Team work makes the dream work: But how can we create a thriving, highly motivated team? 

6th April, 2022

Written by Angela Bush

Bachelor of Education (ECE), Diploma of Nursing, Diploma of Teaching (ECE)
One of the most frequently lamented issues I hear from ECE leaders and managers is how to get their team on the same page and performing like superstar teachers.

How do we create teams who are committed to being their best?

We naturally have a vision of providing an early childhood service that is consistently fully occupied, with a strong reputation for high quality education and care in our community. We all want to know that our ECE service is doing a great job for children and families.

But this will only ever be achieved when we have a team of teachers who are committed to being their best, consistently motivated and who are really good at their job. Teachers are our most important assett. We naturally want to have a teaching team who are collaborative, supportive, co-operative and enjoy working with each other. And who ultimately feel a deep sense of satisfaction in their work.

And yet, how many times do we ask ourselves;

  • Why do teachers not just see what needs to be done here? Why do teachers not take responsibility?
  • Why is the learning environment constantly a mess, disorganised and not the picture of beauty we envision?
  • How does nothing ever get achieved here?
  • How can I motivate my team to be better?

Is there a magic recipe?

A secret we can all discover and sprinkle over our teaching teams?
Sadly no.

BUT, there are most certainly things we can do to inspire, empower, motivate, and support our teachers to thrive and shine. To acheive this, we must first start by holding the mirror up to ourselves and take a long moment to reflect on our own leadership.

We must ask ourselves;

  • How effective am I as a leader?
  • How do I contribute to creating a positive team culture in which all team members are supported to learn, grow and thrive?
  • Are there any actions, words or ways that I behave that contribute to staff being unmotivated or not taking responsibility?
  • Do I truly provide space and opportunity for others to take initative and to lead?
  • Am I clear in my communication and in creating expectations?

If there is one thing I have learned (and continue to learn) after thirty years in ECE, is that leadership is everything! If you look closely at ECE services who are amazing in the quality of their teaching, environment, and team culture, then take a look at the leader. Teams who are thriving, are able to do so because they have excellent leadership within the walls (in management and also within the teaching team). Leadership that empowers others, upholds high standards for practice, creates a positive and supportive culture and models continuous learning.

So what can you do to make a difference in your team?

1. Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

As a manager or leader in an early childhood service, you are not managing a production line where everyone has a set of tasks that must be completed in perfect order to achieve the planned product. In ECE, the outcome we are looking for is providing high quality care and education for children and families. And this must also be applied to our teachers. Do not expect teachers to be respectful, empathetic, caring and responsive to children and families if you do not authentically demonstrate this to them too. ECE Leaders create the emotional climate in which teachers work every day. Make sure your climate is one of respect, genuine concern and care.

2. Do your utmost to ensure teachers get their regular non contact time.

And be as generous as you are able to in this. Having regular non contact time to meet documentation and planning expectations matters enormously to teachers’ sense of competence and achievement. If teachers are constantly missing out on non contact time, and they are not able to achieve their documentation during work hours, this will eventually lead to poor practice and a sense of dissatisfaction. All teachers want to feel as though they are meeting their professional obligations. But they must be given time to achieve this

3. Create clear expectations and communicate these clearly and regularly.

If teachers do not know what is expected of them, then how can we expect then to reach these expectations?

And I hear you say “but surely it is common sense?!”

Perhaps it is to you, but it most likely is not to everyone else. Your idea of common sense is not necessarily the same as someone else’s. By creating shared, documented understanding of “this is how we do things here, this is why, and this is the standard” then it is not unreasonable to expect that staff will mostly meet these.

Provide a written copy of agreed expectations (usually in the form of a quality practice template and job description) to new staff as part of their induction. Discuss it with them, invite questions and guide them through these in their first few months on your team. And review these documents annually with the team to ensure the shared understanding of agreed standards for practice and team philosophy continues.

4. Grab the good stuff and acknowledge it frequently

When you catch staff doing great things and acknowledge and thank them for this, you demonstrate appreciation and this helps teachers to feel valued. How we make people feel in the work place cannot be underestimated. If the balance of constructive feedback and recognition of what each person is great at becomes 

5. Let people know when they are doing well and when they need to improve - quickly.

It goes without saying that we must have formal systems in place for professional growth cycles and appraisal. But outside of these it is important that teachers are regularly given positive feedback and acknowledged for doing a great job. We all know how good it feels to have someone acknowledge and notice us.

Likewise though, we cannot shy way from letting teachers know when they need to shift or improve in their practice. If you notice a team member consistently acting outside of your centre’s philosophy or agreed standards for practice, then it is your job to tell them honestly, and respectfully. Check in on their understanding too. It is quite possible that this person simply has a blind spot about an aspect of their practice that no one has ever told them about e.g. talking really loudly, or taking children by the arm, rather than their hand.

