ABC’s of Workplace Improvement: Teacher-Administrator Relationships, Model Work Standards, and Promoting Agency

Recently I heard NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe’s interview with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about the 2023-24 school year ahead. Many of the themes were the typical ones we hear of, but one stood out to me. Cardona said, “I think this teacher shortage across the country is a symptom of a teacher respect issue we have in this country. We need to invest in our schools, invest in our educators…You know, and I talk about the ABCs of teaching, Ayesha. A stands for agency, letting our professionals who are in front of the classroom be respected as professionals; B, better working conditions; and then C is competitive salaries.”

The A and the B were what stood out to me. Usually we hear of attracting and retaining teachers with higher compensation, which is key! (#worthywage) However, the A and the B are also essential for attraction and retention and should not be overlooked.

Advocacy for greater agency and better working conditions for educators is not new. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) wrote the first edition of The Model Work Standards 25 years ago, highlighting these essential workplace conditions in excellent detail. 

In 2021-2022, Early Care Educators of San Francisco (ECESF) created a similar list of workplace recommendations (below) after conducting a series of teacher focus groups to better understand the successes and challenges of their work, specifically at child care centers in San Francisco. After this series, I helped lead a second series of focus groups with center administrators, such as pedagogical leaders, supervisors, and directors, as we also wanted to better understand the successes and challenges of their work. 

Out of these focus groups came a list of recommendations for improved workplace culture and conditions for all early childhood program employees.

Common “Pitfalls” Administrators May Fall Into & Things To Try Instead

  • Checking a box – Gain teacher input because it’s valuable, not because it is something to check off your to-do list, or simply due to compliance.
  • Acting like we have all the answers – It’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “Let’s look into it together” with adults just like we do with children.
  • MicromanagingAvoid micromanaging to build trust and autonomy with teachers as experts of their own classrooms. All on-site roles, including teacher and administrator positions, are interdependent parts without which a program cannot function. 
  • Isms – (explicit or implicit) Inconsistent responses and unjust treatment across staff due to title, identity, or other reason. 
  • Sympathy vs Empathy – It is not “Us” v.s. “Them.” Administrators need to be able to relate and understand teachers’ perspectives. Remember when you were in their shoes? 
  • Hierarchy – It can be challenging to include coworkers as teammates due to hierarchy of teacher levels– teaching teams work best when everyone feels seen, heard, and valued. Teachers of different generations and levels of educational attainment have different kinds of valuable knowledge, expertise, and skills. Administrators should respect, and address the generational differences in schools–not value “seniority” or higher degrees over the inherent strengths all educators bring to their work.
  • Power Dynamics – Instead of working from a position of power over, try power with/to/within (Nod to Brene Brown and her work on power and leadership).

What Teachers Would Like Administrators To Know…

  • Administrators should… Acknowledge, validate, and appreciate teachers by visiting and spending time in classrooms regularly.
  • Teachers benefit from administrators who… 
    • promote work/home life balance
    • lead by example
    • promote self-care
    • reduce obligations/events outside of work hours
  • Teachers need… Opportunities for dialogue about policies, schedules, and anything that impacts their classroom.

What Administrators Would Like Teachers To Know…

  • Teachers are encouraged to…
    • join ECE policy and advocacy efforts
    • pursue continuing education 
    • know that some administrator limitations/restrictions are due to compliance and funding
  • Administrators benefit from teachers…
    • being flexible and adaptable
    • participating in surveys/feedback
    • being a “team player” by building positive relationships
  • Administrators need…
    • More staff & substitutes
    • teachers trained to support special needs and/or challenging behavior

ECESF Teacher Recommendations

  • Prioritize the quality of deep, meaningful work directly with children over toxic productivity. 
  • Advocate for teachers to express themselves as whole persons in the workplace.
  • Respect teachers’ livelihoods outside of work. Eliminate expectations for teachers to do unpaid labor or cover classroom expenses out-of-pocket.
  • Develop a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy and engage with teaching staff consistently and transparently on DEI goals 
  • Provide adequate new staff orientation and introduction to the full program before teaching in the classroom begins.
  • Refute emphasizing formal professionalization over experiential knowledge and practices—recognize the value of both to teaching teams.
  • Create a physical and interpersonal work environment that promotes wellbeing in order to support staff wellness & mental health.

Professionalism does not have to mean replicating white American middle-class values and the work systems of capitalism and industrialization. Professionalism and workplace culture can be rooted in care, patience, love, respect and transparency. (See the antidotes to white supremacy culture characteristics for more.) 

So yes, Education Secretary Cardona, I agree. Agency and better working conditions are what we early educators need. In fact, they are what we have been advocating for over the past 3 decades. We are long overdue. With that said, it’s important to recognize that this issue has both internal and external aspects. Blaming systems and institutions for all of the daily workplace challenges within the program is neither accurate nor fair, and it doesn’t promote accountability. Administrators, who are the leaders of the program, hold the primary responsibility for the workplace environment. They need to honestly reflect on their role in it, take a critical look at themselves, and work together with their staff as a team to address these challenges. Thus giving their entire staff greater A – agency, B – better working conditions, in addition to advocating for C – competitive salaries.

If you have success stories, we’d love to hear about them! Email

Brooke Giesen, ECESF Board Member, has been in the ECE field for the past 22 years as a Teacher Aide, Lead Teacher, Director and recently as the Assistant Director of the California Early Childhood Mentor Program. Brooke holds a MS in ECE from Erikson Institute with a concentration in Leadership and Advocacy. She has recently relocated out of California where she is seeking her next role and can be found on LinkedIn.