About staff turnover in Montessori programs

wwmt staff turnover

(photo found via google image search, from NPR here.  )

I often wonder if high staff turnover was an issue in Dr. Montessori’s day.  If I had to take a guess, I would guess that staff turnover wasn’t an issue.  Based on the fact that she built a worldwide, 100 years long following of her method, I imagine people were pretty devoted to their Montessori careers.

But in today’s day and age, and certainly in my limited experience so far at least, staff turnover at Montessori schools is pretty commonplace.  It seems like more of the rarity when you find people who stay in the same positions for five years or longer.  I personally have job hopped quite a bit having only been in this field for under 10 years.  But I have seen people in all of the positions I have personally filled leave their Montessori jobs.  I have seen countless colleagues leave their jobs.  I have seen a good number of colleagues start a job, discover that it’s horrible, and move on quickly within under a year.  And I’ve seen colleagues get laid off and/or fired.

Here are my thoughts and advice on staff turnover in Montessori programs, since Dr. Montessori is no longer with us to give us her advice.

~ If your program is going through staff turnover of any variety, be it an assistant or a lead, I think it is courteous and graceful to inform the entire school and parent body that the person is moving on.  Not only does every staff who works with a child make an impact, but I have literally had parents come to me and ask about a staff only to have to respond with, “uh… unfortunately Friday was Ms. Jem’s last day.  Didn’t the director tell parents?”.  Or I have come to work one day and suddenly Ms. Jane isn’t there anymore.  And she’s not there the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.   And apparently she no longer works there, but no one said anything.  That kind of communication failure is poor practice and pretty much inexcusable.

~ If your program is experiencing staff turnover of a lead guide, there is a right and a wrong way to let parents know that the guide is moving on.  One time, when the parents found out I wasn’t returning for a position for an upcoming year, I didn’t even realize the head of school had let the parents know via email.  Apparently the email came across  as highly lacking in tact according to the parents, who all then came to me and let me know how poorly the communication came across.

Even if you technically hated that lead who wasn’t returning  (which I’m pretty sure is how the head of school felt about me and clearly didn’t try to hide it), it still behooves a school to be courteous about communicating teacher turnover and try to do it in the most positive way.  If head of school communicates a staff departure badly, it makes the head of school or school look bad, and it justifies why the teacher is quitting.

~ Before you leave a position, always make sure you get something in writing from your head of school verifying your work experience.  You want something in writing verifying the dates you worked there, your general hours,  the age of the children you worked with, how many children were in the program you led, and how many assistants you supervised.  For example, Maria Montessori worked at Casa Dei Bambini from 1/2000- 6/2003 with 14 children 18 months to 3 years old for 40 hours a week.   That way, when you want to acquire any kind of certification for working elsewhere (in the USA each state has its own teacher verification process), you have a confirmed record of your work experience.   After all, you never know when your next “turnover” might be, or how you might want to progress in your career in the future.  And its’ way easier taking care of the nuts and bolts during an exit than it is to have to hit your old boss back up for a verification years later.

~ Make sure you take every single one of your personal belongings with you by the last day, so that you don’t have to awkwardly go back for anything. When I got unfairly fired from a Montessori job in the past, the head of school tried to pre-pack all of my belongings for me in boxes; and sure enough she forgot many things.  So I had to go back in the classroom to get everything that was mine and she had to escort me in like some sort of a criminal being chaperoned.  It was 110% awkward.  Besides that, a lot of handmade, one-of-a-kind materials are irreplaceable.  And I don’t know about you, but I care about my hard work and if I don’t intend on leaving something as a gift, I’m always taking it with me to the next job.  Especially when it comes to anything hand-made or language sets.  Especially if that school fired me unfairly.  There will be no gifts left behind.

~ No matter why you’re moving on, always try to do so in the best possible form, so that you leave a faultless last impression.  Grace and courtesy apply to adults, too.  Besides just being a person of good character, the Montessori community isn’t as big as one might think even if it is worldwide.  People all know of each other, people all know of different programs by name.  And some parents yelp things.

