LeafSpring Schools are experts in early childhood education and childcare with locations in four US states, including Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and Indiana.
Working with children during some of their most crucial learning years, it’s important that all staff members are onboarded well. That’s why the Preschool Director, Jenna Ward, takes it very seriously.
Having worked with LeafSpring Schools for over a decade with experience as a chief program officer for another educational company in China, Jenna is well aware of the lengths administrators should go to in order for new hires of any culture to feel welcome and get them started on the right foot.
In this episode of the Employee Onboarding Podcast from Process Street, Jenna discusses:
- Personalized onboarding
- Intentionality in designing the onboarding process
- The little things that make employee onboarding better
- Don’t rush employee onboarding.
- Focus on building relationships as well we teaching the necessary skills.
- Mix up the training to accommodate people’s different needs and learning styles.
- It helps to partner new hires with other employees to help them feel more comfortable asking questions.
What would you say are the top three ingredients every great onboarding process should have?
I think one of the things that we really always want to take into account is that it cannot be rushed, and it cannot be sped through. We’ve had a few staff come to us from other locations and say, “Oh, you know, I just kind of had a day of onboarding.” And we’re really big into making sure that people feel truly comfortable, especially since we’re working with children and so that we’re sending in folks into the classroom that really feel comfortable in their positions.
Another really important ingredient is that, in addition to teaching the skills that we want people to have, we’re also helping them build those relationships with their co-workers, and have kind of a basic understanding of how they can go out and find the resources they may need, who they should be directing, any kind of questions, too.
And the third one, I’d say, is making sure that the onboarding is mixed. There’s all different kinds of training. There’s all different kinds of learners, so we try to make sure that we have some [training] that is in person, some parts that are digital. Some things they’re reading, some things they’re writing. That way they really get a chance to experience the training in all different formats.
What would you say is the sweet spot of time that it takes to onboard a new teacher?
We definitely try to make sure they have at least three to four full days of training and time to take in the information. And then, most importantly, we have those follow-up touch points to make sure that if any information was missed, or just it’s a lot of information to take in off the bat, so we have 10-day check-ins with the new staff member. And then we also partner them up with a mentor that they meet with every week or two after their initial onboarding. And that really helps to make sure that they’re reviewing everything that was covered, and so that there are not things that they feel were missed along the way.
Does that mentor become sort of like their buddy, if you will?
Yeah, the mentor kind of becomes the person that they can go to. The great thing about our administrative team is that we all came from the classroom, and we all have experiences within the classroom, but there can always be potentially a little bit of a barrier between the administrative team and the teacher. So the mentor is a fellow teacher that also has the experience in the background to be able to talk someone through a challenging situation, to walk them through and guide them through something that they need help and assistance in.
So it can be another team member, that’s a part of the team that the staff member can reach out to. But then there are also situations every couple of weeks where the mentor is pulling that staff member out of the classroom, just to touch base, but also to say, “Here are some things that you learned in onboarding, let’s go over them and see if you have any questions now that you’re a few weeks in.”
I know when I first started, I definitely felt a little bit nervous about approaching an administrator with questions, especially if it was something that I felt was a silly question at the time. From my point of view, now I can see that there are no silly questions. And then I’m happy to field any and all any and all concerns someone has, but I think it’s great to give them that additional touch point person that they can have those bonds with.
- Introduce new hires to people in all departments, not just their own.
- It’s good to deliver training in-person and online because both have their advantages.
- It’s important for international companies to understand cultural differences and adjust their onboarding processes to reflect them.
From being a teacher, and also being a chief program officer and a school director, how has the onboarding changed over time?
I think one of the biggest things I’ve seen is that onboarding now is really an all-hands-on-deck process. As the person is going through our onboarding process, there’s a chance for them to meet and spend time with pretty much all different people throughout the school.
So they do their kitchen training, and they get to spend time with the cook and learn a little bit about the kitchen. They do their training with our nurse and learn a little bit about allergies and how they can best report and communicate with the nurse. They do a training with our curriculum specialists, with our assistant director, with our administrative assistants.
Instead of just having kind of one person deliver all of the training, I think we’ve really found a way to split it up. So that it’s not as big of a project for any one person to take on all of the training of new staff. But also, it really helps the new hire to get to know a lot of different people within the school, which can be really beneficial long term.
You mentioned earlier about digitizing some of your training. How has that evolved over time?
