Professional Development

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The Systemic Disregard for Frontline Staff

As employees and human beings, staff members want to feel valuable and valued.

This holds true in the afterschool profession, where—despite claims to the contrary—the work is not always the reward. Many afterschool professionals have dedicated their careers to helping others, which does not supplant the need for respect and a living wage.

Most leaders understand the challenging conditions frontline afterschool professionals face, yet too many accept these as inevitable—absolving themselves of any responsibility to do something about it.

NOTE: This article has an intentionally strong tone. We are sure many readers will quickly point out the challenges in addressing this issue. It is not our intention to minimize or ignore these challenges. Instead, we hope to encourage pushback against these challenges collectively and systemically, for the good of the profession.

In the United States, an estimated 850,000 afterschool professionals provide valuable services to over 11.2 million youth and their families. Thanks to its support of working families and communities, the afterschool profession is a significant contributor to the U.S. economy. Despite this, we've created—and subsequently accepted—a system that deems afterschool professionals "unworthy" of competitive compensation or career development opportunities, resulting in a vicious cycle of turnover and staffing issues.

We acknowledge the resulting turnover rates as "normal" and have not done much about it. This high turnover is not inevitable, and we afterschool leaders are the ones responsible for it. We contribute to it. We create and perpetuate it.

Through systemic disregard for them, we are pushing our frontline staff out of the field.

WE UNDERCOMPENSATE THEM.

The No. 1 staffing challenge for afterschool programs is the inability to offer competitive wages; finding qualified staff is a close second. Yes, most people don't enter the afterschool profession to become rich. But with the challenges that come with frontline work, financial insecurity becomes too much for many to bear. Our field advocates strongly for youth, families and communities. We need to do better when advocating for our own people.

Compensation involves far more than pay, but here too we fall short. An emphasis on part-time staff generally means a lack of benefits, among them health insurance and paid time off. Even for full-time staff, perks and benefits often sorely lack, making a low salary that much lower. In the name of frugality, many of us knowingly underpay our frontline workers—a financial strategy that directly contributes to high staff turnover and, in turn, costs far more than a pay increase.

WE WORK THEM TOO MUCH.

Busyness has become a badge of honor in our culture. We've convinced ourselves that surviving on caffeine and sugar or working at all hours proves how much we care about our work. As leaders, we model self-sacrifice while waxing poetic on the importance of self-care. We've inadvertently shamed our frontline people into neglecting their own needs for the sake of others.

We interpret these displays as examples of dedication and hard work, yet research shows otherwise. Our minds, bodies and psyches are not built to work tirelessly, without end. Taking breaks improves productivity and working extra hours is inefficient and ineffective.

Despite this, we press on—ensuring higher turnover.

In a field already filled with factors that contribute to turnover, we exacerbate the situation by demanding more than is reasonable. As a result, many afterschool professionals may describe themselves as burned out or in danger of becoming so.

WE TRAIN AND DEVELOP THEM TOO LITTLE.

We've decided taking time to train and develop staff is time poorly spent. Instead we "build the plane while flying it" and rely on the "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" school of development. We accept these strategies as inevitable because of our busyness; we admire those who adjust and adapt. What we fail to understand: Just because staff can jump right in, doesn't mean they should. Without proper training, staff cannot be expected to provide high-quality programs that positively affect youth. Without ongoing development, we can't expect them to stay—as a study from the Annie Casey Foundation proves.

Many argue the problem primarily stems from leadership whose top priorities do not include compensation or professional development opportunities for frontline staff. Leaders often don't advocate for the importance of developing and retaining high-quality staff; in turn, we don't advocate and advance the conversation with our boards, funders and each other. As a result, only 1 percent of grants given from 1992 – 2011 supported staff development.

Although professional growth is essential to job satisfaction, we've deemed it a luxury rather than a necessity. In the name of time and financial management, staff is prevented from taking advantage of professional development opportunities—denying them, and our organizations, more opportunity for growth and impact. Some leaders even ask employees to attend training on their own time and dime!

