Episode 191 – Rebranding an existing child care has its challenges. In this episode, Melaina Drissell, who has been in the shoes of different stakeholders at Columbia Montessori School, shares her experience updating the not for profit school’s brand which has been around for 53 years. She gives us valuable insights into her process of taking input from different people on her team and in the community and turning them into action while working with her board.
We’re preparing this environment for them. We want the things that are in the classroom and in that space to spark their curiosity and to encourage the question-asking and the desire to learn.
Melaina, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you, Ron, I’m excited to be here!
So, today on the show we have Melaina Drissell. She’s the executive director of Columbia Montessori School in Columbia, Missouri. We’re here to talk to her about all the things she’s doing as a rock star director. She’s rebuilding and rebranding a program that’s been around for 53 years, which is pretty crazy. So, let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Melaina: How did you get into early-childhood education? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Sure! I’ve always been one of those people that’s been drawn to kids. I knew that I wanted to work with kids in some capacity. I ended up taking me social work route and started working with children who were in foster care, who had been removed from their homes for some sort of abuse or neglect. And pretty heavy, heavy work there.
And so after a while, I needed a break from that. I did substitute teaching for a while in public schools and then ended up getting a job at our local Montessori schools, at CMS – Columbia Montessori School – at first in the classroom. And then I ended up moving to an office position there. I spent some time there before leaving the school and actually going to the corporate world for a while in insurance, which was a decision made based on the needs of my family at the time. It was a good experience for me and I’m glad I had it. It’s definitely not my passion.
And so after about six-and-a-half years in insurance I had this opportunity to come back to Columbia Monetary as the executive director. And so I took that and I have been there in this position now for about a year and a half. And in the meantime, within that process, I actually have two boys and they have both spent time at that school as well. So I’ve gotten to be kind of a teacher, office manager, parent and now a director at the school.
Very cool. And I just want to touch on that a little bit in terms of your move over to the corporate world. And you said sort of like you had to be there. Is that was that sort of like a financial decision? We all know, as Preschool Podcast listeners, that early-childhood education isn’t a place where you go to make piles of money. And it’s a challenge, right? So, did that play fact a factor in that decision?
It definitely did. As you said, it’s not the biggest moneymaker and benefits are hard to come by, unfortunately, as well. And so at the time my oldest son was a toddler and we just needed a job that was stable income, but also stable benefits. That was the biggest part of it for me.
Interesting. Yeah, and I’m sure there’s lots of examples of other early-childhood educators and folks in the field that have been forced to make that decision, not because they don’t love what they’re doing, but for financial reasons. Now, tell us a bit about what you’re doing as the executive director of this program. So, you’re doing some rebuilding and some rebranding. Tell us a bit about that.
Yeah, so CMS has been around for about 53 years – they started in 1967. It is a nonprofit and so we are run by a board of directors. And the great thing about that is that it’s mostly parents. And so no one’s going to care more about the success of the school than parents will.
But one of the challenges with nonprofits in general is the turnover. And that’s how they are designed, right? So, every couple of years the board changes. And with that comes different skill sets. And with that comes different personalities. And so things can sometimes just get off and sometimes it’s for the best; sometimes you need that change of direction; and sometimes it creates some turmoil. And when you’ve done this, when you’ve been operating for 50 years, there’s a lot of changes that can take place.
And so when I came into this position a year and a half ago, the school was in a position of having the previous director and the previous board all step down at one time for a number of reasons. But they just said, “Our time is done here, we need to move on.” And so I came in really needing to rebuild and strengthen some relationships and some trust that had been broken.
But also to figure out… we’re at this point where we’re starting over with new board and a new director. “Who do we like to be now? And how do you we want to define ourselves moving forward from this place? We obviously have deep roots in this community. But how do we want it to grow from those roots? And what direction do we want to take at this school?”
So, it’s definitely been a challenge and it’s something I’ve been trying to use my own experience with the school, but also incorporate the opinions of our families, the opinions of staff and the opinions of other Montessorians both in-town and out-of-town, out-of-state to figure out who we are and who we really want to be.
