Montessori schools attract staff that are committed to respectful interactions with children, and yet sometimes, those same skills fail to translate into effective communication between adults. As guides, we must establish a positive work climate by learning to reach parents and work well with colleagues, a skill set often absent in our formal training.
What We Can Learn from Positive Discipline
School staff climates are mercurial and depend on several conditions to become healthy and effective. Communication is one factor entirely within our control that can amplify or mute the health of this climate.
Many staff would be well served to apply positive discipline principles to their communication with their colleagues and parents. Based on Dr. Jane Nelsen‘s seminal work on positive discipline intended for adults optimizing their interactions with children, these principles are foundational when applied to adults interacting with each other.
The first criteria for positive discipline is based on the idea that humans have a fundamental need to feel significant and that they belong. One strategy that staff could use that channels this principle is to remember to engage, to connect with another staff member or parent before making a request or engaging in a high stakes conversation. This might take the form of asking a parent about their recent vacation before jumping into your discussion, or reflecting on the recent fun you had with a colleague at the staff retreat before opening the door for feedback.
What Does Positive Leadership Look Like?
This principle comes into play in cultivating the overall adult climate, often established and nurtured by a school leader. I recently reread an article, “The Longest Runway” in the American Montessori Society’s professional publication Montessori Life by Dane L. Peters (FALL 2015 VOL.27 NO.3 ) about his approach to adult relationships, and I think his easy mnemonic is in alignment with effective school leadership and resonates with my experiences. He uses an easy “3 H’s” approach of being Helpful, Humble, and Humor” deepens relationships and nurtures that sense of belonging and significance. Adopting these 3 H’s have become the foundation that lead my actions as a school leader.
Being helpful, humble, and humorous engenders trust, loyalty, and professional growth when wielded with kind and firm guidance, another criteria for positive discipline. Healthy adult environments exemplify the “kind yet firm” strategy when upholding school policies with empathy and compassion.
When collegial disagreements arise, or more typically when situations are left unaddressed, applying this firm yet kind principle provides “rules of engagement” whereby colleagues are able to be direct in creating boundaries and delivering limits so they can be heard by the other party.
Making Positive Connections Stick
Another principle Dr. Nelson identifies as fundamental to positive discipline with children and I believe is essential to cultivating a healthy staff culture, is that our communication must have a long-lasting effect. Just like our work with students, it is not enough to gain immediate compliance to a request. Healthy and effective relationships include a component of growth on a trajectory, not a Groundhog’s Day movie of repeated disrespect.
One strategy that enhances this principle is to provide plenty of context for a request that gives full transparency to the “big picture”. For instance, when guides have an understanding of how many students are needed in each classroom to pay salaries, they are more likely to be more flexible in adding that student at an inopportune time. The outcome is a greater investment in the school and that amazing motivator of feeling like a contributor. For parents, focusing on the outcomes, the qualities they want to nurture in their children assists them in looking long-term.
Yet another criteria for positive discipline I see as fundamental to healthy adult work relationships is that it provides valuable social and life skills. Current research indicates greater social networks lengthen humans lifespans, and you can surmise that greater facility communicating and connecting with peers has a long lasting effect. One strategy leaders can take is to connect frequently with staff members, to insure every colleague has someone they lean into when needed. As a school leader, I spent a lot of time listening, giving hugs, and encouraging staff and parent to find their best selves.
Positive Outcomes for Positive Communication
This leads me to the last criteria, that the communication must assist the recipient in feeling capable. With parents and staff, this often comes in the form of encouragement. To know you have someone on your side cheering you on can be a powerful motivator to pluck up your courage and move forward however hard. Authentic confidence in oneself lends to healthier relationships.
-by Tammy Oesting
Tammy Oesting has spent the last 25 years delivering professional development workshops, consulting schools, and educating new Montessori teachers. Her passions include issues of social justice, educating support staff, art education, neuroscience as applied to educational practices, and exploring the magnificence of the world. She is location independent and serves Montessori globally through her company ClassrooMechanics. AMS certified 3-6, 6-12