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What tips do you have for a new school administrator?

Help!  This fall I’ll be stepping into a Montessori school as their new administrator.  This school has struggled somewhat with turnover of both teachers and administrators over the years.  What tips or resources would you recommend for this period of transition, and getting the school back on the right foot?

What an exciting time for you and an excellent question. Change is often not easy, but it is constant, and always offers opportunity. Whether you are an experienced administrator or this is your first role in administration, many recommendations parallel either scenario and are not dependent on school size or levels taught. Maria Montessori’s work and philosophy are incredibly relevant to schools as a whole as well as adults. Her genius is scalable and transferable.  

Administrator and guide, or teacher, turnover is an excessively tricky problem but is one that dramatically affects a school’s operation and life. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 14% of teachers leave the profession yearly, and there was a vacancy rate of 110,000 teacher/guide positions nationally (based on the 2018-19 school year). While those statistics include all types and pedagogies of schools, it is essential to note that Montessori schools are not exempted from turnover. Because our communities are family-centered, we assume that our sphere of existence is somehow different. It isn’t. You are not alone, and this is not new. In 2001 a study from the National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Survey placed national teacher turnover at, interestingly, 14%. Sadly, it has mainly remained the same for almost 20 years.

Turnover has many costs, both monetary and non-monetary, including disruption of the learning environment for students, disruption in the community, and loss of student and organizational knowledge as well as the time and effort in training. Guide and staff turnover is complex and can be caused by reasons including pay, benefits, working environment, lack of support from administrators, parents or colleagues, lack of training, or numerous other issues. As you know, the role of a Montessori guide or administrator is not simple. Guides are expected to direct our students academically while allowing them to explore independently and meet each of their students’ individual needs. They ensure that their parents are updated and vested in their child’s work, track student progress, and lastly, do so while modeling a calm, collected, and comforting presence. There are many direct and indirect pressures on Montessori staff.

With such a complex issue, the first step towards a solution should be to observe. Just as in the classroom, observation of the school system will give you insights into many facets that may not be readily apparent. You are entering an institution with many levels to its operation and existence, regardless of the number of students the school serves. While I am sure that you have thoughts as to why the school has turnover, clear-minded, unbiased observation will allow you to confirm or deny what is happening.    

Just as each Montessori guide and classroom has its own personality, schools as a whole do as well. To be successful, you must understand the whole system the best you can before implementing anything. This isn’t very easy for most school administrators and humans in general. We are programmed to “fix” things, and as Montessorians we want to help lessen angst and make the world a better place. But if we react to the wrong pressure, we might make the situation worse.  

While the observation of a school is very similar to classroom observation, there are additional points that you have access to. Do not restrict yourself to observing just the classrooms or reading the school’s current policies and procedures. Try and observe and immerse yourself into everything: carpool line, parent interactions, teacher interactions, research the school’s history, review their historical budgets, and read as many of the school’s original policies as possible.   Why did they change what they did? What have they left original? Who have been the driving forces?

All of these points will tell you something that may be important. To use policies, procedures, and protocols as an example, you might find that the governing board or past administrator recently changed its training, benefits, or pay scales. The school may have increased its student numbers or even added new technology the guides were not accustomed to.  

It is important to note that as this is a transition for you, it is also a transition for the students, parents, guides, board members, or authorizers. Because there are so many moving parts and stakeholders in a school, your initial observations will start to guide you to a solution. At first glance, you might think that the turnover was due to the previous administrator, but upon consideration, you may find that the former staff were not in alignment with the school’s policies, or even the school’s vision.

Observation of the system will allow you to navigate through your new environment much more comfortably. It will give insight into office politics, board dynamics, learn who the school’s primary stakeholders are (sometimes not always the people you think they are), and understand the school’s culture. I have found that if you truly take time to listen to community members, they will give you all the information that you need.    

As part of the observation process you want to receive information and can be done both through direct observations and observation of data trends. Indirect data trends can be collected through parent, staff, and student surveys. While we encourage our students to engage in open discussions and conflict management actively, parents or staff may not feel comfortable in speaking so openly. While they might not want to seek you out, hearing their views is still very important. Having an anonymous way to collect insights about the community is essential and can be done at almost no cost through one of the online survey companies.

