The Power of Positive Thinking (Work Edition)

Montessorians approach children in a unique way. We believe in positive discipline, encouragement instead of praise, and utilizing power collaboratively instead of imposing our will upon the children we work with. Though it may sound normal, it is actually one of the most counter-intuitive pieces of learning Montessori – for most people, it requires unlearning a lifetime of socialization about how we should deal with children.

The basics of the approach look something like this:

  • Provide limits, structure, and routines
  • Give love unconditionally and avoid rewards and punishments
  • Model appropriate behavior (especially social etiquette)
  • Limit intermediate devices (like cell phones) when interacting with children*
  • Minimize time spent with poorly regulated influences (i.e. television)*
  • Offer encouragement instead of praise
  • Find ways to share power with a child instead of wielding power over the child
    (*Not applicable within the Montessori classroom)

Observing these guidelines goes a long way in creating a peaceful classroom and building student-teacher relationships and this approach is one of the things that draws me to Montessori. In short, we aim to treat children like people instead of children, a distinction that aims to respect their humanity and development and is often missed elsewhere.

In practice, this makes our classrooms incredibly positive places. There are any number of guidelines that children must follow, but any failure to do so is met with kind words and a gentle reminder. For example, if a child fails to push in their chair after leaving it, we simply say, “Oh, I think you forgot to push in your chair.” in a calm, kind voice. The most typical response is some sort of gasp and smile as the realization that they did indeed forget washes over them followed by quick replacement of the chair under the table. While we try to avoid praise (things like: good job, I am so proud of you, you are the best ________), encouragement abounds. We acknowledge hard work, focus, concentration, teamwork, and other positive behaviors with observation (i.e. our classroom looks neater now that you helped put things away).

These tactics teach children that it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail. Plus, they go a long way in showing them positive ways to deal with other people. Instead of assuming the worst of a friend who has done something wrong, the children have hours of examples of adults assuming the best to pull from. Perhaps most importantly, this approach helps children to develop internal motivation and a sense of responsibility to the community at large. By observing the impact of their action (positive or negative) instead of framing their work in relation to ourselves (i.e. “I like…”) they learn to work for their own fulfillment rather than merely to please someone else.

I have known this approach to be wonderful for children for a couple of decades, but I never considered what a difference it would make in my  day. Instead of coming home feeling drained and negative about all the little things that had gone wrong (even on generally good days), last week, I had a hard time coming up with anything negative to say at all. For the first time in a long time, I left work feeling good about myself, my work, and the students in my care multiple days in a row. I know the novelty of this work will likely wear off, but it seems almost impossible to leave feeling miserable when you’ve spent the entire day looking for the good in and assuming the best of others.

**Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

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?

One Child at a Time

In my Montessori philosophy class this week, we got a piece of paper titled “The Unfolding Montessori Teacher” which outlines ways we could continue to grow and give back to the Montessori community over the course of our Montessori career. It was presented as a guide, not a choose your own adventure, and the last item is:

Takes a global responsibility: Helping Achieve World Peace

While this is a beyond lofty goal, it is the most succinct way I have of knowing that I have found my people. Dr. Montessori felt very strongly that education serves as a peace-builder, and that tradition continues in many of her namesake schools. But how? The Montessori answer is simple – One child at a time.

Everything about the Montessori style of education is based on following the child, serving their developmental needs, and doing so in the name of creating a good human, not just a good student. While this spans their academics, meaning everything they do is personal to them, it also stretches into their personal development, which is very much a part of the curriculum.

Children as young as two-and-a-half are actively taught grace, courtesy, manners, and conflict resolution. From the very beginning, students are taught about kindness and respect. Arguments over playground toys are met with an adult mediated session where each affected party gets to share their side. The goal is collective peace, and a transference of resolution skills, not mutual tolerance. Further, an enduring respect for life is cultivated throughout the Montessori experience, from caring for classroom plants and animals, to a universal no kill attitude – even roaches and mosquitos are humanely caught and returned to their outdoor home.

Being in Orlando made Montessori’s call for peace education all the more timely and painfully important. Montessorians, and educators collectively, must continue to show children ways toward peace that they can carry with them and spread to others throughout their lives, one child at a time.

