Friday, March 10, 2017

Hiring, Sustaining, and Letting Go: Staffing Teachers for Montessori Schools

The following is a reflection on a workshop given at the American Montessori Society conference "Montessori Beyond Borders" in San Diego, California, March 2017. The title was "The Employee Life Cycle in Schools: HR Practices in Thriving Schools" by consultant Ms. RB Fast. The following will be most applicable to Montessori environments but can apply broadly to heads of school in similar school environments with a specialized pedagogy. 

When staffing a school, it is rarely on a competency basis that an educator is a poor fit for a school. More often, it is the draw of specific language matching the school culture with the individual. Therefore, recruitment and interviewing skills will be key in drawing just the right match for the school. Onboarding, support, and appropriate dissolution form an important part of the staff life cycle. 

The greatest recruitment resource groups:
  • from NCMPS
  • State Montessori Associations
  • Teacher training centers and Montessori organization:
  • AMI-USA website and local training programs near you
  • AMS website and local training programs near you
  • where schools and individual teachers match together on the site (in development)  

When interviewing, questions need to be tightly aligned to the skills. Questions should be:
  • Tied to desired skills and characteristics
  • Based on past behavior
  • Not hypothetical or vague 
  • Require specific information
Examples of interview questions to avoid:
  • What led you to Montessori
  • Why do you want to work in a Montessori school?
  • How do you follow the child?
  • What do you do when someone gossips? (hypothetical)

Purposeful Interview Questions:
They should be based on looking for a characteristic that you want for a job. Look for specific instances where this person displayed that characteristic. 
  • Tell us about a time when you saw adult behaviors in your school that were not aligned with your understanding of Montessori philosophy. What did you do?
  • Describe for us how you handled a situation in which a parent was upset with you How did the situation resolve?
  • Explain what you have done in the past when a staff member behaved in ways that you found to be inappropriate or against protocol. How did you handle the situation?
  • Tell us about a time when you deeply disagreed with a decision in leadership in your school. What were the circumstances? How did you respond?


Slow down the onboarding process to make the first 90 days supportive and informative. Thoughtful onboarding of new staff members is crucial to their success in the school. What happens after you decide that you are going to hire a new person?
Example, in Dallas ISD, there is a required "new teacher academy" that may or may not be helpful. They will attend staff development before school starts with the other campus staff, which will be more targeted to our type of campus. There are still more specific needs for this new employee.

These are more helpful practices:
  • Give an in-depth tour that includes things like bathrooms, cleaning supplies, and any other logistical information they need to function successfully in the building. This impacts the employee's idea of their own effectiveness
  • Observe for 20-30 minutes at every age level of the school
  • Review the new employee paperwork packet with a member of the office staff. They need to be able to ask questions right there. 
  • Show them the exact evaluation tool and know when to expect evaluation. 
  • Read through the employee handbook and ask questions before signing an agreement
  • Allowing them to meet other staff members in the classroom without children 
  • Review current roles, responsibilities, and daily schedules
  • Review general behavioral expectations and guidance strategies used in the classroom
  • Shadow another staff member working their shift in the classroom so that they can learn on the job and get a feel for their work
  • Formally introduce new staff members to the children
  • Email the staff and parents with a photo and a celebratory welcome of the person that includes a short bio of them
  • If possible, have some sort of event or opportunity for parents to engage with the new staff member and get to know them while they aren't charged with caring directly for children 

Are there gaps in your onboarding process?
  • Paperwork that doesn't get turned in
  • Time for training and observation
  • Frustration frequently expressed by staff 

E.g., It is common in my school for teachers to miss turning in attendance on time. This is typically just a teacher "habit" that has to start early on the campus. Helping new teachers get into the routine will get them off on the right foot. 


