“The secret of all nature is to be found in the soul of a child.”
You may be getting ready to return to your classroom this fall with a whole list of teacher resolutions in your mind. Maybe you're planning to take more time for yourself this year. Maybe you're hoping to take time to offer more advanced lessons. Maybe you're determined to take time to finish those materials you've been working on. Where to begin?
Teaching is a demanding practice, and most teachers feel pulled in more directions than they can count at any given moment. There are so many things to do: maintain the environment, wash the materials, observe the children, clean back to the the corners on the shelves, observe the children, sharpen pencils, observe the children, cut paper, observe the children, prepare your parent reports, observe the children, talk with administrators, observe the children, mentor your assistant, observe the children. Observe the children. Observe the children. Observe the children.
See what I did there? Too often, although we know that all the work of our teaching should be informed by objective, systematic observations of the children we serve, our attention is so scattered by other responsibilities that we don't make time to observe. Unless we are observing first, the rest of the work is just a best-guess. We'll invite children to lessons because we like the lesson, or because it's nearby, or because it's "next" in a sequence we learned in training, but we won't know for sure whether it's the right day or the right time in development or the right challenge for that particular child. Unless we are observing first, the scientific prepared environment is just another prepackaged curriculum masquerading as a child-centered classroom.
When you observe regularly, the lessons you offer are more likely to be the right ones for the children you offer them to. When you observe regularly, the materials you design are more likely to be the right ones for the environment you're preparing. When you observe regularly, you'll find you have more time, because you won't have spent as much of it spinning your wheels.
Because observation doesn't feel urgent, it too often gets pushed to the bottom of the list of "things to do today." It may consist of memory-based notes at the end of the day after the children have gone home, or presumptions we've made about what materials we think are appropriate for a child of three years and nine months, or only take precedence when we're finishing up our reports for parents on their children's development. But if we don't prioritize observation before all the other have-tos of the day, we lose the essence of Montessori. All of the qualities of the Montessori classroom, the carefully designed materials, the prepared environment, the individualized lessons, depend first on observing the actual children in the classroom.
We can't create an environment responsive to the children unless we understand the children we are creating it for. Remember Montessori's advice, "Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment." All of our busy-ness outside of the classroom, indeed, all of our busy-ness inside of the classroom, is only as useful as the degree to which is matches the observed needs of the children we serve.
But Montessori reminds us, here, that it’s not just because observation helps us to better serve the children that observe so carefully. “Our Children’s Houses seem to have a spiritual influence on everyone. I have seen business men, men of great influence, men preoccupied with painful work or with a sense of their own superiority become serene, shake off as it were the heavy burden of their authority, and become pleasantly forgetful of themselves.”
Observing the children is self-care. Observe the children. Observe the children. Observe the children. Sometimes with intent, with the goal of understanding one child differently than you understand children in general. Sometimes with the goal of identifying what is motivating to a child that you might offer them meaningful objectives of their own. But observe them, too, without intent. Observe them to share in the culture of the classroom. Observe them to experience the serenity and joy that their work can evoke in you. Observe them to set aside all the grown up stressors and fears and costumes and connect to the what is unwritten, what is hopeful, what is yet to come in the lives these children will lead. Observe their learning, but observe their spirits first. Observe the children.
* A response to Chapter 24, Conclusions and Impressions, The Discovery of the Child, M. Montessori