Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we discuss some of the key issues facing childcare and preschool administrators, focusing in on an issue that almost all administrators face: staffing. We speak with Lori Buxton, executive associate of PROEEA: Professional Early Education Associates, about how to find and manage early childhood education talent by looking inward at who you are as an organization, as opposed to starting with who you want on your team. If you’re a leader that wants to attract and develop top talent in your preschool by setting yourself apart, then stay tuned for this week’s episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Lori, welcome so much to the Preschool Podcast. It’s great to have you on the show.
Thank you so much for having me. I am excited!
Me too! So, you spent a number of years in leadership roles at early-education programs and then made the switch to providing training and professional development to childcare in early-learning programs. Why did you make this career change?
Well, interestingly enough, your life is full of ironic moments. When I was a young child experiencing preschool for myself I was a sickly kid. We all know those children in our programs that it seems like if anything’s in the air they grab it and call it their own. I was that child growing up and that carried over some into my adulthood and nobody really knew what it was about. I was just a little sickly. And as the ironies of the world would have it my heart calling, my life calling ended up being with young children. And as I got older the immune issues amplified and I started having some pretty serious issues with my immune system, into probably my early 40s. I had a significant health breakdown in 2010 that caused me to have to step out of the field altogether. And in doing the intel with the medical field on what was going on they found out that I’d had a significant immune deficiency since I was born that nobody knew about or identified because it wasn’t something they were looking at back then.
I had to make an adjustment in how I interacted with my field. I considered leaving it. I considered other options. For a year I was basically on professional sabbatical just getting my health back under control. I really considered other options but my heart just couldn’t leave it. I walked into that three-year-old room as a brand new teacher and left my heart there and never got it back, many years ago. I just couldn’t leave. So I had to reinvent how I engage the field, how I engage my passion my calling and my place in the early education arena. And the consulting, the training, I was already doing some, just not on a full time basis, not on a consistent basis. I just embraced that part of my career to see if that was my lane. And it turns out that it very much is my lane. It gives me the opportunity still be present, to still be impactful and make a difference, and protect my health as well.
Wonderful. I’m so glad you stayed in the early education field and you didn’t go off and do something else, because now you are executive associate Professional Early Education Associates. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that is and what you’re hoping to achieve with Professional Early Education Associates?
PROEEA for short – because, you know, Texans like to abbreviate everything – PROEEA is really my avenue for continuing to impact the field. My role and my goal is to be a support. I very much believe in Servant Leadership. My role is to support all the other roles in our field. Whether someone needs me to come in and train teachers, someone comes it needs me to come in and support their leadership team – a fresh pair of eyes for programming and operations, first impressions, customer service – all of the things. Not so much finance. I will tell you that as a trainer, something that I learned early on from my mentor was not to be the expert or try to be the expert in something that you’re not the expert in. And while I can manage my finances it’s not my favourite. Numbers are not where my heart lives. My heart lives with people. Development of people is my heart and my soul. And so PROEEA is just the umbrella under which I do that. Our goal is to provide training resources, support, all of the things that we all need in order to make it out of this field, not just alive but with our hair on fire and making a real difference in the lives of children. We want to be alive, that’s a good goal. But I don’t want to crawl through the finish line. I want to be running. And I want that for everyone else. So that’s how I live that out, is through PROEEA.
Awesome. And so in your training sessions and in your development sessions with teachers and administrators, what do you find yourself focusing on often? Where are people struggling? Where are they looking for more support?
For leaders it’s one area and for teachers I find that it’s another. And I’ll just tell you what my experience has been over the last 12 months. When someone reaches out to me and they say, “Laurie, can you come?” Or, “Can I talk to you?” I’m, like, “Sure. Absolutely. How can I serve you?” They’ll tell me, “Okay, this is what my challenge is,” or, “This is where I can’t find my way, right side up.” With leaders I will tell you that front burner issue is staffing. And not just finding staff, which is definitely challenging. We’re definitely in the market season where there are more jobs available than people looking for jobs. And that puts us in a little bit different place than maybe we’ve experienced in the past. And so we’re having to approach recruitment in a very different way. But it’s not just about that. If you have a shortage of people lined up for the jobs you have to offer then you really have to start looking at who you have, and how do you take those people? In fact I’ve started doing a training this year that that’s called “Taking Your Falling Stars and Turning Them Into Superstars”. That’s really what the shift in our vision, the shift in our thinking has to take place is. We can’t go out and throw an ad out and find all the people that we ever dreamed of having. They’re not lining up, waiting for us to pick them. How do we take what we have and make it what we need it to be? Again it shifts our focus and it shifts our training, not just the focus but the quality and the meaning of training.
