“She too has a greater need of a gymnasium for her soul than of a book for her intellect.”

June 17, 2020

 

This is exhausting work, this teaching thing. We are asked to teach more, to accomplish more, to provide more, with less funding, less time, less professional development. And, as Montessori teachers, we are asked to do so while also maintaining perfect calm, perfect tranquility and a trust in methods that promise outcomes we have never ourselves been able to experience. 

 

There is no book that is going to teach us how to do this. 

 

Montessori tells us that directly. Our work, as teachers, parents, teacher educators and advocates, is to become expert in two areas alone: to understand the materials as deeply as we hope the children will understand them, and to re-imagine ourselves as humble observers to the active lives of the children. 

 

And yet, think about how most parent education happens, how most teacher education happens, how most professional development happens: we spend endless hours in theory, reading reading reading with the hope that the intellectual abstract work of textbooks and philosophy will translate into perfect practice once the children arrive. 

 

Practice strengthens our practice. 

 

We need to do the readings, certainly, to learn from the expertise of others about general trends in children’s development. When we understand the generalizable knowledge, we can use it to apply to the specific children in front of us. But we have to be equally careful to make sure we don’t reverse that process. The specific children are not examples of the abstract development described in parenting books. The books are wide brush strokes to suggest some ways of understanding the lives of specific children. 

 

The same is true for our presentation of the materials. We need to read our lesson plans, to practice the materials so that we understand how to present them carefully and to know, in general ways, what qualities of development may suggest particular lessons. But our practice of the lessons is not designed solely for us to pass a practical exam. Our practice of the lessons is so that we can understand them the way we believe children might. We need to spend as much time exploring the materials in the same way that children will, repeating them again and again until we notice the qualities children are likely to notice, until we develop the precision that we believe children will develop, until we appreciate how much more challenging they are than they appear to be. 

 

And then we need to offer the same practice, the same individualized response, the same repetition and precision to the development of our spirits as we do to the development of our “expertise.” A Montessori teacher’s expertise is not in her ability to regurgitate the charts detailing the planes of development or the 62 steps of the carrot cutting lesson. A Montessori teacher’s expertise is in her ability to maintain a “moral alertness which has not hitherto been demanded by any other system,” revealed in the teacher’s “tranquility, patience, charts and humility.” Our expertise is in the virtues of our character, not the rigor of our diplomas. 

 

If only the work of the teacher could be accomplished without the children present... schools would be much easier places to repair and education a far less daunting enterprise. But what happens when the children are not around is as much a preparation of the environment for our practice as it is a preparation of the environment for them. Indeed, if we control the qualities of the classroom that we can control, those ones that are background to the children’s real, active, engaged lives, we will be better suited to control ourselves once the children arrive. Maintaining the shelves is a spiritual enterprise. Practicing the lessons until we develop our own precision is a spiritual enterprise. Observing the children without intervention is a spiritual enterprise. None of them come easily. All are essential. 

 

This is work that asks so much of us. We can respond to those expectations through more paperwork, more reading, more theory, or we can recognize that those are substitutes for the far more challenging expectations Montessori places on our spirits. Truly, if we believe that our spiritual preparation for the classroom is something that can wait until school holidays and summer vacations, we are obstructing our own work the rest of the time. Our preparation, as teachers, as parents, as advocates, should focus on preparing our bodies for the resilience nonintervention will ask of us, our faith for the potential that the New Society promises, and our hearts for the affection that each child demands, even on the hard days, especially on the hard days.

 

* A response to Chapter 10, The Teacher, The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori

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