Advice and Personal Perspectives from EAA Members
I hate to admit how many years ago my "first years" were, but I still wince when I think about them. My advice to new teachers is always: make it a top priority in your job-hunting to work near a more experienced teacher whose classroom you admire, and who is willing to let you ask questions. There are so many things that can't be taught in lectures or gleaned from practice teaching, they just have to be learned by experience. Having the benefit of someone else's experience when mine was lacking would have saved me lots of time, wasted effort, and bruises to my self-esteem, not to mention the difference it might have made to the children in my classes.
The best gift I was ever given was my trainer instilling in me the mantra that if something was not working in my class, I needed to look for a deficit in my environment or myself before I looked to the children, a lack in the materials, or flaw in approach. I am in my third year teaching and, while I have many things I struggle with, I am constantly reminded (by the internal repetition of this mantra!) to not bring new materials into my room and to not succumb to easy fixes that will work in the short term.
I recognized early on that most systems and easy fixes that I could come up with would work in the short term, and would appeal to my frayed, stressed senses. However, I also recognized that these same immediate fixes would ultimately lull me into the difficult place of seeing them work (so many approaches yield such
better short term success!) and then fallaciously thinking that they were necessary for my classroom. I wonder how many young, strained teachers, fresh out of the exhilarating, trying experience of training, find and put into place systems that help them cope early on, see that these flawed systems "work" and then continue on with these systems that are unnecessary and ultimately a hindrance to the freedoms of choice and movement as well as to the idea that education should be an aid to life.
I am grateful everyday that I was given this gift, and that whenever I want to do the easy thing that will yield immediate results, I am reminded to do the right thing that will benefit my children in the long term rather than in the moment when I feel pressure from parents, from society or from my own memories of how school was for me. Frankly, I've spent only three years in a Montessori classroom and many growing up in a traditional classroom, so in times of stress or uncertainty, my default is not always Montessori-like!
So, I suppose I would say to the newest teachers that the Montessori method does work. It is working in classrooms all across the country and world. Whenever you are in doubt, take the day off and visit a classroom you know is a good one and see that it works. See that it can be done and recognize it takes time to get there.
My pragmatic bit of advice: Take your albums to Kinko's, have them reduced down to half size pages, bind them and use these rather than the originals. I can take notes in them without messing up my originals, they are easy to bring to lessons, and I can easily transport them to conferences, meetings and home for planning.
The things I wish I had known as a first year teacher: A normalized classroom is a destination, not a starting point. And.. .1 did not need to make all the materials from my training in the first year.
Keep Swimming: I have 4 years experience teaching Montessori elementary. My first year I felt a bit like I was pushed off a boat in the middle of the ocean. I had to curb my emotions a lot during my first year in order to keep calm in front of the children. I gave myself a lot of "tough love talk" (i.e.: "Ok, this is a horrible day; nothing is going as planned, but I just need to get to 3:00.") I also gave myself more treats (tea at the tea cafe, chocolate treats, comfort dinners) throughout the year.
Children Interrupt and Are Not All Normalized: This was hard after being in the training for a year. I was working so hard on trying to memorize all my lessons and deliver them perfectly, and two minutes into my presentation, someone would ask a question completely off topic and I would either answer it or deflect it and usually completely forget the next part of my presentation. Just expecting it and understanding that this is normal behavior makes it easier to take. Also, it's important to remember that you will get better at this!
The Children Will Teach You: Most teachers would say, "Of course! I know children teach adults many things!" However, it is amazing how much the children teach you about the Montessori lessons. It only takes helping a few children work with Racks and Tubes to know the material inside and out. I was amazed at how well I would retain lessons from year to year after teaching them to one group of children! I am not known for my amazing memory (understatement), but the materials work their magic on the teacher as much as the student. I can take out a material and quote a line from my album because I've practiced them.
I'm sure that I have 1,000 other things I've thought of fleetingly and am forgetting now, but those are three things I think of often.
Question #1: In a recent EAA-Talk posting it was mentioned that we as new teachers may have to humbly say, "I don't know why this is not working in the class; what can I be doing differently?" This is something I am getting more comfortable doing, and I can say this to myself, my colleagues, and my administrator. But is it okay to say this to parents and how can we do that without causing parents to doubt our commitment or capabilities?
