The teacher, when she begins to work in our schools, must have a kind of faith that the child will reveal himself through work.
Dr Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
No other year in my life was as intense as September 1985 to June 1986-no, not either of my children’s first year of life-no, not my first year of teaching or even my first year as head of school. My post-graduate Montessori teacher training in Italy transformed me by regularly upending conventional beliefs about children and education that continues to this day.
Accredited teacher training requires rethinking a teacher’s (or guide’s) role while consuming large amounts of philosophy and specific methodology. The Montessori method demands deep faith in a child’s potential and inner drive to learn. It requires letting go of the adult perspective that we need to do much more for children. To not do things they can do for themselves and deprive them of learning and personal sense of accomplishment. The training regularly reminds educators that children of all ages actively learn every moment and our work ideally involves releasing them from unnecessary adult dependencies.
The training emphasizes the importance of preparation of the classroom environment as a condition for learning. Planning it carefully to meet the needs of each age group of children is what leads to independence, organization, harmony and community.
To do this work, the teacher also develops sophisticated observations skills to know what a child or group of children need at any point in time. Any quality Montessori teacher training program requires hours of practice observing children and classrooms to determine patterns and also to recognize what each child needs at any single moment in the environment.
Montessori teacher training also dedicates hundreds of hours to mastery of the specific, sophisticated material that introduces children to concepts like literacy, numeracy and in-depth cultural knowledge. Not only does the teacher trainee develop a deep understanding of the use and purpose of each of the learning materials but also an understanding of their underlying aims for the long term. For example, a beautiful wooden three-dimensional puzzle made up of 27 cubes assists the education of the senses for a four-year-old but much later reveals an understanding of the algebraic cube of the trinomial.
Training reveals to the teacher that many of the concepts offered to the child are cumulative, creating awareness and understanding over time, including the collective stories of human and the living and non-living worlds’ diversity and commonality. In elementary and middle school, the celebration of individual uniqueness in collaboration is regularly explored and imbued into everything using the students’ natural inclination toward imagination and topics of morality.
The teacher, although far from the keeper of knowledge, instead facilitates and needs to be curious, in love with ideas and a lifelong learner. In training, they learn the developmental characteristics of the children they work with and the associated needs. The preschool child needs opportunities to develop gross and small muscle control. They thrive on order, absorb ideas quickly, including language and music through their senses. Teachers in elementary training learn the child at this level is in love with ideas, is interested in social justice and cognitively has a high capacity to create and imagine. The adolescent student is trying on possible roles in the world, requires physical challenges and work to satisfy their changing body and need to be purposeful to understand their capacity. As they move away from the influence of their parents, not only do they gravitate toward peers, they need to engage with mentors and professionals who care deeply about them.
During the training and after, the Montessori teacher embraces the paradox that by following the individual needs of the student, it generally leads to a more cohesive peaceful classroom community. Success happens in part because of the required mixed-age groupings of 3 to 6, or 6 to 9 or 12 to 15 years of age and daily large blocks of uninterrupted time. With mixed ages, homogeneity is not the norm. Every child is usually working on different things at different times following their interests and a pace that meets their needs. Ironically, this often results in children regularly progressing through many things more quickly and enthusiastically because they are not frustrated by being held back by the group.
Similarly, students who require more time or practice to master concepts are offered it before moving on. Often each student’s progress will be staggered in different areas so they may proceed quickly with reading and writing but take longer with numeracy, or they may be academically advanced but socially less mature. When a whole classroom community sees students working on different things at different times and different paces, they also learn intrinsically from each other—watching what older students are doing or showing younger classmates how to work on something. Dr Daniel Willingham, from the University of Virginia, observed his own children’s progress through Montessori and in a personal conversation commented that the method seems “very efficient for children’s learning”.
But if Montessori education is the direction you are interested in or are merely curious about, be careful to pursue training offered by the Association Montessori International (AMI) or recognized by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE). During Dr Montessori’s lifetime, she initially worked to spread her scientific pedagogy globally. Her mission was to train as many educators as possible in the first half of the twentieth century, allowing more children access. But its success resulted in splintered, watered-down versions of her method which continue to this day, sadly offering less effective educational experiences and intended outcomes.
Dr Montessori’s educational approach is universal and highly successful for children of all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. In some cases, indications are it can even dramatically improve the trajectory of children in poverty. But the spread of Montessori will only occur when more educators pursue Montessori teacher training and there is more significant government support, making it more accessible to children everywhere.