Montessori Moments

July 26, 2009

How Do You Say “Respect” in Mandarin?

The assistant teacher who started working in the classroom four weeks ago is a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, and talks with the children only in that language.  In the short time he’s been there, he has been able to bond with the summer school children because I was on vacation.  Most of the children think he doesn’t speak or understand English, and the few (older) children who doubt his monolingualism think that he only understands a few words.

When I returned to the classroom, I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of preschoolers who not only understood Mandarin, but who would spontaneously burst into song in perfectly-articulated “putong hua”.  One of their favorite games was to point to something and ask me “Zhe shi shenme?” (What is that?), to which I consistently answered “Wo bu zhi dao” (I don’t know).  After giggling at my obvious ineptitude, they would respond in Mandarin with the name of the item they were pointing to.  Ah, the joys of the absorbent mind…

Realizing the importance of what was happening in the classroom, I made it a goal to learn a few phrases in Mandarin so that I, too, could communicate with my assistant in his native tongue.  My objective was to show the children that we must respect people from all cultures and not think that because our language is spoken around the world we are exempt from widening our horizons.  Nothing irks me more than Americans who travel abroad and make no effort to communicate in the language of the land they’re visiting.  I’d be darned if my students would grow up to behave in such a disrespectful manner.

One day, as the children and I sat around the elipse in preparation for lunchtime, I composed a sentence in shaky and ill-pronounced Mandarin to inform the assistant of a change in our routine.  Realizing my struggle, one of the children asked me why I didn’t speak to the assistant in English.  I replied that he did not speak that language, and I was about to say that in any case, it was important to make an effort to speak to foreigners in their language if possible.  However, I was interrupted by a precocious five-year old  American boy who stated that “you should always try to speak to people in their language, it’s the respectful thing to do.”

The assistant teacher and I looked at each other, our eyes wide and our hearts swelling with pride.  The assistant looked at this child and softly thanked him in Chinese.

The boy nodded curtly with the dignity of someone ten times his age and gave the appropriate reply in perfect, three-week old Mandarin: “Bu ke qi, Mr. Chang”.

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July 22, 2009

Of the Teaching Profession

Filed under: from the child's perspective,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 2:52 am
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I had a conversation with a five-year old girl today while I was sitting and writing some observations. It went a little something like this:

Girl: Did you decide to be a teacher when you were a kid?
Me: No, I decided to become a teacher when I was an adult.
Girl: Oh, so you became a teacher instead of doing a lot of work.

Another student, a little boy who’s a real handful, once told me he wanted to become a teacher. Swelling with pride, I replied, “Really?” To which he answered, “Yes, because then you get to tell people what to do.”

Is that how children really see their teachers, as people who do very little work and tell others what to do? I remember viewing my teachers as paragons of knowledge, and if they told us what to do it was because rules were necessary for the functioning of our classroom society. I remind myself that respect breeds respect, and in every interaction I strive to treat the children with the respect they deserve as individuals and human beings. What more can be done?

July 19, 2009

Back-to-School Jitters

Filed under: back to school,classroom,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 12:33 am
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Exactly one year ago, I began my career as a Montessori guide. Armed with a year of intensive theoretical schooling and hundreds of hours of observations and practice sessions, I entered the classroom excited and confident. My composure lasted about ten minutes.

During my first days as a guide, I was struck by the exhaustion I experienced at all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. You might look at a Montessori classroom towards the end of the year and see the teacher moving calmly as the children go about their work with focus and diligence, but in reality the first few weeks of school are utter and complete chaos.

I remember dashing across the room just in time to grab a 2.5-year old who was scampering up a shelf, and then swinging back around to stop a 3-year old from slamming a fishbowl on the floor (I was too late, but the fish survived). Then there’s the constant crouching and stooping to interact with the children at eye level and show them how to use materials. (We call it “giving presentations”, and it involves either perching on a little chair, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or hunching over a knee-high table).

The crying of the new children is incessant, and those who aren’t howling are speaking loudly so they can be heard above the chaos. I’ll never forget standing in the teacher’s kitchen and opening a cupboard to get a glass. I was confronted with an array of OTC painkillers; it seems each teacher has her drug of choice for coping with the pounding headaches that characterize those first hectic weeks.

Apart from the physical challenges, you become mentally exhausted trying to remember 24 names, 24 personalities, assorted food allergies, 300+ presentations, a dozen children’s songs, and to whom you showed what material. After the children leave for the day, the phone calls begin. Two dozen parents, anxious to know how their child’s first day of school went, overwhelm the phone lines. My favorite line to parents: “Oh, no, Johnny stopped crying as soon as he entered the classroom.”

Emotionally, the first week of school is a roller coaster ride. Your heart goes out to the tiny ones who are crying, and you remember how it felt to be left alone by your parents in an unfamiliar environment. You rack your brain to find the right material to charm one child; just as her cries subside and she takes an interest in a piece of work, a little boy across the room remembers that mommy isn’t there, and belts out a plaintive wail. You look around the classroom and ask yourself if you have what it takes to deal with the day-to-day challenges of the profession, such as cleaning vomit, wiping noses, and singing “The Wheels on the Bus” for the 435th time.

The part that wears one out the most, though, is the constant self-analysis (or, as Maria Montessori called it, spiritual preparation): Am I allowing the children to reach their full potential? Am I guiding or am I teaching? Did I present that material too late? Are my movements slow and concise enough to leave clear imprints in the child’s mind? Why didn’t I become an accountant?

There comes a moment, normally a few weeks into the school year, when all of this madness becomes worthwhile. It usually starts out with something simple like squeezing a sponge into a bucket. As you kneel on the wet floor with the child solemnly sitting by your side, your eyes meet. You squeeze the sponge and make a funny face. The child, who until then had hovered near you wide-eyed and hesitant, looks deep into your eyes and emits a laugh that comes from her soul. In that brief moment, the chaos of the classroom falls away and all that matters is that golden bond, that light that sparks when two souls meet. The child understands that the teacher is someone she can trust, someone who is coming from a place of love. The teacher, in turn, knows that her true work as a guide can begin.

As I prepare to return to work tomorrow, I write these words to remind myself to trust. I will trust that I have the physical strength to get through each day, the mental acuity to remain sharp and focused, the emotional maturity to see the big picture, and the spiritual insight to learn from my mistakes. Above all, I will trust the child, the Method, and the knowledge that I don’t walk alone.

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