For instance it used to be that we did the training – and I’m just going to be transparent with you – that oftentimes the motivator for the training was to keep licensing off your back or to make sure that your I’s were dotted and your T’s were crossed. It was more of a task than it was something that was purposeful and that we saw the ripple effect of. If your end is “mark that off my list” then it affects your process and the journey. What we’re finding is that if we will put the horse power into that training where not only are we providing quality training but there has to be a check-in on the other side of that training where the directors are providing it for themselves, because that’s the most economical way to do that. And I understand it, did it myself for years. That’s how I learned to train. But if we’re doing our own training or if we’re bringing someone else in there has to be a reflection or an evaluation post-training. Not just the quality – “Did you like that person? Was it meaningful?” – but can you take what you had and use it?
You mentioned that at the front end, that we want to have practical application pieces that aren’t just a training certificate that can make meaningful changes and improvements in our classroom. But did the person who sat in that training, did they get what they came there for? Did they get the information? Did they get the tools? Do they know how to use the information and the tools? And I think that piece is missing oftentimes in our training. If people are spending 20 to 30 hours a year depending on where you are in the country in training that they’re mandated to sit through and they’re walking away empty handed or underserved, it definitely impacts their quality of life in classrooms. It impacts the longevity of their career in the classroom, because it is treacherous in there. The world has changed. It’s not sing-songs and “we’re all happy” and rainbows and butterflies. There’s some real challenges that they’re facing and if we are not giving them what they need to face those challenges successfully to get over the hurdles then we fail and ultimately they fail. And that failure lands right in the lap of the child, which for me is an unacceptable outcome.
So what are some of the strategies or approaches or tools that you provide in your conversations with administrators or teachers to help them apply the learnings, or have the tools that they need to take that to the classroom?
Very simple ones, actually, because who has more room on their plate or a time on their calendar? This is why, wherever that area of leadership lands, you have to inspect what you expect. If you’re providing training, if you’re providing resources, is there a check-in after those resources or those trainings have happened? It can be as quick as a Survey Monkey. Send it out, it doesn’t have to be real complicated, it doesn’t have to be any more than maybe five, ten questions: “Did this impact you? Did this mean something to you? Can you use this information? Did you understand it?” Make sure that those things are ticked off, as well as the training being ticked off on your list. Because if you don’t do that piece, if you never inspect what you expect, then you can’t reasonably expect outcomes. It’s just a simple task of inspecting what you expect.
The second thing that I really advise them to do is, we all know that when it comes from Mama, when it comes from Daddy, it is filtered through the mama and the daddy ears. When you’re doing life with these people – we spend more time in these centers with the people that we work with and the people that we’re married to and gave birth to and all those things – it’s a complex relationship. Oftentimes our voices, even if we’re saying all the right things and all the right ways, can start to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher, “Wa wa wa wa wa wa.” Bringing in a fresh voice, a diversity as you mentioned when we were speaking earlier, fresh perspective is really, really important. I work very hard in my role as a trainer. Obviously I need to make money because I have bills to pay. But my goal is not to become independently wealthy or I wouldn’t have chosen this field, that’s for sure. Love it, but it’s not paying for my tropical island in retirement. But it does significantly impact my life goals, my heart goals. And so for me, I’m all in.