I have been in the classroom now for over 15 years. Creating and maintaining a positive and mutually supportive relationship with parents is vital, and I think part of that is being able to admit when something is not going well. That said, parents are placing their faith (and most precious treasure, their child) in your hands. If you can explain the difficulty AND your idea for dealing with it, I think that is more confidence inspiring. Ask for help and ideas from your administrators, colleagues, and your own intuition guided by your training. When you have at least some idea of how to approach the problem, that would be a good time to talk to parents.
In some cases I think it might make sense to meet with the parents, share your observations, outline your ideas about solutions, and invite parents to make suggestions too. Just be sure you guide the parent, eg. "I am looking for ideas to help John make appropriate choices in a way that won't hinder his developing independence". The problem with a more open ended 'what can I be doing differently?' is that it may elicit ideas that are not at all in harmony with Dr. Montessori's philosophy. You will then be in a situation of saying, "I don't know what to do, but your ideas are all wrong". That is not going to be very productive.
My final tip is to do your best to keep focused on common ground with parents: they want the best for their child and so do you. Make sure you are communicating your vision for the child's potential and confidence in the ultimate outcome. It is easy to become afraid, or fixated on what is not working. We have a tremendous ally in the power of the human being to grow, develop, and seek to become her or his best self. That gets easier as you gain experience in teaching, because you see it happening again and again during the years children spend with you.
Question #2: In training we are taught how to suggest and entice follow up work after each lesson, but from my understanding it should ultimately be the child's decision. My suggestions and enticing do not always work and then I am left to deal with comments like, "I'm bored", or "There is nothing to do". Do you assign follow up work? Do you tack on an additional activity to lessons? Do you be patient and revisit materials or lessons after a given period of time?
Try to model follow on work. For example, after giving a lesson on the water cycle I might say,"I feel like doing a play about the water cycle. Would you like to help me?" I try to model the enthusiasm and concentration that we hope to see in the children. Remember that the teacher is the most important part of the Montessori prepared environment. The time we spend modeling follow-on work then seems like a good use of our time. I'm reminded of my student (teacher?) Logan who said, "Ms. Maren, it's not fair. You never do any work. All you do is give lessons". Ah, what an interesting perception.
I clearly recall the excitement of my training and the sense of preparedness that consumed me. Mrs. Honneger, Mr. Grazzini, and Mario Montessori himself filled me with secret intuitive bits designed specifically to excite and motivate the children I was about to collaborate with...what a time that was.1972.San Francisco, California.
Man. The future was wide open. The only problem was that my fellow collaborators weren't interested. Well, they were for about five minutes after my first lesson, and then things began to drift away. 'Things' like each child. They just drifted, as if a current came through the door and powered itself in an eddy, propelling children around the room in what appeared to be a random pattern of visitation. Each child was up, off the floor, out of his seat and visiting someone else, or a shelf, or his coat, or a table. Up there on the Scoreboard the teams are referred to as the Visitors and Home, my team was the Visitors, for sure.
Years later, under the tutelage of Betty Stephenson, and the influence of wonderful experienced teachers, I began to recognize the importance of the lesson and the immediate consequential activity the children had available to them. Lessons aren't in the abstract as a story of inspiration; lessons are to clearly indicate to each child what their immediate activity is. Duh. "Do this?" "Yes."
The child asking, "Is this what I get to do?" is the ideal response to a lesson, right? Any lesson. Purposeful activity is the goal of every lesson, of every activity... building toward the profound discoveries I had assumed my early "visitors" would somehow achieve as a result of my cosmic vision. "Lessons lead the children to their work, Jim,"explained Betty on more than one occasion. Right, I knew that.
"I have some great work for you to do this morning," is a declarative announcement of purpose. There's no hesitation, it's respectful, and it's not confusing. I've heard teachers inquire rather than declare: "Would you like a lesson this morning?"
Why set yourself up for a negative? Why provide that option for the child? Big smile. Happy collaborator. Two minute lesson, "Check this out.. .OK, do that, and I'll be right back." On to the next child and their purposeful activity. Lesson by lesson. Suddenly 35 years have gone by.
The other great bit from Betty is: "Y ou can't do that," uttered to a child who has just done something the adult would rather the child hadn't done. Betty pointed out the contradiction in that the child had just shown they can,in fact, do what has been claimed they can't do. Her alternative message was, "Youmay not do that." Clear, definitive communication with children, and their parents; nothing quite like it.
