“She neither urges a child onward nor holds him back, being satisfied that she has fulfilled her tas
There is a presumption of goodness in Montessori classrooms, in which teachers can be satisfied that they have done their work well when they are sure that they have pointed the child in the right direction. We don’t presume that we need to talk every step with them, or that if they are out of our sight, they’ll wander off. No. Montessori environments are peaceful, collaborative environments within which we believe that each child’s needs are met and each child’s development served. We do not presume that the benefit of one child must come at the expense of another, or that the “controls” of the environment need to be heavy-handed or coarse. Instead, we prepare environments which protect children’s inherent goodness, their inherent peacefulness and their intrinsic motivation to learn.
How often, though, do we assume the same of our peers or other adults? Neither urging them on to be something they aren’t yet or holding them back from something that is true to them? When another adult’s path differs from ours, do we trust them to know that they are also on the right road for them? Or do we assign judgment and pressure, actively or passively reminding them that they should learn to be more like us. We recognize children are inherently good, but we treat other adults with hesitation and suspicion. We recognize that children are inherently peaceful, but we sometimes treat other adults as our adversaries. We recognize that children are intrinsically motivated to learn, but we expect other adults to require rewards or punishments to be invested in their own work.
We are trained by our experiences, our pains and our obstacles, to assign blame or judgment to other adults. When we feel misunderstood, we accuse each other of a lack of compassion. When we feel challenged, we blame each other’s need for control. When we feel powerless, we presume someone else is holding too tightly to her power. We create us-es and others. We create adversaries. Imagine how different our adult communities would be if we presumed the same of each other as we do of children: if we presumed adults to be inherently good, inherently peaceful and intrinsically motivated to learn. It seems daunting to imagine on a global scale, across national boundaries or cultural differences that often drive us apart. But what if we just imagined it of the people we encounter every day, in our homes, our neighborhoods and our schools.
In Montessori classrooms, we believe that children demonstrate their natural state because they are given an environment prepared to protect it. If we struggle to imagine each other as good, peaceful and motivated, perhaps it’s because we haven’t yet prepared an environment within which we can be those things. The essential standard of the prepared Montessori environment is freedom within limits, the sweet spot of neither urging on nor holding back. Children’s freedom is limited when it begins to intrude on the freedoms of another. In practice, this requires a constant balancing and rebalancing, a collaboration based on the tenets of grace and courtesy that allows the give and take of classroom needs to align itself fluidly.
What if we treated each other with an acknowledgment that my freedoms intrude on yours, and yours on mine? What if we treated each other with an acknowledgment that when I take something (be it materials, or resources, or time), I leave less for you, and you for me? What if we treated each other with the same grace and courtesies that we practice in the classroom: waiting for another to finish speaking before offering our own perspective, saying please, offering gratitude, returning work to a condition appropriate for another to use, asking to help, offering service... what if we tried, in our own interaction with each other, to emulate the society by cohesion that the children form so naturally without us?
When I treat you as though I believe you are as good, as peaceful and as motivated as I want to be myself, when I offer you grace for your mistakes and share with you mine, when I protect your work for you as I’d want you to protect mine for me, I am preparing an environment for adult normalization. When I count my words and when I respect that your great work may not be the same as mine, when I offer you reverence and care because I believe you are still in the process of becoming, just as I know I am, I am preparing an environment for adult normalization... both of ours.
For practical purposes, in my primary work as a teacher, by offering grace and courtesy to other adults, even the ones who are getting on my last nerve (perhaps mostly the ones who are getting on my last nerve!), I am modeling for the children that adult relationships are no less complicated, and no less deserving of attention, than the relationships that form among children. I am modeling grace and courtesy in a space larger than my relationship with an individual child, and encouraging the children’s ability to imagine it in their own communities as well.
But engaging other adults this way is not only for the benefit of the children. When I prepare an environment for adult normalization, I help to protect a space within which the peacefulness, goodness and motivation we enjoyed as children might be restored. It’s difficult to imagine, no doubt, but just as we respect the challenging child in front of us because of the child we believe he is capable of becoming, we can allow ourselves and our colleagues to become more, to become more peaceful, more motivated, more good, by treating each other as though we already are.
*A response to Chapter 11: The Technique of the Lessons, The Discovery of the Child, M. Montessori