The ultimate job of a leader is support for the other work going on. This is where the big work happens. Teachers and staff members at every level need ongoing feedback. Gently mention, in passing, when something is not compliant with regulations and compliance. Feedback should not always be alone in a meeting in an office. Give feedback in the moment along the way, and it will build trust.
How do we balance being likable leaders while still holding people accountable for doing a good job?
TRANSPARENCY AND CONTEXT-- Your staff needs to know where you are, what you are doing, and why you are making certain decisions.
  • The more you share with them, the more they will trust you
  • Suggestion: Put a whiteboard on the office door to explain where you are or what you're doing if you aren't available. Staff need to know that when you're not available, it is because you're working on behalf of them. It might say, Parent meeting, student meeting, if it is sensitive. 
  • When you have to make an unpopular decision, explain the context for why the decision came along that way. Share the broad picture of the licensing, the budget, or the regulation—and include the context of what informed the choice. Give as much context as you can, legally, when it is employee-based. If there is a much bigger, stickier story, contact the school attorneys for advice. 
  • How do you make sure that supporting employees is a regular part of your leadership practice? Put it on your calendar as a regular part of your leadership practice. 
  • E.g., if you are going to be observing Tuesdays and Thursdays, or you would once a month have lunch with them, let staff get used to your presence. Not to coach or evaluate, but to have awareness for the issue myself. Volunteer for a playground shift to see the personalities and challenges staff see. 

For new staff members:
  • Go physically to check on staff members a couple of times in the first few weeks
  • Put check-ins into your calendar if necessary
  • Send a couple of welcome emails
  • Have a system for following up on paperwork for their file
  • Assign accountability for someone in the office for this to someone in the office—Delegate!
  • For the whole staff:
  • Reviews 90 days after hire and annually after that
  • Hold inspiring, challenging professional development
  • Schedule Large-group workshops
  • Send staff to conferences
  • Approach certain staff about workshops you want to send them to for a specific reason—honoring the goals of the staff
  • Regular time off built into the calendar as paid time off 
  • Celebrate them personally and professionally 
  • Hold staff gatherings
  • Give appreciation gifts
  • Celebrate major milestones like birthdays, work anniversaries, marriages, graduations, babies
  • Hold space for grieving employees
  • Ensure 1:1 meetings and support happen regularly for everyone
  • Assistants meet with leads; Leads meet with admin
  • Treat lead teachers as leaders in the educational community 
  • Meet regularly as a group
  • Ask for their input on strategy and major decisions
  • Encourage an open dialogue in which they give you feedback as a leader
  • Communicate weekly with staff via an email update 
E.g., A strength of our campus at Eduardo Mata Elementary, a public Montessori campus, are meeting regularly as grade level teams with admin present. We also have a good open dialogue with the administration. We are used to visits from admin and see admin in a coaching role, and we communicate weekly if not more frequently. An area for potential growth might be more opportunities for 1:1 meetings.

Dissolving staff relationships

Termination of employment should not be a surprise. We keep clear, unbiased documentation of employee behavior in the file. We must follow all employee discipline protocols exactly. We document conversations, verbal warnings, written warnings, performance plans, and time clock activity carefully. Admin will not lose employment claims with proper documentation. Consistency is key; the protocol must be the same for positive employees and challenging employees. 

Develop a checklist of everything that needs to happen when an employee relationship is dissolved. 
What paperwork needs to be filed or changed?

When someone quits:
  • Request resignation in writing
  • Make a plan for telling the children and families and having a proper goodbye in the classroom
  • Celebrate them as much as possible
  • Notify the staff in a way that feels appropriate but make it a protocol to notify the staff of a resignation in the exact same way every time. Do not make it a big deal for some people and not for others. 
  • Transition their employee file from active to inactive. 
  • Use a checklist to ensure you have taken care of all loose ends
  • When you have to fire someone:
  • Have a direct conversation with an appropriate witness. Do not beat around the bush, but very clearly state what is happening as soon as they enter the room and are seated-- E.g., "I brought you in today because I am firing you for being repeatedly late for your shift."
  • Let the employee feel as empowered as possible in this situation. Be willing to talk about the situation a bit more and give more context, and be willing to drop it right there and move forward with the following steps
  • If at all possible, call your lawyer ahead of time to discuss the situation if there is anything that might make it "sticky"
  • If you are in a very small school and do not have a witness on campus, you can invite a board president, a lead teacher of an assistant, or a consultant. 

  • Disable school email address and access to school networks and accounts
  • Have their final check ready to go in 24 hours, or according to schedule
  • Ask if they have personal belongings in the school and walk with them to collect them
  • Escort them out of the building
  • Notify parents immediately and make a plan for how the children will be told
  • Make room in your calendar to meet with parents who have concerns
  • Notify the staff in a way that feels appropriate

More resources
Finding and keeping great teachers, consultancy and downloads, 
Whole-School Montessori Handbook NAMTA
National Council for Montessori in the Public Sector 


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