As much as I want to protect my bottom line – and I do, I mean we all have the Big B word to work with, the Budget – I have to manage my resources in such a way that I made space for other people to come in and talk to my people. Even if they were saying the same things they were saying from a different perspective, with a different accent, maybe Canadian versus Texan or whatever, and it got their attention. It grabbed them and they dialled in. You can put them through all the great training in the world but if they don’t engage, if they’re not locked and loaded then you’re just spending money. And yes you’re ticking it off your list but you won’t see the outflow of that information, those training hours in your classrooms. It won’t have the impact you hoped for. You have to be willing to adjust budget, to make space to bring other voices in. There are plenty of trainers out there that are affordable that, like myself, it’s a heart calling. It’s not you know their not their money-maker, if you will. So ask a lot of questions. Talk to the people ahead of time that you’re asking to come in get in front of your people – What is their heart? What are their goals? – to make sure that that person is the right fit for your folks.
I like your point about bringing in a fresh perspective, because I think one thing that can be an issue in early-childhood education is as a teacher you’re coming into work everyday and you’re dealing with the day-to-day, and like you said it can be tough in that classroom day-in and day-out. Sometimes you do just need that refreshing experience to remind yourself why you’re doing what you do, and it is super-meaningful work, and to get that passion ignited again.
Absolutely. The other risk of doing it all yourself or using the same old people all the time is that we can become very desensitized to the staleness of our message. For directors oftentimes it’s challenging to get out and get new and fresh perspective for ourselves, never mind bringing it to the folks that we serve on our teams. And so a lot of times we can get very complacent, we get comfortable. We’ve done the same thing the same way for 150 years and it’s worked all this time so there’s no reason to change it. Well, that’s not true. The world of taking care of children, of educating children, of meeting their needs, has changed significantly. If we don’t have the tools in our toolbox, if we don’t know where the resources are, if we are not dialled in to the latest research and we’re not reading and pouring into ourselves, then we don’t have anything but old stale stuff to give to our team. I [found] that when I when I was on-site, when I brought other people in, that it wasn’t just about their training and development and the enhancement of their skills. Things illuminated for me. I was blown away by some of the perspective. Sometimes it’s the slightest little shift in how you see the world that can have huge dividends in the way you teach, in the way that you engage in relationships with young children and their parents and your peers and what have you. For me, every single dime that I spend bringing someone in, whatever sacrifices I had to make, was worth it. And I saw the same pops, those little light bulbs going off above everybody’s heads. And then I saw it made manifest in those classrooms, and for me that’s gold.
One of our previous guests said as well, I think the way she phrased it was, “The children deserve better and I have to put in everything I can to make sure that they have the best outcomes possible.” And so if you just sit back and say, “What we’re doing right now works and we’ve been doing it for so many years, it’s okay,” the way to really think about it is, what’s the implications to your children about that? Because like you said, the field of early-childhood education is changing rapidly and there’s a lot of new things happening. And to say that the way we’re doing things is okay, maybe it allows you to continue operating day-to-day. But is it really the best? Are you providing the best possible opportunities for your children?
You touched on the point of staffing in recruitment being a big challenge, and I’ve heard that a lot, too. I just want to touch on that point a little bit further. Firstly in terms of finding talent, and then secondly you mentioned transitioning falling stars into the superstars. First of all in terms of looking at new talent and bringing in new educators into your team, do you have any advice for administrators in terms of what kind of traits to look for? What [does] a profile [for] a successful or potentially successful early childhood educator look like?
I will actually answer your question in a very different way than you probably expect. The first thing that I want to tell you is [a quote] from John Maxwell: “You attract who you are, not who you want.” And I really take that to heart as I talk about this subject. I mentioned when we started talking about this kind of issue of recruiting and staffing that right now there are way more jobs than there are people willing – not able, but willing – to fill them. And that creates a crisis, especially for us, because traditionally we are on the lower end of the pay scale. Certainly on the lower end of the acknowledgment, the praise. We’re not necessarily considered rock stars in the field of education or really any other field, unless someone has just had that epiphany where they understand the worth and value and the long-term implications of what we do. By and large we’re the babysitters. And unfortunately while we’ve made some headway there’s still a lot of that out there.
