Montessori is not a franchise. It is just a name in the public domain. Anyone can go home and open up a Montessori school in their basement without practicing anything even remotely related to the method. Worse yet, one could build an impressive new school, staff it, buy all the Montessori materials and fill it with students, call it Montessori and still miss the boat by a mile. There are no Montessori police to put them in Montessori jail. They are free to do as they wish regardless of how wrong it may be. These programs are not Montessori. They are “Montessomethings.”
These watered down versions of Montessori not only fool unsuspecting parents into choosing the wrong program for their children, they also contribute to the misunderstanding about what Montessori really is and should be. In the best case, parent and child will never know what they missed. In the worst case, the Montessomething experience can create long-term difficulty for a child especially as they transition into other schools. The parents of these children would rightly have a very negative opinion of Montessori even though what they experienced was something else entirely.
The Montessori philosophy is an amazingly well-conceived basis for child learning. It works for just about every child (although not necessarily for every parent). When it is done properly, it is very difficult to find fault. However it is practiced by human beings and subject to adult tendencies. Without excellent training and a great deal of sustained effort, it is easy to blur the lines between doing it right and doing it wrong. Given this, it is really hard to blame the Montessori community for trying to protect what we have. The unfortunate result is that Montessori remains the best kept secret in all of education.
In the Northern Virginia area, there are plenty of Montessori schools from which to choose. Some of them are good. Some of them are great. Some of them are…not. The great Montessori schools know who they are, and we all work together to ensure that we continually represent the best Montessori can offer. In their defense, the rest of the Montessomethings may not even really be aware that they aren’t practicing Montessori. So in keeping with Montessori philosophy, we try to help them too.
But how do you know what to look for?
When you begin your search, go and see as many Montessori schools as you can. As difficult as it may be, try to avoid limiting your choices based on small differences, such as a few miles of travel time, slightly smaller playground or even smaller classrooms. The heart of the program may be so amazing that it is well worth an extra 30 minute drive or putting up with an older, smaller facility. The bells and whistles are fine but should fall at the bottom of the list in the final analysis.
Many new parents visit our school without having formed their own ideas of what school should be. The majority of parents of children age 2.5-5 are looking for “daycare.” The substance of these programs and curricula seem to be very similar from location to location. Daycares tend to differentiate themselves by facilities, extra-curricular activities, over-planned daily schedules, web-cameras, bus transportation and price. Consequently, many of the questions that parents ask pertain to these elements without addressing the educational philosophy, teacher training, preparation of the environment and classroom work.
It’s easy to get bogged down in these areas during your search, so save these things for the end. Stick to the how and why of what is going on in this school. In fact, most of your questions and research should be done in an attempt to learn each school’s culture. A school’s culture comes from the people in it; owners, school heads, faculty, students and parents. In the beginning, this group’s job is to collectively answer the big questions like “Why are we here?” “Why do we do what we do?” and “How do we do it?” The longer that group is together, the more established and evident these answers will be. This consistency allows for the collective focus to include the finer, but important points of Montessori. The more a school seeks to share this culture with the parents and community, the stronger that culture will be. So there should be an obvious emphasis on parent education.
Without consistency among the faculty, it is extremely difficult to maintain a solid school culture. So when you start looking at the school, you should begin with the faculty. Meet the director. Meet the teachers. Observe a classroom. The next step should be to determine the extent to which the school (everyone in it) understands and can share/explain the Montessori rationale for why we do what we do. This is a great indicator of school culture. It is one thing for the head of school to understand it, but what about the rest of the faculty? This is where many parents get tripped up. They simply don’t know the questions to ask or the answers to expect. I’ve written many blog posts on this site and I’ve created an explanation of our educational model HERE, which should give you plenty to think about in your search.
I’d love to say that this simple formula is all you need to find the right school. The reality is that even after all of your work, you are most likely going to go with your gut. Perhaps you should, because you may second guess yourself forever if you don’t. So think about how you felt during your visit. Very often, that feeling can reveal a lot about the school culture. There should be a sense when you walk into the building that this is a child’s place. The faculty are happy, relaxed and confident. The children are engaged and exhibiting joy in their work. The rooms and the school building are open, calm, orderly and everything is at the child’s level. The materials are purposeful, beautiful and appropriate. If all these things are in place, your gut will tell you what to do. In the end, the right school for you may just be the one you don’t want to leave.