Montessori As a Lifestyle Choice
By Marc Seldin
Montessori is a ‘lifestyle product’.Referring to something as a 'lifestyle product' means that we choose those items or services for reasons other than simply price and convenience. They reflect our image of ourselves, and say something about our life-styles. Many examples come to mind. For example, the choice of the car we drive, where we live, the size and appearance of our home, and even the choice to frequent our local Starbucks coffee house all reflect something about our lifestyle.
This is not simply about social pretension, although that can play a part. More importantly it is about how we see ourselves and want others to see us. For our own comfort we require many products and services to be compatible with our own self-image.
The decisions to enroll our child in a Montessori school, as well as whether we stay for kindergarten and beyond, are deeply affected by the ways in which those decisions reflect our values and complements our sense of ourselves.
Let me clarify this with an example.
If I am looking to purchase a razor for shaving, I am not thinking too much about how does this razor reflect on me, how does it fit into my social interactions with people, what does it say about me. If you go shopping, you won’t overhear a lot of people muttering to themselves, “is this the kind of razor someone like me buys?” They are asking themselves how well will this razor do the job of shaving my face or legs. They don’t tend to give the purchase much thought beyond its direct use.
While this is true for a typical product, when consumers make a decision about a service, things tend to get a little bit more complex. For example, the choice of a dry-cleaner has an element of life-style in that, if you are going to be using the dry-cleaner again and again, you want to be comfortable in dealing with them. You want them to do a good job, and price and location also play a role. Ultimately you are going to choose a dry cleaner on the basis of cost, location and convenience, quality and the comfort you have talking to the people in that store. This may not be a tremendous life-style element, but there is more to the choice than most of us would have in buying a razor.
At the other end of the spectrum, cars can be considered the ultimate lifestyle product. Why do people buy BMWs instead of Toyotas? Or, for that matter, any kind of sports car in a country with speed limits? There are qualitative elements to these choices – acceleration, for example – but there’s more to it than that. For example, a friend of mine once explained his family’s new SUV purchase to me by saying, “I just couldn’t see myself driving a minivan.”
To me, Montessori is the ultimate expression of a life-style product. It is something that really needs to fit into parents’ lifestyle expectations. Furthermore, I believe that it is a real tragedy that many Montessori schools don't take full advantage of the special nature of the service they're offering. Despite all the rhetoric of partnership with families, many schools expect parents to drop their children off and leave. In some schools, parents are made to feel that the staff wants them out as quickly as possible.
As a lifestyle choice, Montessori schools could be building real relationships with parents, and the stronger the relationship that they build, the better their chances of keeping that family enrolled.
The current economic climate is both a challenge and an opportunity to strengthen your school’s relationship with your families.
Montessori schools should work towards integrating into the lifestyle of the parents. Schools should make every effort to:
- communicate to parents that they are not merely dropping off their children to have the teachers present lessons all day
- ensure that parents know they are really part of a school community that supports them and their children in every way possible, in and out of the classroom
- communicate from the admissions process and forward that, in choosing to be part of your Montessori schools, they have entered into a meaningful relationship with people who care and who share similar values.
This also means that your parents have a lot more emotionally invested with your schools than with their dry cleaner, obviously! Heads of schools intuitively know this. They also know that in such a scenario there is more opportunity to mess up the relationship between family and school. The sooner that you acknowledge and take advantage of the dynamics of your relationships with your families to make them even stronger than they are today, the more secure your position will be in the context of the economic challenges we are facing.
All the considerations of who your parents are as people – their habits, their jobs, their concerns for their children - tend to fit together. You need to fit yourselves in there, too. Encourage your parents to think, ‘we’re the kind of people who send our kids to this kind of school.’
Parents are people, and people want to feel good about themselves. They want to feel like they have made a good choice for their children. Every time they drop their children off at school you, the staff, have a new opportunity to remind parents that they have made a good choice, that they are members of this wonderful community, and that their children are loved, valued and respected.
The greater the amount of emotional energy parents have invested, if properly reciprocated, the greater freedom that your school will have to set your tuition and to follow authentic Montessori practice, even when parents would prefer that you behave more like a conventional school. Parents may prefer to have half-day program or two-day a week program, but, if your parents believe in you, they will listen when you explain why your school only offers a five-day or all-day program, an uninterrupted three-hour work cycle rather than a morning interrupted for special classes, and why you don’t assign homework or give letter grades. In other words, if your parents see themselves as being truly connected emotionally to your school and the Montessori lifestyle, you will find you have greater freedom to remain an authentic Montessori school and maintain a full enrollment. The critical factor is that parents really feel that they are part of a community and really feel affirmed about this lifestyle choice.
The danger inherent in this approach is if you do anything to trigger the opposite of a positive feeling from a lifestyle choice or self-image perspective, you really can quickly do harm to the school.
One example of that is the type of internal conflict that we see within some Montessori schools. If a board decides to fire a beloved head of school, your re-enrollment, new admissions, and fundraising can drop pretty quickly, even if the head was unsuitable or less than ideal. Parents don’t want to be part of an unstable or contentious school community.
For one thing, as soon as someone feels like they are part of a community, when they invest energy (as well as time and money) they want to feel they have some sort of a say in how things are done. When parents and teachers feel that they have no say in significant decisions, there is a sense of powerlessness.
Even in this time of bank failures, we don't expect to dictate who the head of our local bank branch is. Frankly we don’t usually know, and they’d have to be doing a spectacularly bad job for us to notice and care. The banking service provided is easily measured, and we don't really develop a relationship with the head of the local bank. There is just not a lot invested emotionally.
When you are part of a community sudden changes can be problematic, from minor changes such as changes in drop off times, to such seismic events as the dismissal of a beloved teacher. When there is uncertainty, or when the parents disagree with these choices well then you really have a crisis.
Now that doesn't mean that sometimes boards or heads of schools don't have legitimate reasons to make difficult decisions, but the way in which these changes are communicated is of the utmost importance. How it is done could actually end up being critical for the stability of enrollment and the future of the school.
Sending an email or a note a few days before school re-opens to say there is a new teacher, would be a poor way to communicate this transition, particularly to the parents who have known the previous teacher for two or three years, but also to other staff members whose morale you depend on to keep “selling” your school to parents.
The personal touch is vitally critical for circumstances like this. Even in the many instances when the parents shouldn't have direct input into decisions, you need to let them know that they are valued and that you empathize with their perspective.
Transitions are an opportunity to strengthen, rather than damage, the relationships binding your community. Call everyone affected individually. Sure, community meetings are important, but they should be held after the one-on-one. Ideally, the head of school should make these calls, but enlist help as necessary. Let’s say you’ve had to let go of a primary-level teacher, and your school has ten children’s houses, for about 250 households. Five people over three evenings should easily be able to knock out calls to each of these families.
Why is this important? Put yourself in the parents' shoes and try to understand how a parent might feel. If parents arrive in September to be faced with a new teacher who, when asked, says: "I don't know what happened to Mary. She's no longer here", they get the message that they are unimportant. On the other hand, if the change is communicated sensitively, with compassion and, importantly, with respect for the staff member who has left, then the change can contributed to strengthening, rather than weakening their sense of value.
Marc Seldin attended Montessori at the Barrie School through the 8th grade. Marc is the Administrator of the Center for Guided Montessori Studies. In addition to having grown up immersed in the culture of Montessori school leadership, and having had the experience of looking at Montessori schools from a parent’s perspective, he holds an MBA in Marketing from the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Last Updated (Sunday, 30 October 2011 12:46)