What Makes a Great Montessori Teacher?

Recently, I received an email from a friend. He’s not in the teaching or education field, but he is doing some research about what makes a successful teacher. He told me that after searching my blog, he was unable to find a post that centers completely around this topic. Boy, was I embarrassed!

It’s true; while I do have posts that talk about teaching the Montessori way (How to Give Successful Presentations and The Preparation of the Adult come to mind), I don’t have one that outlines exactly what makes a great Montessori teacher. I owe my friend a big “thank-you”, because this is a great topic and an important one too.

So, what are the characteristics of a successful Montessori teacher? This is definitely not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting point. A Montessori teacher should:

9. Be the connection between the children and the materials

If you don’t know how to use something, the children won’t either. Even when you’ve taken the training, you can get out of practice on certain things that aren’t used very often. Study and review, and be ready to jump in and present work whenever it seems necessary (or re-present it, as need be).

What else can you do to link the children and their environment? Show them how to clean and care for the classroom. Don’t have anything in the classroom that they can’t touch. Be ready to show them how to use a material when they ask you about it. Rearrange the materials if needed to be easier for them to access.

8. Be willing to learn from mistakes

Wasn’t it Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables, who once said that while she made a lot of mistakes, she never made the same one twice? I hope this can be said of all of us, but unfortunately sometimes we have to fail a few times to realize what we need to change. We’ll all mess up sometimes – say or do the wrong thing, present the wrong material at the wrong time, respond inappropriately to a child – but it’s not all bad if we can consider it a “teachable moment” much like we do with the children when they make mistakes. We too can do better next time.

7. Model correct behavior for the students

“Good behavior is caught, not taught”, the saying goes. Children are watching our every move, and they will usually do as we do and not as we say. Are we polite to other adults? Are we honest? Are we gracious and courteous? Or do we complain, gossip, or act annoyed when others don’t do what we want them to? Children are always watching.

6. Be teachable and ready to learn

Julia Child was a master of the culinary arts. There probably wasn’t much she didn’t know, yet she was always ready to learn something new. I remember watching her show once when she had a guest with her. While they were mixing the batter, the guest mentioned that if you didn’t scrape a bowl with a spatula when pouring batter into a pan, you could leave up to half a cup of batter in the bowl. Julia said, “I didn’t know that!”

Later, when Julia and her guest were actually pouring the batter into the pans, the guest reminded the audience to scrape the bowl or they could leave some batter behind, and Julia added (in the most delighted voice) “Up to half a cup!” The queen of the kitchen was thrilled to learn something new. She didn’t consider herself above anyone else or too experienced to learn from someone else. What a great example she set.

5. Trust the Montessori method

This can be so hard. We have set ideas about what we think children should be doing and how fast they should be advancing. We may have a little bit of a fantasy about how a perfect Montessori work time should go. We often expect children (and the adults around us) to see things our way. When things are rocky, it’s easy to assume the problem is with the Montessori method.

What we need to do is give ourselves, and the children, time. The children need time to become acclimated to a Montessori classroom and materials, which are different from anything else they see in the culture around them. We need to give them time for repetition, which is essential to the mastery of a skill. We need to give ourselves time to feel comfortable with presentations, with classroom management, and time to build a special relationship with each child.

It doesn’t happen in a moment, a day, a week, or even a month. There’s a reason for the 3-year cycle. With consistency, careful attention, and yes, even love, the children will begin to grow and mature. They will smooth out the rough edges of misbehavior and internalize the concepts of community, grace, courtesy, autonomy, and self-confidence. Montessori, done correctly, works. Let’s never doubt that it does.

4. Lead the children toward independence

Being the one adult in the room can be heady stuff. It’s all about control, right? Traditional education is built around this. The teacher is at the front of the room and is the center of the classroom. The teacher knows all and sees all. If you have a question, you ask the teacher. Montessori flips this on its head.

The children, not the teacher, become the center of the classroom. The teacher is sitting with the students at a table or a on the floor. The teacher blends into the classroom (an observer should have a hard time spotting you). The children can learn to rely on the built in control of error, on each other, on control cards or booklets, on reference books or materials. You are the guide, directing them away from you and towards self-reliance.

3. Be prepared (or, as Hamlet said, “The readiness is all.”)

You can’t know everything that will happen on any given day, but you can be prepared for a lot. It can be as simple as being prepared for a rainy day with some new materials or a new craft project waiting in the wings. Or, it can mean being ready for additional questions outside the scope of the material you’re presenting.

What could the day bring? Illness, unexpected responsibilities, or a child who’s having a rough time getting into the groove of Montessori work. Be ready for anything, and you’ll have an easier time dealing with the unexpected.

2. Remain curious about everything

Curiosity is the driving force behind self-education. Since the first cave person wondered, “What’s over that hill?”, human exploration and invention has been driven by curious people. Children are quite naturally curious (the most common manifestation is the number of questions they ask), and adults often find that annoying. Montessori teachers shouldn’t. Instead, they should also be delighted to make new discoveries. Your own curiosity can bounce off of theirs, as you learn new and exciting things about the universe and all the delightful things in it. (See picture: me, thrilled to demonstrate a volcano!)

1. Observe, observe, observe

I wrote a detailed entire post about observation once, but it really can’t be said often enough. Just like concentration is the key to a child’s ability to learn, observation is the key to the teacher’s ability to guide. You can’t know what to do or when to do it without observing – or when it’s best to just leave things alone.

Being a Montessori teacher is no small task. Much will be required of you. Is it worth it? Yes, very much so. You will find yourself as changed by the Montessori method as the children will. Together, you’ll be able to change the world.