You must act really quickly on this stuff.

There is nothing more corrosive to a teaching team than letting someone’s bad behaviour or poor practice continue unchecked. You will lose your team’s trust in you as a leader if you do not manage poor performance swiftly. And imagine how it would feel to be the person acting in a way that annoys the whole team, and having no idea about that?! Always start from giving a person the benefit of the doubt, before making an assumption that they do, or don’t have any idea they are doing something less than great.

6. Do not expect staff to work in their own time.

This is really simple. If work cannot be achieved during work time, it simply doesn’t happen. When we continuously put an expectation on our teachers to complete documentation or any other work in their home time, we create burn out and can end up with high staff turn over.

As leaders in ECE we need to take responsibility for upholding teachers as professionals, and for protecting their right to be treated as such. We need to do our best to ensure our teachers are allocated enough time to complete their administrative and documentation obligations during work hours. If we are regularly finding that this is not happening, then the system is broken and we must seek a new solution, or reduce the amount of documentation our teachers are required to do.

This means that as a leader you will need to have an excellent understanding of what quality planning and learning documentation looks like, so that you are not creating a documentation burden for your team. I realise this is challenging in the current environment where we are lacking qualified teachers. But if we do not protect this for our teaching teams, we will not have any qualified staff left to operate our centres.

If staff choose to do some work in their own time, be very clear that this is not an expectation. Some teachers just want to do this, and get a feeling of satsifaction from doing some work at home. I personally LOVE to make teaching resources at home, and do so freely in my own time. But I do not for one second expect others to do this.

7. Provide good professional learning opportunities for your teachers.

Teachers are professionals. If we want them to behave like professionals, we must provide them with the opportunity for ongoing learning and growth in their practice. Each year we collaborate to set professional learning goals together, but if we truly support our teachers to achieve these goals, and if we genuinely want the best for our teachers, then we will provide professional learning.

This need not be expensive. It can be in the form of sourcing reading, webinars and short courses (All of which you can access through ECE Learning Unlimited Members Club!) Or it may be arranging for teaching staff to visit other ECE services to observe and discuss aspects of practice that you are wanting to improve. Ideally, professional learning will also be shared and discussed as a team.

Teachers learning in silos does not necessarily lead to improved practice. When teachers have the opportunity to learn, discuss with others and grow practice together we will more likely see improved outcomes and teachers motivating each other.

"Integrity, insight, and inclusiveness are the three essential qualities of leadership". - Sadhguru

8. Check in with your teachers regularly.

If you have a teacher who you think is particularly unmotivated, under performing or regularly being average and doing their best to fly under the radar – check in on them. Seek first to understand “I have noticed xyz. Are you ok? Is there anything going on you would like me to know about?” This teacher may have a genuine reason for their under performance at this time. And if we check in, we may be able to work towards a solution together and offer support.
But if we have asked, and there is not a genuine reason articulated for this, then we have opened the door to give this person some honest feedback and to ask for improvement. This person may need some support in this area of practice.

They may need more mentoring, professional learning, observation, ongoing feedback for a while. Or maybe they just need a boost, or a break.

9. Move swiftly to disciplinary action when necessary.

Never EVER allow bullying in your ECE service!

And most definitely check yourself. As leaders we create the tone and culture in our teams. If you are behaving in ways that are seen as unfair, unkind or outright bullying you are never going to have a positive team culture where staff can thrive. Likewise if it comes to your attention that anyone in your team is engaging in bullying behaviour, then this must be dealt with swiftly. Zero tolerance!

Nothing erodes trust in a leader more, than not dealing with bad behaviour in the work place. Ditto for under performing staff. If you have a team member who simply does not improve, contribute, respond to feedback or who consistently lets the team down then you must move to disciplinary action when you have exhausted all other efforts. Sadly some people just have to be managed out.

10. Empower others to learn, grow, thrive and take the lead.

Not all teachers wish to pursue leadership or become a manager. But highly functioning teachers will always want to have the opportunity for growth and to be empowered to thrive as a teacher. As leaders we empower others when we engage in genuine collaborative decision making, and invite teachers to make a contribution to centre life. When we recognise teachers’ strengths and abilities that they bring to the team, we can invite them to utilise these every day, shine in these and take opportunities to share their talents with others.

For teachers who do want to step into leadership roles, we can provide mentoring and support to help them reach their goals. Although we may be afraid that teachers who are supported to develop into leadership roles may leave our service, if we hold people back from their ambitions or career goals, they will leave us anyway. By supporting and empowering our teachers to reach their potential and to feel satisfied in their work, we are supporting our staff as people, and also making a valuable contribution to the wider ECE sector.

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