[Post length: super long, but super worth it]
Helping the Montessori toddler assistant understand, feel confident in, and basically kill it (gain mastery) in his or her role can be one of the biggest challenges of being a Montessori toddler classroom guide. Maybe it’s a “less experienced guide” problem, I don’t know. But I can for sure say I repeatedly sucked at guiding different assistants after working at over five different schools, and I might still suck at it. I have to think really hard about how many past assistants I have had so far, but I think I can in total I have had between 10 and 20 assistants in my career.
I would venture to say that not enough work has been done in the field of Montessori education around truly helping toddler classroom assistants understand the nature of their jobs. AMI is finally starting to offer toddler-specific Montessori assistant training workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area. But not everyone working in Montessori toddler classrooms lives in or near the SF Bay, or can afford to travel over there. I would also venture to say that for sure, not enough parts of Montessori guide training are spent on helping the guide learn how to guide more difficult assistants. Which is along a very similar line of not knowing how to guide more difficult children, to be honest. People are people. Not all people are the same. Some people are easier to guide, and some are harder to guide, be it a 2 year old or a 64 year old.
If you have an amazing classroom assistant in your Montessori toddler program, your whole experience can be next-level amazing. Not all assistants are going to be a “dream assistant”. I have had assistants who were unexpectedly insubordinate, workplace bullies, and just less capable of understanding what their role is or how to do the tasks of their role. And I don’t say this to be mean or critical– I’ve personally experienced all of these challenges. If you are a guide like me who isn’t a natural at helping “more challenging assistants” get really good at their job (and I feel like this still describes me), you may have a very difficult time in both guiding that assistant and running your classroom as a lead Montessori toddler guide. It has genuinely been one of my biggest struggles.
As you will hear me repeat a lot in my writing– toddlers are not like any other age of child. They really are their own special age with their own unique way of being, and their own unique needs in comparison to assisting children of other ages (even babies are so much easier to assist). Therefore, it places a very unique demand on toddler Montessori classroom staff, guides and assistants alike, to be able to run our classrooms successfully.
I used to be an assistant; and I’m a guide who basically sucks at like, HR skills, 😅. I’m one of those employees who really prefers not to play politics games and act like a flight stewardess all day long just so that my assistant’s feelings remain intact. I just need to go to work, do the job, and pour all of my concerted effort at emotional self-control into the kids rather than the adults in the room who shouldn’t be taking anything personally. So know that all the advice I’m about to offer comes not from a place of critical judgement, but from a place of living through my own failures. From a place of crashing and burning, and failing my way to “hopefully better tomorrow”, LOL. It never occurred to me that I would suck at guiding a sizable portion of my assistants, not realizing they would present challenges I fully did not expect and did NOT know how to work with. Because no one shows you how to guide assistants in Montessori teacher training. They just show you how to work with the kids.
I have been gradually waking up from the dream that is Montessori teacher training over all these years; and I’ve been like my puppy– a very slow “waker upper”. And in Montessori teacher training, literally nothing sucks because every last detail is perfectly curated and manipulated by world-class Montessori trainers. The only part of Montessori teacher training that is not exceptionally well-controlled is the children they bring in for your practicum (because children are real, and you can’t “manipulate” that part). Just because you completed training and have a master’s degree in helping the children doesn’t mean you have a master’s degree at helping other adults know how to do their jobs well. Adult work training is literally its own profession, known as HR. I have a good friend who works in HR and I might just interview him for a subsequent post. He is ah-mazing at working with other adults and just wins EVERYBODY over. Everyone loves this dude, even if he doesn’t fit the demographic status quo. He was meant to be an HR powerhouse. I was not, LOL.
I naively expected assistants to magically just, be amazing at our job. Well, 😅, that’s not always how it works, folks. And I’ll be the first to tell you that there is no such thing as a training or workshop for “helping Montessori guides learn how to guide assistants when she foolishly thought they would all be competent out the gate”. I was clueless, y’all. I’m still not even all the way “there” in knowing how to get every assistant from “not there yet” to “dream assistant” (…mostly because we keep hiring more and more new people who end up being slotted to help me in some way).
So here are some helpful tips around helping staff succeed at the Montessori toddler assistant role, and helping toddler guides better guide the toddler assistant. These tips are important for the assistants to know, the guides to know, and even for administration to know.
