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.
School staff climates can be mercurial and depend on several conditions to become healthy and effective, of which communication is at the top of the list! Yet many Montessori schools expect a certain level of social and emotional intelligence from their staff without taking a hard look at the skill sets and temperaments of said staff. The following “Dos and Don’ts” of Staff Communication can help establish healthy habits for your school community!
The First “Do” of Staff Communication
Many adults would be well served to apply positive discipline principles to their communication with their colleagues. Based on Dr. Jane Nelsen’s seminal work on positive discipline intended for adults learning to optimize their interactions with children, these principles are also foundational when applied to adults interacting with each other.
The first principle is based on the idea that we all want the same things: to feel significant and that we belong. This principle comes into play in the overall staff climate often established and nurtured by a school leader (which may or may not be the principal or school head).
One strategy staff could use that promotes this principle is to remember to engage, or connect with another staff member before making a request or engaging in a higher stakes conversation. It’s amazing how far a daily “Good morning,” between staff members can set the stage for an effective conversation. Within teaching teams, it’s imperative that adults take some time to get to know each other. When you have a better understanding of another’s temperament, their struggles and their gifts, what makes their heart sing, and essentially, who they are, the strength of the relationship is conveyed to the students and their communication has a better chance of being heard.
This principle is also helpful for school leaders as it can translate into the practice of being kind, yet firm. Leaders are better able to acquire compliance with school policies when they engage their staff with empathy and compassion.
The First “Don’t” of Staff Communication
Have you ever heard the idiom, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they’ve heard”? Keep this in mind, as the first “don’t” of staff communication is when you make the assumption that what you’ve communicated is exactly what the recipient has heard! You may have communicated an important message to a colleague and delivered it directly to them, yet this doesn’t translate always into the message being received as you intended, nor the message exactly what you meant?!
To turn this “Don’t” into a “Do”, try an active listening technique of asking for the recipient to say back what they heard. Here’s a non-confrontational form of the request: “I just threw a lot at you at once, would you mind sharing with me what you heard?” or an even more humble inquiry: “I have so much on my mind right now, I’m not even sure what I’ve talked to you about and what I haven’t! Do you mind going back over what we discussed so I can be sure I captured it all?”
Another “Do” for Staff Communication
As Montessori guides and support staff and administrators, we have really busy lives and sometimes important communications slip through the cracks of the business at hand. Establishing strong communication channels is a “Do” for all staff!
It’s really important that staff know who to talk to for what, and when! Here’s a real life example from my own days in the classroom before I understood this “Do”: I had been nurturing my professional relationship with a parent of a student in my class that was struggling with allowing her young son to engage in any risk-based play. As it was her son’s first school experience, I was determined to assist her in trusting her son in making independent choices, and trusting us, his caregivers, in creating an emotionally and physically safe place for him to grow. The school year began with lots and lots of reassurance from me to her via email, several face-to-face meetings during my office hours, during morning drop off, and a weekly phone call campaign I had established with all my new and needier families. Her frequent questioning diminished and I thought I had accomplished my goal with this family, and yet . . .
Several months into the school year when I had to stay late for an event, I saw this same mother being let onto our “staff and students only” playground by my colleague, and then observed the mother reprimand several children and lead her son away from climbing up the slide, his favorite playground activity and a skill he’d recently mastered. After their departure, I asked my colleague what that was all about and learned the mother had insisted during the first week of school to be let onto the playground, and I had witnessed a typical pick-up routine.
After collaborating on a solution for how we would support this family in a pick-up routine that fell within our school guidelines and mission for student autonomy, we agreed on creating a communication channel and system that would work for us to communicate in a timely manner what was going on with our students and their families when I wasn’t there. My colleague did not have the whole picture as it hadn’t been shared with her, and I didn’t know what was going on during after care because there wasn’t a system for sharing important information.
Yet Another “Don’t” for Staff Communication
Not all content should be communicated with the same frequency or urgency between staff. “Don’t” assume one person’s “emergency” is another’s “emergency”. Stephen Covey of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” fame popularized a time management matrix. I’ve been using this matrix when coaching teams to identify what is important and what is urgent to communicate and why. I had my own reason to utilize this matrix when I noticed my lessons with my students were being interrupted by well-meaning adults for events that weren’t urgent.
This is another of those “Don’ts” that can be flipped into a “Do” with a simple yet effective communication strategy. Colleagues are encouraged to make a list of scenarios in which they need to communicate events or thoughts to each other. These line items are then discussed as to their urgency and importance and then given a communication channel to follow so that all parties know when and how to share!
One Last “Do” for Staff Communication
As a teacher educator committed to building effective teaching teams through training every adult that comes into the Montessori environment, I hear stories of support staff that don’t feel appreciated and lead staff that are frustrated by what they perceive as incompetence by their support staff. This isn’t always the case, yet this conundrum is played out in Montessori environments all too often.
Going back to that first principle of positive discipline, that we all want to feel significant and belong, it’s really important for colleagues to connect regularly. Daily check-ins don’t need to be formal, just frequent! At a minimum, I’d suggest a dedicated half hour a week for teams to connect, facilitated by a private team journal noted throughout the week.
Another part of this frequent communication is for staff members to focus in on what is working in their teamwork or with a mentee or support staff and to give really specific affirmations of what they noticed in their work.
Effective staff communication leads to smoother systems, stronger relationships, and optimizes classroom performances. It isn’t rocket science, yet it does need to be modeled and expected by school leaders.
What communication skills are you “Doing” or planning on “Doing” in your community?
-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