Celebrating the Uniqueness of Montessori Part 3
The Montessori Guide
One of the things that often surprises people most upon entering a Montessori classroom is that it's not always easy to see where the teacher is! The conventional expectation for teachers, especially at the early childhood level, is that they should be the dominant presence in the room. Parents and other visitors expect to see a teacher in a flurry of activity, entertaining, directing, instructing, and generally trying to be a center of attention.
They may be shocked, then, to see the Montessori guide sitting quietly in the corner with a notebook, watching the children go about their business without attempting to attract any attention at all. "How is this teaching?" they might ask. "Isn't it neglecting the students?"
"The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist."
Not at all! In fact, the Montessori educator who appears to be standing passively to the side is engaged in a sophisticated teaching practice. It is precisely because this practice differs from what most people expect from a teacher that many Montessorians prefer to use the term "guide". Of course, some parts of Montessori teaching overlap with those used in other kinds of schools-- guides have to support transitions, supervise outdoor play, lead whole-group special activities, and help children navigate the ups and downs of life in much the same way as any other teacher. During certain phases of the daily routine, a Montessori guide may be doing the exact same things as their non-Montessori peers. However, during the work period-- the section of the day devoted to independent learning-- the work of the Montessori guide is radically different.
Because Montessori philosophy holds that the drive to learn is innate, a series of developmental needs that children must follow, Montessori guides place tremendous value on children's independent activity. Maria Montessori observed that the most profound learning takes place when a child chooses freely and focuses intently. She noticed, also, that most adults find it difficult to let this process unfold naturally. Children tend to think through their activities slowly, they make messes and mix things up. When adults notice this, they feel a strong impulse to jump in and "rescue" children. The intention is to be helpful, but Montessori recognized that this unnecessary help is actually a major obstacle to development-- the adult is often interrupting at exactly the moment when the child is about to make the most important discoveries for themselves. Therefore, Montessori guides are extremely careful not to disrupt children's concentration or purposeful activity. If all the children are meaningfully engaged, the guide will strive to make herself almost invisible, remaining alert and observant, but staying firmly out of the way.
However, even when the guide is sitting quietly on the sidelines, they are engaged in a critical feature of Montessori education: observation. Observation is the key to individualized, student-centered teaching. By noting children's independent choices and the manner in which they use the materials, the guide can get an authentic sense of their interests, needs, and capabilities. This information is used to create unique, individualized lesson plans for each and every student in the class.
When a child is not concentrating or making purposeful choices, the Montessori guide assumes a more active role. The richness of the Montessori classroom environment is a wonderful gift for children, but it can also be overwhelming. There are so many options! Where is a learner to begin? What to choose next?
In these moments, we see why Montessori educators choose the term "guide". An expert on the curriculum and on the child's individual needs, they quite literally guide each student through the environment, highlighting the most relevant and interesting experiences available. Based on their observations, the guide will be prepared with a curated selection of ideas for each child, and when they see a student struggling to find something to do, they approach to offer a suggestion. If the guide has done their work well, the suggestion will appeal to the child's curiosity, and the lesson begins. The guide demonstrates the material, supports the child as they begin using it, and then retreats again to observe, making notes and planning for the next time.
Observe, offer, teach, support, record, repeat: this is the cycle of the Montessori guide's teaching practice.
Freedom Within Limits
When people hear that Montessori children are free to choose their own activities, they often imagine that this will lead to total chaos. But in fact most Montessori classrooms are anything but chaotic, because in Montessori practice "free choice" doesn't mean doing whatever you want. There are always limits.
Some of the limits are set by the prepared environment itself. While there are many choices available, all of them are specifically created to have some benefit for children's learning or development, so it is virtually impossible for a child to choose a "useless" activity. If a particular material seems to be a focus for inappropriate behavior, the guide may choose to remove it from classroom for a while. Similarly, if there is a particular space that tends to become chaotic, they may rearrange the furniture in that area of the classroom to change how children use the space. In Montessori, recurring classroom trouble spots often have environmental design solutions.
However, in other cases, the adults in the classroom-- guides, assistants, or volunteers-- will intervene to remind children of the ground rules. Montessori students are expected to treat each other and the classroom materials with care and respect, and actions that are disruptive, destructive, or dangerous will be redirected towards a better choice. Because the Montessori classroom has such a rich range of choices, there is usually a meaningful task available that meets the same needs as the disruptive behavior, and an observant guide will help a child channel their energy in a positive direction without stifling it.
Luckily, Montessori guides usually don't have to spend a lot of time redirecting inappropriate behavior, because the Montessori classroom is not just a learning space: it's also a community with a strong culture and deep interconnections between its members. Over time, children come to feel a sense of belonging and significance that inspires responsible, pro-social choices. In the next post, we'll look at the ways Montessori classrooms build a sense of community and shared culture among children.
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