There are two parts to this very long mega-post; so feel free to scroll to the parts that are applicable to your struggle. Part 1 is administration’s role (in blue), and part 2 is in-classroom assistant training (in purple). It really is a synergistic effort, though; so I had to include both parts. I genuinely hope to share what helped me. Ready? Here we go…
PART 1: ADMINISTRATION PLAYS A CRITICAL ROLE AROUND HIRING ASSISTANT STAFF (because if guides could hire our own assistants, trust us, we’d have no problem choosing only the good ones. But we rely upon you guys for hiring because it’s your role, not ours).
Finding quality assistants willing to work in Montessori toddler classrooms, and retaining them as employees is a huge challenge that many schools face and can’t seem to get right. Assistants turn over aaaaaalllllll the tiiiiime. And who can blame them? A past assistant of mine (I’m still friends with many of my past assistants) genuinely felt that working with toddlers is the hardest of all ages she has ever worked with. And when she quit to pursue her true professional passion, she was super grateful because she now does much easier work and gets paid almost as much as I do. Maybe more. And she did not need any additional education– she just switched jobs.
(with that) For starters, admin needs to pay assistants a livable wage for the region your school is located in if you want to reduce turnover. As a barometer, Whole Foods and Starbucks must set your standards. Whole Foods pays employees $15/ hour here in Honolulu. Starbucks gives employees health care benefits for 20+ hours of work per week, and educational tuition reimbursement. So if a Montessori school can’t match Whole Food’s pay or surpass it, and if they offer no employment incentives to assistants, why would anyone sane agree to be a toddler Montessori assistant rather than choose the much easier job of ringing up groceries or making coffee all day, or at least choosing to assist older children? Hello. Would you rather change poop diapers, or make coffee, and get paid the same amount? It’s a no-brainer.
Admin must know how to hire well. Admin must understand that they do have a responsibility to hire assistants with a decent level of competence and intelligence. I know that sounds fully jacked up to say. But I have had assistants who literally said “no, I can’t” to me when I asked them to cut out triangles for a birthday banner (yepp, true story). I’ve had assistants who washed dishes so poorly and wrote so poorly that they were literally banned by the boss of our job (not even by me) from dish washing or writing any notes to parents, while the rest of us had to take care of these tasks. I had assistants who could not figure out how to roll up dirty diapers despite being shown multiple times how to do so. Or who the director specifically told me not to tell them what I honestly needed them to do because they could not be trusted to manage doing such tasks.
Uh… we do have a job to do in a Montessori toddler classroom. So if that assistant cannot be trusted to perform essential tasks of the job, they should not get hired. Period.
Toddler assistants must be physically able to move well enough. In toddler environments, we kinda need staff who can physically move well, and who can work extremely quickly. Toddlers are basically little acrobats and track stars in the making who poop their pants all day long. So that part of the job description that describes “stooping, kneeling, lifting 40+ pounds…”, add to it “sprinting”, and it’s for sure accurate. I once worked at a school who allowed substitutes to specify if they were willing to work in toddler or not, and I think that was very wise. Toddler Montessori classrooms put physical demands on your body, and not everyone can handle it. Even just being tall working in a Montessori toddler classroom can be a physical disadvantage for adults. #BackPain.
Admin must know how to staff the school’s assistants with a sense of wisdom and intentionality. Every classroom needs one to two permanent assistants who do only that job each day alongside the classroom guide. It is not economical or wise to have like, a million assistants working in one toddler classroom; or a million assistants who cycle through a bunch of different classrooms all day. Especially in coronavirus times, every preschool ought to do away with school floaters because it’s a health liability.
Instead, you should have set teaching teams throughout your day. You can set your “montessori day” to run for a specific length of the schedule, and delineate the rest of the day as “aftercare”. You then hire a core “toddler program assistant team” (as few people as possible), and then hire completely separate aftercare staff and/or floater assistants as needed, who only offer supervision, help at nap time, or clean. Floater assistants should not need to learn and memorize all the nuances of the toddler classroom. Because it’s A LOT.
I think it is fair for admin to give the assistant a list of their expected responsibilities BEFORE they agree to get hired; while making it very clear that they will not be “teaching”, ever. Make sure they are comfortable with changing diapers and cleaning, kneeling, stooping, carrying very heavy children, sprinting at a moment’s notice, and taking direction from the lead without taking it personally.
