The Chaos that is Montessori

It’s the beginning of a new school year. Only three weeks in and I have that ‘how a Montessori classroom should be’ scenario playing in my head. It started when I was asked the question “Shouldn’t the five and six year olds be the role models?” 

The statement was well intended and I understood where it was coming from. I am having one of those odd years where almost half my class is two and a half. The 2 year olds were crying and the 5 and 6 year olds were really unfocused and misbehaving, those in the middle chose sides and joined in.

My first thought was that the ideal of Montessori was being threatened. Then I thought, ‘she might be thinking I haven’t been able to normalize the children”  and then, ‘what if she thinks I am not a good Montessori teacher!’  

These feelings turned out to be a blessing. They forced me to look closely at what was going on in my classroom and how I practice Montessori.

Before I continue let me explain something.

I have known the woman who asked this question for several years. Sharon is my new assistant, she is just beginning her Montessori training and most importantly, the mother of a 6 year old in the class.

Sharon left the public school system after teaching both kindergarten and then first grade. She is excited and eager to learn everything that is Montessori.

Of course I was afraid I’d let her down. She was putting so much faith in Montessori and in me.

My first response to her question was was to nod and say, “yes”. Yes, these children have great strength and are so capable I thought, why aren’t they going about the day as they ‘should’ be? Then I thought, “I need to do what Montessori teachers do best, observe the situation”.

What I saw was that the 5 and 6 year olds were being out numbered by the newly moved up 2 year olds. They kept calling them ‘The Toddlers”. All I heard during the morning was “The Toddlers are not using the work correctly. The Toddlers are taking my work from me”.  “ The Toddlers are………..”.  Well you get the picture. The 5-6 year olds were acting like older children, but they were acting like siblings. Testing the limits, tattling, and demanding attention.

Sharon and I were both giving most of our time to the 2 year olds because we knew they needed our love and reassurance.

I began to realize that the older children were just being well… normal. They were being typical children who were mad at me for not being fully present to their issues. How on earth could I ask them to be role models to the very children they were being displaced by?  Most of all they were showing me ‘hey, what about me, I need you too!’.

And they did need me, but they would have to wait until we could get the two year olds comfortable in their new environment.

I saw that Sharon and I were just learning how to work together. We were just starting to get to know each other on a different level. And for Sharon everything was new, a new school, and new ways of doing things. We all had so much to learn.

Up until Sharon asked that question I knew that this was how it is at the beginning of every school year. There are always new children who displace the older ones. There are new assistants, new teachers or new interns. There is always chaos and disruption. There is always, always stress and strife at the beginning of the year. I knew this, but the question made me hesitate, made me question myself.

What a gift it was to be reminded to stop and observe the children, to be made to look at the classroom and myself. And in doing so I realized that ‘what we believe Montessori is’ sometimes gets in the way of the practice of The Montessori Method.

As a Montessorian I am always using the attributes of the normalized child to describe the wonder that is ‘Montessori’.  Now I began to reexamine what I believed to be the attributes of the Montessori teacher.

What are the attributes of a Montessori teacher?
Patience, trust in the method and in the child, a firm resolve that we will create order out of chaos. You see it in the hard work Montessori teachers put into daily interactions with 24 children, in our guidance and support of the parents, in the lessons prepared and presented. And in all the other seemingly mundane and simple tasks we preform every day. It’s the hugs and the tears, the conversations and surprises, all these and more.

True Montessori is in everything that takes place before. Before there is order in the classroom, before the children are normalized. To understand Montessori you need to think more about the process, and less about the results.

When Dr. Montessori said; “The greatest sign of a success for a teacher, is to be able to say, the children are now working as if I did not exist.”  she is emphasizing the work that went on before.

In answer to the question “Shouldn’t the five and six year olds be the role models?”
This is what I should have said:

“In Montessori we are told to ‘follow the child’ . This means seeing to their developmental and emotional needs. There are times when the child needs to be in chaos in order to find a higher level of order. There are times when they need to feel displaced by younger children in order to grow more secure. This is a time when they are incapable of being the role model and we need to allow for that.”

“This is always the way it is at beginning of a new school year. It creates space for the older children to learn that they are still loved, even when there are new children in our lives. They are learning one of the lessons that can’t be placed on a tray or in a basket. It is a lesson in recovery, and resilience. A lesson in relationships. A lesson about how we welcome new friends into our lives”.

I am so thankful to Sharon for asking me this question. It made me figure out what she was seeing, and what I was forgetting.

To be continued…

Two weeks have gone by and now the older children are allowing the new children to sit with them while they work. They have accepted those little interlopers as part of the classroom community. The two year olds approach the five and six year olds for lessons far more often than they have come to me.

The older children have taken on the challenge of being the leaders. What a wonder these Montessori children are.

Written by