Teacher Talk: Teaching in the Third Plane
Oh, you dear, patient, lovely people, you teachers of adolescents, you bold adventurers blazing a new path for an ever widening generation of Montessori learners! What a courageous path you've chosen. Unlike Early Childhood Montessori teachers, you lack the public awareness of your practice. Unlike Elementary Montessori teachers, you lack the specific materials to lean back on. The Montessori guide at the Third Plane of development needs to rely on her understanding of adolescent development, her creative ability to integrate content across unpredictable settings, and her compassion for herself and her students as she supports their emerging adult-ness.
Montessori gave us some guidance for what development looks like in the Third Plane, that time of social consciousness and a commitment justice and social change. She noted the need for adolescents to separate, intellectually, social and psychologically, from their parents, to challenge the values of the older generation and to critique social norms that were unjust, inequitable or simply too traditional. She terms this process, "valorization," when youth began to imagine themselves as change-agents, committed to noble ideals and dismissive of whatever or whoever stood in their way, even when those obstacles were the result of people they love. This is a time for creating heroes and for defeating them, for holding up some individuals as ideals to aspire to and for bringing down others, especially those in positions of traditional authority, as perpetrators of an unjust society.
As teachers of the Third Plane, you know how to listen to these young adults, how to question them without judgment and help to guide them without directives. You know your work is to facilitate their agency as world-changers, but not to identify for them the ways in which they need to express that. You know how to ask open-ended questions, how to look across relevant, meaningful work to integrate specific skills and content, and how to negotiate among the increasingly powerful social agenda of the group. You are a diplomat, among students, between students and the agencies they seek to influence, between students and the family structures they seek to undo. You are a peacekeeper among rabble-rousers, subversively supporting the rousing without allowing the whole place to fall in.
It's noble work.
It's humbling work.
Acknowledge that challenge each day. Working with students at this age can seem more straight-forward. Their verbal ability and their seeming maturity make them appear easier to understand. Confused about their motivations? Ask them. Think they might be cranky because they're hungry or tired ? Ask them. They look adult-ish; it's easy to forget that they're not. Because sometimes learners in the Third Plane, particularly those between 12 and 15, are unpredictable. Like all children, they need to feel loved, safe and heard, but they sometimes behave in ways that are more difficult to love, in ways that are more dangerous, in ways that make you want to stop listening.
Adolescence is a liminal time, when learners are no longer who they've been and not yet what they are becoming. Their development, their roles, their contributions and their identities, can unfold in unpredictable and irregular ways. They want to know where their own boundaries are, and so they test their limits, often in ways that may seem irreverent or disrespectful. They are developing the ability to discern their own influence on the world, and so they practice that influence, often in ways that feel steamrolling or critical. They want ownership and agency over their own lives, and they can exert that authority in ways that stand in stark contrast to the models they have around them, as though the way they will demonstrate the most self-determination is by determinately rebelling against everything their parents or teachers value.
Y'all. It's not personal. As teachers of the Third Plane, you know how to intervene when a learner's behavior is challenging to another adult, whether it's a parent or another teacher. You know how to ask open-ended questions, how to demonstrate patience, how to rearticulate for them when they may be digging holes too deep to get out of on their own. Offer the same grace to yourself. Give yourself time, especially when learner development is challenging your patience. Give yourself the compassion to say outloud that this is very hard work. Give your students the grace to remember that the very parts of their development that are the most problematic for other adults are the ones that are essential to them becoming the adults we trust they can become. Collaborate with your Toddler teacher colleagues (there's a lot of overlap in the core drives between these stages of development.) Your work is to serve as diplomat and statesman, helping them to navigate between their own idealized sense of how the world should work and the real obstacles of authority, structure and social organizations that are in the way. Your work is to help them to be loved, understood and heard, even when their immediate behaviors make that more difficult, even when they're getting on your very last nerve.
It's not personal. It's essential questioning, challenging the limits they've experienced in a world they are just now able to see for its imperfections, challenging the authorities they've been bound to in a structure they are just now able to see their own ability to influence. Your goal is to help them steer themselves through a period of development which is at once emboldening and terrifying, with patience, compassion and great love. Be sure you're offering it to yourself at the same time. Remember: we are to treat the child as though he is already the person we believe he will become. Remember: in Adolescence as in every stage of development that has preceded it, if you create an environment which allows learners to be good, to be motivated to learn and to build a peaceful community, they will rise to the occasion. Even on the most challenging days, give them the benefit of the doubt so they can feel the benefits of your faith.