I had one assistant in the past who mistakenly and genuinely felt that her job was not to help me, and that I wasn’t “allowed” to “tell her what to do”– this chick genuinely thought her job was only to assist the kids. Wrong. The assistant’s job is to assist the guide, because the guide literally cannot be her own assistant and be the guide at the same time. Helping the kids sometimes is part of the assistant job. But also I need work replenished, or diapers refilled, or dishes washed, or for the assistant to prevent a child from jumping off of a chair, or to help other kids choose their own work to do rather than harassing me as I’m trying to give a lesson. That’s not helping the kids– that’s helping ME, the guide. And yes, I absolutely must ask the assistant to assist me. Duh. LOL.
If you are really on top of your game as a school, admin can offer a short interview between the classroom guide and potential assistants for goodness of fit. Sometimes as a head of school you may genuinely trust yourself to know that the assistant and the guide absolutely will vibe together. I have experienced both: getting assigned to a guide “blindly”, and getting interviewed by the potential guide.
As a guide I have experienced both poor fit and awesome fit. I have gotten lucky with three assistants in my career in particular who were absolutely amazing, and it was a random assignment– I did not ask for them. But I have also been partnered with horrible assistants I didn’t ask for; and we clashed all year long. I think that it’s fair if you are not desperate for a hire, to let the guide do a very short interview (10 minutes or less) to at least offer her opinion of “yes, they could be good” or “no, something feels very off”.
If you are desperate for a hire and you’re unsure, I would always err on the safe side and hire the assistant on a 3-month probationary basis while you continue to interview the pool of applicants. Always interview all willing hires; and for those to whom you cannot not offer an official position, always ask if they would like to be added to your school sub list.
Last pre-classroom assistant hiring tip: try to establish the new assistant start date a week or maybe even two weeks before the assistants who they are replacing officially quit. Always do an overlap. It may cost money initially to have both the assistants hired at the same time (incoming and outgoing), but you’ll thank me later. It’s worth the investment in proper training.
OK so that’s just the baseline for starting off assistants strong. Support assistants be successful from the administrative side before they have even stepped foot in the classroom.
PART 2: IN-CLASSROOM ASSISTANT TRAINING
Once the assistant does enter the classroom with the guide, they deserve one to two entire days where they do NOTHING but guided observations of your classroom. This allows them to watch how everything goes down. By “guided observation”, I mean that they have a structured template on paper to read from while observing. And that you show them how to do things and they do nothing but watch you. And that you both watch experiences unfold together from the sidelines while you narrate the “insider perspective”. This all guides the assistant mind on what to look for and things to start developing an awareness of. They should be expected to fill out answers to questions from their guided observation sheet too; that way they’re paying attention.
“Guided observation” directly mimics the training centre format for guides, such that we don’t touch anything prior to hearing about it and observing, and where we sit down to write notes from lecture and sit down to do observations from presentations before we ever touch the materials or work with the children. The assistant will be expected to imitate exactly what they see happening, to cue into the information you need them to know, and to become a part of the fabric of the toddler classroom reality. So why not support their learning in a similar way that the guide was trained? If the Montessori method works, use the method for the adults, too. Use thy resources!
We know from the Montessori method that people learn through various modalities; and that observation and imitation are natural human tendencies. Choosing to capitalize on these natural learning strengths with assistant staff through proper training for a few days will improve assistant success once they have to do the hands-on work themselves. I believe observation days improve people’s understanding of the job. This is not the fast food industry, after all; the product is human children. When I first started as an assistant, I was not allowed to do or touch anything or any children for at least two entire days straight, maybe even for a full week. That’s how serious that employer was about insisting that assistants do their best possible work.
Assistants are best supported by being shown by the guide, or by other senior assistants who they will be replacing or working alongside, exactly how to do what they are expected to do. When I took my first assistant job I vividly recall that I had to shadow and be directly trained by the other more senior assistants who I was about to replace or work with. And they had been directly trained by the guide. There were some tasks I recall the guide directly showing me what to do. Down to the nitty gritty details. No joke.
