Managing The Toxic Teacher

fallout shelterI have received a lot of questions from readers lately regarding the best way to handle a toxic presence in the child care center. And we’re not talking about that diaper pail in the corner.

The toxic person may be a teacher, a director, or even the center’s owner, and there are some common themes:

  • The person has a divisive, difficult personality
  • The person has at least a few (perceived, anyway) fans among the center community – staff, parents, or both
  • There is concern about a “Pied Piper effect” – i.e., “If I get rid of this person, parents and staff will run off and follow her.”

Unfortunately, given the number of queries I’ve gotten, the toxic teacher phenomenon is not unusual – but there are effective ways to manage it you may not have tried. Here are some things to think about:

1. Have you actually spoken to the person about the problem? Oftentimes, the toxic teacher is viewed as an unstoppable force of nature – yet no one has actually tried to do anything to change the unwanted behavior.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that oftentimes this will not work – but it’s where you should begin. It also helps to start establishing a paper trail for the personnel file should termination eventually become necessary.

2. Have you considered that the problem may actually be you? I have noticed that my husband is never more irritating, or I more defensive, than when he’s 100% right about something. Fortunately (or not) for me, he’s right annoyingly often, which means I have grown accustomed to turning that mirror back on myself on a regular basis.

Unless someone is truly a psychopath, there is often at least some tiny kernel of truth at the core of even the most dysfunctional-seeming workplace behaviors. And if the problem keeps coming up again and again with different people, it’s time to consider the hard-to-accept possibility that you may be the problem – or at least part of it.

3. Have you let the problem go on too long? At a certain point, you can be reasonably assured that a) the person’s behavior is not going to change and b) this is simply not someone you can continue working with in a positive, productive manner. At that point, you need to cut the cord and let the person go – period.

Even if your center’s policy is two weeks’ notice, I advise immediate termination and sending the person off with two weeks’ pay. This is much better than having the person hanging around badmouthing you for two more weeks, or simply not showing up to work at all (which, let’s face it, is quite likely if things have already gone that far south).

As long as you are not terminating someone for an illegal reason – on the basis of race or religion, etc. – you generally have nothing to worry about from a legal standpoint.

4. Is the Pied Piper phenomenon something you should legitimately be worried about? No matter how persuasive the toxic person in your midst may seem, it’s unlikely that she will actually be able to lead people away from your center in droves all by herself.

Finding a new job is hard. Finding new child care is hard. People aren’t going to make knee-jerk decisions about this sort of major life decision based on one person’s presence, or absence, at your child care center.

(The same is true of raising your rates – centers always worry that families are going to flee in large numbers, but the bottom line is that you will almost always get some grumbling but very few departures – too few to negate the considerable financial benefit of raising your rates.)

And look at it this way: If you do determine that this toxic person needs to go, and she takes a bunch of folks with her when that happens, aren’t you better off finding new teachers and families to replace the defectors? These people will almost certainly be a better fit for you and your center anyway.

Note that all of the advice above applies only if the toxic person is subordinate to you. Unfortunately, if you’re a teacher trying to reform a toxic owner or director, you’re fighting an uphill battle – my best advice to you, sadly, is to either hope to outlast them or start looking for another position elsewhere.

Click here to get your copy of our exclusive free report, 17 Secrets to Finding – and Keeping – Great Teachers.

Similar Is Not The Same

file000268573951Through the magic of Facebook, I recently learned that my beloved high school band director is retiring – hanging up the baton – after a long and illustrious career.

It brought back a lot of memories of my years as a flute player for Mr. B., dodging both his terrible puns (“Charlie the Tuner”) and numerous flying batons directed at the percussion section in the back of the room.

We had these crazy, retina-burning canary yellow shirts for our pep band appearances (thankfully, my appearances in those shirts predated social media and camera phones), but for formal concerts the attire was pulled from our own closets: White shirts and black slacks or skirts.

This sounds deceptively simple, yet we never fully pulled it off for any given concert. Invariably, someone would show up in something more ecru than white on top, or try to get away with dark navy on the bottom instead of black.

Once, one poor unfortunate soul – a clarinet player, I believe – showed up in a black shirt and white pants. He may still be in the outer reaches of Siberia.

But hope sprang eternal for Mr. B. that someday we would all get it right, which is why he took great pains to explain the dress code to us, in detail, before every single concert. “I want you all to look the same. And similar…” he would intone darkly, “…is not the same.”

Because everything in my mind eventually wraps back around to workplace policies and dynamics (that, or food), it occurred to me that “similar,” in the sense of “equitable,” is what you should be shooting for in your interactions with your staff – not “the same.”