And the decisions we make aren’t just out of necessity. It’s not just, “Okay, we have this much money and here’s what we have to do or what we can do.” But we are also keeping in mind, “What are our goals and what are we striving for?” I don’t want to just get through each day wanting to remember why we’re doing it and why we’re doing new things that are sometimes long and hard. And so it’s been a challenge but it’s also been very rewarding.
So, I want to come back to that question about who you want to be in your goals. But I do want to touch briefly before that a little bit more on the board because I’m sure we have a lot of other listeners here who work at nonprofit organizations. And so when it comes to getting parents on your board – let’s start there – how have you gone about that? And any lessons learned? Do you have volunteers? Do you go and try to recruit parents? How does that work?
Yeah, it’s honestly a little bit of everything. In the past it’s kind of been more, I think, of a necessity. Like, “We need a board who’s willing to do it. We’ll kind of take what we can get.” I was very lucky this first year in that the board that we have had a very diverse set of skills and experiences and personalities. And I’m so thankful for that. But it’s something we’ve talked about a lot, is how do we continue having a board time that has the skill sets needed?
One of the examples I always provide is, you can ask somebody, “Who wants to help?” But sometimes the person that’s most enthusiastic is not always the best fit for the role. Or you might choose somebody to be treasurer that happens to be the best at math. But does that mean they have the skills needed to analyze the budget?
We really want to take kind of a double-sided approach. And one is figuring out who’s willing, who’s there that might want to help. And the other thing really intentional with who we ask. So, knowing our weaknesses – maybe we do need to find a strong finance person; maybe we need a strong development person in brainstorming together on who we could ask, whether that’s internally or externally.
Our board is a parent-driven board. And the board states that the majority has to be parents. And it’s important to me only to also have some community members involved. And a part of that is, as much as the parents care and are invested, that also can be the problem, right? It’s because we have kids here and we’re emotionally invested as well. And so having that community involvement and someone from the outside I think can only help us offer an outside perspective, but also helps to kind of seek specific skills that we need.
That’s interesting. And so I like the point you made about being intentional about who you’re having on your board and the competencies and the diversity of skills and opinions. And then also the point about getting people from the community who maybe have less bias because, to your point, the parents have children in the center. So, there’s an emotional connection. All really important things to think about and being intentional in that way.
And then what about the ongoing governance and operation of the board? Like, how frequently do you meet? Do you do a lot of preparation? What’s typically on the agenda? Just to get a feel for what that looks like.
Sure. So, typically we meet about once a month. And we actually just recently changed that so we can meet, I think, nine times a year. It can be hard, especially around holidays to meet every month. So, we meet about nine times a year. In between board meetings we have committees. And so we have a finance committee, communications, building and grounds. And so those committees will also meet once a month.
And so they will then offer send their report ahead of time to head of the board meetings so we can kind of review that and be prepared to discuss those items. And I will do the same – I will send out a director’s report each month. And so when we do meet as a board, we kind of have the background of what each of these committees have been working on so we can focus our conversation and our time on the discussions that need to maybe go a little bit deeper.
That’s pretty interesting. Clearly, you’ve been a bit more intentional there as well, having the committees. I feel like we could do a whole other podcast just on boards and actually you’ve inspired me to do that!
But I don’t want to get too deep because there’s lots of other exciting things to talk to you about, including what you’re all about. So, did you go and create like a mission or a vision or something like that? How did you go about that?
We did. So, when I started this role, one of my focus areas was one thing I saw that we maybe needed to change and to revamp. I did wait a whole year to do that because despite my experience at the school – both as a previous employee and as a parent – I wanted to make sure I knew the current atmosphere in the air and the current teachers and parents and really where we were at and what direction we wanted to take.
I did a lot of research, both externally and internally. I had a parent meeting where I gave them all kind of a survey and asked them just general questions about what qualities they wanted to instill in their children, as well as what they wanted their kids to get out of their experience with CMF.
