“This is our mission: to cast a ray of light and pass on.”
Montessori is humbling. For a method that seems so straight-forward, so simple to implement, nonintervention, passive observation, patience for the child... how can it be so hard to do nothing?
And yet it is. We doubt the method. We want it to move along a little faster, for normalization to fall upon a classroom of children as soon as they all know each other’s names, for our own peace to settle upon us like newly fallen snow. We are told to be scientists, servants and saints. We are anxious for our halos.
Montessori wants us to be humble. But to be drawn to Montessori, when all of the rest of the field tells us that children need to pushed faster, that learning can be commodified, that standards are more important than spirits, requires bravado. If we were not so confident that there is a better way to do this education thing, if we were not at least suspicious that we were the right people to do it, we would be traditional teachers in traditional classrooms, doing the things we’ve always done the way we’ve always done them.
And there’s the catch: Montessori attracts those of us with the strongest conviction that things can be different, with the personal willingness to sacrifice to make things better, with the confidence and the resilience to persist through complex teacher education programs, read hundred-year old Italian texts, and practice moving blocks and cylinders with near surgical precision, and then asks us to tie ourselves to a post, to “cast a ray of light and pass on.”
Scientist. Servant. Saint. We are anxious for our halos.
But think of these images. The scientist, draped in a white coat, goggled and gloved to make sure that not even a single cell of their own enters the experiment. The servant, quiet in the background, placing items or removing them without drawing any attention to themselves at all. The saint, silent in repose, watching and reflecting, emanating peace, even when they are shown in battle.
Thank goodness we are persistent people. Thank goodness we are the kinds of people who are willing to rock boats and buck systems and incite peaceful revolutions. Because this is hard work. Putting aside our own control is hard. Trusting the children is hard. Maintaining our faith in a New Society that we have never seen, that we will never ourselves see, is hard. Montessori is humbling, and humility is hard.
We know we have been drawn to Montessori as courageous optimists, sure there is a better way to do this work and willing to be the people who do it. We need to focus that persistence on our own self-development. When we are inspired to take action, to intervene, we can direct those energies at disrupting our own patterns instead of interrupting the children. How much harder it is to change ourselves than to call out for change in others, and how much more powerful.
When my impatience inspires me to intervene in the children’s activity, I can focus that impatience on the work I have to do myself. Have I observed as much as I could? Have I reflected on my own biases and sat with the discomfort of my own weaknesses? Have I held my tongue, sat on my hands, jumped to a few fewer conclusions and asked more interesting questions? Have I offered space for my peers to feel supported in their work and have I allowed myself to be vulnerable in asking for the help I need? Or have I distracted myself from the much harder work of my own humility by trying instead to “fix” the children?
The children are fine. We know that. That’s why we’re Montessorians. And when we are afraid that maybe the children aren’t fine, that we need to do more, to intervene more, to present more, to correct more, to interrupt more, to pick for them more, to lead, more, more, more... we can choose a Montessorian response to that, too. The work we have to do is on ourselves. Cast a ray of light, and pass on.
* A response to Chapter 7, Part 1, The Exercises, The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori