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A little over a year ago I took over as the Director of the small, private school I taught at for six years and attended as a small child.  Need it be said that I was thrilled?  My staff taught by my side for several years and brainstormed with me for nearly a year.  I had a vision and I was eager to dive in head first towards transforming the small school into a new place! I was ready to be an Administrator.

Basic things required attention and change.  Technology needs to be incorporated throughout the school.  My teachers need to have their Montessori credentials.  Our food should be fresh and healthier.  Auto-draft tuition payments would make my life and parents life easier.  A typical Montessori work cycle is three hours, which leads to changes in the daily schedule.  The daily costs and cost of living is constantly rising, therefore tuition prices need to change to help the financial stability of the school.   While these ideas are easy to implement, I missed a major component to taking over a school.

Operating a private school is about more than having sound policies and creating a “more Montessori environment,” a large fact that I completely missed in the beginning.  It did not occur to me in the first few months that I was more than just a boss.  I believed in and trusted the staff I taught beside and felt that being hands-off was the best way to handle my teachers.  For months I wrote and revised handbooks, policies, and procedures for both parents and staff.  Confident that things would run smoothly under the new policies  meticulously outlined in the new books, I led my first staff meeting the weekend before my new position officially started.  I prepared my staff for the changes that awaited them and made sure that expectations were clear.  All should be perfect, right?

Things were perfect for the first few months!  Our summer program was a major success.  We successfully entertained and captivated children ranging from 36 months to 8 years in a one room school.  Parents and students arrived happy and left happy.  My staff were engaged with the kids and programming.  My hopes for the school year rose with each new day and Facebook like.  Week after week we received positive feedback.

The school year got off to a fantastic start!  The high of the summer carried over into the school year as we transitioned into the Montessori curriculum.  Quickly I lost my steam and drive as I longed for my days of teaching.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved my new position, but I missed being in the classroom teaching and tried to navigate building relationships with the students again.  At first, I spent as much time as I could out in the classroom observing students and teachers.  Joy and pride filled me as our students transitioned and became accustomed to the new routines and rhythm of our academic year.  This administrator had no complaints.

The weeks continued to go by.  The relationship between my staff and I grew strained.  I fixated on the little things and failed to see the big picture.  My job was more than just being a boss.  I lacked the crucial component of coaching my teachers.  The harder I pushed my teachers, the harder they pushed back.  Teachers started coming in late, refusing to update their parent portals, and ignoring me when I asked them to do things.

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As my authority was tested, I cracked down harder.  For the first time in 30 years, write-ups happened, teachers were pulled into the office for conferences, and progress took a giant leap backwards. Thankfully, the kids continued to learn from the Montessori materials despite the war amongst the staff.  The first teacher quit just after Halloween.  Parents did not understand what caused this loved teacher to leave.  I was not at liberty to discuss the details of what happened.  This is okay, I thought, I know how to fix the situation.  I pulled a well loved teacher from the year before out of retirement!  I brought back a strong teacher that can help me continue towards my vision of a new school environment.  Things leveled out for a brief time, yet I still lacked the coaching ability that my staff were yearning for.  I could not shake the enforcement of policies for the sake of building up my teachers.

All the while, students continue learning despite the rising tensions amongst staff.  The work environment was turning toxic and I had no clue how to fix it.  It was emotionally draining.  Feelings of loneliness grew as I lost those I called friend just the year before.  By March, I fired my first employee.  For me, this was my breaking point.  Something had to change.  The loss of this teacher created even more backlash from parents.   My leadership was questioned by many.  The fix; bring back a former teacher with her Masters of Arts and Teaching.  The parents needed to see that the replacement was better trained and better equipped to be in the classroom.

Shortly after I fired the teacher, I went to a professional development conference and gained what became the most crucial tool in my administrators toolbox, a mentor.  I finally had someone that I could talk to that knows that I am going through and knows how to help.  My mentor and I talked for several hours over a few weeks.  Yet, I didn’t realize she was coaching me like I should have been coaching my staff.  As I brought up problems I faced, she would guide me towards solutions rather than tell me how to fix it.  I grew as a director as I wrestled with multiple options to a problem.  She presented me with an opportunity to attended a class in coaching.  This three day intensive class focuses around finding the one small thing that a teacher is doing right and constructing powerful feedback that is intentional and builds teachers up towards a specific goal.

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I eagerly returned to my classroom to find the small positives!  My staff meetings became more about team building and less about reprimanding.  I became intentional about pointing out my staffs strengths rather than faults.  Overall, I felt better about the work I was doing and regained passion and hope in my vision.  However, it was too late for me to salvage the relationship between the last of my former co-teachers.  He quit the Friday before our final parent/teacher conferences.  All that remained of my teaching staff from the start of the school year was my student teacher.  Just when progress was being made, we took a leap backwards.

Unlike the last two teachers leaving, parents this time became more vocal and we lost students.  More parents spoke out about the lack of stability in the school.  I spent my time trying to repair relationships with the parents and assure everyone that our school will be better off and the children will continue to learn.  The saving grace came in the fact that my student teacher stood up and took up the extra slack and worked as hard as she could to get those students kindergarten ready.  I spent more time in the classroom making sure I was building up my remaining teachers and supporting them in the final months of school.

This year is a completely different year to last year.  I recognize now that there is value in looking for the strengths in my team.  I’m looking for ways to build up my staff through noticing the successes.  I understand the importance of checking in with my staff and seeing how I can assist them in what they are doing.   Sometimes it is necessary to set the boss hat aside and look for the one sliver of good in a messy situation.  From there, you can take the small steps towards the other side of the river together while building positive relationships with your staff.


Emily Madden graduated from the North American Montessori Center in 2011 with her International Montessori...

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