Bittersweet

Skipping in, or hiding behind mom,
it’s true that day one was relatively calm,
but soon they’d manage to test my aplomb.

They challenged me to be fair and just,
(especially with those who cussed),
while I helped them to unclench their fists;
but no matter how long we discussed,
many problems left me nonplussed.

I watched each child learn and grow,
though progress was incrementally slow,
I loved seeing each of them find their flow.

The end grew near
and I wanted a beer,
as it had been quite a year.

The last day came
and I had to proclaim,
I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

I hope each child saw the piece of me
that loved their idiosyncrasies.
It’s easy to foresee
all that they could be.

Cleaning cubbies with no faces to greet,
it isn’t a year I would want to repeat,
but I can truly say the end is bittersweet.

Full Circle

I have taken more than 20 trips around the sun since I first walked into Danville Montessori School, knowing little about what awaited me. I left feeling enormously grateful for the education I was afforded and have carried nuggets of the Montessori philosophy with me ever since.

Now, it is with great excitement that I share that I will be embarking on another Montessori journey in just a few short weeks — to become a teacher. I will spend most of my summer learning how to craft the Montessori environment and then spend next year as an intern in a classroom full of 25 four- and five-year-olds starting their own Montessori experience. I will have the opportunity to work side-by-side a veteran teacher while actively applying what I learned in the classroom to see how all of the Montessori pieces come together.

Despite feeling like I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream, I couldn’t have told you this was something I wanted five years ago. I’m still not confident that it’s what I want to do for the next 40 years, but I am absolutely certain that it’s a step in the right direction. So here’s to new adventures and bringing life full circle!

Being Good

3 hours.

Three hours is the approximate amount of time I had spent being responsible for children prior to starting as a teaching assistant. I accepted the job with a lump of uncertainty in my gut – was I even remotely good with kids? Would I enjoy working with them at all?

Just like I have with every role I’ve taken on, I worked hard to become competent at the work. But unlike the other work I’ve done, I find myself questioning whether the work is something I want to be good at. Daily, my fundamental beliefs about what is best for children are challenged. Daily, I am asked to interact with kids in a way that I believe limits their ability to be good citizens. Daily, I have to grapple with whether I am now part of the system I despise.

Early on, I came to terms with the idea that I was not actually doing harm to the children I teach, but that was a hurdle. My instinctual response to the constant discipline and the unnecessary rules was values turmoil and a gut check as to whether I could continue the work. But, I was reminded that millions have survived our school systems with little permanent damage (short of a distaste for learning) and that even if I might have a better way, the traditional way still produces capable humans.

As the school year went on, I stifled most of my disquiet in the routine of each week. But, in my school April brings showers of questions from colleagues about whether you will return in August. As I’ve struggled to nail down concrete plans to earn my Montessori teaching certification, colleagues and supervisors have urged me to stay in my current role, or to obtain my traditional teaching credential. With each piece of praise I receive, I am struck by the question looming in the back of my mind:

Is this something it’s good for me to be good at?

On the one hand, I’ve strived to incorporate as much of my own teaching philosophy as possible into my work with students. I try to respect their humanity, be patient beyond my perceived limits, give them choices as much as possible, and make learning as engaging as I can.

On the other, I have enforced rules that I find asinine, been frustrated with students reacting to their stifling environment, and voluntarily implemented learning systems that are terribly boring.

I want to believe that the former is what has helped me earn respect at my school, but I fear my willingness and skill for the later may be the biggest contributor. I am proud of my ability to deal with an exceptionally challenging group of students day after day, and my ability to do so with patience and kindness for them more often than not. But I’m less proud of my willingness to mold to the demands of the traditional environment, even when it challenges what I believe to be right.

Role Modeling

One of my most frequently used activities while working with college students (borrowed from Beverly Tatum) asks students to spend sixty seconds finishing the lead-in “I Am…”. Tatum designed the activity to highlight the invisibility of privileged identities (few students write “I am white”, but many write “I am black/latino/etc.”), but my favorite use is to help students consider what qualities they would like to model for the younger kids they mentored. Students analyze their list to see which they would like to share with their mentees and then develop actionable steps they could take to do so.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of role modeling lately, spurred by both my volleyball team and my students at school. Through these roles I can easily see how powerful modeling can be for children, whether intentional or not.

