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.