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Honoring Extraordinary Staff: Tips from a Program Leader

Early childhood education leaders know how important staff recognition is to morale and retention. When teachers feel recognized, they may be more likely to stay in their jobs, making an even greater long-term impact on the children in their care.

We recently caught up with Reem Kievit, the Director of Community Schools and Preschool Program at Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), a group of Quality First participating programs in the First Things First Pima North and Pima South Regions. First Things First is Arizona’s early childhood agency, and funds Quality First to help early care and education providers improve the quality of their programs. 

Kievit shared how her programs used Quality First funds to recognize their staff.

How did your programs use Quality First funds for staff recognition?

As part of the new revisions to Quality First this year, we knew we would receive staff recognition funds. So we decided to do two things:

  • Payroll Bonus: We gave a bonus to those employed with us at the time of the most recent assessment.
  • Professional Development (PD) Stipend: For those newer staff who were not working with us at the time of the assessment, they received a PD stipend. These staff members would be able to attend conferences and training events that interested them, and we would cover the cost of registration, travel, and associated costs up to a certain pre-identified amount.  

What was the process to get this approved and put into action?

We worked diligently to ensure our hardworking and dedicated teachers and teacher assistants received the bonuses. 

We collaborated with our human resources and finance departments to get it done as quickly as possible. Being part of such a large school district, there are lots of checks and balances. I have learned that things can take longer than in the private sector. As soon as we heard about the changes, I set up a meeting with finance to discuss the idea of a staff bonus or stipend. Even though I didn’t have all the details, I needed to see if it was a possibility, or if we would need to make alternative plans. That helped us get started. 

As more information came out, I set additional meetings to work together. We have over 60 preschool programs, many with 4-star or 5-star ratings. We created a color-coded spreadsheet of the staff to determine who would receive the stipend, who would receive the bonus and the amounts. We developed communication letters to the staff notifying them of their award and what it includes. 

It took about six months from the first meeting to the award payments.

Were there any barriers along the way?

At first, we thought there may be a barrier because our policies prohibit gifts to staff. However, we are lucky to be part of TUSD with many departments supporting one another. Between TUSD and QF working together effectively, barriers were minimal. Fortunately, our district had previously received pandemic relief funds, enabling them to provide stipends. Because of that, they were able to help process this request effectively and efficiently. We were lucky in that way.

Another thing we encountered was related to the PD stipend. Since TUSD offers so many PD opportunities, we had money that staff didn’t spend, and we didn’t want those funds to go unused. So we did two things. First, we provided food, beverages and snacks for our PD events, which we usually couldn’t do. Second, we purchased NAEYC memberships for the staff members. This provides access to a wealth of resources for their professional lives. 

What might you tell a colleague who is thinking about doing something similar?

Determine what you can give, survey your staff, have conversations and do not make assumptions. Work with your community before deciding how to proceed. We always want to find ways to honor our extraordinary staff, and this gives us new opportunities to do just that.

We’d love to hear from you!

Share your new and innovative practices so others can be inspired. Email us QualityFirst@FirstThingsFirst.org