My spring volleyball team (the Pink Panthers) is full of focused, talented young women. They are quite good for their level, but the level doesn’t challenge them much. They win the majority of their points on serves, and doing more than returning a ball directly back over the net isn’t on our radar. Many of the core volleyball skills, like moving to the ball, getting set for passes, and sending the ball to teammates are rarely tested during a game. It is difficult to even explain these concepts as many of my girls have never seen high-level volleyball. So I model them instead. There’s rarely a day when my co-coach and I don’t leave the gym sweatier than the girls; we run laps with them, play scrimmages with them, and work hard to send them excellent passes and serves during drills. Our energy and drive to get to the ball or jog from one end of the court to the other during a drill encourages the Panthers to do the same. And it pays off each game as they continue to handily beat their opponents, and become better volleyball players to boot.

But not all modeling is so positive. The most glaring example comes from a third-grade parent on a recent field trip. Hearing the children’s desire to experience an earthquake simulator, this mom glanced around, unhooked the canvas barrier to the exhibit, and led eight kiddos into an obviously closed exhibit. Safety concerns aside, I was aghast at the example she set for these youngsters about entitlement and following rules. While I like to think I would never do something quite as bold, I’ve been struggling with the potential impacts of what I’m modeling when I interact with my class each day.

Reading How to Stop Yelling at Your Students reminded me of my disdain for the “discipline” my school expects me to impose upon my students. I rarely actually yell (aside from encouragement to the Pink Panthers in their noisy gym) but I imagine my frustration-laced scolding must feel like yelling to most of my third graders, just as it often does to me. I strive to contain my frustration, often taking several moments of silence before responding to a triggering situation, but the model of high expectation, low reward, low punishment schooling doesn’t leave many options for instructors. My school has few-to-no consequences for misbehavior — but what’s worse, there aren’t sufficient opportunities for students to truly engage in their work. Given that I discourage inappropriate outbursts from my students, I worry that my own spates of discipline send mixed messages.

Patience Please

Can I crawl under my desk? Can I storm out and tell the office staff that I don’t want to be the substitute teacher any more? Can I just break down and scream? Or can I calmly explain to my students that their behavior makes me question whether I can be a teacher?

I rapidly assessed each of these options as I considered how to respond to five students shouting at me for attention. Though my consciousness desperately sought a solution, none of these seemed like they would end well. So I pressed on as though nothing had happened, trying my best to hide my inner trauma.

Quitting is rarely an option that comes to mind when I’m frustrated, but it was high on my list as I battled through another solo-teaching day. I finally understood so many of the articles about the first year of teaching. It is hard. With teacher salaries so low, I’m surprised anyone stays past their first challenging group of students.

Initially, I tried to pin my struggle on tiredness from a long week without enough sleep. Certainly this was a factor, but there was something deeper that I imagine only teachers and parents can truly empathize with. It is exhausting to constantly put others needs before your own, particularly when their needs sound a lot more like wants — and you just want to eat the only food you’re going to see for eight hours. It is nearly impossible to care for the hundredth time about one person’s interpretation of a comment that may or may not have been intended to hurt their feelings. It is emotionally draining to repeatedly ask students to implement basic manners, and rather than correct their behavior they argue or negotiate with you instead. Add each student asking you questions that doubt whether you know what you’re doing or if you have their best interest at heart, and it’s surprising that few teachers ever throw things in their classrooms. Nowhere have I seen the limits of patience more tested than as a teacher.

And yet at the end of the day, even the really terrible ones, as we sigh and go home, we say, “they are good kids, they really are,” and we return the next morning. We see those children, all of them, as humans with the capacity for good. But there is no curriculum for guiding them to achieve their potential and to deal with their unique challenges, leaving teachers to simply do their best they can, grasping for any patience they can find.

Real Learning

We entered Science class and took our seats. The children squirmed expectantly. A PowerPoint presentation fired up in the background. The teacher began.