Yet money is not the only issue. As leaders, it does not cost us anything to sit down with staff and give them the feedback and coaching they need and deserve. Still, we fall back on our busyness and lack of time as an excuse not to offer this support—ensuring dissatisfaction and the eventual exit of frontline staff. Though we know professional growth opportunities increase retention and limited advancement opportunities decrease it, we do not invest the time and energy to make this happen.

Despite the high frontline staff turnover rate, we do little to prevent it. Only 16 percent of nonprofit organizations have an employee retention strategy; over half admit to having no plans to change this.

WE UNDERVALUE AND UNDERAPPRECIATE THEM.

Frontline staff members are the faces of afterschool organizations. They perform the most direct and impactful work. We recognize—and hopefully share—their passion, yet we often take staff and their dedication for granted. Consciously or subconsciously, we hold staff hostage to the relationships with and the care for those they serve.

Yes, we try to make it look like we appreciate and recognize our frontline teams' impactful and fantastic work—not with adequate pay or professional growth, but through a staff potluck or shout-outs during Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week. There is nothing inherently wrong with these acts of appreciation. But it is unacceptable to begin and end with them. What staff want is the chance to do what they do best; the opportunity to grow and advance, successfully balance their personal and professional lives, and have the security of adequate compensation. Despite this, we continue to underpay, undertrain and undervalue our frontline staff.

There is great consequence and irony to these decisions.

Afterschool organizations pride themselves on being relationship-based yet have created a staff management system that essentially guarantees high turnover. We verbalize how important personal relationships are to fulfilling our missions. We frequently recognize how hard frontline work is—and in the same breath devalue this work through undercompensating and underdeveloping it.

As long as we continue to accept this way of operating, our turnover and staff retention results will remain the same. If we instead begin to educate, challenge and advocate for change, we could begin making progress our profession needs. There is a remarkable amount of talent and power in the afterschool field: Let's begin to more intentionally use it for others and for ourselves!

Are you an afterschool leader or professional working to change this paradigm? If so, we want to hear from you. Please share more with us at info@naaweb.org. Your story may be included in a future NAA Executive Extra or NAA eNews edition.

Contributed by Katherine Spinney of Katherine Spinney Coaching, LLC, and Heidi Ham, Vice President of Programs and Strategy for NAA.

Comments  
#6 Rose 2018-10-25 14:08
Hi Eric, why do you think that this article singles you out? You feel that you have a strong program and that is wonderful. At my job we work to help train after school professionals. We know the challenges that abound but we also know that we have to keep striving. Reread the note above in the article. In order to bring ourselves up we have to know the issues plaguing our system. I am glad that this was brought out in the open. We need this more often to remind us of what we are fighting for.
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#5 Eric Gurna 2018-10-23 12:13
As a leader of a direct service program, I’m disheartened by this article. Who is “we”? My program employs over 2,000 staff. We care deeply about them, invest in their professional development, and do everything we can to help them find a pathway to success in youth development and beyond, in a culture that does not value caring work, in an economy that does not support nonprofit sustainability.

As CEO, I spend most of my time advocating for both private and public support for these efforts, so why blame me and my peers for creating or accepting the conditions that lead to high turnover? Most of us are working to change those conditions, and many of the factors are beyond our sphere of influence.

I appreciate the authors’ dedication to the field, and willingness to engage in critical dialogue. Blogs are a tough medium for debate, perhaps this topic could be addressed at the NAA Convention - I’d be happy to engage in a public dialogue about these important issues.
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#4 Heidi Ham 2018-10-17 12:40
The link for the Annie Casey survey is http://www.socialworkpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/06/4-CW-SRRFinalFullReport.pdf. It has also been updated in the web article.
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#3 Rose 2018-10-11 13:17
We just had a great conversation in the office about this very scathing and very true article. It's a conundrum and it always boils down to money. I'm glad you said it out loud.
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#2 JoAnne Kimball 2018-10-10 18:49
Very well written article and so true! Thank you for writing this
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#1 Irma Velasco-Nunez 2018-10-10 15:20
Thank you for this provocative piece. I'd like to learn more about the Annie E. Casey study mentioned in the article, but the link goes to a University of Nevada policy paper. Can you please provide a link to the AEC study? Thank you.
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