When we are faced with a lot of jobs and few people that are lined up to take those jobs we have to really re-consider what our position is in this. You ask me, “How do we identify the profile the ideal talent?” And I have to tell you that really what in my opinion and what I’ve been advising what we need to be evaluating is not, “Are they what we’re looking for?” but, “Are we what they’re looking for?” And when I say “they” I mean those quality, invested, career-minded people who are really the profile that we are looking for. But our focus for so many years has been creating this wish list of the ideal employee, the ideal talent, and then passing it around in flyers and on greensheet and trade journals and so forth and saying, “Here’s what I’m looking at. If you’re it, call me.”
I’m in the city of Houston and obviously it’s a very large market here and it’s a very healthy economy. My husband owns his own business and so I help him with some of his advertising, looking for help as well. I’m on Indeed all the time and I get a weekly email from them that lets me know how many jobs are available on Monday. And every Monday in the city of Houston alone there are between 60- and 70,000 jobs available, and that’s just in one city. Yes, that’s significant. And let’s just say that half of those jobs were very skill-specific, perhaps education-specific, trade-specific. So we can eliminate 30,000 of those jobs. If we were trying to recruit for the teaching positions that we have and those 30,000 people are looking for jobs, the question is not, “Are they what we’re looking for?” The question is, “Are we what they’re looking for?” Because the kind of people that you want, people that are going to invest in their own development, invest in these classrooms, invest in your vision and your heart and soul for the programs. And like you said, understand that at the center of all of this lives a child, and the trajectory of their life is impacted by the DNA that we placed in there through our leadership and through the touches in the classroom. If we if we want people that get that then we have to make sure there we’re the kind of people that get that.
We also have to understand what they’re looking for, and I’ll tell you that what they’re looking for has very little to do with money and benefits other than what is required for them just to do life. The things that they’re looking for are places to feel. In fact some of the things that I found that they were looking for [were] to be proud of what they do, to be able to take pride in their work. They wanted to work with people that are invested. They wanted to be managed, not micro-managed. They wanted to be supported. They wanted to feel like they were part of a team, that they were part of something bigger than themselves. They wanted to have long-term impact. They wanted to feel appreciated, valued and indispensable. Those are the kinds of words as I was doing my research that quality people, people that are looking to invest – and those are the kind of people we want right, we want investors. And if we’re looking for those kinds of people then we have to be an employer of choice. We have to be an investment of choice. And that means that we’re not looking as much at what they bring to the table as much as what we bring to the table. Because if we bring what quality people are looking for then we’re going to attract quality people. And so we have to identify what those things are. What do we bring to the table that they’re looking for? A quality, vested person, what are they looking for? Do we have it? Are we communicating it? Is it in our messaging? If we don’t have it, can we get it? Is it something that we can adjust so that we can be what they’re looking for?
There are some things that they’re looking for that we’re going to have limitations, that inhibit our ability to provide that, like flexible schedules. There’s some flexibility in the scheduling but not much. A lot of these companies are doing remote work. Those things obviously aren’t going to be things that we can manage well. But there are a lot of the things that they’re looking for that are the absolute embodiment of what we do. We do make long-term differences in the world. We are what we do is important, it is meaningful, all of those things.
In our advertising when we’re putting our help wanted ads, we need to be communicating, “Hey, this is who we are. This is what we do. This is how it impacts the world and we want you to be a part of it. You can make a difference here. Bring your skills, bring your heart, bring your passion and make a difference here.” That’s what we need to be advertising. We don’t need to be in the newspapers and a trade journal saying, “We need a two-year-old teacher, 9-6, Monday through Friday, must be 18 years old must be able to pass a background check, all these, dut-dut-dut-dut-dut.” Because what we’re going to get is what we put out there.
My husband and I fish all the time. Probably need a 12-step program from fishing but we love to fish. And we understand that when we fish, if we’re going out and we’re looking to catch black bass – we like freshwater fish – we know what kind of bait they like. We know what areas they’re in. We know how to structure our fishing attempts to give us the very best chance to catch that fish, because we’ve studied the fish. We understand what it does, what it’s looking for and we put what it’s looking for right in front of it. That increases obviously the odds that we’re going to catch what we set out to catch. The same thing holds true with the folks that we’re looking for to fill these very important spaces and places in our programs. We have to know that person. Like you said, you should know. We all know who we’re looking for. That takes five minutes to write down the picture, the profile of the ideal employee.