Three Tips for New Teachers
- The children in your oldest age group are your leaders. Keep them engaged. Give them lots of lessons, stories, group work and opportunities to lead. The younger ones will follow. It's a common thought that the
youngest ones need our attention...they are new to the class. As a result, the oldest go on with less guidance and still the younger ones follow.
- Be kind to yourself. As Montessorians, we have high expectations of ourselves but don't let that get in the way of recharging, taking time out, letting go...
- Join AMI-EAA! The best investment you'll ever make.
If you want to be heard, lowering your voice almost to a whisper may be the best approach - it requires students to listen more carefully. It works most dramatically if you hear yourself speaking too loudly and lower your voice mid-sentence.
Find multiple ways to express criticism in positive ways: "Walk" (instead of "don't run"). "In this community.. .we wear hats outdoors." "You may save the cookie in your lunchbox to enjoy at home."
Model apologies frequently. "I am so sorry! I forgot to give you the lesson about.. .walking around a rug." Or "Oh dear, I gave you that responsibility/lesson/permission before you were ready. We'll try it again next week/month/after I study that lesson."
Take care of your physical and mental self. Exercise your body and your mind. Continue your own education early and often with classes in calligraphy, mosses and liverworts, yoga, trilobites, quilting, piano or guitar; whatever calls to you. Travel abroad in the summers while your knees still work.
Read gems that relate to the key lessons, refreshing your own interest and enthusiasm; offer excerpts to your class. For example, Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything has wonderful chapters on inventors and scientists. The Periodic Kingdom by Atkins is an excellent "Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements" that upper elementary students very much enjoy. A Walk Through Time by Liebes, Sahtouris & Swimme is a great resource, as is the out-of-print Number Stories of Long Ago by David Smith, first published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1919. Sacred Geometry by Miranda Lundy is another treasure. A great book about your state's history is also essential reading.
Keep an ongoing written list of funny things that occur in the class or the outdoor environment. If you have an assistant, ask her/him to watch for them and write them down. These items often make great stories for generating a relaxing laugh at parent meetings.
A valuable pointer from trainer Nan Hanrath: Every morning as you prepare to open the doorknob of your classroom, pause to leave all your personal drama and external 'to do' lists behind you. Allow your breath to wash away your mind's prattle and babble as you prepare to focus on the children and their interaction with the prepared environment.
Jean K. Miller
Questions To Ask Yourself When Something Does Not Go Well
Compiled from a questionnaire that Jean sent out to AMI Montessori elementary teachers in the 1970s, before AMI-EAA was organized, this was published in an early newsletter. We've updated it slightly and find the questions to still be valuable.
Case #1 - A Lesson Does Not Go Well
- Was I completely prepared?
Did I practice the lesson long enough, so I could present it clearly?
Do I understand the purpose of the lesson?
Did I have all the materials at hand or did the children have to wait while I got something I forgot?
- Did I go beyond the children's interest or endurance?
- Were the children ready for the lesson?
Was it beyond their experience or interest?
Have I kept careful records so I know what each child is ready for? Have I had regular conferences so I know each child in the lesson?
Case #2 - The Class Does Not Go Well
- Do the hours of the school day provide for 3 hour work cycles?
If yes, is the 3 hour work cycle protected from interruptions? 2. Do I give enough lessons?
- Are the materials in the class appropriate for the children in the class?
- Is the amount of material in the class appropriate? Too much is over-stimulating; too little is boring.
- Room arrangement - is everybody visible? Is everyone's work visible? (Work has to be seen in order to be inspiring to others.)
- Have you helped children understand what kind of conditions they need in order to concentrate on their work? ("private office", table with other children, seat near the teacher, etc.)
Is there space for "big work"?
- Have you helped children understand the different approaches to learning?
Are the children being given lessons in appropriate groupings? According to interest?
According to achievement levels for lessons that have a sequence?
- Is the class set up so children can develop the skills of making choices and managing their own time?
- Is the class set up so children can exercise their creativity or are they constrained and bored by workbooks, textbooks, ditto sheets, inappropriate whole class lessons, etc.?
- Does the content of the environment serve both the physical and spiritual needs of the children?
- Are children encouraged to satisfy their inner urges; i.e can they follow their tendencies?