An Honest, Behind-the-Scenes Look at Montessori in Action

My children and I began our school year a few days ago, and as we plunged headlong into presentations, ground rules, and expectations, I started thinking about the difference between the ideal Montessori method and how it really plays out in day-to-day situations.

My last post was rather heavy on theory – and deliberately so – but to read it, you might think that Montessori takes place in the clouds, rather than in classrooms and homes that are firmly anchored to the earth. Truth is, when we practice Montessori we see it up close, and all is not always rosy.

Rather than share our failures, however, we often put on a happy face when asked about our teaching experiences. After all, we don’t want people to think poorly of Montessori. So we paint a cheerful picture, and go on feeling like we are playing a role, never quite being honest about ourselves and our classrooms.

Everyone has one of those days – days when a child disobeys and you react harshly, knowing that you’re not showing the kind of respect to them that you should. If Maria Montessori appeared beside you at that moment, you would die of shame. And yet right then, you are simply overwhelmed and unable to summon up the correct response.

We’ve all worked at schools (and I’m talking about real Montessori schools, not the kind that simply purport to be Montessori) where the some of the teachers and directors present a warm, loving face to parents and are selfish, manipulative, and unkind to fellow staff members. Sometimes they are long-standing, established Montessorians with starry reputations, and no one is willing to be honest about their faults no matter what they say or do.

At one school where I worked, the children had gym class at a separate facility with a professional gym teacher. The gym teacher once told us that out of all the groups he worked with, ours was the worst behaved. Back at school, the kids were fairly well-behaved, but clearly they had not internalized self-discipline. The structures of the Montessori classroom were the only things standing between them and their character defects.

At these times, it’s easy to become disillusioned with Montessori. I’ve seen teachers and parents come and go, trying out Montessori for awhile and moving on to another profession, or putting their children in a different type of school. In some cases, the reasons for leaving may have more to do with personalities and temperaments, but in others, the individual simply concludes that the Montessori method is not all it’s cracked up to be.

What do we do when the veneer comes off and the reality of Montessori is not what we hoped or dreamed? Do we leave it behind? I don’t think so, but it is important to acknowledge our weaknesses and failures and learn from them.

Whenever I have one of those moments – where things don’t go exactly as planned – I try to review the situation later and figure out what I’ve could have done differently. Sometimes, it was completely out of my control and in that case, I try to let it go. Other times I can learn a great deal and make better choices in the future.

There are very few “perfect days”. You know the ones: days when every child makes great work choices, focuses on their work, and is polite and respectful to every other child and teacher. They do sometimes happen, especially near the end of the year, but it’s not realistic to expect that every day.

What you should expect to see are glimpses – glimmers of the goals you’ve set for yourself and your classroom. Times when you catch a child taking out the same work every day with the goal of perfecting it. Moments when one child asks another for help and they work together in harmony. Presentations where you say just enough – not too much and not too little – and the class is rapt with attention while they watch you.

Progress may be slow, but there should be some. If you find yourself constantly frustrated, or if your Montessori-school attending child is unhappy day after day, perhaps Montessori is not for you and your family. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, and it doesn’t mean that the Montessori method is unworkable. It just means that the fit wasn’t right, and acknowledging it can be good for everyone.

I think it’s important to share our bad experiences as well as our good ones. It helps us know that we’re not alone, and we can learn a great deal from one another. The education of children is not a perfect science, and Montessori is imperfectly practiced by imperfect people. The most important thing is that we continue to pursue the ideals set forth by Maria Montessori, even if it takes a long time to bring them to fruition.