HEADING a (Montessori) School

Article excerpt

If you had to choose a head for your Montessori school, would you prefer someone who has previous experience heading a school but no Montessori experience, or someone with Montessori experience but no experience heading a school? Is a Montessori school's mission diminished by having a head who has no Montessori training? Can Montessori-trained teachers follow the lead of a head who has no previous Montessori experience?

When I scan the names of new head-of-school appointments in The Head's Letter, a monthly publication for heads of independent schools, I have to admit that I am a bit skeptical of new heads without independent school experience; however, I do realize that having not-for-profit experience is an integral part of being a head of school. Fundraising, human resource experience, having a vision, supporting an organizational mission, occupying the desk where "the buck stops," working with trustees, balancing budgets, and working with larger constituencies are as relevant to leading a school as they are to working in the nonprofit world.

One of the most challenging aspects for me as head of a Montessori school-a head with no previous Montessori experience-is grasping the understanding of what it means to be a Montessori school. Beyond the Montessori gospel (mixed-age groups, the teacher as facilitator, the prepared environment, and the freedom of the child to make choices), there are nuances. Depending on location (urban, suburban, or rural), philosophical structure (AMI, AMS, or "homegrown"), and financial setup (for-profit or not-for-profit), schools can vary considerably in their approaches to Montessori education.

On more than a few occasions, teachers have gently but repeatedly reminded me, "That's not Montessori." I believe heads need those reminders, especially if they have spent the majority of their careers in more traditional academic settings. Sensitivity to the subtleties of what Montessori teaches and the nuances of a school's individual culture is critical to a new head's integration into the Montessori method and philosophy. Part of this sensitivity is nurtured through daily work, reading, observations, conferences, professional development, working closely with division heads, and, most importantly, working hard on perspective and empathy. In a chapel talk delivered at a Country Day School Headmasters Association gathering in June 2003, Bodie Brizendine, head of Marin Academy, described how the 19th-century philosopher and author George Eliot categorized knowledge into three distinct levels. The lowest level of knowledge, opinion, is readily available, and the next level, fact, is only slightly harder to come by; but the third and highest level of knowledge is empathy, and it is the most difficult to obtain. This empathy is particularly important in running a Montessori school.

Out of curiosity, I asked teachers in my school-specifically, veteran teachers with Montessori credentials-how they felt when the search committee was considering hiring a head of school with no previous Montessori experience. It was interesting to hear that several teachers agreed on a number of issues, which indicated that previous Montessori experience was not a vital requirement for the position:

* They were concerned that the new head with Montessori training might begin the job with definite ideas on how "her/his" Montessori school should be run, and possibly alter established teaching styles, techniques, and practices. Would the new head's approach be more rigid? Would it be too loose? From the teachers' point of view, a new head with no Montessori experience would be a better risk.

* They felt it would be critical to have a head-with or without Montessori experience-who had strong educational leadership skills to connect programs, divisions, and school constituencies (parents, teachers, and trustees).

* Regardless of Montessori experience and credentials, teachers felt it was important to have a new head who was ethical-one who would treat all faculty and staff fairly. …