The best guide I worked for (who is running that Bay Area assistant workshop, by the way) showed me exactly how I was expected to wipe down the cabinet facings. Exactly how I was expected to clean the bathroom. Exactly how to carry babies. Exactly how I was expected to wash out the dustpans. Exactly how I was to replenish materials. Nothing was left up to “throw them to the wolves”, nothing was left up to “let the assistants figure their own way to do things”.
This is the Montessori method, not burger king, LOL. It is never “your way” in a Montessori classroom– it’s the Montessori way. It is SO much easier to know that you’re doing what is expected, exactly how it’s expected to be done, than to have to wonder and keep doing things incorrectly. As an assistant, there is no harm in suggesting better ways of doing things later on down the road if you think you have ideas for how to innovate and improve. A couple great examples: I had an assistant suggest to put cubby photos on a better part of the cubby, an an assistant who showed me a different and maybe better way to hang up cloths to dry. But first, the assistant must master the basic expectations of their job sufficiently, and swiftly, the way your guide would like. Same as the principle in Montessori: master reality first, and then creativity can blossom from the foundations of strongly mastering the reality set before you.
The assistants must clearly be told that they are never supposed give lessons, or “teach” to the children. And that needs to be made crystal clear from the start. Before they ever say “yes” to an assistant job. Particularly for the toddler classroom where the lessons seem so common sense. I cannot express how often I have seen past assistants giving lessons in the toddler Montessori environment, weather they’re doing it on purpose or don’t realize they’re doing it. I feel this happens often in toddler environments because the work in a toddler environment is so easy and so seemingly common sense that anyone can jump right in and think they know how to give lessons. Like “mop floor”, or “put ball in hole”.
But in actuality, there are distinct methodologies for how to present the materials, even down to the seemingly most benign materials, to a toddler specifically. Because there are learning details and parts of the Montessori method that regular untrained people just don’t know. For example, when I was a Montessori assistant there was this box of allium vegetables. I had no darn clue why there was onion and garlic in a box, y’all. But I was told that they all belonged in said box, and if Henry tries to eat the onion, please stop him. LOL. The “methodical” approach is what sets the Montessori method apart from how the average layperson might show a young child how to do things. Heck, the average layperson might not ever think to show a toddler how to mop a floor.
Also, if the assistant’s eyes are downcast as she’s trying to give a lesson without realizing it, and if my eyes are downcast because I am in fact giving lessons which is my actual job, whose eyes are watching the rest of the children?
The assistant may need to be shown how to step back and observe for how to respond to common “help” requests from the toddlers. I believe another reason assistants tend to erroneously jump in and present materials is because not all adults know the difference between “helping with reasonable requests”, or when they are actually being manipulated into doing the child’s work for the child, if that makes sense. Toddlers are SO GOOD at manipulating adults into doing things for them.
So I like to tell the assistants that they are not to give any “how to” instructions for anything except: how to dress, how to undress, how to get on board with group transitions, how to put work away, and how to interact safely with peers and with classroom materials (which includes furniture). And even that is a lot to know how to show the kids.
I may show some assistants how to clear the table and set the table, and maybe how to prepare snack or bake with the children if the assistant shows particularly good instructional command with the children, or if I only have one assistant helping me. That’s about it though. And I will always be sure to explicitly show the assistant how to instruct the child in these tasks “the Montessori way” and in the ways I prefer. It would amaze you what people will do if you don’t give specific instructions (like if I have to listen to the assistant sing table setting instructions to the tune of “Mulberry Bush” for every item in the place setting, times 14 place settings, every single day, I will go crazy, OK? LOL.). I also show the assistant exactly how I want her to give instructions for certain tasks because I want to milk every learning opportunity out of the tasks for the kids. The devil’s in the details. A detail can be the difference between kids learning to quantify while baking cookies, or not. And I want smart, detail-oriented kids coming out of my class.
If an assistant is ever offended because not teaching everything seems degrading, maybe this genuinely isn’t the best job for them. There are many play-based preschools that need people to work for them. And most Montessori assistants (maybe not the aides, but the assistants) do qualify to be lead staff at play-based preschools.
The assistant must understand that all of the work on the shelves and hanging up around the room is “Montessori materials” for toddlers; which is the guide’s job to present, or the child’s work to figure out independently. The assistant does not need to show the children where a puzzle piece goes in the puzzle board. The child is there to learn how to solve puzzles by themselves. Maybe where to find the puzzle board a piece goes with, maybe what the picture on a piece is, but not how to solve the puzzle. The assistant does not need to show the children which peg goes in which hole. The children are in the classroom to learn how to do that by themselves. The assistant does not need to be show any children how to mop or sweep– those are part of infant and toddler Montessori formal presentations the guide will be presenting to the children, the Montessori way.
