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teacher retention

Keep great teachers at your program: Three ways to boost retention

Early childhood program leaders know that finding and keeping qualified teaching staff is critical to providing a high-quality program. However, many of Arizona’s early childhood programs have seen an increase in teacher turnover over the course of the pandemic. Now as programs work to recover and rebuild, keeping a strong and stable staff is top of mind for many directors and owners.

Raising Arizona Preschool is one such program. As a Quality First participant with schools in First Things First Phoenix North and Northwest Maricopa Regions, the school developed a comprehensive plan to increase teacher retention.

We interviewed Jared Cook, owner of Raising Arizona Preschools, to learn more about how his program is working to retain staff.

How does your program support teacher retention? What new practices have you implemented?

Our approach to teacher retention is three-pronged:

  1. Make sure they have a friend – When we hire a new staff member, we assign them a friend who we think will be a good fit. The friend’s role is not to train or mentor, but just to be a buddy for the first couple of weeks and help the new person feel welcome. This is someone who can answer their questions, show them around, get to know them, maybe take them out to lunch—we cover the cost.
  1. Provide clear goals and incentives – We implemented a pay scale that allows teachers to increase their pay based on quality teaching practices. Teachers have the opportunity to increase their pay by achieving the following:
    • Teaching staff can earn a pay increase by passing a written test and classroom observation. The written test covers health and safety practices, licensing standards, Quality First assessment tools and the impacts of quality early learning on children’s lives and society as a whole. The classroom observation focuses on how teachers are implementing Mindful Mornings, our mindfulness approach; for example, during circle time and through mindfulness exercises sprinkled throughout the day.
    • The lead teachers can earn an hourly pay bonus by achieving quality-level scores, as identified by Quality First assessment in their own classroom. This can be through formal or informal assessment. The bonus must be renewed every six months by being reassessed, either formally or informally, by Quality First.
    • All staff can earn an hourly pay bonus when the program achieves a quality-level Quality First star rating.
  1. Value our teachers as professionals – We want our teachers to see themselves as professionals and recognize that the job of an early childhood teacher is one of the most important jobs that exists. We do this in a few different ways:
    • Help them change the story of their work – As program leaders, we constantly talk with our teachers about the importance of their work and help them recognize they are helping to write the first chapter in a child’s story. We observe carefully and point out things teachers are doing well. We share feedback from families when they rave about our teachers. We also point out the professional growth that we see they are achieving. We do this intentionally at staff meetings and in our everyday interactions with teachers.
    • Mindful Mornings – We plan time for our teachers to spend 15-20 minutes daily in one of our mindful rooms. They can use that time to reflect, journal or meditate to help them feel focused and energized.
    • Continuing Education – We worked with Glendale Community College to put together a cohort on-site with our teachers so they could take college classes right here at the school. The teachers are able to study together and encourage each other in their coursework and will be able to complete six credits this school year. We are hopeful this experience will spur them to continue working toward their early childhood degrees.

What made you initiate these practices?

Retention has always been a struggle in our field. It has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a management team, we sat down and looked at the problem. We knew we wanted to compensate teachers well, and we wanted to find a way to ensure we were keeping up our program quality.

From a business perspective, it is very important to us to maintain a quality-level rating. Even if you have a handful of families using the Arizona Department of Economic Security Child Care Subsidy, it makes sense to work to achieve a quality-level rating, because you are going to get that 35% increase. For our program, that makes a big financial difference. This is one of the reasons we focus so much on the quality rating in our pay scale.

We had heard from our staff that there were too many barriers to attending college. Either they didn’t have transportation, or they weren’t comfortable with the technology for online classes. So when one of my directors came across a flyer that we could do a cohort on-site, we jumped at the opportunity.

How is this practice improving the quality of your program and what have others noticed? 

It has changed the culture of our schools. There is a strong bond between our staff that they are on a shared mission together.

Recently, I received an email from a parent that asked, “How did you put together such a great team?” The email went on to describe each staff member; how the cook greets them with a smile, the toddler teacher is bubbly, and so on.

I have also heard from teachers who said they were thinking about quitting, but after listening to us share a success story about the impact on a specific child, it made them rethink their professional purpose and say, “I want to be like that.”

This is how I know it’s working. I think fair pay is important for retention, but it’s more about the culture you create for your team.

What might you tell a colleague if they were to be interested in incorporating similar ideas?

First, start with a clear vision for your program. For us, it’s that we are writing the first and most important chapter in the lives of children.

Next, find people that are aligned with that vision. Keep repeating the vision to others, and to yourself. It’s easy to get bombarded with paperwork, requirements and putting out fires. You can lose track of the vision. Find a way to keep yourself and your team focused on that vision.

Finally, find a way to compensate your staff through that vision.

Helpful resources

  • The Professional Career Pathway Project is a college scholarship funded by the DES Child Care Administration through federal Child Care and Development Block Grant funds. Contact one of the collaborating community colleges to ask about setting up a cohort of staff to participate together.
  • The First Things First College Scholarship provides access to education and training to achieve degrees, credentials and specialized skills to promote children’s development.
  • Informal Assessment gives you an opportunity to receive objective feedback on your program’s everyday practices through the lens of standardized assessment tools, from skilled and reliable assessment staff. Following the observation, written feedback will be emailed to you.
  • Visit Arizona Department of Economic Security Child Care Administration to learn more about becoming contracted with DES.

At Quality First, we love to hear from you! Share your new and innovative practices so others can be inspired. Send an email to QualityFirst@FirstThingsFirst.org.