While necessity may be the mother of invention, it was actually a combination of necessity and motherhood that inspired Kim Love to establish Bright Life Playschool in San Luis Obispo, California.

In 2011, she decided to start a small preschool in her home, both as way to take care of her 18-month-old daughter and help people in the community. At first, Kim was caring for six kids on her own, but by the next year, when that number had doubled to a dozen, she hired another teacher.

Today, Bright Life Playschool has a gorgeous, 10-acre campus at the base of Bishop’s Peak, where 14 teachers inspire more than 60 children to “learn through play,” rather than “rote memorization, flashcards, and workbooks.”

Finding the best and the brightest

Kim says one of the things she loved most about having the school in her home was how close the families became with the staff members, so initially she felt hesitant about growing the business because she wanted to keep its integrity. As Bright Life continued to blossom, Kim tried to maintain her team’s unique values by being incredibly picky about hiring.

“It doesn’t matter whether they have a master’s degree in early childhood education. If they don’t have the warmth and ability to connect with each child, it won’t work.” That’s why in addition to initial phone chats, Kim conducts panel interviews with current staff members, and even her husband, because they all know Kim well and can help see things she doesn’t.

When Kim meets prospective teachers, she expresses how much she cares about her school and the kids, as well as the specific characteristics she’s looking for. “If it’s not a good fit, that’s fine! I want to know their commitment level upfront — what their goals are, where they see themselves in five years. They have to believe in our mission and philosophy, so if they don’t believe children learn best through play, it’s very hard to teach and it isn’t possible to move further.”

Bright Life blends several schools of education philosophy into an approach that’s primarily inspired by Reggio-Emilia, with smatterings of Montessori and Waldorf. In practice, that translates to an in-depth catalogue of enriching programs — everything from teaching organization skills to encouraging the kids to explore world cultures. Kim comes up with her own ideas, too. She invited the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo University Lion Dance team to perform lion dancing during Chinese New Year. For Persian New Year, a parent came in to share their traditions (and some customary snacks). Kim, who also has experience as a children’s yoga instructor, incorporates daily yoga practice to teach the kids about calming their emotions through movement and breath.

Although Kim insists on filtering for people who share Bright Life’s philosophy, she’s also willing to train anyone who wants to learn. “I can take people who have no early childhood units but want the experience. I start them as aides, then move them up while they’re taking classes. I’m willing to put in a lot of effort into teaching someone how to be a teacher at Bright Life instead of getting someone ready-made. I have more success in helping somebody who wants to learn grow in their skill set instead of someone coming in saying ‘I know all this stuff.’”

Ally Perazzo, a teacher’s aide, had a background in special education but no previous experience working at a preschool. She says Kim seeks out kindred spirits first and foremost, so she’s recruited all kinds of teachers for Bright Life, including former gymnastics instructors with creative game ideas, and even a parent who had experience teaching English as a second language.

Cultivating individual strengths and aspirations

While Kim has been teaching preschool for around 20 years, she also has nine years of collective experience working for the cities of San Francisco and San Luis Obispo as a Recreation Director. Although she has fond memories of those jobs, she felt that performance evaluations could have been improved: “Often they were were copied and pasted from the last one, just to show you got a raise.” That’s why Kim devised a thoughtful, personalized process at Bright Life. A month before, she requests written self-evaluations from employees, as well as feedback on her, the school, and their peers. After gathering the information, Kim has hour-long meetings with people individually where they create goals together. Kim calls it “vision mapping,” and it charts where people want to be in the school and how they can get there. In addition to the tailored evaluations, Kim also offers trainings, and covers time for people to take classes. “We can help each other grow,” she explains.

As a result of her efforts to understand her teachers’ individual strengths, Kim supports everyone with their career goals. Kelsey Firebaugh, a teacher’s aide, is studying to be an elementary school teacher. Besides writing Kelsey a letter of recommendation, Kim has also sought out opportunities that match her future goals.

“My favorite part of my job is seeing how other teachers interact with kids,” says Kelsey. “We have one teacher who can turn any experience with kids, even a tantrum or bad behavior, into a learning experience for kids. Another will sing everything instead of saying ‘no’ and turn every situation into a positive one. Every teacher has a unique teaching style and I’m trying to find my own.”

A work family … with lots of kids

Over the years, Kim has held many jobs, and one of the hardest parts for her was gossip. “Not respecting the other person enough to say, ‘Let’s meet,’ which undermined the entire business,” Kim explains. “It’s not that I need my coworkers to be the best of friends, but I want them to see the gifts they offer to our school, and how we can mutually communicate and get along so we can be the best model for the kids. The kids hear everything and they feel things. If their parents are upset, the kids carry those emotions with them. I believe that each child who walks in the door should have a blank slate from us. This is where we serve them.”

Bright Life teammates regularly host potluck meetings and take morning hikes together. They’re also constantly celebrating birthdays through a ritual that emphasizes sharing more than receiving. On each child’s birthday, they fill out a story about their life with the help of their parents, then share it with the rest of the class, along with other gifts like a favorite book or a healthy treat. Then the child, with their proud parents in attendance, holds a globe and walks around a “sun,” making one rotation for every year of their life so far.

The “birthday circle” tradition started with the kids, but quickly extended to the staff. For employee birthdays, Kim will even contact their parents for baby pictures and stories. “We know what their favorite food is, so we get whatever they love so they can share it with the kids that day, who enjoy asking questions about a teacher’s favorite foods, colors, all of that,” Kim says. “We’ve even had whole families come in to attend their 35-year-old’s birthday!” For staff members, their “walk around the sun” tradition is a more reasonable single rotation per decade, instead of one for each year.

Flexible schedules allow people time to “honor their own lives”

Bright Life operates with a flexible schedule, meaning that people cover for each other when needed, and everyone can take the summer off. Kim has three kids of her own and remembers how difficult it was to find a position that would allow her to take care of them. That’s why she works hard, usually with sticky notes all over the wall, to piece together employee schedules that will satisfy everyone. This is especially convenient for the Cal Poly students who join Bright Life while working to become licensed childcare professionals. Her own attitude toward time management, Kim says, came from waiting tables in college.

“Every time I told people I can’t work this schedule, I’d be right on the schedule in the wrong place the next week. It’s just disrespectful, because I couldn’t do that. Class was my priority.”

The other part of flexibility is that there’s no limit to the time off you can ask for. Kim says she’s almost always able to accommodate when people ask to take vacation or leave. Bright Life Playschool deliberately has more employees than they need. While the teacher-to-student ratio for licensing in California is one teacher to 12 students, the Bright Life teacher-student ratio is one to six for most kids, and one to four for the two-year-olds.

Leading by example, not hierarchy

Barbara Johnson, a teacher at Bright Life, says Kim has “an ability to be there in the trenches — right in the middle of everything from cleaning to admin.” Kelsey agrees, saying “I’ve worked in several places where the boss is the boss and dictates everything. Kim does diapers with us, she helps clean, she sits with kids. She’s just wherever she needs us to be.”

Kim’s advice to other business owners matches her own approach. “Make a relationship with your employees. To be respected, you don’t have to stand on a pedestal and point down. You can be respected changing a diaper next to an employee. Get right in there and do the same things they do, because they respect you through that. They’ll want to support the whole business, instead of just working for a paycheck.”

When Kim became a director for the first time, she had to adjust to working with adults, even though her passion was spending time with kids. “I thought I had to follow what other people did,” Kim says.

“I had this idea that I had to be a director who was short with people, quick at making decisions, not considerate. But I realized that the only way that I could lead is to lead from who I am.”

Steffi Wu Steffi Wu, a contributing author on Gusto, provides actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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