As the new school year starts, staff return to buildings, and new teaching teams take shape, administrators are focused on many aspects of the back to school transition. One of those aspects is building and maintaining a collaborative staff culture.
For this blog post, I sat down with Kelly Bouthillette, current Director of School Partnerships at Kaymbu, and former Childcare Director of Saint Teresa of Calcutta Children’s Center and Regional Director of Time for Tots, to learn how she fostered a supportive environment in her previous work in early childhood programs.
Uniting Around Common Goals
Oftentimes, school leadership use back to school times to engage in exercises and activities that enable staff to come together around a shared purpose. Two meaningful questions to ponder together as a staff are:
- What do we want for children?
- What do we want for families?
These questions can spark discussions in which staff consider what types of values they share with their co-teacher or teaching team, and how these values can and should be manifested into learning environments, experiences, or routines. Response might include:
- We want children to feel loved
- We want children to develop independence
- We want families to feel like they are our trusted partners
- We want families to be engaged and involved
Leadership teams can engage in similar discussions to consider what they want for staff. In Kelly’s case, she and her leadership team decided their goal was to foster a sense of collective ownership - ownership of the center, children’s education, and of the culture in the building.
“I focused on making sure everyone had an equal voice. We had people in their 1st year and 30th year of teaching, and it mattered that no one felt less important.”
To manifest this sense of ownership, her staff engaged in a beginning of year team-building project that led to a tangible improvement of the learning environment. Specifically, one year, her staff built a community garden. Materials were sourced from local partners, the staff provided the labor, and with the support of children, everyone collectively cared for it throughout the year.
“I wanted my team to know that it wasn’t my building. It was ours.”
Keeping Culture Alive
In addition to beginning of the year activities, it’s important that the culture you establish at the beginning of the year through discussions and team building activities continue to inform ongoing routines throughout the school year. Depending on how your culture is defined, the specifics of these routines may look different, but the values that unite your team, should ground the ways you engage with each other.
At Kelly’s program, their goal of ownership meant that ALL staff were participants in weekly staff meetings. So, instead of pulling lead teachers away from classrooms, she structured her staff meetings so that they happened in the hallways during nap time. Teachers sat in doorways and even though assistant teachers were inside classrooms, supervising nap time, they were still able to hear and be included in the meeting. Furthermore, these meetings always included shoutouts for team members based on feedback received from parents.
“Even though I posted written feedback in the staff room, it was important that I read them aloud. Because everyone needed to join in celebrating each other.”
Understanding the Impact of Leadership
Staff culture is also maintained through the behavior of program leadership, so taking time to intentionally plan your leadership routines at the beginning of the year will help ensure they remained align with your cultural values once the year is in full swing.
At Kelly’s program, she created regular opportunities for her staff to get to know each other, and her on a personal level, outside of regular weekly staff meetings. It also meant she was just as much a part of the team as they were - and that she was there to help and support them, with whatever their needs might be.
“I would never make my staff do anything I wouldn’t do. I changed diapers, I mopped floors. It created a sense of camaraderie and team ownership.”
About the Author
Anna Marrs is a former early literacy curriculum developer and a former certified teacher in North Carolina. She holds a Master's in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and now works on the Education team at Kaymbu.