Your teachers all have different strengths and different needs. Some have personal challenges or scheduling quirks that need to be worked around. Some have earned your trust and leeway to a greater extent than others. Some need more or less direction from you in certain situations.

Your teachers, in short, are not all the same. And you shouldn’t treat them as such. To get the best from each of them, you need to accept these variations and work with them rather than against them.

It’s also important to treat your very best teachers like the superstars they are. More flexibility, more praise, and more money. Great performance should always be recognized and rewarded. That’s how you get more of it. (The same, incidentally, is true of the parents at your center – everyone should be treated well, but your very best parents – the really nice, involved, engaged ones who sing your praises – should be treated like gold.)

Now, you can bet that staff will be comparing notes – as they always do – and you may get some questions like, “Why does Betsy get such-and-such and I don’t?” While you may be tempted to fire back with the truth (“Betsy is my best teacher while you, Jane, have been late 18 days this month and completely unimpressive when you finally show up”), you need to resist this temptation.

Instead, Jane should get the same type of answer one of your nosy preschoolers would: “I’m really not comfortable discussing other employees with you, Jane, but I’m always happy to talk about your work here. What would help you feel more engaged and productive on the job?” If you don’t feed the rumor mill, it will die a natural death.

In the meantime, you’ll be nurturing and encouraging your most extraordinary teachers in tangible, effective ways.

Mr. B. was right – similar is not the same. And for your child care center, that’s a very good thing.

Click here for your free copy of our exclusive report, 6 Easy Ways To Boost Enrollments and Attract the Very Best Staff.

Facebook 101 for Child Care Centers

Facebook 101 for child care centersMany of the child care professionals I work with get extremely anxious about Facebook: They know their center should have a regular presence there, but they don’t know what to post, how often to post, where to find the time, etc.

This is completely understandable, especially for those of us who grew up pre-Internet. But Facebook doesn’t have to be some big, scary thing, and the benefits you’ll reap from jumping in will reinforce your decision to spend some of your marketing energies there. And who knows? You might even start enjoying it a little bit.

If you are already an experienced Facebook user/poster, the advice below will seem a little elementary, but it’s meant to. Today we’re focusing on real Facebook 101-type stuff.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind as you get started (and note that Facebook changes things up frequently):

1. Set up a business page for your center. If you go to Facebook.com and click “sign up,” you will be directed to enter your name and some personal info, including your birthday. You need to do this before you set up your business page, which you do by going to the little drop-down menu at top right and clicking “create page.” Select “local business or place” and fill in all the required info.

2. Add photos. You have an opportunity to add both a wide panoramic image and a small square one – ideally, you’ll want to do both. The small square space is perfect for your center’s logo.

3. Include your USP. Someone looking at your Facebook page for the first time should instantly be able to tell what makes your center unique and special.

4. Start posting! Ideally, you’ll want to post something on your center’s Facebook page at least once every business day. Services like Buffer (which I use and like) let you schedule posts in advance, so you can batch the work.

What to post? Think of things that will appeal to parents of young children in your area, both current families and those you want to attract:

  • Community news and events
  • Photos of the kids and activities at your center (secure proper parental releases beforehand)
  • Family-fun projects, activities, and outings
  • Links to articles on naps, potty-training, and kindergarten readiness
  • Info on developments at your center (new staff, new curriculum, etc.)
  • Special offers and events at your center
  • Late-breaking news on weather-related closings and such

Don’t overthink it too much – over time, you’ll get a sense of what resonates best with your target audience. As long as what you’re posing isn’t completely inane (or, worse, offensive in some way), you’ll be just fine.

When to post? This is also something you can play around with over time. Good times to catch parents of young children tend to be lunch/nap time (between about 11:00 am and 2:00 pm) and again after the kids’ bedtime (7:30 pm – 9:00 pm).

5. Publicize your page! Once you’ve gotten some regular activity rolling on your page, get proactive about asking current families and staff, as well as other friends of your center, to “like” the page and interact with it on a regular basis.

And that’s really plenty to get rolling with. There’s a lot you can do with Facebook I haven’t covered here, but this is one of those things where it’s best to start slow and build up (rather than start big, get overwhelmed, and fade away with a whimper). Happy Facebooking!

Click here for your free copy of our exclusive report, 64 Terrific Child Care Marketing Ideas.

The Postcard Principle

the postcard principle

Last week, we were lucky enough to escape the Hoth-like tundra that has been New England this winter and get down to Florida for a few days. It was a wonderful trip – we got to visit with family, swim in the pool, and have our arms and legs exposed without them instantly freezing solid and falling off.