“We’re going to do some real learning today, not an interactive activity, because sometimes we have to actually learn some things in Science.”

I tried to keep my jaw from dropping at these words, and settled in for some slides about types of clouds, with one eye on my students. After their initial disappointment, they handled the presentation well — most of them were engaged, even offering examples of the types of clouds they had seen that week. I have no problem with the presentation; it was short, sweet, and prepared the kids to make their own clouds in class next week. But the preface continues to rankle me days later.

It is my steadfast belief that learning should be engaging and fun almost all the time. Interactive activities are one of the best ways to achieve this goal. I honestly believe that the Science teacher knows this, as at least 90% of her classes are chock-full of activities and experiments. But she, like many teachers, has been socialized to think learning isn’t fun: learning is accepting information. Paulo Freire, the inspiration for my love of education, explains this model:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. (Chapter 2, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Freire argues that not only is this education model ineffective, but that it hinders development and makes us less human by stifling our creativity and critical thinking. Instead, he proposes that we eliminate the false dichotomy of student/teacher and empower each other to think critically, recognizing that only through communication can human life hold meaning.

By telling our students, whether through our words or actions, that real learning only happens when they receive information from an instructor, we limit their potential and further the “school sucks” narrative. Worse, we insinuate that learning itself is boring and painful, paralyzing many children before they really even have a chance to engage in the learning process.

Modeling the Growth Mindset

Growth mindset. If ever there was a hot topic in education, this would be it. Multiple times a week I come across articles discussing it, and have even written about it in ”Reconsidering the Avoiders”. One of the biggest factors of implementing the approach is modeling it for students: showing a growth mindset in ourselves and how we approach learning.

Quick summary: a growth mindset believes that learning is always possible, and that one’s ability is not dependent on or limited to innate qualities.

While my school talks about this mindset and encourages staff to foster it in students, I’ve noticed significant challenges in doing so. First, because of the nature of who is drawn to teaching, not all teachers have a growth mindset — or they forget it sometimes. Second, the intense time pressure of school makes implementing these practices tricky.

Teachers are, generally, people who like to be in control and the center of attention. While this manifests in a variety of ways, few people who don’t like to be in charge find themselves leading a classroom in a traditional school. This need for control can inhibit a growth mindset, and I think the struggle is particularly true for elementary teachers. As a third grade teacher, I share concepts that are considered simple by the rest of the population, and I often take for granted that I will either know the answer or will be able to immediately figure it out. Of course, this doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes, I discover that I have helped a child land on a wrong answer. On a recent math test, I counseled five different students through a particular problem before realizing that I wasn’t doing the problem right at all. Fortunately in this instance, I was able to call them back and share my mistake while helping them see the correct path. But other times, feeling duped by a worksheet or poorly phrased question, I go in a completely different direction, insisting that the seemingly odd answer is indeed correct. A recent matching sheet about Charlotte’s Web asked who pledged to save Wilbur and was missing the choice “Charlotte.” Rather than allow the flummoxed students to cross out Fern, I rationalized how Fern could have been the correct answer and argued with them until they relented. I try to employ a willingness to share my mistakes with students and let them see that I am frequently wrong, but in the moment it’s hard to do so.

This is especially true because we are constantly pressed for time. With the students I led astray in math, I wish I could have spent even more time explaining what went wrong and why the new way made sense. But with four other students in line and a limited window for the test, it didn’t seem possible. Daily, there are situations that could warrant a debate over a question or answer, but my schedule doesn’t allow for such discussion very often.

To adopt a growth mindset, my students need to change their attitude towards mistakes and new challenges. The phrase, “this makes no sense,” has become so prolific in my classroom, and causes me such anguish, that the students who hear it anticipate my reaction and start chuckling at my caricatured frustration. Some even respond to their classmates, “Ms. Schultz doesn’t like when you say that.” These words hurt my soul (almost as much as when they use library books for umbrellas), but we have yet to have a class conversation about why the phrase is so detrimental — there hasn’t been time.

Surely, helping our students vanquish this attitude has as much value as being right on a worksheet. We need to admit our own shortcomings if we are going to be the models our students need to adopt a growth mindset.