As I mentioned in the first post of this series, the recent conference I attended in Indiana, “Unsettled Children in an Unsettled World” aimed to give knowledge and ideas about how to provide safe environments for children in a culture full of distractions. Many factors are beyond our control, but one is not – ourselves.
So, the next session focused on how we as adults should prepare ourselves for working with children. Whether we are with children in a school or a home (or both), there’s a transformation that should take place when we are with them. Adult concerns and personal issues should be left behind.
This transition can take place in a car, in a hallway, an office or a bedroom. It may involve a few deep breaths, a quick prayer, or even a visualization of the calm, helpful adult we’d like to be when we are with the children. This spiritual, inner preparation is every bit as important as the outer preparation of the environment.
Donohue asked a very good question: if we believe that the child is doing the learning, what is our role supposed to be? We often hear that we are the link between the child and the environment (or materials), but what does that mean in practice?
Our job is this: to observe the child and see what materials would best facilitate that child’s growth. We must offer that child our assistance, unobtrusively and objectively. We must not view the children as being there to meet our own needs (for love, approval, friendship, or anything else). We exist to serve the children.
Visualize a Montessori environment. Do you see the beautiful shelves, the stunning materials, the animals, plants, tables, and rugs? Something is missing – YOU. You are a part of the prepared environment. Do not put all your efforts into dusting the shelves, arranging the materials, and color-coordinating the trays and then not spend any time developing yourself.
How are we to go about preparing ourselves for the great task of facilitating the child’s learning process? We must practice personal silence and reflection. We must become still. We must spend time in nature, and find ways to keep the noise of pop culture away from our subconscious. It’s much harder to learn to be silent that to learn to talk.
We must look at our own habits and see if any of them get in the way of our work. This includes making sure that we eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. We need to have an intellectual life of our own, and the opportunity to express ourselves artistically.
What I like about the suggestions that were given is that they will translate differently for everyone. One person might pray, another might meditate. Some will walk in the woods, others will sail in a lake. Some will play a musical instrument, others will paint or sculpt. We are as different as the children are; our goal is not to all be like each other, but to know who we are and find our own best ways of expressing ourselves.
Janet explained that after we have prepared ourselves, and are ready to join the children, we can begin to observe them. That is the only way we can know how to best meet their needs. Observation lets us into the secret world of the child: what do they do, and why do they do it? We are looking for those glimpses of progress I mentioned in the first conference summary.
Each time we observe, we can decide one of two things: to act on our observation, or not to act. When might we act? Perhaps we see a child choosing work that is too difficult. Perhaps we notice a change that could be made to the materials to make the purpose more clear.
Other times, we are simply learning more about the child as we watch. We may notice that they are making progress with a certain material (or with their ability to simply complete a work cycle). This information may not need to be acted upon at that moment, but may help us in weeks and months to come as we seek to find the best work choices for each child.
The last part of the seminar dealt with the differing expectations that teachers and parents have for each other. The teacher is a broad expert – she or he understands education and the general behavior of children. The parent is a narrow but deep expert on his or her own child. These differing perspectives can lead to conflict.
We, as educators, need to have high regard for the parents because of the knowledge they have of their own children. We are in service to them, and need to listen to what they have to say. Many conflicts are avoided if we have clear communication about our expectations right from the beginning.
However, some parents need more. Donohue highly advocated doing home visits and making personal phone calls whenever possible to talk with parents about problems. This approach lets you talk with parents at length, if needed, rather than in quick, harried conversations before or after school. If you can build a rapport with parents, and behave professionally with them, it will be easier to resolve conflict when it arises.
To end our day, people shared some specific, real-life conflicts either from home or school, and Donohue gave some excellent advice on how to resolve these issues. There was so much more information presented than I could possibly write about (I took 40 pages of notes!) so if you ever have a chance to hear Janet and/or Donohue speak, go! I cannot recommend them highly enough. You will find yourself viewing the Montessori method in a new, fresh way.
For further information, you can visit Donohue’s website – she has many articles available that provide excellent information (click on “Essays”, and then follow the links).