I wonder how often our leaders, our directors, our owners are sitting down and evaluating our profile. If they’re shopping us, how do we stand up against the competition? And the competition isn’t just the childcare centers that are in our neighbourhood. It’s the grocery stores, it’s the Fortune 500 companies and it’s everybody in between, because the shortage is universal. Everybody’s looking for those same quality people. How are we setting ourselves apart? How are we measuring up against our competition? Very different question.
It’s insightful because when I say, “What’s the profile of an early-childhood educator?” you might say things like, “great self-awareness, passionate, hungry to learn”. Of course these are all things that they’re looking for. Do you think these people are going on a job board and applying to every single job out there just so that they can have a job? No, they’re looking for the best place to work, and they’re not going to find that on a job board. They’re going to find that through word of mouth.
It isn’t as scientific as it might seem. I go back to that quote: “You attract to you are, not who you want.” And so if you want to attract that profile that you described, and so much more the embodiment of the ideal person to put in front of these children, then we have to be that. It can’t just be something that we promote on paper. It really has to be in our culture, in our DNA as programs. Are we passionate? Are we dialled into our vision? Or are we tired and worn out and fed up and frustrated and overworked and stressed? All of those things. Again I go back to: “You will attract to you are, not who you want.”
Stepping into the second piece of transitioning falling stars to superstars as you said, how does that work? Let’s say I want to do that as an administrator. What are the things I should do?
I think step one is, if you talk to any kind of any director and you ask them, “Who are your projects?” I hate to use that word but there are just teachers that require more of our input, more of our support, because they’re just not there yet. And so I’ll ask them, “Tell me, where is your horsepower being spent? Who is it that’s not where you need them to be?” That list gets rattled off relatively quickly. You could get chapter and verse really quickly about, “Oh I’ve done this and I’ve tried this and we’re still not there and I’m frustrated and I’m tired. What do I do? I have to keep up because we have to have bodies in the classroom,” you know the drill. And step one is, do you still see potential? If I ask you to write down what is the potential that lives in that person, would that come to you just as easily as all the things that aren’t working? What can work? Whereas the potential? What still has life in it? What are those embers?
I think that oftentimes we get so caught up in what’s not working that we lose track of what could be working. And if you have decided – even if it wasn’t a conscious decision – that there’s nothing there anymore, then there won’t be. Even if there was, you’re done. Yeah. You have to ask yourself, do you still see the potential? Because you hired this person. There was some kind of potential. And sometimes we have to return that. I asked them, “Go pull their resume, look at your interviewing notes, see what things you wrote down. What caused you to make the decision to bring this person in in the first place? You obviously saw something there.” If they don’t see the potential any more then they have to re-evaluate one of two things: either the potential is there and I’ve just lost sight of it, or the potential is not there. And if there’s no potential there, if there’s nothing there to work with then you have other decisions to make. But in most cases, I would say nine out of ten cases, there is still potential there. It just hasn’t been realized, and it’s gotten lost in in the difficulties. So identify the potential.
Once you’ve identified the potential you have to really start evaluating what it is that lives between where they are and where you need them to be. Ask yourself a couple of questions. The first one is, “Is the distance between where they are and where they need to be a head issue, or is it a heart issue?” And the head issue questions are pretty basic and what you would expect. “Do they do they have the skills? Do they come to the table with skills that they need? Do they have the knowledge? Do they have access to the resources? Do they understand how to use the knowledge and the resources? And are they are they ready? Do they have the confidence to take those things and do something with them? And so you have to identify, are you dealing with a head issue, of someone who doesn’t get it? Or is it a heart issue? Do they have the desire, or do they have the patience and the passion? Do they have the calling? Is their heart invested? Do they understand the vision, or do they buy in? Because as you identify and go through and ask these questions oftentimes you’ll start to see some disconnects. So you go through as the leader, the director, the mentor, whatever role is in this person’s life, and you ask yourself these questions.