The assistant may need to be trained to recognize when to intervene. This is for any behavior or squabbles between children, or interactions with classroom materials, that are dangerous, destructive, disruptive, or disrespectful to others. If a child cannot stop doing these misbehaviors on their own, it is worthy of the assistant’s intervention.
Assistants may need explicit guidance on how to respond to “intervention-worthy” situations. When these situations arise, you can cue the assistant to watch you handle it, and give some quick insight afterward and answer any of the assistant’s questions.
The assistant may also need to be told **EXACTLY** what to say when they intervene, so that all of the adults in the room are using consistent language. Not “sorta what the guide just said”. Not the assistant’s paraphrase or their version of what the assistant thinks they heard. I would have the assistants say exactly whatever language the guide uses, verbatim. Toddlers need explicit, consistent, direct instruction from all adults in the classroom. They are not like children of other ages. Toddlers also need instructions told to them in positive phrasing, rather than negative phrasing. But that’s another lesson for another post.
The guide may need to know how to support the specific style of her assistant(s). If an assistant is not as fast-moving as you would prefer (and this can be especially true at first. Speed comes secondary to initial mastery), give the assistant the exact same tasks to be responsible for daily, rather than say, flip-flopping between choices of tasks every other day. If your assistants has never changed diapers before in their life, they may need to watch you change a diaper or two so they know how to do it well. Especially the BM diapers. It is not unheard of that assistants don’t wipe butts all the way clean, or that they don’t know how to roll up dirty diapers and double-glove them.
Make visual, reusable tasks lists for assistants to initial and check off daily. This helps people remember what to do as they initially learn the tasks of their role, and lists hold people accountable. I for one, love crossing off to-do lists, and it makes me feel accomplished. These lists will also become that assistant’s future resume builders. I used to think classroom tasks lists were infantilizing and dumb when I was someone’s assistant before. But actually, they reeeeally help. Some people easily forget things; other assistants are lazy and won’t pitch in. Sometimes your assistant team is quite large; and these lists really help when you have a substitute filling in for someone.
You will learn in time when to give some assistants more responsibility, and when you need to pare down an assistant’s responsibility load. Ideally, you won’t ever need to pare down. But I will tell you now that it’s not unheard of that you must take on some of the assistant tasks if you want things to get done. If you are team of two (you and one other assistant) sharing the assistant workload is non-negotiable.
It is absolutely unfair and not OK for any one assistant to be stuck in the bathroom changing diapers all day long. I always put myself in the diaper changing rotation for every job I’ve ever been lead of. I have heard of some assistants being subjected to only toileting all day; and imho it is not fair. It is not fair to have to wipe butts all day, nor is it fair for one assistant to be holed up in a beautiful-but-stinky bathroom all day while the rest of us get to be out in the lovely classroom. It is also not fair that the rest of us have to deal with behavioral problems and the manual labor of cleaning the classroom while someone else hides out in the bathroom all day. I have even worked for a school owner who genuinely thought it was fair for one person to change diapers all day long for over 20 toddlers. Uh, sorry, but no.
The reason I’m willing to change diapers even if I’m the classroom lead is because of one of the best bosses I ever had prior to my Montessori days. We worked together in this special needs school; and he would do all of the worst (grossest, most demanding) responsibilities for the team because he was a very strong leader and huge team player. And I think he understood that he was paid the most while the rest of us made crap for pay while helping special needs children; and he understood that a great leader can be trusted to handle the biggest problems and support the whole team.
I never forgot how it felt to work under him. He would empty the trash when someone threw up in it on a weekly basis. He would stay back with the kid who would literally tear the room apart and go crazy once a month, while the rest of us went for a walk. He always had our back in the classroom. He potty trained a 14 year old boy who weighed like 200 pounds. So for any other guides out there, make it a point to try and be that kind of leader who is never “too good” for bottom of the ladder work. Like wiping butts.