And then I did a thing with staff. The staff was a little bit more in-depth. They asked a lot of questions about what things they felt CMF did best and what things they wanted to see us improve. I asked them… well, my favorite question was, I asked, “If we suddenly had unlimited money what are three things we’d want to do first at CMF?”
And then I turned that around and said, “Okay, if we suddenly had no money, what’s the bare minimum? What are the three things you want to make sure that we don’t lose?” And that was a really eye-opening for me. And then I again asked them kind of what they hoped to instill in the children that come through the school.
And so using all of that I was able to come up with a new mission and a vision statement that we’re really just now getting out. It was kind of revealed at what I call a “coffee chat” with the director that we did at the end of last month, which is a time just for me to get together with parents to talk about what we’ve accomplished the last year and what we’re working on now, where we hope to go. We revealed that mission and vision there. And then we’ll be updating our website soon and kind of doing some outward rebranding there as well.
Cool. I really like how creative and thoughtful you were about the process and the questions and getting all those stakeholders involved. Can you give us a little bit of a teaser on your mission or vision?
Sure, I am happy to! So, I’ll start with the start with the vision by really getting out or what our goal is and why we’re doing this. Our goal is to strengthen our greater community by fostering the growth of self-aware, socially responsible individuals whose love of learning empowers them to reach their full potential.
So, we’re really talking about a greater community and what that means. That might just mean your actual community – your school, your family. It could mean changing the world. Obviously, I don’t want to have a goal that every child that comes through is going to change the world.
But what we want to accomplish with that is giving these children the self-awareness in knowing themselves, feeling confident and okay with who they are, but also understanding their relationship to society and the part that they can play in that and having an impact and using that responsibility well.
And then the other part of that is wanting to develop this love of learning that’s going to continue to build on itself and allow them to continue growing to be what they were intended to be and what they can be and to reach their full potential, whatever that is. That they have both the self-awareness and also the social awareness and responsibility to become all that they can be.
And to do that, and this gets to our mission, and our new mission is to provide an enriching Montessori education in an environment prepared for the child where natural curiosities are stimulated and the whole child is nurtured. And so obviously we do take a Montessori approach to education. It’s something we do believe in.
But we really want to enrich that experience as well, so not just providing these Montessori materials and methods, but what else can we do? Having them work in our garden, bringing outside programs in, doing music, doing art and not just reaching them in a cognitive or academic level, but really nurturing all of them, teaching them social-emotional skills, teaching them how to resolve conflict.
And so making sure that the approach we’re taking isn’t just about education or a certain method, but that we’re considering this whole child. And again, just a lot of intention there, that we’re preparing this environment for them. We want the things that are in that classroom, in that space, to spark their curiosity and to encourage the question-asking and the desire to learn and hopefully just create some well-rounded individuals.
And so I’m really intrigued by the process that you went through to come to these. What were some of the learnings that you took away, looking back on having gone through that process of creating a mission and a vision?
Yes, there was a lot. I mean, it would have been easy for me to just sit here on day one and come up with what I think would be best, but that only is going to go so far. And so looking back, I’m really glad that I did involve everyone. And one of the things that I think worked well for me was to broaden the scope of who we sought information from but keep the conversation small.
And so when we have 40, 50 different families we can ask and I have 20 different staff members, if we had just a meeting to discuss all of that, that conversation could have lasted for hours, if not days or weeks.
And so making sure I was trying to include all the stakeholders and yet keeping the actual conversation… who can talk this out with me? Who can brainstorm. And I had a few key friends in the process that I would literally go back and forth [with and ask things like] “What’s another word for this? Okay, well, that word could imply that we want to do this and I don’t want to imply that.”
And so I would just hash it out sometimes a word at a time. And sometimes weeks would pass and I’d send them another message and, “Oh my gosh, you’re still working on this mission statement?” “Yes, I am. I want these words to be just right.”
