What makes you a teacher? Is it your content knowledge? Your expertise? Your deep understanding of the concepts of your discipline? In many spaces, yes. Teaching is measured by our ability to answer questions correctly, to understand complicated ideas and to convey them in an educable manner to an audience of students.
Not in Montessori. Montessori calls us to a three-fold work: teacher as scientist, teacher as servant, teacher as saint. Pursuing saintliness, we are asked to be moral and ethical role models for children. As servants, we are directed to prepare an environment within which children can develop without adult obstruction. And as scientists, we are called to observe children’s development, with the hope that our observations will help to inform how we prepare the environment to meet them.
It’s possible, then, to conclude that our role as scientists is about observing and concluding, about attending carefully enough to each child’s individual development so that we can confidently serve the needs of that child. But Montessori defines the Scientist differently, not as someone whose experiments lead to conclusions, but as someone whose experiments reflect their curiosity, their comfort with the mysteries.
Scientists are mistake-makers, knowing that it is in testing what we believe and finding it lacking that we can best change the direction of those beliefs. We seek truth by being willing to cast aside our previous understanding, by thinking of the world as always holding more detail, more “fascinating secrets” than we can consume ourselves. Our expertise is in knowing how to ask questions rather than in the conclusions we confidently draw.
From this definition, the work of the Montessori teacher demands so much more humility. We are not auditors of children’s rightness or answer-keys to their errors. We don’t draw our value from the confidence with which we know the right-answer, but from the joy that is evoked in our curiosity about the child. We begin to become scientists in the way Montessori defines it when we are more passionate about what we don’t know than we are confident in what we do.
The practice of Montessori teaching, then, and more importantly, the preparation of Montessori teachers, should be, as Montessori describes it, “toward the spirit rather than toward the mechanism.” The materials as the alphabet, but the nature of teaching is the poetry one can create with those letters. This preparation of the spirit is not about precise where you place your fingers during the carrot cutting lesson or whether or not you whisper, “This is a chemical reaction” when you combine baking soda and vinegar in a bowl. It is not about the order of the presentation of the sandpaper letters. Despite how much time we spend practicing the precision of these lessons, despite how passionately we argue for thee one “right way” to Montessori, the real work is not in the lessons themselves, but in our ability to offer those lessons mindfully from a deep and authentic love for the child, “ a far more tender thing, and so simple that it is universal.”
Don’t get me wrong: the materials matter. They do. The presentations matter. They do. But they do not matter as much as the inquisitiveness we feel toward the nature of childhood. They do not matter as much as the love the child evokes in us. They do not matter as much as the intimate relationship between adult and child, the “sacred curiosity” about them that leads us to put our interest in them before our pride or our professional acclaim or the particular movements of our hands.
Really: the materials matter. They do. The presentations matter. They do. But only as tools through which we better understand the mysteries of the child, only as tools through which child teaches us. Our focus on the lessons, our arguments with other Montessori teachers about the “right” way to present them or the best sequences we learned in our own formal training, may feel very important to us in the moment, but they are obstacles to our service to the child if we allow them to matter more than our sacred curiosity. They become diversions through which we can mediate the vulnerability and humility that Montessori teaching demands of us, soothing our fears with a salve of confidence about the steps in a lesson. They are powerful tools, but they are only tools, mechanical processes in a particular sequence.
We are called to be artists, to observe the mysteries of a child’s life and find our hearts enchanted. We are called to use the mechanical tools of the classroom in the same way that a great painter uses their paints or a great writer combines letters on a page. We know how to mix the paint, clearly. We need to be fluent in the language, of course. And then we need to make use of them to elevate our teaching from mechanic to artisan and our service to the child from the practical to the poetic.
* A response to Chapter 1, A Critical Consideration of the New Pedagogy in its Relation to Modern Science , The Montessori Method. M. Montessori