Teachers are an important part of any classroom. What a teacher does is often thought to be very important. However the question of who the teacher is at their core does not often come up for discussion in mainstream teaching. Certainly, you will hear a discussion that a particular teacher is ‘good with boys’ or ‘good at maths’ but rarely do you hear discussion about a teacher’s humility, respect for the child or passion for sharing knowledge with a child. What is it that makes Montessori teachers different?
In chapter 5 of Montessori’s seminal work From Childhood to Adolesence Montessori discusses the role of imagination for the six to twelve child and consequently teacher. It is from this chapter, which the quote for this essay comes. Montessori spends a lot of time in Childhood to Adolescence discussing how pure intellectual knowledge gained from books does not suffice compared to real life experiences. Experiences where all the senses are involved awaken the spirit and help the child’s imagination to grow and to form frames of reference. Montessori gives the example of trees ‘there is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees that speaks to the soul’ (Montessori, 1973, p.35) Montessori goes on to discuss the abstraction that a six to twelve year old child is capable. Children of this age require knowledge of inter-relationships and cannot be satisfied with collections of facts. Montessori therefore felt it important that the teacher know the world so as to journey with the child in discovery of it.
Montessori thought it crucial that teachers have many experiences with the natural and cultural world in which they lived. She believed this was important as teaching is both a mixture of science and spiritual endeavour (Montessori, 1917). This belief came from Montessori’s hypothesis that children should be allowed to develop their knowledge and personhood based on their own sensitivities. Teachers therefore should be facilitators who connect the child to the world in which they live. Obviously to connect a child to the world that they live the teacher needed multiple first hand experiences themselves with the world so that they knew not only what it was like to learn but also knew multiple ways to engage a child.
Montessori’s emphasis on the teacher as a scientist saw her encourage teachers to gain knowledge of the world through observation. In Spontaneous Activity in Education Montessori said it was important for the teacher to understand ‘the most simple forms of living things’ and gave examples of the teacher learning about plants, their physiology and the laws of biology. (Montessori, 1917). This idea she married with the teacher as a spiritual nurturer who through observing and experience had knowledge of the tendencies and potential of the human spirit. The Montessori teacher, she believed had to have a thorough knowledge of history, religion, art, love and the commonalities between humanity (Montessori, 1917).
Montessori’s strong belief in observation continued into the classroom. Being an observer was a key characteristic for a Montessori teacher. The teacher, full of knowledge from observing their world was encouraged to observe the children so as to gain knowledge of patterns, behaviours and interests of the students (Montessori, 1965). Montessori said that in a class that was running effectively there was little more for a teacher to do than to observe! Through observing, the teacher could see who needed help with finding something engaging to do in the environment and was also able to see what things were engaging the child.
Another key characteristic of the teacher was their knowledge of child development. Montessori teacher has to be aware of where particular behaviours are coming from and conscious of ways of going about resolving them. For example it is normal for a child to want to observe a piece of work that they are interested in and which another child is undertaking. Montessori also gave examples of what to do in difficult behavioural situations. One such situation Montessori gives is that of an upset disruptive child. Such a child was placed in a corner of the room and isolated so that they could see all of their classmates and equipment and be given time to calm down before re entering the class. (Montessori, 2004). Montessori’s manifold observations of child development resulted in her making lists that generalize the tendencies and behaviours of children over different ages. Such knowledge is important for the teacher to know so as they can see where a child is developmentally and ways to reach that child. Flowing from Montessori’s views on child development was her belief that the teacher knew which piece of didactic equipment in the prepared environment suited which purpose in a child’s learning journey. (Montessori, 2010)
Montessori believed that a teacher’s knowledge of self is an important characteristic. She wanted teachers to understand and reflect on their own perceptions and cultural knowledge so that they would not be an obstacle to the child (Montessori, 2010). Furthermore Montessori also encouraged her teachers to deconstruct their ideas of what a teachers role was instead of being a good speaker the teacher should be comfortable with silence, instead of activity she should be comfortable observing and instead of seeing herself as being the fount of knowledge she should be humble and open to learning (Montessori, 1917).
