15 lessons and tips about Montessori jobs, sick policies, and accountability

I have worked with SO many assistants over the years who have unexpected days off. Here’s what I have learned about how to uphold a sense of accountability while working as a team of Montessori staff. 

1. “My kid is sick” is not a justifiable reason to not show up to work; and this needs to be written into the school policy.  I have a serious bone to pick with this occurrence, as I find it truly unfair.  Why? Because those of us who don’t have kids don’t get to randomly pull the “my kid is sick so I can’t come to work today” card; and just not show up any day we feel like it.  It’s either we are sick, or we’re coming to work.  And if we use up all of our PTO, we’re screwed out of days off.

In many schools I’ve worked for, however, it operates as as if anyone with kids magically gets to have an infinite number of spontaneous days off whenever “their child is sick”.  And there are zero repercussions.  This has been true of just about every single school I’ve ever worked for.

Not every profession on earth gets to magically miss work as often as they want just because “the kids are sick”.  Do you think doctors and other people with critically important jobs are just randomly not showing up to work just because little Preston has a cold?  No.  

If you choose to have a child, you choose to understand that you need to “figure it out” sometimes; because if you don’t, you might get fired for not showing up to work.  …. Unless you have a Montessori job, in which case somehow this rule doesn’t seem to apply to people, ironically. 

2. The school director/ owner needs to have a backbone and be willing to do the difficult work of upholding the policies around absences.  If you know someone is taking excessive days off “because the kids are sick”, then you have the responsibility to do something about it. Not showing up to work is an inconvenience to their co-worker team.  So if it means they are written up, suspended, or fired, do what you have to do.

It’s not my fault my co-workers chose to have children; and chose to be irresponsible parents who didn’t come up with alternative sources of on-call childcare.  So as the boss, you still have to be the boss and do the “dirty work” that bosses exist for, which is ensuring that the people you hired show up.   No one likes a boss with no backbone or  a boss who neglects and overlooks an employee’s sub-par performance.  It’s hard to care how great that employee seems to be…  if they’re constantly not there.  

It is also the bosses’ responsibility, and not the responsibility of staff, to provide a substitute teacher pool in the event that staff is in fact sick. This is what allows people to stay home and recover when they are in fact sick.

3. Assistants are expected to adhere to the health and wellness policies we are holding families to.  Most (lead) guides I have worked with are pretty good about knowing when their health is not up to snuff to be at work.  Assistants, however, are notorious for showing up to work with hacking coughs, fully in the thick of head colds, you name it.  I understand this is because assistants often get paid so little that every dollar counts.  

However, because we are working with very young children, this is one of those professions where you don’t get to come to work sick as a dog and pretend that all is well.  We’re trying to keep really little kids healthy, for goodness’ sake.  And we’re trying to keep other staff available to come to work. So coming to work knowing you’re fully sick isn’t doing anyone any favors.  Not even you, when you could be at home resting; and come back tomorrow feeling better.

I once had an assistant who took– and I’m not even joking– 24 days off in a 6-month timeframe because her “kids were sick” so often; or because she had a planned vacation.

This lady hadn’t even worked with us for the full duration of the school’s 10- month employment contract  because she started a month later than everyone else.  The school owners LOVED this woman for reasons none of us ever understood and gave her extra privileges the rest of us never got.   We used to joke around in the staff room during our lunch break that this woman must have performed sexual favors for the owner or must have been privy to some blackmail-level information that allowed her to get these extraordinary privileges.  She could do no wrong.

Thanks to this 24-days-off situation, however, here’s what else I learned…

4. All assistants can utilize a non-confidential staff planner with a calendar in it.  And within this planner, everyone can write down their requested days off ahead of time.  

5. The lead guide can write down every unexpected absence that occurs. This too, will become fully public knowledge to all assistant staff  and to the owner.  That way, everyone knows when someone on the team knew  if someone on the team was out for the day unexpectedly and who their sub was going to be (if we were lucky enough to even get a sub, that is.  And a lot of the time we didn’t. This was a “let’s meet the minimum requirements necessary to not get shut down by licensing” kind of Montessori school;  not a “let’s make this authentically functional” kind of Montessori school).

6. Team assistants who do show up can be “compensated” with given days off once a quarter to recover from excessive and habitual no-shows on the part of their co-workers. You know who has to work harder to pick up the slack for a person who doesn’t show up? The rest of us.  And it depletes us when it’s happening all the time. 

Using my calendar/ written attendance documentation system, I would keep track of assistant attendance throughout the school year. Then I used this data in order to invite staff with great attendance to take a PTO day once every quarter if they hadn’t had any days off, used any of their PTO days, or scheduled themselves any vacations. I would also bring in treats for my team to keep morale high on particularly rough weeks when Ms. No Show was out, and we were sub-less.

