Montessori Moments

October 3, 2009


John is a 4.5 year old boy from a broken home.  His parents are bitterly divorced and he lives with his dad, step-mom, and twin toddlers from the current marriage.  John sleeps over at his mom’s house every other Wednesday and every weekend.

The dad and step-mom are very nice, but very young and very overwhelmed with so many little children.  John came to my class one year ago as a 3.5-year old, because his previous teacher couldn’t handle him.  Through a lot of tough love and positive discipline in the prepared environment, John began to settle down and find joy in the Montessori materials.  This was a long and arduous process, which took most of the year, but I could see genuine progress and maturity around the time we celebrated his fourth birthday towards the end of the school year.

I still struggled to help him find purposeful work, and he refuses to do anything related to sandpaper letters or the moveable alphabet, so he’s at least a year behind where he should be academically.  However, he was happy, understood the limits, and was always eager to help.  He even displayed strong concentration when working with metal insets and constructive triangles, and his coloring work went from dark and aggressive to colorful and well-organized.

At the beginning of this school year, he was still doing relatively well, although there was the expected rowdiness associated with the start of the school year.  A few weeks ago, however, things changed.  John began acting up: he got into physical fights, stopped following the rules, and had a strange nervous energy.  I talked to the director of the school about it, and she let me know that John’s dad and step-mom were expecting a baby.  Because John hadn’t mentioned anything, I let it be for the moment, and returned to the tough love, positive discipline, and Montessori materials that had worked so well in the past.

This time, however, they seemed to have the opposite effect.  John would settle down for a few moments, but soon he was hurting someone, mistreating a material, or being loud and abrasive in the classroom when everyone else was trying to work.  If he was working with a metal inset, he would get up from his chair at least 20 times to go interrupt others, and would react violently if I tried to guide him back to his work.

I called the dad to try to get some insight and asked him if there were any changes at home I should know about.  As is customary with him, he blamed the mom for putting negative ideas about school in John’s mind, and told me that every time John comes home after visiting his mom he is irritable and difficult to handle.  Not once did he mention that they were expecting, so I didn’t bring this up.

A week after the fruitless phone call, we celebrated another child’s birthday, and John mentioned that he would be getting a new brother and sister.  He didn’t seem upset and stated the fact very nonchalantly.  However, a few days later we were having a particularly bad day.  The children were acting up and John was leading the way.  Fed up with his behavior, I did something I have never done before to any child: I told John he was acting like a baby.

What happened next surprised me.  He grinned.  It was the biggest grin I’ve seen on a child in a long time!  He looked pleased as punch with my statement!  That’s when it hit me: he’s regressing.  He knows that his twin half-brothers got all the attention when they were born, and now he’s going to be losing his dad’s attention once again!

I really don’t know how to proceed at this point… I have a conference with John’s dad a week from now, but I don’t know how to bring up his child’s reaction to my statement, let alone the fact that the boy’s behavior is a direct result of the dad’s actions and decisions.  He can’t turn back the pregnancy, but he needs to realize how it is affecting his child.

As for John’s behavior in the classroom, I’m not quite sure what to do.  The more I treat him like a “big boy”, the more he rebels and regresses, because he wants to be the baby.  But treating him like a baby is not going to help him understand the realities of his role in life.  Maria Montessori would say that we are not psychologists, and that the only way we can lead a child to normalization is through helping him find purposeful work that he can repeat with concentration.  But how do I go about that if the child’s energy and focus are so scattered that he can’t even sit on a chair or next to a rug long enough to take a material out of its box?

Next week, it’s going to be all Practical Life, all day long for little John.  He needs a sense of purpose in his life, an anchor of stability and success in the crazy mixed-up world his adults have created for him.  I pray that he’ll find his way through scrubbing walls and washing windows.  Maybe Maria Montessori was right after all… It wouldn’t surprise me.


August 31, 2009

First Day of School!!!

Filed under: back to school,classroom,montessori education,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 6:09 am
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The school year starts today, and I’m up by 5:00am to make my lesson plan.  I have 22 children this week, including three 2.5-year olds (two more start next week, thank goodness!).  One of my favorite things about Montessori is that the children stay with their teacher for the three-year cycle, so this year I will continue working with 11 of the children I guided last year, plus four new ones and nine that have come to me from other classrooms.  I hope to have time this evening to post about how the first day went… I’m sure there will be lots of “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Wheels on the Bus” action today.  Sometimes, it’s the only thing that will make the new ones stop crying… *sigh*

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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