And then the second part of this is very much like how we’ve all been taught to do evaluations: you have them answer those same questions. Because our perception of where they are, what they understand, how they feel can be very different from theirs. And we can make assumptions based on 100 million things that are not necessarily correct. If we are not aligned in where they are then we’ll never get to where we want them to go or where they want to go. So you walk that process out. So let’s just say you’ve walked all that out. You say, “Okay Lori, I think we’re on track here.” The next part of that is to go through that same question and say, “Is the gap that lives where from where they are to where I need them to be, is it my head issue? Is it my heart issue, as a leader?” Oftentimes we have people that are in leadership that have not been trained to train, that have not been adequately equipped to develop people. They don’t have the skills, they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the knowledge or the ways that they need to connect all those things together in order to have impact and get results. And so it needs to turn into self-reflection, and then do a heart-check on you. “Am I still passionate about this? Do I have the desire to get this person on the bus? Do I have the passion for it? Do I have the heart for this?” Because if there are disconnects on either part or in any area – and sometimes it’s more than one. I can have some disconnects as a leader, they can have some disconnects as talent. And if those are living there then you know where your work needs to be. But if we never sit down and look at these things and have honest reflection, honest conversations, then we’re going to continue to lead putting out the fire that’s closest to us. Trucking warm bodies in, trucking warm bodies out. At the end of the day all of the failures of leadership and those that are in the classrooms to do this kind of work – and it sounds like, “Oh, Lori, it takes so much time. It’s so intensive. Where am I going to find that?” We’re already spending cleaning up the messes. So if we just re-allocated those time resources, those energy resources into places where it’s productive and meaningful, then children win. And again, at the center of all that I think, all that I do, all that I say, is a child. In my mind I picture a child. They will ultimately win or they will lose based on the decisions we make in these areas.
And clearly a very strong correlation between the recruitment question and the up-scaling question, in terms of thinking about what you’re bringing to the table, was sort of a theme on both of those that I think is quite evident. Just to wrap things out, a question I ask everybody: What excites you most about early childhood-education right now?
Oh goodness, there’s a couple of things. One, I’m very excited about the headway that we’re making in helping teachers and leaders on-site be able to help children manage some of the behavioural difficulties that we’re encountering that we are definitely seeing impacting quality of life in classroom, quality of life for children and quality of life for teachers. I love that we’re seeing some meaningful changes in the way that we’re doing business, because we can’t do it the same old way. Time-out doesn’t fix everything. And I love that we’re seeing the innovation in behaviour management that we’re seeing, so I’m very excited about that. I’m actually a student of all that right now. If you’re an effective teacher you’re also just a passionate learner, and I am all those things. So I am very excited about that.
I think the other thing that I am excited about as far as leadership is concerned is that I’m seeing just in my business and as I daily interact with leaders there are more resources that are available for leaders. There’s a recognition that we’ve had for years tons and tons and tons of training and conferences and things like that for teachers because that’s obviously a priority. But I think there’s a recognition that the teachers, the first-contact talent, can only be as effective and impactful as their leaders. And so we’re starting to invest more resources, more horsepower behind making sure that these leaders have what they need to effectively manage, develop and operate these programs in ways that really have outstanding outcomes for children. So those are the things that I’m excited about and all of those things will continue to lead the field and the world around it in the direction of recognizing the value and the importance of what we do. I think that it gives us confidence to toot our own horns, to sing our praises, to shout it from the mountaintops that what we do matters, that it’s important and everybody needs to get on the bus with us.
Very exciting indeed, and I’m excited by our conversation. If I’m a listener and I’m also excited about the conversation and I say, “Hey, I want to continue this conversation with Lori,” where can I go online to find you?
Well you can certainly go to my website. It’s PROEEAonline.com. And you can always, always, always e-mail me. It’s PROEEA.Lori.B@gmail.com. I’m always an email away.
Thank you for offering that. A very insightful and candid conversation Lori. Love the quotes. A couple I’ll repeat to bring the points home. On training: “Inspect what you expect.” I love it. On recruitment: “You attract who you are, not who you want.” Also, wonderful quote. Lori, it’s been great having you on the show. Thanks so much.
Thank you so much, Ron. Have a great, great day.
Awesome, you too.