By Melanie Simpson and Clare Mehmi
In June, we took a team decision to conduct a parent survey in recognition of the reduced contact there had been between our families and team members during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We wanted to remind existing parents of our continued commitment to them and their children and just how much we valued their support, input and opinions, and also to demonstrate our collaborative approach to new parents alike.
We were particularly interested in the psychological impact on existing parents as a result of not being involved in the nursery community, particularly those parents who had had older siblings with us and who were used to our open-door policy and supportive transitional arrangements that in the past had seen so many of them spending huge amounts of time in the building, working with us to support their child to settle into the nursery.
We also wanted to inform our Covid operations strategy. We wanted to know if parents were happy with the way we’d managed the nursery during the pandemic, and which of our new measures they valued and wanted to remain in place for this academic year. New measures included hand washing stations for the children at the entrance to the building, a mask policy for all parents at the school gate and a no visitor policy within the building.
As a team, we were pleased with our efforts, in as much as we’d managed to keep Covid out of the classroom for the duration of the pandemic.
We’re a sessional nursery and have 48 children across two sessions (morning and afternoon, respectively). We took the decision to split the children from each session into two groups based on age, and for each group to attend the nursery just two days per week for a shorter period of time. This gave us time to thoroughly clean the setting and all the materials after each session.
It was extraordinarily diligent and supportive of the team members who were working in the nursery at the time to be prepared to spend so much time cleaning. It was such a team effort; everybody was amazing. Everybody worked really hard and nobody ever grumbled, so I’m very appreciative of the support.
We reduced our fees by 25% to reflect our temporary structure. Nevertheless, we received some negative comments from some families about our reduced hours. We simply explained that we were doing our best to keep the school open, but it was difficult to hear parents’ dissatisfaction in light of our efforts.
Our survey results comprise responses from 54 parents of our new, continuing and newly departed children. These families represent at least 17 different ethnic backgrounds.
We asked parents a range of questions ranging from why they chose the nursery for their child’s preschool (81.3% of respondents said because of the Montessori curriculum), which aspects of the Montessori environment they most valued for their child during the pandemic (71.1% of respondents said opportunities to develop independence), which aspects of their child they learnt most about during the pandemic (65.8% of respondents said their resilience and adaptability) and which, if any, of the changes we introduced as part of our Covid operations strategy would they like us to continue with (respondents asked for the continuation of hand washing stations, masks to continue to be worn at drop off and pick up and drop off and collection to continue at the nursery gate, rather than parents coming into the building).
It was lovely to read that parents’ biggest learning was the recognition of their child’s resilience and adaptability, which I think was something that the parents actually hadn’t put a value on. They also recognised the value of allowing their child the opportunity to be independent, which we supported by sending home activities for the children to do during the initial lockdown.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting about how we managed the nursery and ourselves throughout the pandemic, but my primary reflection is the fact that the children were amazing. They had been through weeks of isolation – months for some children – with their families and when they were suddenly able to come into an environment where they could simply play with other children, we were almost superfluous. Consequently, we had a gentle work cycle when they came in and then just stood back and let the children play. We let them be socially confident and we let them be emotionally stable. We didn’t have any transitional issues.
I think what really helped the children to cope so fantastically well was that we talked about Covid in a very pragmatic way. We simply explained that there are lots of germs out there, there’s a germ that’s making people very sick and that’s why we need to wash our hands before we come into the building and why we wash our hands more frequently than we usually do, and also why we ensure that we throw our tissues in the bin. It was just a case of consolidating all the ground rules about personal hygiene with which the children were already familiar.
The key learning for me was the realisation that I rely heavily on my staff, and that I’m able to do so because of the strength of my team. To have people around me who now intuitively understand what my ambitions are for the children and to be supportive on every single level is very special. The children will come and go, but the associations I have with my team on a daily basis make my job easier and incredibly worthwhile.
It’s for this reason that I know I would have struggled had I not been able to come to work during the pandemic. I probably could have managed to have run the school remotely, but for me the social interaction I have with my team the mental stimulation I get from seeing the children is very vital to my wellbeing.
I’ve also learnt that the need to trust the child is even more important than I ever imagined. I’d always thought that vertical grouping was the most important thing in a Montessori environment, which was why it had always been one of the cornerstones of The Village Montessori, but I revised my thinking when we split the children into age-based cohorts.
The biggest revelation of the pandemic for me was that communication between the children was much more comprehensive when they were with their own age group because their listening skills were around the same stage of development. They were able to competently plan and execute their games and activities because there was no-one interrupting them or struggling to understand what was going on. Meanwhile, for the younger children we were able to put in the scaffolding that was required for their language development.
Consequently, we now scaffold the children who need that support and work hard to protect the older children’s concentration from interruption by their younger peers.
Covid chucked us a curve ball, but as Montessorians we were able to be reactive because that’s what we do on a daily basis. We’ve got great communication within our team and everybody’s opinion is valid, so our daily conversations around what we were doing and the extent to which we were following the children while protecting them, their families and ourselves was invaluable.
So in conclusion I would urge nursery owners to value their team members. Listen to them, hear them, respect them and respect their views and embrace the opportunity to see things from a different perspective, just as we strive to do with our children every day. Collaboration has never been more important for the future of Montessori education, on every level.