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How to Transform Your Early Educators into Leaders: Expert Advice from a Preschool Founder

Practical tips from La Plazita Preschool founder, Krystell Guzman.

How to Transform Your Early Educators into Leaders: Expert Advice from a Preschool Founder

How to Transform Your Early Educators into Leaders

Creating a team of leaders at your childcare center or preschool is an impactful way to support the health of your business and increase staff retention. In a recent webinar, Krystell Guzman, CEO of La Plazita Preschool, shared top tips to transform your early educators into leaders.

Read on to learn more about how Krystell finds staff with boundless potential, boosts morale, and supports her teachers’ transitions to leadership roles.

Let's start by getting to know a little bit more about you! What was your pathway to starting a preschool? 

I can say that when I was little, I had a dream of being an entrepreneur. I had this vision that I was going to be the boss of something.  I've had a lot of cultural experiences, and keeping Spanish and being able to share it with others has always been really important to me. But really, I started a very long time ago when I was a little kid. My mother was a teacher and we spent all of our summers and all of our days off in her classroom watching her be a teacher.

My son went into a Spanish immersion preschool that was great with culture and great with language, but there really was no curriculum, so he wasn't learning a lot of building blocks necessary to be successful in kindergarten. I didn't see a lot of good quality programs out there that had both the language component and the curriculum, so I decided to start this little school out of my house when I was still working full time. And that was 10 years ago! We learned a lot about how to set up a school and run a school on a day to day basis. And we learned together with the children.

How has transitioning out of COVID been for you and for your staff? What challenges did you face and what obstacles are you still facing today? 

We ended up closing for two months, and after that time, pretty much all of our parents did not need care. We started all over again from scratch to build up our schools again. We had to bring employees who were still able to work back little by little, and it was so challenging. 

 A lot of staff came back and said, “I want to come back, but I need $3, $4 or $5 more per hour.” Not only did we have a huge deficit in not getting the income that we needed to cover all of our expenses; we also had to really transition into this new stage where it was like, OK, there's no staffing. We're having a huge staffing shortage, and then we have to figure out how to stay open in the middle of a pandemic where people are still getting sick. It was a tornado of things that were happening, happening when we finally came back to try to get back into the rhythm of school and post-COVID days. 

How are you keeping staff engagement high? How do you build a culture of growth and development to keep your teachers invested and engaged every day?

One of the things that happened is that after we came back, we saw a really unstable workforce. There were a lot of people moving and wanting to make more money. We found that it was really a challenging time because of the turnover that was happening and  the lack of staffing available at that time. The ones that were staying were wondering, “Well, why don't you pay us more? This job is hard and you should pay us more”. 

I really had to take a step back and say, "Wait a minute, how do I really answer this question?" We had an all employee staffing meeting where I said, “Ok, well, what do I believe in? What are my core values?” I thought about what inspired me to grow and be a professional in this career, and really, it was the idea that we could spread and continue our mission to create amazing jobs and  grow and develop people. The whole meeting after that was about our culture, how every single person in this company has individual goals, and how as a company, the goals that we have are to grow to create opportunities for the people that work with us.

I created a whole roadmap as to how we could grow together and fulfill this mission.  I said, “At this company, our core value is that we have to grow and develop. Either you're part of that or you're not. I understand that there are certain people that are happy not to take on more leadership roles, but we need people that really, really want to grow with us, and those are the ones that we want to work on investing in and also creating opportunities to grow.” Then, we created a roadmap with exact steps that people can follow and then be able to grow with us. 

One of the things that we have to understand is that there are going to be people that are going to phase out of this process and that we just have to create a new cycle of leadership for people that want to start and grow with us. Our core values and  history about our school and curriculum are important so that we can teach it to new people.

How are you approaching recruiting and finding your teachers? How do you find people who are a good fit for your program’s culture?

I find that with regular job posting websites, we have almost no movement. It's definitely been a challenge. What we do is speak to the other teachers that work for us and ask if they have friends that are interested in learning this as a career. 

Going to early childhood education classes is also a  great resource. We let the universities know that we're hiring. One of the things that we realized is that we had to accept teachers that had very few units but were really inspired and loved working with children. 

You can teach theory on early childhood education, but you cannot teach your staff to love children and to like being around them. You have to capitalize on the people who will show up every day and give love and care and experience to the children in ways that are really important for us in our industry.