We use a company called LearningZen right now, and that is who some of our online training is through. So although we really do think it is critically important to have that face time with staff, we do have some pre-made training that is created and used for the teachers in that way. And that’s also helpful because it’s something that they can go back and reference and watch again, if they have any further questions.
And how do you make the process efficient for individuals? Is there any level of personalization to this?
Yeah, I think we definitely want to make sure it is dependent upon the specific person’s position. Obviously, if they are training for something like an administrative role, or a specific role within the building, there are different kinds of training that are presented, and they spend more or less time with other fellow co-workers in the building.
It’s also really important that we make sure to make each individual person feel welcome and feel like they’re a part of the team. So we really try to get to know them and get to know what works best for them and adapt what works best for them. If they are someone that needs a little bit more time experiencing what it is we’re talking about, and a little more time in the classroom to ask those questions in order to feel comfortable, then we’ll adjust our training to make sure that happens.
And I would imagine that onboarding teachers in the United States and onboarding teachers in China is probably different. Would you say it’s different? If so, how?
When we were doing the onboarding in China, we really had to come up with a whole new system of onboarding. And we had to make sure that everything was bilingual. So that was step one. We were hiring American lead teachers and Chinese teacher assistants, so we needed it in both languages.
But we also really had to include a very important cultural component. After the first year or so, we realized that when we are working with a company that has both American and Chinese ties, we have to make sure that we are recognizing the big difference that exists between those two cultures. So we would incorporate it into our onboarding process training about how American people, in general, view things in a business setting versus how Chinese people view things in a business setting. And make sure that everyone is coming at it from a good point of view.
We also spent a lot more time training on things that people that grew up here in America might already have a bit of background on, like positive discipline and play-based learning. So there’s a lot more time kind of explaining the why behind those things.
You quickly learn, in any training process, that you need to be ready to answer the questions your customers have. And one of the big questions our customers had over in China was, “What do you mean they’re learning? They’re sitting there playing with a box of blocks. How does that mean learning?” So we needed to make sure that it wasn’t just our administrators that understood the purpose behind it, but that everyone had buy-in into why, in general, we have a different way of learning in America.
The little things make employee onboarding better
- It’s a shame that there aren’t even more ways to personalize the onboarding process.
- LeafSpring Schools take the time to learn about their new hires and give each of them a personalized gift at the end of onboarding to help them feel appreciated.
- They take the time to learn about each new hire’s culture and try to adjust the training process to fit their needs.
If you could wave your magic wand and change anything about an onboarding process, what would you change about it?
I would love to make it so that it could more easily be adapted to every individual person.
I think it is challenging when you’re bringing in someone new, you can ask the questions that you want to ask and try to get to know them a little bit, but it’s not usually until afterward that you’ve spent enough time with them to know how they learn best and what works best for them. So I would love the ability to maybe have a little more time ahead of time, before starting the onboarding process, to get to know everybody so that we could adapt training to better fit a way that they will more fully comprehend and absorb all the information.
What is the most creative thing a company can do to create that wow moment for a new hire to give them that feeling that they made the right choice?
I think a really huge thing is always making that personal connection. I think I’ve seen from watching my predecessors do training, that they’re always looking to share a little bit about themselves and get to know a little bit about the new staff member. And then also make sure that the new staff member knows that we care about them.
One of the things that we do is early on in the training process, we have everyone fill out a getting-to-know-you form that has a little bit of background about them and a little bit of information about their favorite things. We put that on our website so that when holidays come around, or Teacher Appreciation Week, families can access that if they’re interested in getting a little gift for their teacher.
But also, at the end of each onboarding process, we go out and get the staff member a few things from their favorite things list, whether it’s their favorite candy bar and their favorite soda, maybe their favorite bagel, or something like that. And then we always make sure we’re giving it to them in a gift bag that’s their favorite color, along with some shirts for the school. So I think it really it’s about the little things that make a big difference, the little things, of letting someone know that you heard them, that you listen to them, and that you’re excited that this person is a part of your team, and you’re happy to welcome them.
I think you really have to [pay attention to the little details]. We’ve had people join our team from all different backgrounds. We’ve had teachers come on recently, a few that have English as a second language and, and it’s really important to take the time to not just learn a little bit about them, but a little bit about their culture and how they best learn things, making sure all the information is being communicated correctly. So I think we’re always kind of striving to make sure that we are presenting ourselves in the best possible way for all new staff coming in.
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What do you think about Jenna Ward’s approach to personalized onboarding? Do you make your onboarding as individualized as possible? Tell us about it in the comments!