I’d be lying if I said that being a Montessori parent was easy. In fact, it can be downright stressful, confusing and difficult. Aside from the pressures we place on ourselves as parents and our all-consuming desire give our children the best of everything, there is an entire world out there just waiting to pile on -sometimes in ways that we don’t even realize. By choosing Montessori for your child, you made a decision (whether you realized it at the time or not) to put yourself directly in the path of all this pressure. You made a choice to live outside the box.
On some level, each of us has ventured outside the box at times -some of us more than others. So we all know that doing so carries its own challenges and difficulties, but it also offers great rewards. Ironically, thinking outside the box is considered to be a good thing. When we get stuck on a problem, where do we go? Outside the box. Why? Because that’s where all the ideas are. Inside the box, the questions have been asked and answered, but when we step outside the box, we realize that maybe those questions weren’t asked in the right way and that there is more than one answer to every question. Outside the box is where we go to expand our minds and grow as individuals and as a people.
In spite of the fact that it has been around for more than 100 years, Montessori is very much outside the box. It is fundamentally different from every other program out there.
We look at children differently: They are not empty vessels to be filled with our own ideas. They are driven to work -to refine themselves, to learn. They desire ownership, responsibility and they are capable of so much more than conventional wisdom would have us believe.
We look at teaching differently: The teacher is a guide -a facilitator. He or she is far less important than the children in the room. There is no teacher desk. No punishments or rewards for behavior. We look to step back from the child as often as we look to step toward her so that as the child grows, the teacher diminishes. Indeed, the goal of the Montessori teacher is that the children are working as if he/she is not in the room.
We look at work differently: Instead of arbitrary assignments based upon the “average” child, our work is designed based upon brain development. This enables children to choose their own work because it is relevant and meaningful to them. We don’t need a grade or a test to know the children are learning and growing because we observe them. The objective of the work may be the process itself as opposed to the result. We believe in cosmic education -that a child can learn multiple things from just one activity. Homework is not necessary because each child learns at a pace and in an individualized manner which can be fully accomplished during classroom hours. Every child gets what he or she needs.
This is not the case inside the box. Somewhere along the way it became acceptable for children to dislike or even hate school. It’s a sad fact but an indisputable one. The evidence is everywhere you look. Ask just about any child if he likes school and you’ll hear something like “I like recess, PE and Art, but I don’t like the work.” Regardless of how the answer is worded, there is clearly someplace he would rather be. Every television show aimed at children highlights the fact that school is a drag. Entire cartoons are based upon mean principals, inept teachers, bullies, bumbling parents and boring work. At best school is something we all must endure until the bell rings and “real life” starts. Still, school became “boring” long before television confirmed this. We have only ourselves to blame.
This concept -that “school sucks” to use the vernacular, is one that thrives inside the box. As near as I can tell, no one is doing anything about it. Now think about it this way -think outside the box: How many adults would subject themselves to 12 years in a job environment where they have no control, no input, the work is irrelevant, the method is antiquated, the goals are unclear, there is little freedom of choice, mistakes are penalized and the result is more important than the process? Well, thanks to a school system that conditions children to believe this is the way things are, probably quite a few. However, there are many of us who would not sit idly by and accept the status quo. We would do everything we could to affect change and if that didn’t work, we’d find a new job. Our children can’t do that. They have no voice. We are their voice and it is up to us to speak for them.
But wait a minute, you’re a successful, happy adult and you made it through school. It wasn’t all bad. You even did “well!” You have a good job. A nice home. You don’t remember “hating” school and maybe you didn’t. Based on the person you are today, school “worked” for you. But those of us outside the box in Montessori believe it’s not enough to simply say that school “works” -especially when the general consensus now is that it really doesn’t work at all and hasn’t for a long time. In fact, it is entirely possible that much of the person you are today happened as an accidental by-product or in spite of your school experience.
It’s not enough to say “school isn’t and wasn’t that bad.” Its the biggest part of a child’s life by far. If the best thing we can say about it is that its not that bad, there is something very wrong here! Shouldn’t school be GREAT? Shouldn’t it be a place that children want to be? Shouldn’t the focus be on things that are meaningful for the child? Shouldn’t it be a place where mistakes are encouraged and individuality is appreciated? Shouldn’t the place where children spend most of their developing lives actually prepare them to live? Believe it or not, when it comes to how school really works, this is out of the box thinking. By choosing Montessori, you have answered yes to all of these questions. You, my friend, are way outside the box. Welcome!