We had to understand as a company that we were going to have to help these educators get the education that they need. We started a whole project where we take all of our staff, look at all the units that they have, and we set up an educational plan with them. We create a document together and we look at their schedule and what will work to get their education requirements in the next six months.  We write a plan together and then we reimburse them for their education units.

How do you keep a pulse on your teachers’ engagement level? What are some reflection tools you use, if any, to keep an open dialogue with your teachers? 

So there's two things that we did. One thing that we found hard was getting people that wanted to become managers and directors in the program. So we started asking people during the interview processes, “Are you interested in growing? Are you interested in developing? Do you like this career longer term? Because we really want people that are looking at this as not just a job, but an actual career.” 

When we have a group of people that are really great with all the things that are important to us at La Plazita, which are teaching, evaluating their students, engaging with the parent community, writing good brightwheel messages, we let them know that we think that they would be excellent manager candidates. We let them know that we're going to put them in the manager training program and we're going to start meeting with them once a month.

I know it is challenging for us to remove the teacher from the classroom and meet with them, but the gifts that you'll get in return will be so amazing. Once a month, we get together with all of the people that we've identified that have leadership capabilities and that could be managers and we talk about a topic that they would not face in their classroom. So for example, what is the budget to run a school? What are the finances behind running a school? What are the things that you have to think about on a daily basis? As a director, what's the first thing that you need to be able to function on a day to day basis? These are all things that they do not know about when they're in the classroom every day, but providing them with those opportunities is great. 

The other thing is practicing a challenging conversation with a parent. We practice together amongst our peers so they’re comfortable having that conversation later on. Removing teachers from the classroom for a little bit, making them feel special, and providing them with information helps them know that there's something bigger to understand about the organization. I think the more transparent and open we are, the better it is. More transparency goes a long way.

In order to make leaders, we need to have people who are equipped with knowledge, both in what's happening in the classroom and what happens outside the classroom, because that's equally as important in having an amazing center. 

Can you share some advice around what you have done to encourage your teachers to keep high morale at your center? 

We meet once per quarter, where we close our center. Once a year, during one of those four meetings, we make the day a pampering day. We get hair braiders, makeup artists, and massage therapists.  The pampering day is a surprise—we tell everybody that they must come to this training. You have to bring a notebook so you can take notes. It's really important. Then they come in and we do a big toast with mimosas and snacks, and we’re pampering all day long! We tell each other how much we appreciate each other and how thankful we are for all the work that everybody does in caring for children. It's such a hard job, and that's something that we have to recognize on a daily basis.

It's not a job that is well compensated or receives a lot of recognition, so appreciating each other is really important.

What is one actionable step that every one of our readers can do today to inspire a leadership mindset in their teachers?

I think the thing that has helped me more than anything, especially when it's really challenging and uncomfortable, is to be as open as possible. Not everybody can do what we do as leaders because it takes so much responsibility, but the more open and transparent we are with everybody, the better, because that openness only gives back more to us. When we are open in sharing our own personal experiences about the challenges that we go through on a daily basis, the better community we create and the better leaders we become. 

Our staff may not want to be with us for the rest of their lives, and that's okay. You can encourage them and think, we taught you so many amazing things, and now you can go and spread this love elsewhere.

If we can be open, we will not only learn ourselves, but we will also help spread more leadership to the world. 

Ultimately we are all inspiring children to be in the world for the first time. You’re teaching the very basic skills that children will take with them forever. The fact that we teach emotional development that children will take with them for the rest of their lives should inspire us on a daily basis. It's really like giving the universe gifts of children that are acclimated and good in society.

More helpful resources for staff development

Check out these additional resources to help your teachers reach their full potential as leaders at your center! 

How brightwheel can help

Brightwheel can help your staff spend less time doing paperwork and more time in the classroom, building skills that will support their journey to becoming leaders. 

Brightwheel helps you streamline everyday tasks like daily reports, communicating with families, and creating and organizing lesson plans. With brightwheel, teachers save up to 20 hours a month on busywork and are able to spend more time developing new skills or taking care of themselves.

If you’re interested in learning more about how brightwheel can save you time and make staff happier, schedule a demo with us today!

About Krystell Guzman

Krystell Guzman

Krystell Guzman is the founder of La Plazita Preschool, a Spanish immersion program, located in Oakland and San Leandro. La Plazita started as an in-home family childcare program and quickly grew to four additional preschool centers. La Plazita currently has over 45 employees including administrators, directors, and teachers and provides high-quality care and education to the young children of the Bay Area.

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