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.

Welcome to Our Classroom!

I started my new position as a Teaching Assistant at Millhopper Montessori School this week. We spent the days preparing our room for the 25 preschoolers and kindergartners that will join us on Monday. It’s an inviting space full of work that 4 and 5 year old hands can’t wait to use and learn from.

Montessori classrooms are usually unique, put together based on the materials chosen by the teacher from their own stock and what they think will both interest and advance their student’s development. But, most Montessori classrooms are characterized by materials dedicated to certain subjects that comprise much of the Montessori curriculum.

Sensorial
The Sensorial curriculum has materials designed mostly by Maria Montessori that encourage children to develop their various senses. Like most Montessori work, it’s designed for students to be able to manipulate, but it also aims to isolate one of a child’s senses, whether visual, tactile, or gustatory (among others). Children get an introduction to geometry through these materials and develop their ability and vocabulary to discriminate between sizes, textures, smells, tastes, colors, etc.  These skills serve as a strong foundation to later math work, as well as encouraging students to problem solve and become researchers – finding a variety of answers to big questions, like how many rhombi can be made from putting together a variety of triangles.

Language
In a typical pre-primary Montessori classroom, children ages 3-6 share the space and the language materials, meaning, some children are just learning their letters, and others are reading at 1st or 2nd grade levels. As such, the language materials are varied and extensive, comprised often of naming, spelling, or matching object names with movable letters. Montessori also places a heavy emphasis on auditory and verbal language development; we not only spend a large amount of time reading stories and sharing songs and rhymes, but place an emphasis on using the real names for even the most complex things and giving students an opportunity to develop their vocabularies  through interaction with the environment.

Math
Montessori math extends from the Sensorial materials and spans a spectrum of learning to recognize and write numerals to dynamic multiplication and division with numbers in the thousands. All of these learning goals are achieved with the use of manipulatives, from wooden numerals, to golden beads representing units, tens, hundreds, and thousands. Before heading to 1st grade, most students will begin to move toward abstraction, making calculations mentally without manipulatives to aid them. Math materials can be expanded into weights and measures, money, and other areas as students’ skills demand.

Practical Life
The Practical Life area is foundational to the Montessori 3-6 classroom, serving as a connection to home and a place where all students can work to build their manual skills that will support them throughout their time at Montessori and their independence at home. These activities serve to develop basic skills for the youngest children in the class, like grasping, twisting, and caring for the environment, and as a point of rejuvenation for older children who need to reenergize after doing complex work in other areas of the classroom. The area encompasses art, food preparation, and care of person and environment. Students learn how to independently clean up after themselves doing everything from blowing their nose and hand washing, to sweeping the classroom and doing dishes.

Other Areas
These are the main areas of the classroom, but most include science and culture work as well. Every teacher makes their Montessori classroom unique, and each group of students demands materials that meet their own needs, so a classroom might look different not only from year to year but from month to month. 

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

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?

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.

We’re Going to Hogwarts!

Months ago, our class began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together. Harry Potter is something my teacher and I share a passion for, and we both thought it would be a good way to help our not always kind children think more deeply about what it means to be a good person.

I can’t say that we changed any behaviors, but we did manage to inspire almost the entire class to become HP fans. Despite initial skepticism (like moans of “I hate Harry Potter”) some were enthralled by the time the snake’s glass disappeared. Others took longer, but almost all of them have become invested in the story. Several have already made it through Chamber of Secrets! They also managed, over the course of the year, to earn a full jar of marbles, given for a variety of reasons, but mostly for good behavior. We learned on the first day of school that as a reward for earning all of these marbles, they would get a “marble party” as determined by the teacher.

So what did we decide to do? Throw them a Harry Potter party, of course!

The party would be in the last full week of school and img_6656provided us an opportunity to go all out. We made them img_6659Hogwarts letters, complete with individualized desk locations, and presented them as though owls had dropped them off. We spent an hour block of writing time having them write back to Professor McGonagall with their responses. Most were thrilled, some merely smiled, but some (unexpectedly) shared fear. We had several kids who didn’t want to leave their families to attend, regardless of their magical abilities. It hadn’t occurred to us that any of our children would consider this as anything but imaginative play, but we swallowed any doubt and kept selling it.

We had a local actress (the teacher’s mother) dress up and visit the class playing ZuZu Trewlaney (Professor Trewlaney’s equally sighted sister), who identifies which muggle born children will have magical capabilities for Dumbledore. She did a phenomenal job, explaining to the children that they would be attending an orientation (Hogwarts has never had so many muggle borns from one place invited to attend, after all!) the next afternoon.

