Managing Crisis in Montessori Schools
Normally I write my blog to parents and members of the community. This one I wrote to myself and thought it might be amusing for anyone who stumbles across the essay to sit, as it were, like a fly on the wall of the inside of my head. I've been thinking about the subject for a while, having observed some well-handled situations and some not-so-well handled ones and, I much admit, been a major player in some of each as well. I can have thoughts bounce around in my head but until I commit them to paper (even virtual paper) they don't count, and when I read them it either makes sense or, more often than I'd care to admit, I handle it with "delete-delete-delete." I hope you either enjoy this musing or find yourself grateful that you don't have to live inside my head!
To paraphrase a common expression delicately, crises happen. Planning can reduce the frequency of their occurrence, and the Montessori Method handily minimizes through peace education many of the crises that can erupt in traditional schools. But even the best planning can’t anticipate the unpredictability of our species. And Montessori schools are in some ways more vulnerable to a kind of crisis than other institutions because of the nature of our educational model and those drawn to it. In this thought paper I intend to explore some of the vulnerabilities that could lead to crises in Montessori schools.
What constitutes a crisis? By definition it is an unanticipated event that causes great or even existential danger to the school. Fires, robbery, and hurricanes should not be crises because responsible administrators plan both preventive measures and contingencies if they occur. Depending on the granularity of administrative planning, less likely events may not be crises either. But I can propose a number of examples of crises I have witnessed or to which I have fallen victim. The death of a child’s family member requires delicate handling to help the child and his family come to closure. While the school may plan a minor part, mishandling can hurt the family and the reputation of the school. An incident between children at school the repercussions of which spin out of control and into the parking lot. A faculty member having a bad day can create hard feelings with a child or parent.
All these human dramas are not necessarily the crisis themselves; rather, our reaction to them brings the problem. When confronted with a threat, we tend to have one of three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. Montessori teacher preparation and our very environment seem to narrow our range of reactions. Having identified a potential weakness in our environment allows us an opportunity to dial back some of the issues that may confront us from crisis level to the category of unfortunate incident.
Montessori environments themselves are an issue. People who work in Montessori schools often do so because of the peaceful nature of what we do, with purposeful activity carried out by children intent on their work. Administrators are respectful of the teachers; the adults in the classrooms are respectful of each other and the children, witnesses to these models of respect, reproduce it in their classroom communities. And when they forget (as we all can do) the adults gently guide them to more respectful speech and act. Classroom Guides often express to me joy in their work. This sounds wonderful (and it is) but it hardly prepares teachers or administrators for anger from parents or members of the community, or for the sudden loss of trust because of an ill-considered or criminal act. Montessorians aren’t generally wired that way and, lulled into a sense of security, they not well prepared when the peaceful bubble is burst by someone who may be much more accustomed to a different reality.
The temperament of Montessori educators contributes to the vulnerability to crises. They overwhelmingly are gentle people. They use soft voices, and guide children to resolve conflicts. Montessori teachers are graceful and peaceful. As much as any other trait, they have chosen to work with children instead of adults, and they suffer their administrators with great grace and forbearance. Confronted with pressure from a more aggressive community they often wilt. Because they are sensitive to others they need only very soft communications to understand a message, and anyone speaking sternly will seem to a Montessori teacher to be yelling. Anyone who has attended a parent conference can conjure up a sweet memory of the gentleness of their child’s teacher.
Administrators of Montessori schools obviously tend to come from a Montessori background. As a result, they tend to share the same characteristics as their teaching faculty. But unlike the teacher, administrators serve the function of interacting with the outside world—in some ways protecting the purity of the environment on the inside. At the same time, they share the peacemaking, nurturing, sensitivity to others that one finds in the faculty. How then can they change gears and speak with resolve and confront hostility to deal with an angry parent, an unscrupulous service provider, or an authoritarian inspector? Some administrators have amazing innate qualities that allow them to have both personalities. Some, sadly, cast aside the gentleness that made them effective in the classroom. Still others fail.
The Montessori Method itself complicates the response. Maria Montessori was a pediatrician and a scientist, and her approach to education because of that background was Aristotelian in nature. By this I mean that—like most scientists—she began her thinking process by observation and from that observation drew her conclusions. Not accidentally the Montessori classroom is organized in this way. Guides array materials on the shelves in order from simple to complex, and from concrete to abstract. In a well-ordered world this mental framework provides the structure from which we all benefit—from the periodic table of the elements to the genome. But it doesn’t provide a framework for dealing with crises.
The administrator needs a different set of tools from those customarily found with Montessorians. The first is actually knowing the question to ask: “What is essential in this situation?” In other words, we need to begin with the abstract, the complex, rather than the simple. For example, take the case of the natural sexual curiosity we often find with five-year-old children (not that exceptional and certainly not a crisis in itself). When a potentially existential crisis arises, leaders need to seek the essential issue involved, focus on that, solve that, and the furor that could otherwise have resulted is more likely to disappear as quickly as it arose.
Second, leaders need to confront issues directly. What is at stake when an over-protective parent spins out of control and yells at the teacher and “spreads the word” when he discovers that the school’s response was to reiterate calmly to the children involved that we use the word “private” for a reason, and let the parents know it has been handled? I can’t give a simple answer to the question because the scenario leaves out too many variables, but in general a successful conclusion will involve some kind of transparency and avoid a hint of defensiveness.
Third, leaders need to keep all three of those instinctive reactions (fight, flight, and freeze) in their toolkits. They need to recognize their own “go-to” reaction and tame it. It is a tool in the hands of a gifted leader and a weapon in the hands of someone less skilled at controlling emotions. Depending on the situation, any of the three reactions could be the most appropriate. Ignoring an unkind and erroneous accusation on Facebook could deny the accuser the platform he needs to continue to conjure up even more florid language. On the other hand, silence could enrage the accuser and the absence of denial be translated by other to readers as implicit admission of guilt. Since we all have the capacity for emotional reaction to an emerging situation, the best policy is to walk through the likely consequences—playing verbal chess—to each of the three reactions, perhaps with a trusted colleague. When the administrator’s reaction is calculated—even though it may seem to be one of the three emotional responses—it is much more likely to have the desired effect.
Crises happen. This is certain and, by definition, unpredictable (which does not mean “failed to be predicted”). The turning point will not be the crisis itself but the reaction of the leader. Focusing on the principles involved—the essentials of the situation—should guide the leader to the appropriate actions. Addressing the parties involved and the bystanders for that matter in a plainspoken way gives confidence to all but the inevitable conspiracy theorists, leaving no traction for anyone left with a grudge.