A couple of other tips that will assist you in your new role:

  • Get to know your new community and engage them early on. Have open office hours, schedule community meetings, join the staff in their level, and committee meetings to see how they interact with their constituents. Not all parents can meet during the day, so be sure to have some meetings at night around their hours.
  • Be positive about the transition and avoid comparing the new to the old. You never know who is connected to who and what their role was in creating the school’s culture.
  • Model the behaviors you expect and make sure that your expectations are clear. This is truly one of the most difficult points. Even though everything may feel like it is a crisis or emergency, remaining serene. Addressing issues in a calm, cool, collective manner will assist in defusing almost all tense situations.
  • Be authentic. Do not try and “win” people over and always be yourself. While it might work in the short term, over time, special deals do not help you if you are trying to develop a sustainable, consistent staff and school. While people may disagree with your choices as a leader, if you are honest about your rationale and reasoning, they will most likely respect your decisions.
  • Get outside assistance. Whether in the form of a consultant, additional training, a cohort of colleagues, or a mentor it is always beneficial to get other peoples opinions based on their experiences.   

Lastly, while we all respect our guides and staff, and this can be uncomfortable, turnover might be a symptom of disagreement with the school’s interpretation of the Montessori philosophy, its long term plan, or its embedded culture. There are some things that you cannot change. A school’s internal culture and mission may not be a fit for all staff members. If you find this is the case, you need to ensure that it is known that the school’s mission and culture are not negotiable. Ultimately, as an administrator, that is your most significant responsibility: to protect your school’s culture, vision and to ensure its long term operation.

Austin Smigel is the Co-head of School/Director of Administration and Finance for Washington Montessori Public Charter School, the Managing Director of iFoundation, an education consultancy, and serves on the Board of Southeast Montessori Collective. He holds an MBA from Marymount University with a focus on Strategic Management and Finance as well as Secondary I- II Credential from The Center for Guided Montessori Studies (CGMS). He is also an instructor of Charter School Finance and Strategic Finance for the new CGMS School Leadership Credential Program.  

With over 20 years of experience in small businesses and school development and management, Austin’s focus is on sustainable organization operation. In the classroom, he teaches entrepreneurialism, economics, principles of business, and practical life to adolescents. In addition to his classroom work and administrative responsibilities, he is a champion of student-run business. Mr. Smigel has presented at numerous conferences for strategic management, school data analysis, as well as how to assist students, and guides, create sustainable businesses.  

Austin lives in Washington, NC with his wife Amy, a Montessori guide, and children who both attended Montessori schools (one recently graduated from a Montessori high school), three rescue dogs, two rescue cats and last, but not least one blind rescue bunny.

Are you a school leader interested in more resources and support? Check out the new CGMS School Leadership Program. We are now enrolling our first cohort! https://www.cgms.edu/programs/leadership-training-program/

CGMS Announces 2020 Summer Residential Dates and Locations

CGMS offers hybrid Montessori Teacher Certification courses that blend comprehensive online learning with short onsite residential seminars. Adult learners enrolled in our online cohorts can choose the location and dates for the residential sessions which are most convenient. The next online cohorts begin in March and June with residential sessions as listed below.

Residency Dates

Residential Sessions available to adult learners enrolled in CGMS certification courses.

  • Roscoe, Texas-June 1 to June 19, 2020 (Monday – Friday)
    Elementary II Standalone
    Note: This session is available to adult learners from any location who are school sponsored, i.e., the school pays the tuition costs to CGMS
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma-June 15 to July 3, 2020
    (Monday – Friday)
    Early Childhood
    Elementary Phase I-II Phase I/ EL I Standalone
    Note: This session is available to adult learners from any location who are school sponsored, i.e., the school pays the tuition costs to CGMS
  • Morrisville (Raleigh), North Carolina – June 15 to July 3, 2020 (Monday – Friday)
    Early Childhood
    Elementary I-II Phase I/ EL I Standalone
    Elementary II Standalone
    Elementary I-II Phase II June 22-July 3, 2020
    Secondary Phase I June 15 to June 30, 2020
    Secondary Phase II June 18 to June 30, 2020
  • Jakarta, Indonesia*- June 25- July 11, 2020 (Thursday – Saturday week one/Monday – Saturday remaining weeks)
    Elementary Phase I-II Phase I/ EL I Standalone
    Phase II will be offered at this location in the summer of 2021
  • Lakeland, Florida — July 7 -July 24, 2020 (Tuesday – Saturday week one/Monday – Friday remaining weeks)
    Early Childhood
    Elementary I-II Phase 1/ EL I Standalone
    Elementary II Standalone
    Elementary I-II Phase II July 13-July 24, 2020
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan -July 7 – July 24, 2020 (Tuesday – Saturday week one/Monday – Friday remaining weeks)
    Early Childhood
    Elementary I-II Phase 1/ EL I Standalone
    Elementary II Standalone
    Elementary I-II Phase II July 13-July 24, 2020
  • Saline, Michigan* – July 14-July 31, 2020 (Tuesday – Saturday week one/Monday – Friday remaining weeks):  Infant – Toddler
  • Wesley Chapel (Tampa), Florida — June 9 to June 26, 2020 (Tuesday – Saturday week one/Monday – Friday remaining weeks):  Infant/Toddler
  • Wesley Chapel (Tampa), Florida — July 7 to July 24, 2020 (Tuesday-Saturday week one/Monday – Friday remaining weeks):  Infant/Toddler
  • Raleigh, North Carolina* — July 7 to July 11, 2020 (Sessions held every day):  Leadership Program

