“This is the plan and the technique: to serve, and serve well; to serve the spirit.”
Our first goal as Montessori teachers is to prepare environments within which children no longer notice our presence. So, how come this work can feel so exhausting so much of the time? Shouldn't we be increasingly blending into the background, disappearing as the children take greater and greater ownership of their own communities?
Make no mistake: invisible is not the same as passive. And some of the hardest work happens in the hours when the children aren't there. In order to prepare an environment that's truly responsive to the children it serves, we need to observe without ceasing, analyze those observations, enact the interventions those observations suggest and observe again... there is no "end" as a Montessori teacher, only an ever-present horizon for us to pursue. We are always looking to the child who is yet to come.
Yes. It's exhausting. Now, add to that the other adults who also want your attention: the parents and colleagues, administrators and peers. This is a work that, for all our efforts at wall flowering, draws energy and engagement from us, physically, emotionally, intellectually, throughout the day and often long into the night.
It's ok to ask for space. When other adults pop in to ask, "Hey, do you have a second? I have a quick question?" it's ok to answer, "Not at this moment, but I can find you in ten minutes." It's ok to tell a parent in carline, "This conversation is important. Let's make time for it when we can sit down and really talk." It's ok to let your administrator know you need not to be disturbed during your lunch time, that you're going to spend some time in the garden or in the workroom or just in some quiet corner with your thoughts.
If we make ourselves available to every demand on demand, we leave nothing for our own spirits. And just like the children, we need both time with others and time by ourselves. In a vocation as outward-driven as teaching, you have to insist on that time. In a vocation as humbling as Montessori, it is as essential as air. Far too often, the same personality traits that brought us to teaching, the empathy and compassion, the work ethic and humane-ness, make it hard for us to set boundaries around ourselves. It's hard to protect time for ourselves without feeling selfish. But when we design and follow through on the limits that protect ourselves, we model for other teachers, for parents and for the children, that it is not only appropriate to learn how to graciously decline interaction; it's essential.
And just as importantly, we need to find those people with whom we can unmask the selflessness that Montessori asks of us. We need to have people to whom we can say, “This is hard.” Because it is hard. Our work as Montessori teachers is to make ourselves disposable.We know we have done our work well when no one needs us anymore. We are asked to be beautiful, to be peaceful, to be saintly, to pour ourselves into preparing environments for children that are unlike most of the rest of the worlds they live in, to remain confident in a horizon we cannot see and to remain patient when it seems to be taking much longer to get there than we’d expected. We pin our professional identities on spontaneous developments in the children which can prepare for but which must come from them. To do this work well means to put aside all the ways in which we have been cultured to measure our professional worth. It means to slough confidently up the raging river of standardization and quantification and predetermined interventions of traditional education. This is hard. We need to ask for the help we need on the days when we need it, but we need also to learn to be more vulnerable, less expert, more humble, less self-protective on all the other days, too. When it’s taking longer than we expected and asking more of us than we thought we’d need to give, when we are struggling to see the child yet to come in the one who is standing in front of us, we need to say that out loud, to call out to the other teachers and parents and advocates who are swimming upstream with us, and acknowledge it. This is hard. Without giving up. Without changing whether we believe it is our responsibility or the child’s to change. Without letting hard become hostile. But because hard is hard enough without also being lonely, and even Montessori herself couldn’t change the world without the help of other teachers and parents and advocates around her. Ask for a hand when you need it. Offer it when you have it to give. Call out, as Montessori tells us, not as a prayer but as a syllabus, our only syllabus: “to penetrate into the secret of the child so that we may know him, love him and serve him according to your laws of Justice.”
*A response to Chapter 27: The Montessori Teacher. The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori