As an adult immersed in a culture where I couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know how to eat the food, and being reliant on others to take care of most all of my daily needs, I felt like an infant, needing the care and compassion of others to meet my needs.
The past two months as Interim Principal launching a bilingual Montessori school in Vietnam brought with it new insights into myself, and a new perspective of what new staff members might be experiencing when entering a new school environment, even when they already speak the same language and know how to eat the food! I’m not going to regale you with the details like a travelogue, or exhaust you with the multitude of challenges that induced inner transformation; instead, I’d like to share a few of the gifts I gained that are applicable to other educators in their daily lives.
My experience acclimating to Vietnam reveals identifiable points of growth acquired like an infant does in their first year of life, and is an analogy for acclimating adults new to their roles in Montessori schools around the world.
Visualizing the Potential of an Infant School
The excitement of being part of something bigger than myself was a primary driver for me to accept the task of supporting a community of young, passionate families in opening a Montessori school in the vibrant city of DaNang in Vietnam. I had only one clear job description upon my arrival: to inspire the community of freshly trained teaching staff by bringing my passion for Montessori to a community unfamiliar with the genius of the method. The vision of the school becoming a laboratory for the first Montessori training center in central Vietnam meant the work I was contributing would have long-lasting fingers into the future of the country by establishing optimal education for this generation of children.
This nascent vision of a school is like seeing the untapped potential of an infant.
As a school leader and colleague to those around me, I knew that highlighting this vision of the potential of the school is imperative to on-boarding new staff. Even though the translation was sometimes fuzzy, infusing each interaction with new staff members with the potential of the school’s vision created a climate of how each of us is a contributor to the betterment of something much bigger than any of us could imagine alone. This vision continues to be a unifying, singular driver long after my departure, much like a parent’s ability to know and trust the potential of their infant lasts throughout their child’s development.
I was reminded of my “infancy” at every mealtime in Vietnam. Living with a Vietnamese family (whom I came to respect, admire, and love) meant that I shared every meal with them. The Vietnamese cuisine is rich with new experiences both with the actual food sources and the customs of how to eat the food. For instance, my family taught me how to avoid getting the seeds of the squeezed lime in my breakfast soup (squeeze into your spoon first, then gently pour the juice against the side of your bowl), or manage the slices of gelatinous jellyfish (picking up the middle of the slice with your chopsticks then dipping into the accompanying sauce), or how to eat the hot steamed snails that preceded multi-coursed seafood meals (using a toothpick to spear the exposed snail and pull until it broke free).
Modeling Customs Provides an Infant Independence
Coaching in eating etiquette became an analogy for remembering that we don’t know what we don’t know until we’ve been shown. Much like how an infant absorbs how to become independent by absorbing what is around them.
Creating a school culture with adults that have never been in a Montessori school culture before is humbling and requires a huge amount of patience and reflection. At times, I found myself wondering why the need for communicating something wasn’t being prioritized when I so clearly recognized its importance. Then I’d take a breath and pause, question my own assumptions about the situation, and realize that we don’t know what we don’t know until we’ve been shown or experience it for ourselves.
This empathetic perspective helped me create fundamental pathways for communicating and allowing the learning to take place in an authentic, safe atmosphere. I’m not saying I didn’t get impatient. I had my moments. And then I’d move on, channeling my inner teflon and tapping into my neonate mindset that enabled a creative approach to resolving the problem. The channels of communication aren’t yet fully online, though I trust that as colleagues learn from trial and error and strong coaching by the current compassionate leader, they will continue to grow and develop.
Maturing from Infant to Toddler Leadership
In the last days of my role as Interim Principal, I had the distinct pleasure of welcoming the new Principal onboard. As we enjoyed our first meals together, I found myself coaching my new colleague in some of the customs I had learned about eating in Vietnam. In response to this progression, my host family giggled that I had matured from being an “infant” to a “toddler” in acclimating to Vietnamese life. I was tickled to be recognized as a toddler (the guide), and overwhelmed with gratitude for everything they had taught me about daily life.
Recognizing my growth both as a leader and within a new culture is analogous to the appreciation school leaders and colleagues apply to newbie staff. When staff employ what they’ve learned and show their independence effective leaders acknowledge their appreciation of a job well done.
Those last days at the International Montessori School of DaNang were filled with sweet sadness at leaving such an amazing community, authentic pride in how far each of the staff had come in their acclimation to a healthy Montessori School environment, and a deep appreciation of how these adults have developed on the path to free their potential.
The initial lessons I learned absorbing a new culture have tremendous potential for school leaders and colleagues to assist new staff in acclimating to their school. Infusing the school vision to inspire and create a cultural compass, tempering expectations and showing each step of the role, and showing appreciation for the application of new skills all provide for the successful on-boarding of new staff.
Tammy Oesting has spent the last 26 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