There are a lot of things that I cannot take with me from my school when I leave in August. I am going to have to say goodbye to some great coworkers, leave some adorable children I have grown to love, and I won’t have access to all of their really cool toys. You didn’t hear me say toys, I meant work! But I have felt so privileged to be a teacher’s aide at a Montessori school this year because I have learned so many valuable lessons about teaching through this unique method. I do not have official Montessori certification, but I would be happy to pass on some of the top things that I have learned through observation.
First, children have so much potential and can do some amazing things. The free structure of the Montessori method allows children to choose what they want to focus on learning. Even though children are encouraged to work in different subject areas throughout the week and they sometimes do group activities or art projects, most of their time at school is left in their hands. I have seen kindergartners teaching themselves division because they already felt comfortable with multiplication and wanted to push themselves further. Other students became creative and pin punched maps of the United States or the continent of Europe. By the way, pin punching is great for fine motor development, takes more time and concentration than scissors so the students are required to focus, and the grip is similar to holding a pencil.
Patience is a mighty tool. In a Montessori setting, not only can students choose what to do, they are encouraged to do it on their own. When a teacher has the patience to let a child work at something for a few minutes (or a half hour), that they could have done for the child in a few seconds, the child gains so much independence and ability. Furthermore, after a few tries, the student will start doing it on their own and you can focus on something else! On an observation of a Montessori elementary classroom, I saw a student (probably 1st or 2nd grade) create labels on a computer to go with the work he had just completed. He had trouble printing them though so he went over to the printer, opened it, fiddled around with it, ran a couple tests, and after the problem was fixed, printed his labels. Goodness! I’m afraid to try to fix printer problems sometimes, but this young student had been trained to be independent, to problem solve, and to be persistent until he accomplished what he wanted to. The teacher during this time was aware of what was going on, but continued to work with other children who were being given new lessons or needed more help focusing their attention on a task.
With beauty, comes responsibility. Part of the Montessori philosophy is that children thrive in a beautiful environment. Our classroom really is beautiful. When I walked into the classroom on my first day of work, I just stopped at the door and stared a while. There were high ceilings and lots of natural light. Low wooden shelves to hold the work were arranged in patterns around the room. The walls were a light, neutral color with only a few pieces of art work hung on them. I was so unprepared for it because I was used to classrooms being utilitarian and often overly cluttered with bright, distracting colors and images everywhere you look. Many of the works contain parts that are glass, instead of plastic. Wood is also common in the classroom. For example, both the Pink Tower and Brown Stair, sensorial tools, are made out of wood. There are also tons of small parts. And everything has an exact method for being put away. Sounds like a nightmare for a preschool teacher, right? Not really. Yes, there is sometimes some clean up, but on a normal basis, teachers do not prep or clean up the work. That is the student’s responsibility. If something gets broken, they help sweep up the pieces. If a water work spills, they get a mop or rag. If literally a thousand pieces are strewn across the floor (aww, bead chains) then the child gets to work picking each piece up and putting it in the right place. The students have a wonderful environment to work in, but they are required to keep it up. Because of their beautiful, potentially fragile work, they learn the consequences of carelessness better than a child who is only given plastic, unbreakable toys that are resistant to harsh play.
Respect should flow both ways. When a teacher realizes a child’s potential and expects them to live up to their responsibility, they are treating the child with the respect that they would any other person. You would not cut off your peer in the middle of talking just because they could not think of how to put a question, but I hear adults cut kids off all of the time when they take too long to say or ask something. In my school, (I am not sure if this is a universal Montessori principle) we refer to the children as “friends” when we address them, instead of “boys and girls” or “kids”. That brings us down to their level. When we talk to a child, especially in a disciplining situation, we kneel down to their eye level. Personally, I have also realized that respecting a child includes answering their questions truthfully. I never promise a child something I cannot or do not intend to give them. If they are inquisitively asking something that adults avoid talking about, I try to figure out the question behind their question and answer as simply and tactfully as I can. Also for this reason, I never talk to a child as if Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc. are real. Personal conviction, but feel free to disagree.
These are just a few of the things that I have learned and hope to carry with me throughout my teaching experience, whether I am in a Montessori classroom or not.