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Professional Development

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Supporting the Youth We Serve by Supporting the Staff Who Serve Them

Out-of-school time professionals are skilled, passionate, and dedicated to the youth and families we serve.

We work hard to hone our craft and strive to provide the best service. We understand our foundation is based on the positive relationships we cultivate, which must include gratitude, appreciation, recognition and celebration. We create space for youth to realize and become exactly who they are, and we celebrate that. We praise, applaud, and support them, challenging them to explore and learn and grow. We hang their work on the walls and honor them at end-of-the-year parties. We create shout-out walls to let them know we see and appreciate them. We facilitate activities to highlight their strengths and create opportunities for them to recognize one another. We're full of appreciation and joy.

Yet we forget to do this for ourselves and our staff, which comes at a cost—literally and figuratively.

The work we do is important; it can feel more like a calling. Unfortunately, this passion and dedication are constantly up against challenges that wear on us over time. Along with low salaries and long hours, OST staff serve children with individual needs, challenges, and strengths that must be met with too few hours in a day and too few resources at our disposal—causing a nearly 40% staff turnover rate and creating an environment where nearly half of our staff are burned out. In many ways it is a thankless job, in a world where 65% of employees say they do not receive any positive recognition.

To hold onto high-quality staff—our most valuable asset—it's imperative to start changing that.

According to the famous Gallup12, which tells us what factors contribute most strongly to job satisfaction, recognition is among the most salient components of happiness at work. This is important, as we know people stay at jobs when they are satisfied and leave when they aren't. Or, worse, they stay and carry their dissatisfaction. The good news: We can do something about it, by being more intentional and thoughtful in supporting staff. Sixty-nine percent say they would work harder if their efforts were better recognized. Further, organizations with effective employee recognition programs have a 31% lower turnover rate than those with ineffective programs. The numbers—and our people—are begging us to comply.

Everyone deserves support and recognition for a job well done. In a field filled with high workloads and low pay, it is essential we extend staff the same support as the youth we serve. Though older, staff aren't so different from youth in needing to feel valued and appreciated. As our youth deserve to be seen and celebrated, so do we. As they need a ratio of 5:1 in praise and criticism, so do we. As they thrive on recognition, so do we.

Though money is always a challenge, there are countless ways to celebrate staff without expense; a most powerful one is sincere, specific words of praise. Youth development professionals want to know what we do provides value and we're valued for it. Show this through conversations, email, thank-you cards, newsletter mentions, staff meeting shout-outs, social media posts and any other medium you choose. How do you celebrate your youth? Let that inspire and guide you! Ask staff directly how they like to be celebrated, then do so.

In addition to outward celebration, let's honor staff by investing in them and supporting them on their professional journeys. We can provide ways and options for them to learn and grow. We can work with them to identify where they shine and give them every opportunity to do so. We can show support—trusting them and giving them autonomy to try new things and lead. We can treat them as the professionals they are and help them become who they strive to be. We must always remember we're preparing the next generation of youth development leaders; we must take this responsibility seriously.

Think about how your organization celebrates staff and how you could do it better. Be intentional. Make it a priority. The future of our field depends on it—and our youth and those who serve them deserve it.

Katherine Spinney, ACC, MSW, MT, NAA Executive Member, is the founder of Katherine Spinney Coaching LLC, which strengthens and supports youth development professionals to strengthen and support those they serve.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of AfterSchool Today.