Teacher Talk: Welcoming Guests
If your school is like many others, you may have had an intentional delay for classroom observation and visits until a few weeks into the year. By now, though, it's time for guests. Lots and lots of guests. Big ones, full-sized adults who make noise and ask questions and look uncomfortable with their knees pulled up to their chests sitting in tiny chairs.
The degree to which guests in your classroom are a gift or a distraction is, as with all things in the environment, a factor of the efforts you've taken to prepare for them. Knowing that this is a time of year when you are likely to welcome more guests, make sure you've taken the time to prepare yourself and your classroom.
First, remember that guests are an opportunity for your classroom and your practice. The more other adults observe in your classroom, the more they'll ask informed questions about what they see and the more educated they'll be about the Method. We know that the more aligned the values of the parents of children we served are with the values espoused by the school, the more easily we can collaborate together in service to the child. When you are informed of an upcoming observer, think of the ways in which their time in your classroom will help to propel our collective understanding of what's possible for children and learning, and receive the guest as a chance to support that.
Even from this perspective, though, it's important to take specific steps to prepare the environment to receive new adults without disrupting the productivity of the normalized classroom. Your school probably has published guidelines for visitors who want to observe. If you don't have the luxury of an observation room, think about the guidelines you need as a classroom community to welcome these observers.
1. Prepare the space: Integrate an observation chair long before you need it. Find a space in your classroom that allows an unobstructed view of the children at work, but which is out of the way of their paths. Identify this as a special place from which one can observe, and introduce Observing as a Practical Life lesson. Some classrooms will choose a special kind of chair, like a barstool or director's chair, to distinguish the Observing space from other seats in the classroom and to raise it above the level of activity for a better view of the room. Be certain to use this space consistently. If it is an Observation chair, protect it as a space from which people can watch the classroom but with which we interact more cautiously. You might use it for your own observations, or you might allow children to bring a clipboard and paper to the chair themselves to spend some time noticing what's happening in their classroom.
2. Practice welcoming new Observers. In small groups or at your whole-class group time, introduce the Grace and Courtesy lessons for welcoming observers. Be certain to specify that Observers are different from participants. These are special guests whose work is to watch. Let the children practice greeting an Observer at the door. Let them practice inviting them to sit. Allow children to help prepare observation notes for guests to follow. Practice walking past an observer without interrupting. Make the time for this lesson as you would any other Grace and Courtesy lesson, and allow the children sufficient time to feel at ease.
3. When you have notice, share it with the children. If you know that an Observer is scheduled to visit, let the children know as they arrive to school. The presence of a new adult, even one for whom we have prepared, is a disruption to the predictability of the classroom. Just as you would prepare the child for any other change to the room, be sure to take the time to remind children that a guest is coming. You may notice a different energy in the room the first few times this happens. But just as with any activity in the classroom, the more often it occurs, the less novel it will be to the children.
4. Ask your Administrator to prepare Observers specifically before they visit the classroom. Beyond the guidelines for observation that you may distribute, ask your Administrator to take a moment at the door to the classroom to review briefly those guidelines and to predict how you might respond as a teacher. "The classroom teacher is likely to be focused on the children. If she's able to welcome us, she will, but otherwise, know that we can connect the two of you after your visit when she has more time to respond."
5. Welcome the Observer warmly, as you would want to model the courtesy for the children. Offer some gentle guidelines as you are leading them to their space. "I won't be able to chat with you while you're visiting, but I'd be happy to talk with you later in the day or after school when the children have gone home," or "Once you're in place, I'll be focused on the children. If you have any questions, please write them down so we can talk about them when I am available later in the day." Don't be afraid of setting a limit around interrupting you, as adults often have less experience with the child-focus we are so comfortable with in Montessori classrooms. Just be sure to present those limits warmly, just as you would when you were introducing any other rule in the classroom.
6. If your Observer interrupts you nonetheless, hold your tongue from responding to his or her questions at the moment. Instead, reply simply and quickly, redirecting their attention to the classroom. "I'd love to talk with you about that further. Could you make a note of it for us to follow up on after the children have left?" New guests to the Montessori classroom may be eager to ask about what they see. You want to maintain that spirit, but direct it to a time when you can engage and model responsiveness in the same way that their children will experience when they're in the classroom. It's easy, in our efforts to be friendly, to feed in to conversations that actually take away from the authenticity of the observation. Practice the language you'll use to redirect observers warmly so you don't inadvertently find yourself in an extended conversation that's harder to withdraw from.
7. Follow up. Whether or not your guests have questions, ask your Administrator for permission to sent them a handwritten note thanking them for visiting your classroom. If they do have questions, be sure to schedule time to respond to them. Often, we think of Admissions as something that happens "in the office," but the more engaged we are as ambassadors of Montessori, the more trust you'll enjoy when these prospective parents become a part of your community and the more authentic Montessori experience the children may enjoy in and out of the classroom.
Finally, remember that the guests who visit your classroom are often nervous and unsure about what to do and how to behave. These are not environments designed for adults, and adults who are new to them will be curious and inquisitive. They'll lack an understanding of the ground rules and, like any traveler to a foreign land, they may make social missteps they don't even realize they're making. You can attribute selfish intent to those errors, in which case they're likely to frustrate you even more. Or you can receive them as well-intended mistranslations from a visitor who does not yet understand the terrain, in which case they're likely to inspire you to help. It doesn't really matter the intent: you're still better off presuming it's the latter. Remember that your classroom is designed for the children it serves, to be a place in which adults are ultimately unnecessary. But remember, too, that you model the grace and kindness you hope children will demonstrate for each other when they watch you greet a visitor to their classroom. Use this opportunity to remind the children that all people, even the ones who might interfere with your daily routine, are deserving of kindness, grace and welcoming.