By: Erin DelRegno
When becoming director of a child care center for the first time, you have many different thoughts and feelings. If you are already familiar with the program and staff because you worked there as a teacher, maybe you will feel completely ready. I was a Pre-K teacher in a childcare center, moving into an Education Manager position within a Head Start program. So, although I was excited, I was also very nervous. I knew many of the teachers I would be supervising had worked at these centers for a very long time; I’m sure they weren’t sure what to expect from this new person coming in. I also knew the large number of classrooms and staff I would be working with and was worried about prioritizing my time and being able to manage it all.
Regardless of what you are thinking or how you are feeling, this is still a new position for you and I know you are preparing and hoping to do the absolute best you can for the program, teachers, children, and families. As you get started on this new journey, I’ve included some tips below based on things I learned during my years as a director. I hope they help you to be successful and make a positive impact in your program.
- There is nothing wrong with how you are feeling. Anytime there is a big change, and everything is new, you are not going to be completely comfortable. You need to get your feet wet first so you can become more familiar with the position and the program you are working for. Putting yourself out there is the only way to gain new experience.
- Take it one day, and one task, at a time. I remember my first day; I was shown my office (a literal closet) and was told to read through these two huge binders about the organization/program and to go through stuff in the office. The desk, shelves, and floor were filled and stacked with binders, documents, etc. just thrown everywhere (I could only get to my chair). So, I know firsthand that it can seem overwhelming at first, but just like with everything else, you will work through it, and the more you do it the more natural it will become.
- Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to question what you don’t know and are confused about, and let others know when you need support. No matter how much experience you have, you are new to this position and are still learning the ins-and-outs and expectations of this center and organization.
- Get to know your staff. They are more than a name, more than a classroom number, more than just a teacher you supervise. Just as you encourage teachers to build positive relationships with the children and families they work with, it is just as important to do this with the teachers you are working with. This is key and is the foundation for everything else you will do as a director.
- Be respectful of your staff and others you work with. I say the same thing when I talk to teachers; if you want the children to be respectful of you, you need to give the same respect in return. You are modeling for your staff and should treat them the way you want to be treated. If you are disrespectful towards them (i.e. don’t listen to them, boss them around, speak down to them or yell at them, etc.), that will filter down and might be how they end up being towards their coworkers, families, or the children. Would you want to work very hard for someone that treated you poorly?
- Do not go in there thinking you know everything. Don’t forget that the teachers you’re working with also have knowledge and experience working with young children. I saw a former teacher go into a program as a new director; they had so much to offer. However, they immediately went in telling everyone what to do, how to do it, and it could only be done their way. This resulted in confusion, backlash from staff, extra stress on everyone, and only lasting a few months as a director. Get to know the program first and work on improving areas that are needed, not just things you don’t like or wouldn’t have done in your classroom.
- Every classroom will be different. Don’t expect every classroom to look the same or every teacher to do things in the same way. The same program expectations and outcomes can be achieved in a variety of ways. All teachers are unique, and they come up with some great ideas that others wouldn’t have thought of. Embrace their differences and their individual strengths; they can all be useful within your program.
- You are part of a team. In Head Start we had different departments (health, family service, etc.). Other programs are smaller but maybe have a Pre-K Counts classroom in the building. You are all a part of one program and are working towards the same goals for the children and families; regardless of the funding source. Don’t look at yourselves as separate pieces that shouldn’t interact with each other; work together as one cohesive group. This creates a positive work environment and camaraderie among all staff. You are all in this together!
- Delegate. I have to be honest; I am not good at this. It would always be one of my goals for the following year. I continue to work on this, and highly urge you to do this as well. This will not only help your stress level and prevent burnout; it will empower your team members to take on other responsibilities and develop new skills. Go over what is needed and check-in but trust them to do the task. Just make sure not to overload them; no one should take on too much at one time.
- Your office may seem like an assembly line. Your staff will come to you with questions, concerns, and ideas. This can be overwhelming at times because they always seem to need you for something, but that shows that they respect you, trust you, and know you are there to support them. That is a great thing. What does it say if staff never go to their director? Make time for them, be a good listener, and get them involved when there is a problem. Have them be a part of the discussion and encourage them to think of possible solutions.
- Seek input from your staff. It is important that your teachers feel they have a voice and that their thoughts and ideas matter. Remember you’re a team and they should be sharing in the decision-making process – They are the ones working more closely with the children and families every day. If they get to be a part of these discussions, they will then understand the purpose of a change and the benefit it will have to their daily work. This will in turn lead to employee buy-in, which is the only way any meaningful change will last.
- Provide honest, specific, and objective feedback. This may happen after you observe in a classroom or just during an informal conversation but should occur on a regular basis. You want to run a quality program for children and families and need to assure that teachers are always using best practices. If an employee does need to improve in an area or is not following a program expectation you must address this. It may be uncomfortable but giving constructive feedback and developing an action plan together promotes their professional growth.
- Take pride in what you do. If you are enthusiastic and passionate about what you do, then you will get your staff excited and energized about what they are doing with the children in their classrooms. If you are only there for the paycheck, it shows and will rub off on your staff. You are a model for them; they will care and work hard if that is what they see you do.
- Always focus on boosting staff morale. Working in an early care classroom is rewarding but also very demanding. When teachers are happy, they will give their best and be effective in their work with children. Show your appreciation and acknowledge their efforts and hard work. A little can go a long way; make them a snack or buy them lunch, give them birthday cards, plan staff outings, play games, you and others can write recognition notes about specific things they did, etc. There is so much you can do; just know this needs to be consistent and sincere. Make them feel valued; it will make a big difference.
Your role as a director may be different than you are used to but know how important you are to a program. You will have numerous responsibilities and it can be hectic at times; you are keeping track of the entire center (or multiple centers), there will be a lot of paperwork, budgeting, training, scheduling, etc. But you will also become more comfortable speaking in front of groups, your communication and professionalism skills will grow as you interact with a variety of people, and your confidence in being a leader and making tough decisions will build.
I was not sure about moving from a teaching position to becoming a director and working more closely with adults instead of children. But you know, sometimes an opportunity presents itself and it ends up putting you exactly where you’re supposed to be. Embrace and enjoy this new position. Have fun with your staff and keep moving forward; you will find your stride.