After countless questions about “when are we going to Hogwarts?” and “is this our marble party?” leading my teacher and I to seriously question whether we were messing with their minds a little too much, the party arrived.

Students entered the classroom via a fabricated Platform 9 3/4, rushing through a faux brick wall. They were sorted via cupcake (I colored frosting img_6683inside to indicate which house they would be in), though we got a witches hat from our music teacher to fully simulate the experience. Our kiddos got to try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, don Harry Potter glasses, andimg_6666 wave plastic (or pretzel) wands. Before we could watch “a documentary about castle life” (the first Harry Potter movie), each child got a personalized Chocolate Frog.

This was my favorite project that we took on, though it ended up taking an excessive amount of time. Each child had their own picture on a img_6649chocolate frog card and the box was personalized to explain what had made img_6650them worthy of
such a wizard honor. We created fictional lives for each of them, from being a famous quidditch Chaser, or volunteering at a Unicorn Sanctuary, to becoming the Minister of Magic via groundbreaking work with Muggle Relations. We tried to personalize each story based on the students interests and what we thought they would most enjoy and it was a really fun reflection tool at the end of the year. 

Our students had a wonderful time feeling like witches and wizards and it was fulfilling to be able to bring them that joy. They were invested in the story and their imaginations, and we invested in their interests. While we could have made this adventure much more academic, the effort we gave and the immersion that came out of it is a good model for how kids could be learning at school every day, not just for an end of the year party.

Professionals

Read the following definition and consider whether you think that teachers are included in the category described.

Professionally exempt work – “Work which is predominantly intellectual, requires specialized education, and involves the exercise of discretion and judgment. Professionally exempt workers must have education beyond high school, and usually beyond college, in fields that are distinguished from (more “academic” than) the mechanical arts or skilled trades. Advanced degrees are the most common measure of this, but are not absolutely necessary if an employee has attained a similar level of advanced education through other means (and perform essentially the same kind of work as similar employees who do have advanced degrees).” (From http://www.flsa.com/coverage.html; as written in this Education Week article)

If you said yes, you would be right. It’s fairly easy to see how the role of a teacher fits within these parameters. Teachers exercise discretion and judgment constantly, they are expected to hold advanced degrees, and the work is mostly intellectual in nature.

However, there is certainly a case for arguing that, in the current state of the profession, teachers do not satisfy all three of these requirements. As standardized testing has taken root, and curriculum has become more and more dictated by external forces, the amount of thinking a teacher is expected to do has diminished. Even at my school, where we test once a year solely for the purposes of helping teachers assess where students are, teachers infrequently utilize their own creativity in a robust way. What they teach and how they teach it is often dictated to them; if not by the school, by their perceived limitations.

Instead of designing their own activities, I frequently watch teachers turn to Google to find a way to approach a lesson that hasn’t been written for them. Yes, it is good to avoid recreating the wheel and it is important to know how to use your resources, but rarely do the teachers seem to think, “hmm, let me come up with a way to teach this from the power of my brain.” Further conceded, teachers do an enormous amount of exactly that in an impromptu fashion, as they explain each concept repeatedly in new ways in an effort to get students to understand. But where did we lose the notion that teachers are truly professionals who have the preparation and skills to be able to figure out how to teach a concept from the beginning for themselves?

What concerns me most is that the political policies draining professionalization from teaching don’t match up with the political rhetoric professing that teachers are among the most professionalized in society. The excerpt above is taken from an Education Week article explaining why teachers will be exempt from President Obama’s update to the overtime law, just like doctors, engineers, and accountants, among others. For this policy, teachers are deemed capable professionals (likely because no one can imagine a feasible plan to pay teachers the overtime that would be required by the update to the rule).

I want this to be true; I believe that teachers have and should have the knowledge and freedom to perform their work to their best ability, just as professionally exempt employees in other fields do. But I just don’t think the current system actually supports that. Aside from the proof given by the enormous amount of regulation and standardization that teachers endure, teachers are paid significantly less than the other professional exempt employees. If society truly deemed teachers as on par with others in this classification, I have to believe their work lives and salaries would be comparable. Without reconciling the rhetoric and the policies, I believe we will continue to struggle to find great teachers, keep them, and give future generations the best possible education.

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.