And you have to be careful with that because I think especially with being a nonprofit and that changing board, you can kind of get these specific passions that people have that kind of become pet projects. And so maybe someone would take a specific word out of there and says, “Well, this is what our mission says and let’s go with this.” And it takes you down this rabbit hole that may not be the best thing for your school, long-term.
Yeah, there’s a lot of nuance that goes into it because you kind of hear the final product and you’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s great!” But you don’t realize all the work that goes into the attention to detail on those words.
And one of the ways we dealt with that at HiMama was, we have three core values that are pretty sort of straightforward and short and sweet. But we also realize that maybe people could take certain things the wrong way in terms of what it means. So, what we did was we kind of put behaviours under each of them to say, like, “These are the behaviors that would mean that you’re following and leading with our core values.” Because you’re right, it’s challenging.
Very much. And I know some of those words that are really good words. I mean, words like “inclusive”, words like “safe”. Like, yes, we want to be those things. But you do know that people will notice if I put the word “safe” in here, that can imply that no one’s ever going to get hurt. Because there’s also things we know about early-childhood like risk-taking that’s really beneficial for them. Maybe it’s okay to climb up on that structure and take that risk because you’re learning to balance and you’re learning your body. So, does that mean sometimes you might fall and get hurt? Yeah, it does. Where is that line with all those words?
Yeah, and you know, what that really brings to my mind now with this conversation is you probably learned a lot through the journey of creating the mission vision by forcing these conversations about these specific words and scenarios.
Absolutely. And some of it, too, in keeping that Montessori aspect of it, we do talk a lot about the prepared environment. And so that was important for my teachers to have that part in there. And so then how do we keep but then also explain it and honor it to maybe the outside and to the parents of the community who [don’t] automatically have an understanding of what we mean by a “prepared environment”? So, that’s one of the things you want to be very broad. If you get too specific, sometimes it can limit you. But often you kind of need to be specific enough that it doesn’t take you down the rabbit holes, you know?
It’s so hard, right? And so I love how inclusive you’ve been as an executive director generally, both with your board and setting your mission and vision. Lots of awesome learnings here. If you could leave our audience with some advice based on your experience working in early-childhood education and outside of early-childhood education – and how maybe you’ve applied some of those learnings could also be some good advice – but what [are] some words of wisdom based on the experiences you’ve had?
You know, I think for me, the biggest lesson that I had to learn is, for one, to be patient, remembering that things do take time. And for us it took us 53 years to get here and I can’t expect things to be a different way next week.
The other part I think is to continue to want to learn and have that desire. And it’s something we want to instill in these children; we want them to have this love of learning. But we really need to keep doing the same.
And some of that means being humble and some of it means listening to things that are hard to hear. If maybe you didn’t handle something the best way or somebody has a perspective that’s different than yours, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do everything everyone else thinks. But I think, for me, learning to take a step back and to listen and then figure out, “What do I do with that information? How can I learn from this? How can I use this to help me grow and to help my program grow?”
I have right now 21 staff members. We have 50 students – there are a lot of families there. And they’re all going to have opinions on the best way to do things. And so taking the time to listen to it all and not jump to decisions but really take it in and then learn from it and kind of be able to sort out what’s a high-priority item and what’s not, that you really learn from all of that. So, I think that’s a desire to continue to just listen and learn that’s really, really important.
Awesome. Some great words of wisdom, Melaina. If our audience wants to get in touch with you to learn more about some of the amazing things that you’ve done at Columbia Montessori School or about your program itself, where can they go to get more information?
Sure, our website is at www.ColumbiaMontessori.org. You can also find us on Facebook at Columbia Montessori School. And like I said, we’re hoping to make some upgrades there to that website soon. So, feel free to check back. Actually, in the next couple of days we’ll also be getting information out about our summer program that we do for elementary school students. I’m really excited to get started on enrolling students for that this year.
Awesome. Melaina, I love the growth mindset that you have, the learning mindset, the inclusiveness – some really great learnings to take away for us on this episode of the Preschool Podcast. Thank you so much for joining us and thanks for all the awesome work that you’re doing!
Thank you, Ron, I appreciate it!