~ Thank all of your co-workers with a goodbye letter/ card, and a departing treat, like cookies, and leave it in the staff room on your last day.  Staff loves gratitude.

~ If parents are willing to give you a testimonial or reference, always take them.  Give those parents your card and have them email you a testimonial paragraph.  I have the courage to say here and now that the teacher often is the program, which is a fact that often goes unacknowledged.  And sure, you should be humble enough to expect that other teachers will replace you who might make just as positive of an impact as you did on the program, maybe better.  But if you worked super hard and you brought about undeniable positive change to that program in your time there, take that testimonial/ reference with you.  Your professional reputation is not hinged on only one employment experience.  You are always free to develop your own reputation within our field based on all the work that you do for everyone you serve, no matter how many places you work at.

~ If you are a school administrator, you ought to care about staff retention.  But I know a lot of Montessori school admins could care less.  Unfortunately I think people are so desperate just to have jobs these days to stay afloat financially that everyone knows all positions will easily get filled somehow.  Staff should know this, too.  Know your worth, and don’t stay somewhere that doesn’t value you or meet your needs.  Being broke all the time without health benefits isn’t fun.  Neither is working for a boss you know dislikes you.

~ Don’t be fooled into thinking that a because a particular school has a reputation of holding onto employees for longer than others, because a school is the “best” in your area, or because you have a Master’s degree, it will make you immune from being  fired or laid off.  I was fired from a position unfairly at the “best” school in my area.   So were two of my colleagues from their respective schools, and we all had AMI training and M.Ed degrees. Another colleague of mine got a job at the “best” school in her area only to discover the owner was a nightmare.

~ The things that will keep teachers in the game are no secret.  So if staff turnover is  an issue or a trend at your Montessori school, chances are it’s not a coincidence and things could have been done differently to keep those teachers.

Here is a list to help people know what makes staff want to stay employed at the same place.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<                                       >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Good pay. 


Supporting the needs of the teachers (If we have to keep asking for help or changes repeatedly and the support never comes, or we have to pull teeth to make it exist, we will eventually burn out and want to move on).

proper management of the school budget (mismanagement of the budget may include practices like bouncing paychecks, noteworthy drops in basic critical school supplies such as baby wipes, paper towel, or cleaning supplies; a noteworthy drop in the amount of food children receive during lunch; sending staff home early and keeping ratio at the minimum required adults necessary in order to save money, even if it means the people present at work are working super hard and can’t take breaks without breaking the legal ratio; and asking teachers to front the money for supplies and then taking forever to reimburse us).

Hiring trained guides.  A lot of untrained teachers have no interest in staying a preschool teacher long-term.  They are smart; and realize they don’t have to stay low-income forever.  Those of us who got trained and got the masters degrees are in this for the long haul.

Making your teachers feel liked, at minimum.  I can fully tell when a boss doesn’t seem to like me very much.  And when I sense it, I’m way less inclined to imagine myself working somewhere long term.    That, and sometimes bosses won’t even try to hide the truth.  If you’re a head of school you better be a darn good actor/ actress and at least pretend you like teachers until the day you hand over their termination letter.

I’ve had a past boss blame me when an assistant quit, when the truth is the assistant fully told me the day I got hired that she was likely going to quit soon, just to give me a heads up.  I had a boss who fully tried to criticize me during an interview.  I brushed it off as an interview intimidation tactic, but by the time I quit, that boss was the main reason I was quitting.

If making your staff feel liked comes easy to you, take the next step and make your staff feel appreciated.  Teachers last longer and have a more positive impression of a job when we get appreciation at regular intervals.  Authentic birthday celebration strategies (avoid generic same-as-everyone-else birthday rituals), gift cards, small bonuses during holidays, staff-only holiday parties, staff massages, positive feedback from administration, and literally saying “I really appreciate that you ____(fill in the blank) ____ ” makes teachers want to stay with a school.

