to give her a little break. Give her the option of running to the post office - it doesn't always have to be you, and she might appreciate a small diversion on a bad day - and so might our friend 'Brandon'.

Seek input from staff

We all want to feel as if our opinion counts and is of value. Next time you need to order equipment or plan the end of the year picnic, solicit opinions and assistance of staff. Employees should feel that it is their center - not just yours, and the program reflects their contributions. This lends itself to ownership and a feeling of being a part of things. Delegate - it teaches skills and conveys trust.

Motivational pieces

Did you ever read something that brought you back to why you work with children? Did you ever read something that was posted somewhere that was funny, but basically said 'this place stinks'? Strategically place educational and motivational pieces that reflect what you want to see and will impact people in a positive way. Attitude and perception are everything.

Have fun

Who wants to be somewhere where people don't laugh and have fun? The ability to laugh at oneself sets the tone for the entire group. Have the kind of rapport with staff where, (when appropriate) they can kid around with you and you with them, about the little stuff - like getting puked on. Many times in our job, isn't it either laugh or cry? 

Enjoy the children. Appreciate them. How often do we get so enmeshed in our other responsibilities that we do not fully acknowledge a childs' "boo-boo" or story about a new pokeman bedspread? I gained a new respect for a Director I once had when I saw her dancing with the children like a total dork. Isn't that a great thing about kids - they don't care if you dance like a dork, just so you dance with them and are there fully in the moment with them. We are constantly modeling for staff - it's important for them to see that the children do come first and foremost. I always respected a supervisor more who I knew really cared about the children - and this enabled me to overlook other shortcomings on their part and that of the center. 

And on a final note - little things do sometimes mean a lot. Cookies, pizza, candy, donuts, small gifts - accompanied by a nice note - can be very sweet. However, they can not replace or substitute for a foundation based on respect, trust, and fair treatment. 

Copyright 2005 ~Cathy Abraham