*CGMS is an Applicant in Good Standing with MACTE for this additional site location.  Although we strive to meet and exceed MACTE standards, the Applicant in Good Standing status in no way determines the outcome of the accreditation decision.

Help! How can I address bullying that might be happening online among my students?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, I teach Upper Elementary and in my smallish group, I believe there may be some ‘behind the scenes’ bullying happening on social media.  I’m aware that all or most of these students have social accounts, and even though I’ve addressed this topic with them and their parents as a beginning of the year discussion, the way some students are responding to each other in class and certain cliques that seem to be forming has me wondering.  What can I do about this, especially with one particular student who I feel may be a bullying victim more than any of the others?

Dear E-II Teacher, your sensitive observation of the children identifies an unfortunately common problem.  We find bullying in classrooms, workplaces, domestic relationships, and, as you noted, on social media.  There is no simple solution for this complex problem. But there are things that we can do, beginning with understanding why bullying is so prevalent.  

Understanding Bullying.It is a basic human need to feel valued.  Seeking acceptance can be complicated. Some people secretly fear that they are not enough; they believe that in order to be valued they must build themselves up.  Unfortunately, some discover that if they can’t elevate themselves, pushing others down has the same effect. They target the fragile to provoke a response so that they can feel powerful.  Therein lies the irony. Bullying, with the outward appearance of power and dominance, is rooted in insecurity and fear.   

This is why consequences generally have little effect on bullies’ behavior.  Punishments reinforce bullies’ self-image of being not enough, making them more likely to bully again but this time more covertly, using body language or social media.  Their bullying becomes harder to detect.

The good news is that we can impact this problem using a 4-pronged approach, beginning with building an empathetic community.  

Teaching Empathy.  The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is not inborn.  Empathy is learned through experience. As guides, we provide these learning experiences when we:

  • use empathy in conflict resolution and problem solving.  Children naturally consider how a situation affects them personally but they can see problems from others’ perspectives when prompted.
  • give Grace and Courtesy lessons on how we impact others’ feelings.  For example, illustrate the lasting effect of hurtful words by aggressively crumpling a paper and then trying to flatten it back out afterwards.  Apologies do not remove the scars of hurtful words. For more on this demonstration, click here.   
  • incorporate empathy into literature discussions.  When we connect a character’s feelings to our own, we develop empathy for the character.

The more practice children have with putting themselves temporarily in others’ shoes, the stronger their empathy muscle becomes.  As that muscle strengthens, children can progress beyond merely understanding others feelings to taking responsibility for impacting them. 

Understanding Cause-and-Effect.  The Hierarchy of Human Interactions provides a powerful vocabulary for discussing our daily treatment of one another.

 The Hierarchy of Human Interactions

  • Gallantry – acting without thought of oneself – the good of the other matters most
  • Chivalry – considering the cost but doing it anyway
  • Courteousness – going out of the way to be nice but with no cost to oneself
  • Politeness – automatic niceness, no thought included
  • Civility – neither positive nor negative
  • Toleration – putting up with someone just to get through the situation
  • Shunning – excluding
  • Rudeness  – offensively impolite or unkind
  • Abuse – purposefully, repeatedly hurtful

These interactions are defined by intent.  Civility has a neutral intent.  Interactions above civility on the hierarchy have positive intent – what we want for all of our interactions.  Bullying, interactions that fall below civility, have negative intent. We want children to understand 3 things about bottom-half interactions:

  • The goal is to elevate oneself the only way they know how.
  • Bullying makes the bully feel powerful temporarily.  
  • After the “high” wears off, the bully feels worse than before; they will bully again.

Hierarchy vocabulary can be used in conflict resolution discussions. “I intended to be polite, but I hear that you felt excluded.”  It can also be used to teach children to elevate themselves and others through positive interactions, which helps short-circuit the bullying cycle.