We also introduced Lorelei to the timeless fun of writing postcards to friends and family back home (Nicholas, as you can see from the photo above, found more personal satisfaction in eating the postcards).

Even with all the electronic amusements and diversions out there these days, there’s still something wonderful about receiving a postcard in the mail, isn’t there? If you’ve ever received an e-postcard in your inbox – and, yes, they do exist – it’s just not the same thing.

Postcards are special because they don’t scale easily; it takes a bit of time and effort (and money) to write, stamp, and mail each one. Each one is a unique creation designed just for a particular recipient.

While there’s certainly an important place in your child care marketing and retention plan for things that do scale, like your Facebook page, your blog, your newsletter, and so on, you should also reserve some of your time and budget for more personal efforts, such as:

  • A handwritten thank-you note to families who tour your center
  • An age-appropriate welcome gift for families when they enroll
  • A thoughtful (not necessarily expensive) birthday gift for each teacher at your center

You may feel like you have no time, energy, or money for this sort of thing…but here’s the deal: Gestures like these give you tremendous bang for the buck precisely because they require a sincere, personal touch. Accordingly, they are remembered and appreciated for a very long time.

Once you get in the habit of doing even just one or two personal touches like this at your center on a regular basis, you’ll quickly see how fun, and effective, they can be.

And if you need something custom-bitten, just say the word. I know a guy.

Click here for your free copy of our exclusive report, 64 Terrific Child Care Marketing Ideas.

How To Stop Teacher Rants In Their Tracks

whisperingLast weekend, Eric and I took the kids to one of those big-box stores – let’s call it Bullseye – for various and sundry reasons.

We were all desperate for an outing before the next big storm hit, and Lorelei had some allowance money that was burning a hole in her pocket.

Eric and I wanted to pick up a snow rake for the roof (a goal that later proved laughable, as everyone else had had the same idea and there were no snow rakes to be had within a 50-mile radius of Portsmouth).

As for Nicholas, he’s grown fond of an interactive crawling Minnie Mouse doll in the toy section that’s activated when you press a button on her lower back. “I touch Minnie’s bum!” is now the first thing he says whenever he enters the store.

Needless to say, we were all focused on our respective missions. I briefly broke free from the rest of the family to swing through the women’s clothing section – because everyone else found T-shirts and socks less exciting than Minnie’s bum.

I was alone in the section except for two store associates, who were loudly bemoaning the fact that they had to work on Easter, that it was not observed as any kind of store holiday, that there would be no management-provided gifts of cash or ham, etc.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not generally the most memorable presence in the room. But they knew I was right there as they were kvetching; they just didn’t care.

As a child care professional, you have undoubtedly witnessed similar behavior: Teachers engrossed in a rant or private discussion, about work or something else, in front of the parents at your center. Sometimes they stop when they notice the parents standing there, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, it creates a very bad impression.

It’s not remotely uncommon. The million-dollar question, of course, is how to make it stop. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer, but there are some things you can do to create a climate that discourages this sort of thing:

1. Train your staff. Especially if teachers are new to the work world, or to ECE, it just plain may not have occurred to them that some conversations are not appropriate for the public spaces of your center. You need to explain that you are creating an experience for the kids and parents, and that when teachers are at work, they’re onstage.

2. Give them a place to go. Nobody can be onstage all the time, so it’s important that your teachers have a private place to go when they’re not on duty. Especially in small or home-based centers, finding the space for a teacher break area can be a challenge, but it’s worth making the effort.

3. Be consistent about your messaging. It’s hard to effectively convey that you’re trying to create a special presence for your families when there’s a huge pile of trash bags in your entryway and a peeling piece of floor laminate in the preschool area that people keep tripping over.

It’s a child care center – nobody expects it to look like Buckingham Palace – but care and pride in all aspects of your operation sets a good tone for your staff’s interactions with parents (and everything else).

4. Walk the talk. Teachers won’t respect your policy on personal conversations in the workplace if, say, you and your assistant director are always having your own personal asides throughout the day. If it’s not something you’d be comfortable having everyone hear – both parents and staff – take it behind closed doors.

5. Encourage open dialogue. This step is the hardest, but the most important of all: Employees often rant to one another (and to their friends and spouses) about their jobs because they don’t feel anyone at work is really listening to them.

If you make it a priority to allow employees to speak with you openly, without getting defensive, there will be less of that “bitching in corners” problem that makes your workplace less professional and less fun. You don’t always have to agree with what they say – but truly hearing them out makes a world of difference.

Even more than providing Easter hams.

Click here to get your copy of our exclusive free report, 17 Secrets to Finding – and Keeping – Great Teachers.