A model of leadership: Entire staff receiving leadership training in Tulare ECE program


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Alex Elliott, Ed.D., administers the Tulare County Office of Education Early Childhood Education department that encompasses a staff of 450 people, including the $19.2 million Head Start program.

Elliott has been with the Tulare COE for six years and assumed the ECE directorship two years ago. With a doctorate in organizational leadership, it’s obvious when she says, “I am very passionate about leadership.”

And that’s leadership for everyone — not just managers.

When the goals for the department were being written, she made sure that one of them was leadership training for all staff. That’s right, all 450 ECE employees — those working in clerical, eligibility, kitchen, and facilities — custodians included.

Her belief is simple: Everybody is a leader. You don’t have to have a management title to be a leader.

“We all make leadership decisions,” Elliott said. “And everyone gets training, regardless whether they are Head Start (staff).”

Employees receive their training through the Region 9 Head Start Association’s The Leadership Challenge program. The program includes intensive self-assessment homework and 12 hours of workshops, along with follow-up coaching sessions.

Alex Elliott

Because Elliott wanted all staff to participate, she approached Region 9 Head Start Association to modify the training for Tulare COE. And as Region 9 Executive Director Ed Condon noted, it is unique for an entire staff to take The Leadership Challenge. To date, 225 ECE staffers have participated in The Leadership Challenge.

The fundamentals of the training are five easy-to-grasp concepts that leaders can follow every day to become extraordinary: Model The Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge The Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage The Heart.

An important benefit Elliott sees is that all of the staff have the same training and all have learned the same verbiage. “If we are all getting the same training and the same terminology,” she explained, “it will help us work through problems better.”

“Bringing the Leadership Challenge workshop to our staff at the Tulare County Office of Education, Early Childhood Program, has been an excellent experience”, says Melissa Velasquez, TCOE Professional Development Manager. “The team at R9HSA and I have worked hard to support our staff at every step of the effort.  From the administrative tasks to the delivery of course content, we feel well served. Our staff has enjoyed attending both the in-person course as well as the virtual sessions. They are learning and growing stronger as leaders in their communities.”

The payoff was illustrated when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded. Overnight, the Head Start program had to switch to virtual learning — with no prep time at all. “We were not that tech-savvy,” she noted. “It was definitely a challenge. Communications were key, which is a big part of The Leadership Challenge. Being successful and making that switch (to virtual learning) required communications. I think it was a contributing factor for our success.”

Beginning late last year, Head Start centers were then slowly reopened. As of mid-April 2021, in fact, the Head Start has returned to in-class training, with all of the centers back open. At-home visits are still conducted virtually, however.

“It’s been exciting having children back in the classes,” she said, though according to public health guidelines, the program is running with smaller class enrollments.

And though the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the plans for employees’ Leadership Challenge attendance, the Region 9 HSA was able to provide flexibility to keep the staff’s leadership training on track.

“I have really appreciated that,” Elliott said.

—By H.A. Silliman

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