This ‘What Do You Know About…?’ series might not be so inter­mit­tent! I’ve been back through my spring notes and find there’s a lot wait­ing for me to post. My first encounter with Maria Montessori’s work was when I was at teacher train­ing col­lege in Eng­land in the late 60’s and ear­ly 70’s. Her philoso­phies were of inter­est because of my own choice of age groups to spe­cialise in – three to sev­en years, deemed by some a ‘natural’ age group because of the philoso­phies of British ear­ly edu­ca­tion espoused at that time. 

Some three and four year olds attend­ed nurs­ery school then, most­ly just half days, either morn­ing or after­noon ses­sions in the schools where I did my teach­ing prac­tices. The major­i­ty of moth­ers stayed at home with their chil­dren for their first five years. Forty years ago the five to sev­en age group was the tra­di­tion­al first two to three years of what the Eng­lish called ‘Primary School’ or ‘the Infant years’.

In the 40 years since I qual­i­fied as a British teacher I have had many inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences car­ing for and edu­cat­ing young chil­dren, most­ly my way but I believe with a bit of Montessori’s focus­ing on and observ­ing the child thrown in for good measure. 

In the mid-90’s I spent a year tutor­ing a spe­cial needs eight year-old in a Montes­sori school. I start­ed tutor­ing her in the sum­mer months when I was giv­en a lot of free­dom to take her on field trips and spend a lot of out­door time get­ting to know her. Once the school year start­ed I was at the mer­cy of the new­ly Montes­sori trained sis­ter of the school’s own­er. Her pre­vi­ous teach­ing expe­ri­ence had been in a pub­lic school with many of its atten­dant neg­a­tive issues. Sad­ly, she brought that neg­a­tive mind­set and her anger to her new­ly-found Montes­sori edu­ca­tion (a six-week sum­mer course).

The assis­tant in that mixed age group Ele­men­tary class­room had received a dif­fer­ent form of Montes­sori train­ing – they didn’t seem on the same page, nor was I on either of their pages!

Hav­ing had a suc­cess­ful few weeks of work­ing with the eight year-old in my own way, dis­cov­er­ing her strengths (not many) and weak­ness­es (too many to men­tion!) allowed me to make good progress. And then we were con­signed to the class­room. So many rules, all unre­lat­ed to this child’s needs but total­ly relat­ed to the ‘tough’ new Montes­sori Lead teacher’s regime. 

At the com­ple­tion of that ‘year of stress’, for us both (!) my stu­dent had a light bulb moment which made me feel I hadn’t wast­ed my time with her. I con­clud­ed that I need­ed time off due to the huge amount of stress I had found myself work­ing under – most­ly that chil­dren were mis­treat­ed by staff. That always caus­es me pain. With a cou­ple of fam­i­ly trau­mas added for good mea­sure I end­ed up hav­ing a ner­vous col­lapse just one month later.

My sec­ond expe­ri­ence in a Montes­sori school start­ed four years ago. Once again it was the mis­treat­ment of chil­dren which pained me the most. I believed that I could make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of one or two babies and young chil­dren and I know I did that. But I paid a high price for those ‘four years of stress’.

So, two dis­parate Montes­sori expe­ri­ences each mis­treat­ing chil­dren and caus­ing extra­or­di­nary stress to teachers.

Now to the truth – no one owns the Montes­sori name, there­fore any­one (and I do mean any­one!) can open a facil­i­ty using the Montes­sori name and some of the tra­di­tion­al Montes­sori mate­ri­als. Maria’s name will be con­stant­ly invoked in the administration’s pro­mo­tion of the school, yet I believe that there are many cas­es where due to the need to fund the pro­gramme many of Maria’s true ideals can­not be fol­lowed, at least in America.

Regretably all that par­ents seem to recall is “Montessori is good for all chil­dren of all abil­i­ties”. They real­ly know noth­ing about Maria Montessori’s work, phi­los­o­phy or how that phi­los­o­phy has been changed to suit what Amer­i­cans need. Maria nev­er intend­ed chil­dren to spend ten hours a day in day­care; I sus­pect she couldn’t have imag­ined a baby not being breast­fed and I am cer­tain she is rolling over in her grave watch­ing the mis-treat­ment, mis-edu­ca­tion and mis-under­stood needs of so many very young children.

Maria Montes­sori writes that ‘we should observe the child’. I am cer­tain she didn’t mean observe in the way I have seen a Montes­sori-trained Infant teacher ‘observing’. She sim­ply sat back and looked at the chil­dren in her room! As a new­ly trained teacher as far as I was con­cerned she had no under­stand­ing of what hands-on obser­va­tion is all about. You can­not observe a baby unless you are active­ly involved in all facets of their day while they are in your care.

The ‘Montessori three-hour work cycle’: I have watched this at work in a Montes­sori Pri­ma­ry (3–6 class­room). Much as I had a high regard for the amount of work the Lead teacher put into her class­room I found it aston­ish­ing to note that dur­ing this tra­di­tion­al­ly qui­et (although I have read else­where that ask­ing ques­tions is a crit­i­cal aspect of Montes­sori!) work peri­od a child who was severe­ly speech delayed…was nev­er spo­ken to! Yes he worked dili­gent­ly but he des­per­ate­ly need­ed to be spo­ken to through­out his school day and I know that Maria (who had worked with spe­cial needs chil­dren before arriv­ing at her own per­son­al phi­los­o­phy of edu­ca­tion) would have recog­nised (observed?) that this child need­ed more con­ver­sa­tion to become flu­ent in his language.

Par­ent involve­ment: I don’t think enough was done in either school to impart Montessori’s phi­los­o­phy and impress upon par­ents the impor­tance of their com­pli­men­ta­ry con­tri­bu­tions at home. Too often the most impor­tant fac­tor seemed to be, from the school: “Let’s get the school fees out of this fam­i­ly” and from the par­ents: “My child is in her Montes­sori school from 7.30am to 5.30pm every day and she’s learn­ing so much”.

Both schools pre­sent­ed a façade of ‘look at what we’re doing for your chil­dren’. Pro­fes­sion­al­ism was lack­ing in each facil­i­ty but the greater miss­ing piece was a true under­stand­ing of each child and a true desire to do the best for each child on the part of every staff member.

As a par­ent, assum­ing you real­ly care about the care and edu­ca­tion your baby or young child will receive (!), you must do your share if you want to get the best from ‘A Montes­sori Education’.