All Together Now!
Desert Montessori School shifts to team-leadership model
We sat in the Zoom meeting, 12 teachers trying to make sense of Fall 2020, each in our own home but collectively swimming in the uncertainty of the decision ahead of us.
COVID cases were rising, and we had to decide what to do next. Do we close? Do we stay open? At what point do the case numbers become too overwhelming? At what point do we return to normal? What does normal even mean? How do we support our students, our parents and each other through all of this? Schools all around us were facing the same problems and had used a variety of ways to solve them, but we had agreed that because this was a decision that impacted every teacher’s health, we all had to make the decision together. There were no easy answers, but as we looked at each other on our computer screens we all had the same understanding: “We trust one another, and we can get through this together.” We dug in, committed ourselves to working through the questions, challenges and frustrations that lay ahead, and came to conclusions that we were all comfortable with. Together.
When it came time to shape the 2021-22 school year for Desert Montessori School, a private pre-K through sixth-grade school in Santa Fe, we all had a similar thought: “Could we keep doing this? As a team?”
One of our teachers took this idea all the way to the board, who gave us approval to become a teacher-led school. That meant the school would be run through representational leadership, with decisions made by consensus. Before long, we had an exciting new school identity and we were ready to face the challenges, the unknowns and the possibilities of democratic leadership.
What does it mean to be a teacher-led school, run through representational leadership, with decisions made by consensus? Why wouldn’t we just want a director to take care of all this work for us?
Becoming teacher-led felt like a necessary step for our school. Teachers wanted to take ownership of the leadership roles we had already taken on, and we wanted more say in how the school is run, more transparency, and more ability to help shape our school. Let’s face it, community outreach is really an unspoken part of a teacher’s job, and we are often taking on projects beyond the work we do in the classroom (i.e.: running an afterschool club, sharing cleaning responsibilities of common areas or pulling some weeds in the garden). As a result, teachers can easily feel taken advantage of.
In a similar vein, directors end up with more work than should be expected of any one person (balancing the budget, overseeing fundraising and spearheading admissions, for example). In both situations, burnout rates can be high, leading to instability in the workplace and for the families in our school community. In the teacher-led model, teachers get to embrace the work that interests them, while the role of the director is dispersed and borne by many rather than one. The ideal is to improve job satisfaction among teachers, to make school administration more manageable, and to provide educational security for students and their families.
After receiving training in how to deploy and use a democratic leadership model in the workplace, Desert Montessori staff implemented specific structures and consensus decision making. Right away, our meetings became far more efficient — and shorter as a consequence. Equally important, our teachers were more satisfied with the decisions being made, because they had a direct role in shaping them. We’ve also seen an increase in school-wide activities, as well as greater enthusiasm for and creativity with solving complex problems.
The most exciting prospect for us in the 2021-22 school year is what being teacher-led will mean for our students and families. With our teachers interested in more school-wide events and opportunities to connect with parents, we’re looking forward to a year of building connections. Our students will be getting the same time with their teachers, the same Montessori curriculum and materials, and the same enriching environment as always, but they’ll enjoy more inter-class activities and more school and group events. Parents can expect transparent communication, close relationships with their children’s teachers, and plenty of opportunities to participate in and enrich the community around Desert Montessori School.
What a teacher-led model isn’t is a model by which every teacher must take a role in every decision and school operation. We want teachers to like their jobs, remember? This is where the specificity of our structure comes into play:
Consensus-Based Decision Making: The entire staff gets together for staff meetings where we make decisions about school-wide issues. These range from the school identity we want to lean into, to the school-wide rules we need to be enforcing. Decisions are made through consensus, essentially meaning tiered voting, where everyone has a say as to whether a certain decision is made. This is more nuanced than a straight vote, because staff can show support or dissent on a scale from “Absolutely not,” all the way to “Oh, my goodness, I love this!” — and everything in between. The idea is to see where people stand, which allows us to either move forward or continue the conversation until everyone is at least neutral on any given issue. We also divide and share meeting tasks, reinforcing the idea that there is not just one leader, that we all take on leadership roles as needed.
Committees: Not everyone can or wants to do everything, so we’ve created committees to attend to specific action items that the group identifies as important. These committees are open to the whole school community, encouraging our families and parents to participate and share in the work. Our goal is always to strengthen our connection to families and parents, and to give our school community every opportunity to get to know us and the needs of the school.
The Role of the Director: The director’s role is distributed between three positions that make up our Leadership Team: The administrative director handles the day-to-day operations of the school, and the primary director and elementary director handle curriculum development and teaching teams. These three staff members collaborate to make larger decisions about finances, enrollment, and human resources, and are responsible to the entire teaching staff. The leadership team aims to amplify staff voices and collaborates with the entire staff when issues and conversations around overall school direction arise.
We knew at that Zoom meeting back in the Fall of 2020 that something big was happening, but we didn’t know how big it would turn out to be. We feel empowered and excited to be making this journey as a team, and to be facing the challenges ahead together. As we refine and learn with our teacher-led model during the coming year, we hope we can help other schools and families in and around Santa Fe, because we’re all ultimately working towards stronger and healthier communities. Together.
Liza Frolkis is the administrative director of Desert Montessori School.