For more ideas about implementing The Hierarchy of Human Interactions in the classroom, see here.  

The Anti-Venom.  Even if we eliminate bullying in our classrooms, we cannot eradicate it in life.  Do you know anyone who has never been bullied?  Arming children with effective ways to respond means that, while they may be a target, they need not be a victim!  

When bullied, our inclination is to choose between out-bullying the bully and slinking away. Both responses feed the bully!  More effective responses end the event quickly without giving the bully power. Consider these potential responses to verbal or on-line bullying:

  • “You are so stupid.”  🡪 “You are so tall.”  OR “We all have a role to play!”  
  • “Everyone is invited but you.” 🡪 “Finally! Some me-time!”
  • “You are un-cool.”  🡪 “So was Einstein!” OR  “You know, you might be right!”
  •  “You have no friends.”  🡪  “Funny… I don’t feel that way.”

When a target delivers a message like this in a positive tone of voice and then walks away, the bully doesn’t feel power over the target; bullying is less likely to reoccur.  For more on non-complementary behavior, see https://qz.com/736618/researchers-have-found-that-one-of-the-most-powerful-tools-to-diffuse-hate-is-also-the-hardest-to-master-genuine-empathy/ 

Safe Reporting.  Whether bullying is prevalent in the classroom or not, it is important that children have a safe place to report negative interactions.  Children need to know that it is ok to need help to solve a problem, and that adults who love children want to keep them safe. Activities outlined above open the door for children to report being targeted.  Journaling gives children a more private means of alerting caring adults of the need for help, especially with prompts asking about “butterflies and boulders” in their lives or relationships.

Parents can also provide a safe haven.  To be effective, they need to know that it is normal for elementary-age children to experiment with social norms.  A child who seems fine at home may be experimenting with negative interactions in sports or may be the target of bullying on-line; monitoring children’s social relationships (including texts and social media accounts) is important.   

When we help children understand the goals of bullying, give them tools to defend themselves and others, and give them ways to ask for help when needed, we build skills that they will use for a lifetime.  

“Peace is what every human being is craving for, and it can be brought about by humanity through the child.” –Dr. Maria Montessori

Betsy Lockhart has been a Montessori educator for 24 years.  She is certified 6-12 and is an elementary instructor at Montessori Education Center of the Rockies in Boulder, CO.  She is a frequent contributor at national and regional Montessori conferences and at Montessori schools. Follow her weekly blogs at www.lockhart-learning.com.

Montessori Community Grieves the Passing of NCMPS Leader

The CGMS Leadership Team has been saddened to learn of the passing of Jackie Cossentino on Sunday, December 14, 2019 after an eleven-month battel with colon cancer. Jackie was a dedicated Montessori leader.  She founded the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) with her husband Keith in 2012 to provide resources and support to Montessori public schools. She was passionate about making Montessori education accessible to all children. Her work has been inspirational and has truly made a great impact. Jackie’s legacy will continue in the work of NCMPS and with all of us whom she inspired over the years.  The Center for Guided Montessori sends our most heartfelt condolences to all Jackie’s family, friends and colleagues at NCMPS. We have such appreciation for the contributions Jackie has made and pledge to continue to support her vision for high quality Montessori public education. A donation site has been set up to honor Jackie Cossentino  and support her legacy  with a contribution to NCMPS, https://www.public-montessori.org/support-public-montessori/

CGMS School Leadership Course – Now Enrolling!

The new year will bring new learning opportunities for the adult learners in the CGMS first Montessori School Leadership Certification course. The first cohort starts January 27, 2020. The course will include 16 months of online work, a one-week residential session, and a 9-month leadership practicum. The course development has been a collaborative process between CGMS and The Montessori Foundation. Martha Carver, experienced Montessori educator and school leader and former CGMS Early Childhood instructor, will serve as the Instructional Guide for the first cohort. Martha will also serve as Co-Director of the Leadership program with Kathy Leitch and Tim Seldin.  We are also excited to have an amazing group of video instructors presenting such topics as Leadership from a Montessori Perspective, Faculty and Human Resources, School Leadership and Governing Bodies, Educational Programs and Survey of Montessori Education, Marketing, Building Enrollment, and Developing Healthy School Communities, and more. The program will be interactive and engaging, providing opportunities to connect and learn with other Montessori school leaders. 

There is limited space available and a discount for enrollment in this first cohort. For more information, contact info@cgms.edu and visit our website, https://www.cgms.edu/programs/leadership-training-program/