Offering great student-to-teacher ratios.  The more children there are in a classroom, the crazier the demands are for the experience, and the harder that teacher will have to work.  So if you have a ton of children enrolled based on the needs of the particular age group, you also need the salaries of the teacher to grow with the number of children you choose to enroll in a program.  When I had 18 toddlers in a room, I was making $50K a year.  And I deserved every last cent because I normalized that classroom.  If the boss and my commute wasn’t so crazy, I would have loved to stay at that job.  But my commute was insane.  And the boss pushed me over my tolerance threshold.

Offering great working hours.  There is a huge thing to be said for work-life balance; and avoiding burnout.  The ideal teacher work hours for leads are 8ish to 4pm.  None of us ever desire to have to be there any earlier than 8am (we might choose to, but if we don’t have to that would be ideal).  And the earlier we can leave, the better, too.  Although I will say depending on the demands of the job, I wouldn’t mind coming in at say, 8:30 and staying later into the evening if it meant I got to achieve everything I wanted to; and never, ever had to work on the weekends or beyond my scheduled work hours.

Offer enough time off.  Especially if you are a year-round school, teachers and all staff need breaks.  So don’t be one of those schools that like, never takes real breaks.  One school I worked at technically offered breaks on the calendar, but then they offered break care that some staff always had to work.  Whenever I would return from breaks, my classroom would be trashed because kids were in it all break long.  The kids also need breaks.  When they come to school every single day and never get to take a break, they also burn out.

There needs to be times where no one comes to the school.  Working with children is exhausting; and even if people are money-hungry because teachers and especially the assistants don’t get paid well, the staff still need to take breaks for sanity purposes.  It should be non-negotiable and mandatory because without them, staff WILL burn out and they will quit more often.

Pay the assistants enough.  Assistants bust their butts just as hard as the leads, in their own way.  So depending upon the shifts they are hired for, you will keep assistants for longer if you pay them better or maybe offer financial incentives if they stay employed for longer and longer across time.

Strike the happy balance with meetings.  Regular meetings are necessary, so you don’t want none.  But calling meetings on the fly every single time you have a problem also just makes teachers want to punch their bosses. And for goodness’ sake do not use teacher lunch breaks as unofficial meeting times.  That’s a huge professional faux pas. No, no I don’t want to talk about work when I’m supposed to have a duty-free lunch break.

Strike a happy balance with extracurricular demands on teachers’ time.  We want to work hard for our school and classroom.  And any obsessed Montessorian will adore creating materials for the classroom, even outside of work hours.  But if you demand too much of us by default, such that we never have time to get to the work we love to be doing, we will burn out, grow weary, and start to resent the job that sucks up our entire life.  Especially if we’re on salary and not getting paid any extra money for the work we’re doing off hours.

My last job required so much of us– weekly newsletters, tagging children in online photos, emailing parents, a ton of parent information evenings, multiple open houses per year, multiple events per year, in addition to the parent teacher conferences.  I pretty much started resenting my job hard, once I realized that I worked 6 days a week whether I liked it or not.  From that job forward, I learned to ask at every interview “what are the extracurricular demands of this position?”.

Finally, and most importantly, every head of school or school owner needs to be good-hearted, and have sound morals and intentions. Staff are humans, and we aren’t stupid.  We fully know if the intentions behind why you run your school are pure and positive, and if you’re a genuinely good person; or if you’re just selfish, fake, money-hungry, conceited, corrupt, and don’t actually care about kids, families, or people.  We also all eventually learn when a school has a reputation for doing illegal things.

If you try to pretend like you’re not being shady or not being prejudice or something like that,  when in fact you really are, I promise you that the truth will eventually surface in its own way with time.   It always does.  People talk.

So if you’re not one to play nice with others, and you don’t authentically care about doing right by other people and serving others with honesty, humility, goodness, and selfless intention, do the world a favor, and don’t own a Montessori preschool or try to be a Montessori head of school.  Because if you suck, all the good people will eventually move on to work for other good people.






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