Last month Brenda Zedlitz shared a guest blog post with us about how her program had to recompete for their Head Start grant in 2012. Her first post attracted a lot of attention, so we followed up with her to get her take on a few more questions.
How did your staff respond to the stress of recompetition?
We did see some turnover at the management level. We were making a lot of changes and our management staff had the hardest time buying into what we were doing. There were a lot of abrupt changes and that was hard. We also had supervisors managing teachers who outranked them in terms of education and who were more open to the changes we were making. One of our big changes was hiring more highly qualified managers.
Interestingly enough, we didn’t lose one teacher during the DRS process. We don’t know what to attribute that to other than that, prior to DRS, we were already moving on the path to building a more highly qualified teaching staff. We have the University of Arkansas nearby and they have a strong early childhood program. A lot of the job candidates coming out of the program start in Head Start and we benefitted from that. We had also started making changes that helped teachers overcome the fatigue that had set in.
What were some of the changes you focused on?
We started using Thematic Lesson Plans. We piloted the lesson plans at one site. Those teachers were so enthusiastic that the other teachers wanted to be a part of it. We ask so much of our teachers and on top of that, we hand them curriculum tools and ask them to develop their lesson plans. The new program provided the structure and the scaffolding needed to help with that fatigue.
We were already using CLASS, and for us, the lesson plans were the missing piece. It provided a structure for their teaching so our teachers had the space to focus on their teacher-child interactions. I didn’t realize how burdensome lesson planning had become. That stress translates into the classroom and to the children. Teachers were having to complete all of these extras pieces before the actual learning could even begin.
We also implemented teacher mentoring and coaching. Our staff love that sense of community and sharing their ideas. People started communicating outside of their centers. During our meetings, teachers from different sites started sitting with other teachers outside of their centers and they were sharing ideas. It was amazing! They were all on the same page because of the lesson plans, so they could connect more than before.
You think that if these teachers are coming from the university, then they must know how to teach—and that’s not always true. We really started making changes once we had these really visionary people on our management team who could question the “sacred” status quo and previous perceptions around something like teacher preparation. We managed to eliminate the element of sacredness and be inventive and creative. We were able to let go and not carry forward things from the past that wouldn’t serve us well.
We know how much teacher turnover can challenge a program. How do you deal with turnover in your program?
Remember how I said, “Don’t waste a crisis”? A lot of our teachers leave after two years to go teach in public schools. Of course that’s scary! But look how much further our reach is than the walls of our program. We teach our teachers how to use CLASS and be great teachers—how to make a difference in the lives of children. We know that we can take a teacher fresh out of college, give her what she needs, and help her be successful. When she moves on, we then impact the whole community—not just the people in our program. It can be exhausting and hard when you lose your tenth teacher, but it’s also so meaningful to know that you empowered that teacher and you’re impacting the lives of more children.
What’s another lesson you learned after having to go through DRS?
When DRS was rolled out, people talked about the importance of data-driven decision making and just this year, it became real for us in a way that it hadn’t before. It wasn’t just something imposed on us by Head Start to give us something else to do.
This past year, I had an aha! moment. Our CLASS scores reflected what was actually happening in our classrooms. It was like “WOW! This really does work!” CLASS was imposed on us (just like everyone in Head Start). But when you see the data actually working, there’s more space to see it as a self assessment. There are coachable moments.
Data-driven decision making takes away the emotion, the stress, and the subjectivity. It moves us out of compliance to quality. Compliance is the minimum. We don’t want to just be good enough, we want to be great.
I survived DRS but I prefer to be known as an individual who was able to seize the opportunity and see it as a gift. It’s my story and it’s my experience. And there’s room for everyone’s stories and experiences. Everyone’s experience is valid. I hope my story strengthens you and brings some understanding of what can be done.
Brenda Zedlitz is the Director of Children’s Services at the Economic Opportunity Agency of Washington County in Fayetteville, Arkansas.