When I was a much younger teacher, I had a student enigma, one of those kids who, despite everything I presented or didn't, despite the language we used or the structures we put in place, I just couldn't understand. It was one of the hardest years of my teaching career, knowing there was a person inside of all the behavioral pieces and the outbursts in class and the wandering about distracting other students, a person I could not know and wanted so much to.
His parents shared our experience at school. This was a boy who had every opportunity available to him, the endless love and acceptance of his parents, a school community that was open to changing and responding, and yet. His mother shared with me that, one afternoon while exploring the garage, he had found a few balls of twine, and spent the entire day creating complicated mazes of string around his backyard, navigating paths between them and building a labyrinth, yard after yard after yard, until his mother, exhausted by trying to get him to play with his younger brother and imagining the time it was going to take to unwind the backyard, finally insisted that he stop. I relayed this story in the teachers' lounge one afternoon, as an example of one more thing this boy could do that none of us really understood, exasperated and probably more critical than I should have been. My colleague, David, looked up from his sandwich and asked the simplest question:
"What if all it took was one more ball of twine?"
As Montessori teachers, we know all the philosophy and the ideals we're supposed to espouse. As people, we experience every day the frustration that comes when it doesn't work fast enough, or when the place is a mess, or when there's that one kid, that enigma, that no amount of Practical Life seems to settle. Few of us are fortunate enough to teach in schools that are completely free of the pressures of how other people do things, of what other people expect of kids, of the timelines and outcomes and assessments. And so, even when we know in our hearts that we need to follow the child, when know, "Never interrupt a child a work, " it is just.so.hard to sit on our hands and wait.
Our impatience is an opportunity.
The children will not follow our agendas. Our plans, even the ones based most closely on our training and our checklists and our developmental charts, are only a part of the much more complicated, nuanced and unknowable lives of children. Start from that understanding: all of your observations are designed to know a little more, but you'll never know everything you would need to know to know exactly what a child will do next.
Instead, remind yourself again and again and again: never interrupt a child at work.
When you see a child engaged in an activity, even when it's not one you would have chosen for them, concentrating, attentive, engaged, SIT DOWN. Observe. Look more closely. Try to figure out what it is about this experience that is motivating to the child. Ask more questions. But don't interrupt.
(Yes, yes, yes, of course, this rule does not apply to children who are intentionally damaging materials. I'm talking about all the other times.)
Use the child's concentration, especially when they are concentrating on something you don't understand, as an opportunity to observe. Use your own impatience, especially when a the child is up to something you would not have chosen for them, to observe. Ask more questions. When children behave in all the ways we expect of them, our observations are confirmational. But when they're doing something surprising, or unpredictable, or better yet, annoying or exasperating, our observations are illuminating, actually, really illuminating, shedding light on those parts of the child that are shadowed from us, helping us to understand more and more of the pieces that comprise these beautiful mosaics. We can never know it all, but we won't know any more than we already do if we interrupt the things we don't understand.
I'll never know what would have happened if that boy had had just one more ball of twine.
*an adapted response to To Educate the Human Potential, Chapter 18: Man, Whither Bound