Over twenty years ago, I fulfilled a dream by embarking on a personally and professionally transformative journey over the course of an intensive year gaining my Montessori 3-6 credential. The American Montessori Society training center I attended is known for its academic rigor, its focus on Montessori philosophy, and for the support provided to new guides in the field. What I’ve realized is that there aren’t enough hours in any given training, however stellar, to fully prepare guides to support their support staff.
Recognizing the Missing Ingredient of Cultivating Support Staff
Upon graduation, I felt well-equipped to observe my students, to identity what material to introduce to them next, and how to deliver a high-fidelity Montessori lesson. As a self-directed intern mentored by an appointed Field Consultant, my colleagues, and of course, by the writings of Dr. Montessori, I began to understand that my training was like baking a cake. The philosophical principles are like a recipe, the materials and environment are the ingredients, and practices such as observation, classroom management, and giving lessons were like measuring, and mixing them together for the particular flavor of the child and culture.
What I didn’t understand at the time was how it would take at least three years to bake the cake before I became a full-cooked guide!
One of the vital ingredients that I now know was missing from my training, and alas, is missing from everyone’s training by every affiliation, is how to cultivate a healthy and effective working relationship with support staff. You see, unless you are teaching in a small one room school and you are the teacher, administrator, janitor, lunch lady, playground patrol, even your own substitute, you likely depend on one or more additional adults to support the smooth running of your classroom. I know of few of these “Wonder Montessorians” and frankly, am in awe.
Most Montessori Guides are gifted when it comes to interacting with children, yet may flounder when it comes to creating an effective, natural work relationship with an adult. I fell somewhere between these extremes, and in my first years of teaching, I learned a lot about creating the conditions for a successful partnership with my support staff. I had an advantage in that my first experience in Montessori was as an assistant to an exceptional Montessori Guide and a school leader who nurtured me to be my best. I had role models to emulate.
Three Conditions to Successfully Support Staff
Fast forward twenty plus years, and my reflections on these conditions for successfully supporting an assistant have synthesized into three primary focus areas:
- Nurturing their Spirit
(Each of these can be further broken down into numerous subheading covered more fully in my workshop “Supporting Classroom Assistants”)
I’ll tackle both the principle behind each of these focus areas and two practices for each to help jumpstart your support of your support staff!
Communication is a Key to Support
Communication is a key value in insuring your a healthy relationship with your assistant (or your before- or after-school staff, substitutes, volunteers, enrichment specialists, office staff that step in occasionally). Additionally, in order for support staff to understand their role within the unique setting of a Montessori environment, communication methods and expectations must be systematically practiced. Here are two ideas to promote communication with your support staff:
- Create and habitually use a Team Communication Journal. This journal is a place for support staff to write questions without interrupting lessons, for lead guides to propose philosophy-based guidance for a child, a place for all classroom team members to jot down a meeting agenda item, and a great place to share written appreciation for one another.
- Schedule a regular check-in meetings no less than weekly that includes a specific appreciation of the support staff’s practice, growth, or innate gifts. This check-in ought to be connective, rather than solution-driven to establish trust and convey the significance of their position to the smooth running of the class.
Nurture Your Support Staff’s Spirit
The second focus of support I have found to be essential to effective teams is an intentional focus on nurturing their spirit. The benefits of paying attention to individual and collective spirits are profound. Support staff that are energized by their work and motivated by the purpose of what they do, tend to stay in their positions longer and are happier in their roles. Here are two ideas to assist in nurturing the spirit of support staff:
- Model and expect common courtesies such as morning greetings, holding the door for another, offering a cup of tea, and writing the occasional note of appreciation – however gratitude is expressed in your greater culture. These kind actions go a long way in emphasizing the significant impact support staff have in our environments and make it a positive place to thrive. Take the extra step and advocate when needed on your assistant’s behalf when it comes making their job more manageable. Although you may not be able to actualize the necessary support, knowing you’re an ally begets trust and loyalty.
- Create a daily habit to bring a moment of mindful attention to your day whether it be reading a quote every morning (try The Tao of Montessori by Catherine McTamaney or a quote from Dr. Montessori’s 1946 London Lectures), or doing a daily breathing exercise together, or making space every afternoon to share a highlight of the day.
Build Professionalism with Support Staff
The third focus of support is modeling, communicating, and expecting professionalism of your support staff. While employee code of conduct varies from culture to culture, Montessori support staff are visible representatives of their school and the Montessori methodology, and as such, providing clear expectations of their role and how performance is measured and communicated is imperative. Here are two ideas to assist in cultivating professionalism:
- Discuss a path for your assistant’s professional development. Most support staff are trained for their roles on the job which often foregoes building a foundation of principles and necessary skills for a successful performance. Work together to identify current challenges and build a plan from there. Advocate with your teammate for funding and resources for quality, effective workshops, webinars, materials, books, and training to ultimately improve classroom performance.
- Dedicate time to discuss how each of you wants to be perceived by each other, your colleagues, school administration, and parents. Then, identify and put into action the behaviors that support the desired impression. An example may be that your assistant wants to be perceived as punctual as it is valued in your school and greater culture. The behaviors might be to set their (home) clocks ahead by 10 minutes, wear a watch, and to audit each of the school transitions for timeliness. Role play expected interactions between parents and support staff to provide practice and alignment with the school’s mission and rules. Collaborate on building a “Do’s and Don’ts” List for each interaction.
My focus areas and subsequent ideas to practice are by no means comprehensive, yet creating a balanced effort to support your support staff can be challenging.
Start with these six ideas to get you started and I promise you, you will see the outcome of your efforts in a smoother work relationship and effective team in your Montessori environment.
-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