Room for (Mis)Behavior

My year as a traditional teacher was extremely challenging. Yes, we had a particularly challenging mix of students, but more than that, I was often derailed by the need to give up so much of what I believed to be right or wrong when it came to interacting with their challenging behavior in that environment.

On my wild days of being the substitute and the only adult in the classroom, I would often try many of the behavior redirection techniques that felt more congruent with my beliefs. Nine times out of ten, I met failure. I could see my students were not prepared to handle the freedom I offered them; did not know how to make the choices I presented them with; and certainly were not ready to abandon their regular behaviors simply because I tried to approach them in a different way. But beyond the explanation of a strong reaction to unexpected freedom, it was hard for me to nail down why my attempts were not working.

The last week of my Montessori teacher training course was a class called Cultivating Cooperative Classrooms. The class explored many of the behaviors my third-graders spent all year practicing and taught us many ways to deal with them. As you might be able to guess, several were entirely contrary to what I saw day-to-day in the traditional environment. But I also saw that many of the things that I tried with my kids were along the lines of what Montessori classrooms do. So the question burned even brighter: why didn’t they work for me?

My conclusion, after 225 hours of instruction on how to be a Montessori teacher, is that it must be the environment. Montessori teachers are able to meet their students needs and challenges in humanistic ways because the environment they operate in allows them to. When a power struggle ensues, a teacher can simply walk away. When children are begging for attention, they interrupt only the teacher and one or two other students, not the whole class. When a child is lashing out or feeling inadequate, there is space for both the child and the teacher to adjust, collect themselves, and try again. The traditional classroom, dictated by a teacher’s need to churn through curriculum and a schedule chock full of places to be allows for none of these things.

Setting up the classroom in such a way eliminates a huge amount of misbehavior before it even happens, and, when it does happen, teachers are able to interact with each child and treat them like the small human that they are. They can problem solve with patience, compassion, and humanity, all of which are often  unavailable to teachers bound by a traditional environment.

Follow the Child

I have been enamored with Montessori education since the moment I learned there was anything else out there. I’ve been defensive about it, passionate about sharing it, and inspired by the possibilities I saw within it. But when asked the all too common question,

What is Montessori?

I found myself fumbling to find a succinct answer. Many components of the philosophy would jump to mind, but rebuttals to each of their value followed just as quickly. Without having seen a Montessori classroom it is tremendously difficult to understand, so the real answer I gave would involve a minimum of a three-hour observation.

Naturally, I know most people are simply not willing or able to commit to such an act, particularly not the random friend who really only asked as a courtesy. So I would fumble around grasping for tangibles that usually ended up explaining more what Montessori is not: traditional education. As I finished up my Montessori Teacher Education course, I’ve finally discovered an answer.

Montessori is an educational philosophy in which teachers follow the child to help them develop as a whole person.

We let children teach themselves through interaction with a carefully prepared environment that allows them to work at their own pace. The Montessori materials are a huge part of this, but using the materials facilitates the child’s learning more than the teacher does. The child selects which material they wish to work with (that they’ve been introduced to) based on their needs and desires, and the teacher observes to identify what the child needs next: a more challenging lesson, more time with this one, or a re-presentation to clarify the object of the material.

To me, following the child makes complete sense as an educational model, but I can see how others may not agree. I’ve asked several of the instructors from my program for their thoughts on whether Montessori works for every child. Their response? Almost every child, the whole model is to follow them, so how could it not work for them. But, this is quickly followed by an important caveat: It definitely isn’t for every parent though. The Montessori methods ask us to forget about years of norms that dictate how we raise children, which is not small task. But, for those who are willing to try it, the risk can be highly rewarding.

A Teacher

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A teacher!”
6 year old me

My response was a no-brainer and came as no surprise to any adult who asked me. I was a child who spent hours upon hours making a school, complete with a classroom and a full curriculum, to teach her dolls in. I cherished opportunities to share knowledge with my classmates and had already been indoctrinated with my father’s wisdom that I would be an excellent teacher someday. My life plan was complete.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, a teacher?”
“Ugh, no, I’m not going to be a teacher. They don’t get paid enough and no one likes them.”
12 year old me

After only a year and a half in a traditional public school, I had wised up to the ways of the education world. It was painfully clear to me that few teachers got the respect they deserved, either from their students or from the general population. At 12, I could already see that teaching is billed in society as a sub-par career, even if we would never dare speak those words aloud. Teacher hours are long, salaries minuscule, expectations grandiose, and success hard to see.

“What do you plan to do with your life?”
“I don’t know, but it has to be in education and I don’t think I can be a teacher.”
22 year old me

My own education spooked me from the traditional system, showing me how difficult typical teacher jobs really are. I found a home in universities, educating students co-curricularly, and while I loved that, it wasn’t close enough to my passion to satisfy my motivations. I realized in grad school that I was not on my final path, but couldn’t see a place for me to fit into a system I hated. My advisors understood my predicament and cautioned me against entering the public school system, recognizing its power to either break my resolve or make me explode.

“What’s your long term goal?”
“I think I’d like to teach teachers.”
Current me

I still don’t think I can by a traditional K-12 teacher for any length of time, the system is too messy and the expectations too out of sync with my values. But more than those issues is that I like teaching about how kids learn much more than I like actually teaching kids. I enjoy watching a kid finally understand equivalent fractions under my direction, but I go weak in the knees watching someone fundamentally change how they are going to work with children.

I’m open to what the world brings me, and I know that I could still change my mind. My work with younger children in a Montessori setting could set a fire in me that flares just as bright as the one for engaging education in general. I am floored to have the opportunity to learn and share the Montessori method at all, but there’s still a big chunk of my heart that can’t wait to share it with future teachers who can then spread it to the world.

Despite my attempts at denial, my six year old self knew my passion better than I have for all the years since. I wonder what else she could teach me?