We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.
- Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential
The children evoke every possible emotion from us: love, heartache, frustration, admiration, hope... you'd have to be made of stone to avoid having your heartstrings at least a little bit taut most days. We need to take care, though, when we're knee deep in the work of teaching and surrounded by so many feelings, not to romanticize children. They may be cute to look at. They may say funny things. They may behave in adorable ways. But they're not characters for our enjoyment. They're real, complicated, challenging, inspiring people, walking together with us, connected with us and with each other.
When we romanticize children, we simplify them. When we are empathetic to children, we create the relationships that are the foundation of our classrooms. When we romanticize children, we pare them down to the shorthand that makes for a good story. When we are empathetic, we acknowledge that they are more complex creatures than we can ever fully know. When we romanticize children, we dehumanize them into characters and tropes. When we empathize with them, we humble ourselves.
Empathy acknowledges the complicated interplay of all the experiences, all the propensities, the friendships, the parenting, the siblings, the personal preferences, and so much more, that interact in any moment to help define how a child thinks and behaves. It challenges us to think about the classroom space and the choices within it from the perspective of the child, not of an abstract notion of childhood or a sense of what "three year olds" or "nine year olds" need. Rather, empathy asks us to think about the specific children we serve, informed by our understanding of child development in general, but detailed by what we know about this particular child.
So, how can you tell the difference?
Your observations should ask more than, "What does this child do?" and detail instead, "How does this child think?" Ask yourself, "What do I know about this child that makes them distinct? What does this child value? What do they love? What are they afraid of?" When you seek to understand more about the children you serve than where they are in the sequence of materials, you are more likely to offer them the lessons they most need. When you empathize with them, that is to say, when you can adopt their perspective and understand what they are feeling, you are more able to prepare the environment within which they can thrive. Finally, when your curiosity drives you to know each child for all their complexity and messiness, you are better able to support them as they navigate this complicated and messy world.
Classrooms that are as child-focused as Montessori classrooms demand our empathy. Without a deep, loving understanding of the children we serve, our classrooms will be more reflective of what we know about children in general than what we know about these ones in particular. That's not awful... indeed, lots of school settings don't worry even so much about what we know about children in general. But we have the luxury of a model that prioritizes deep knowledge, and we have the potential that comes with that knowledge. It's not enough that our classrooms be developmentally appropriate. They need also to be compassionate to the lives of the real people they serve, walking together on this path, connected with each other to form one whole unity.