A very strong assistant should be groomed to strike the balance of when to do exactly as their asked without deviating, and at the same time save a little bit of room for case-by-case flexibility. “Case-by-case flexibility” refers to the children, not the assistant, or the duties of the job. For example, some children in my classroom wear cloth diapers that have their own special diapering system while everyone else uses paper diapers. Some children have behavioral challenges that we must adapt our approaches to as observation merits. Some children have food allergies, etcetera. So the assistant can never be too too rigid when it comes to the dynamic and unique creature known as the toddler. You never know who is showing up in a toddler classroom.
- it doesn’t matter if your toddler assistant is male or female. I’ve had both males and females as my assistants and they’ve been great. But the job must not allow anyone to hold biases around it, even if it is a toddler classroom, and yes, there are diaper changes involved. I’ve been in two situations where both a head of school and parents tried to be biased around having male assistants change diapers and even checking kids for scrapes after falls. One of the men was a dad and the boss was still biased against what he was allowed to do. Not cool.
- It does matter if the assistant is genuinely a kind and decent human being on the inside. Hiring people with different personalities or from different backgrounds is wonderful, and schools must be careful about hiring all the same kinds of people because the school culture “likes that”. We just need assistants to also be genuinely good-hearted human beings. I’ve had assistants who were workplace bullies to other assistants and to me; or who made racist remarks to me; and the job never fired these assistants because the job culture liked a certain kind of person. Assistants must understand that there is a basic level of human courtesy we are all expected to uphold in the workplace, no matter who you are or how long you have been hired, or how much you “match” a school’s preferred “kind” of person. If you’re a jerk, you’re a jerk. And if people cannot be kind, they cannot be exempt from getting fired. It would amaze you how many montessori jobs will keep horrible-hearted assistants hired while a lot of the good guides and other good staff quit, because we hate working with these individuals.
- It doesn’t matter how old your assistants are, but it does matter if their body is capable of keeping up with the physical demand in toddler classrooms. I once had an assistant throw her back out during a diaper change, and it turned into this highly uncomfortable situation. I didn’t want to seem ageist, but at the same time I was concerned for her body. The incident must have also scared the child, who developed negative rapport with that assistant after that. I did not witness the incident happening– she told me after the fact. And I observed this ongoing struggle between her and the kid thereafter any time it was time for that kids’ diaper change. I think she was also afraid to mention the back incident to our head of school because she may have been afraid to be seen as incapable if her body could not keep up. Again, it was just awkward all around.
- I personally feel that it is not fair to expect assistant staff to do lead-level work (aka materials creation). I genuinely feel that there is a reason the lead went off and spent thousands of dollars and countless hours learning how to be a Montessori lead guide– and it is because there are things we were trained to know that put us in a specialized role. Guides are not trained or hired so that we can bring the training to every assistant “near you” and show everyone else how to do our job. In fact, the AMI diploma explicitly forbids that. I might task the assistant to cut paper for the nomenclature cards I’m about to make, or to help to laminate language cards I’ve created if we even have that kind of time to spare. But I really believe it is my job to make the materials and design them, not the assistant’s. If my trainer showed me how to do something, it’s my job. That’s my golden standard of what’s my role, and what’s the assistant role. One assistant I’ve had actually felt kind of offended if they are asked to do materials making. According to that person’s logic, they did not choose a lead role, on purpose. They don’t want that kind of responsibility.
- Every assistant also deserves transparency around knowing whether there is a realistic chance of ever being promoted to lead, and what it takes to make that transition. Some assistants stay in a job for years, ignorantly and magically hoping their time for a promotion to lead will arrive. You can feel that they are dying to usurp the lead role. One assistant I had had temporarily stepped in as lead between the guide who left, and my arrival. Having had a taste of being lead, she spent the entire year actively trying to sabotage my role and made my work life a living hell by secretly (and not so secretly) bullying me (and other assistants) all year long so that we would both quit. And we knew this was happening because we were both not from Hawaii. An assistant who ultimately desires promotion should ask during the interview “When was the last time an assistant was promoted to lead at this school?”. Not “how long do I have to assist before I’m promoted…”, not “do assistants ever get promoted…”– “When was the last time”. This should show you how likely it is that you will be promoted.
So there it is people. Long, but hopefully helpful! If you have an awesome assistant, you can all have an amazing classroom experience. And I wish that for every Montessori toddler classroom out there.