In comparing the role of a Montessori teacher to that of a mainstream teacher. I have been reflecting on the political climate in New Zealand. In recent years teachers have been mandated to report on children's progress in relation to National Standards in reading, writing and maths. While these have recently been scrapped a culture has been developed in schools and within the parent community that has many with tunnel vision to monitor a child's reading, writing and maths progress to the detriment of the child's social and emotional growth.
Montessori said that rather than a teacher boasting that they have all the children at a certain level a Montessori teacher knows they are doing a good job when the child works (in a concentrated, engaged fashion) as if the teacher does not exist (Montessori, 1965).
The above philosophy shown by the New Zealand Government is a form of ‘academic press’ (McInerney, 2010) teachers and schools that are ‘achieving’ are ones with rigorous academics, a demanding curriculum, high goals and high teacher expectations. In such an environment it is the goal of the teacher to get through the curriculum at a rapid pace and place expectations and timeframes on the child that could possibly be harmful. In such an environment it is very hard for a teacher to pause and observe the needs and behaviours in their classroom! Furthermore when I was undergoing my mainstream teacher training I cannot remember an emphasis being placed on observing the child.
Interestingly there is also a concurrent theme in New Zealand education, which resonates with the ‘caring school’ philosophy (McInerney, 2010). A caring school philosophy places more emphasis on social and emotional needs. The caring school philosophy under the guise of Tātaiako: Cultural Competencies for Teachers of Māori Learners places nurturing of the child and their family as paramount to educational success. Being a mainstream teacher in New Zealand is a merging of two very different educational pedagogical models!
In New Zealand classrooms the mainstream teacher has a variety of roles. As mentioned above they are expected to be transferring the National curriculum, which may or may not be at the developmental level of the child. Delivery of the curriculum in primary school level is usually led by the teacher and is not a collaborative pursuit with the student. One reason for this is the use of single age classrooms where all the children are of one age and in some schools of one academic level. In mainstream classes the teacher and school decide what is to be taught and when. Students are grouped by academic level in maths, reading and writing and in other curriculum levels are generally taught as a whole class about a specified topic, which is the focus for the whole term. Usually the ‘topic’ such as science or social studies is taught once or twice a week. Subjects are taught in blocks and once the time allocation is over for a subject students have to pack up and move onto the next subject whether they are ready or not!
While there is some flexibility in some mainstream classes for children to explore areas of interest, learning is usually based on prepared subjects and is limited to what is given. Learning materials in a mainstream class usually require teacher correction , although there is a rise in ‘activity centres’ with self-correcting or open-ended exploration. Sadly in mainstream New Zealand secondary schools there is very often whole class teaching from a textbook with little room for students to explore, discuss or have differentiated learning.
There is a traditional Māori proverb that says ‘He tangata. He tangata. He tangata. What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.’. a teacher we hold in our hands the child’s fledging development. This development should be our foremost goal and we should value observation as paramount to unlocking the child’s potential. To do so as teachers we must observe our own inner world, the child and their world and the world around us. Rather than making the means the ends we must always remember to put the child first. Humility is required to continually focus on how we can be child focused in our technique as teachers.
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Ginni Sackett, (2010) Steps to Literacy Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2A41E71D4D894A7D
Lilard, P. & Jensen, L. (2003). Montessori from the start: the child at home from birth to three. New York: Schocken.
Ministry of Education (2003). Effective Literacy Practice years 1-4 . Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
Montessori, M. (1949). The Absorbent Mind, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House
Montessori, M. (1986). The Discovery of the child, Italy: Fides.
The Montessori St. Nicholas Charity. (2007).Language Development. Retrieved from http://www.montessori.org.uk/magazine-and-jobs/library_and_study_resources/teacher-training-study-resources/topics/the_teacher