Back inside the box, “real school” starts at Kindergarten -if not first grade. That’s where we ratchet up the pressure -and it can come from nearly anywhere. Your child MUST be able to read at a certain level or know the names of each state, or answer test questions and memorize math facts. The neighbor’s kid is reading Harry Potter. Grandma and grandpa say “you went to public school and look how well you turned out.” Friends say “why would you pay so much for something when you’re just going to switch to traditional school eventually?” And don’t discount the internal pressure we all feel when we see another child in the class working at a higher level than our own child, or perhaps the reading or math is coming along more slowly than we hope. We pass our own worries onto our children. If we struggled in math as a child, we tend to be hyper-focused on making sure our child does not. If we had attention or behavior difficulty in school, we stay awake at night hoping our child can avoid this. All of this and more seems to bombard us in waves throughout the growth of our children and it will not go away anytime soon.
How, on earth, are we supposed to resist all of this pressure? The first thing to do is arm yourself with information. When we first opened MAB 14 years ago, I was relatively new to Montessori -especially as it pertains to the parent’s perspective. I wasn’t even a parent myself. I am also naturally skeptical, so that’s exactly how I entered into this position. I figured there must be some holes or failings in Montessori that I would have to spin at some point. I kept looking for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. Over the years I have fielded just about every question you could possibly imagine on the Montessori method many, many times over. I have asked a significant number of questions myself and I’ve done quite a bit of research and observation. I have experienced it as a Montessori teacher, an administrator, a teacher trainer and a parent. Through this process I have come to learn that Montessori really does have an answer for everything. It may not always be what those inside the box want to hear, but the answers are there.
So what is Montessori? If I had to explain it in 60 seconds, I’d say that Montessori is a child-centered, mixed age environment where children are encouraged to develop independence. It is a place were the focus is on social skills, self-reliance, concentration, executive functioning, empathy, generosity, decision making, confidence and a host of other things that ALL come before academics. In spite of the advanced math and language materials, Montessori is not an accelerated learning program. We are devoted to maintaining a child’s innate love of learning so that it may continue beyond the walls of this school and long into the future. We consider what the children need now as well as the skills they will need25 years down the road. We prepare children for life.
While taking advantage of the endless resources available to you at MAB, including observation, parent conferences, Facebook classroom groups, parent group discussions, newsletters, emails, our parent library, the resources page of our website and your child’s teacher, be sure to look to your child for evidence of Montessori’s value. When you do, look beyond the more obvious things like work product and academic progress. Does he seem more helpful at home? Is her social language improving? Do you find that he gets frustrated less? Does she look for opportunities to lead? Is she more patient? Is he happy? Does she value her own efforts? Does he focus longer? Is her pincer grip strengthening? Does she make better eye contact when speaking? Does he offer greetings to others? Is she more comfortable with others? Does he share without prompting? Does he pay more attention to the needs of others? Is she more accepting of responsibility? These are the intended results of early Montessori education, but there will be not test or grades offered as evidence of their development. It’s up to you to find these things in your child. If you’re not specifically looking for them, they are easy to miss.
Aside from understanding your child and the process of his or her development, your goal, in reading, listening, observing, questioning and thinking is to answer the most important question of all “Why Montessori?” Your teachers and I can give you 100 reasons, but those would just be our words. So truly answering this question requires more than a quick tour of the school or a visit to Wikipedia. One observation and a few pictures from the classroom Facebook page won’t do. Your answer will be unique to you and might well be different even from that of your spouse. But whatever the answer is, it’s something that you must truly believe and understand in your own way.
There is a hard reality of Montessori. It is one that you might not want to hear, but it is true none the less. Montessori is for just about every child, but it may not be for all parents. The ones that miss out are usually the ones who fall victim to pressure from inside the box (most often the pressure comes from inside themselves). They don’t attend parent events. They don’t learn how to apply Montessori philosophy at home. They continue to do too much for their child without looking at things from the child’s perspective. They drill math facts and spelling, reading and writing each night. They fail to recognize the importance of social and emotional development. They don’t observe and look for the smallest changes. They view school as one place and home as another with very little connection between the two. These parents don’t stand a chance. Living outside the box is hard enough as it is but it’s down right impossible when you don’t know why you’re there in the first place.