7.  Speak to your boss about how many days off someone has taken when it starts getting excessive. Don’t wait for it to become a serious problem that flies under the radar until that person has suddenly accrued twenty something days off. 

8. Guides have the right to know when any of our assistants aren’t going to show up that day, because we have a classroom to run and families to serve. Hello. That’s an obvious given.  But assistants, and sometimes even school directors, don’t seem to think the lead guide ought to know if someone’s not showing up that day. Sometimes I would find out 15 minutes after that person’s scheduled shift.

9. I actually made it a rule  that the assistants were required give me a courtesy phone call if they were ever going to have a day-of no-show.  Not a text message (which is a form of cop out), not a group text that i’m mysteriously but probably purposefully left out of– a voice phone call.   And then I would ignore the calls on purpose so that it forced them to leave a quick voicemail.  

The voicemail then becomes undeniable proof for every day an assistant didn’t show up.  It is also an added layer of forcing people to own up to themselves.  There’s something about having to say things out loud, especially to others, that makes you confront your own habits and choices. Guides, you can model this courteous and mature behavior for your team by always communicating to them if you’re going to be out sick, too. 

In my humble opinion, overy Montessori school in America should have this “phone calls for no-shows” practice as a formal policy that gets written into staff handbooks. Call the head of school and your classroom lead. Because it would amaze you how many no-shows I’ve gotten from assistants who don’t take two minutes or less to inform me that they aren’t showing up.  I was once given the liberty to tell a team of assistants that if  they ever had three no-show’s without a courtesy call to me, that I reserved the right to talk to our boss and have them written up.  It’s disrespectful to leave the most important person other than the kids out of the loop.

I would automatically call any boss and/or direct supervisor  if I was ever not going to show up to work.  I always have for literally my entire professional lifetime.  To me, that’s just basic common sense.

11. The rest of the team, and parents also have the right to know when a staff person isn’t going to show up.  To reiterate why this matters, we call this “courtesy” in the Montessori world.  So I always write in our team communication notebook if someone is out for the day. Then I write on a white board, which parents see daily, if a certain staff person is out that day.  This really cements a culture of accountability and transparency, because parents will also see if Madonna is out today… Madonna is out today…. Madonna is out today… 24 times in 6 months.   I mean it when I say I’m practicing observation, documentation, and courtesy.  Like the good little guide Dr. Montessori trained me to be.

12.   NEVER act like no one cares about the days off you take.  In fact, it’s a wise idea to keep track of your own days off in your own personal planner, for your own personal record keeping.  That way, if your job ever tries to shaft you for PTO days or botches your paycheck (which a certain job did to me and others on many occasions, habitually) you have your own documentation to cover your own butt.  I will say, though, because I’ve experienced a lot, that if a Montessori job is determined to shaft you out of pay, they’ll just do it anyway and ignore the cold hard evidence.  

They know we’re broke teachers.  They know we’re overworked and underpaid.  They know we don’t have time or money to pull a lawyer into the situation of a couple shafted paychecks.  I once had a paycheck that was $900 when my typical checks were $1700 each.  I had meticulously counted and saved each and every one of my PTO days for a very distinct vacation one year.  I spelled out the math for my boss using multiple iterations, and she still (beep)ed me out of rightfully owed pay.

13. Know exactly what that school handbook said about excessive absences And don’t be afraid to talk to other people about what their contracts say for PTO and whatnot. At one Montessori job I had, it said that if employees had more than 10 absences in a two-month period, that was grounds for termination.  The thing is, again, there were politics and favoritism running hard at that school. The staff handbook was basically the bosses’ CYA technique for when s/he finally felt like firing someone.  It wasn’t always upheld, clearly. But you should know it nevertheless. 

14. Know that a LOT of Montessori jobs will wait for extreme circumstances to fire terrible employees that they should have never hired in the first place.  So don’t be surprised if people who never show up also never get fired. 

15. If you work at a Montessori school and you know deep down that you are not your typical healthy self, just go to the doctor. And don’t be ashamed or in denial about your health.  Don’t feel pressured by your jerk boss to wait until Saturday to schedule doctor’s appointments. Your health matters more than showing up for a job that would replace you within two weeks or less if you died. Better to have nothing wrong than have something seriously wrong and try to work through it; and spread it to others. Better to miss an hour of a shift and get that health concern screened than to get seriously ill.

I once had an assistant (we’ll call her “Jennie”) showing up to work persistently not sounding so good.  We had a teacher prep day one Monday, so I insisted that she go to the doctor; and for my own peace of mind, “just get the clearance that it’s a typical head cold and not something contagious”, I said to Jennie.  It sure didn’t sound like the typical head cold at that point.   Jennie goes to the doctor, and it turned out she had pneumonia!  


Thanks for hanging in there with such a long post, but I hope it proves helpful for y’all (: 

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