by Erika Ohlhaver
Because details matter in a Montessori environment.
“Besides being passionate about Montessori, what else do you do?” was a question recently asked by one of my Montessori interns. I’ve thought a lot about that question. Leaving aside the original quest to know more about my “outside life” and the obvious comfort level of even asking the question, I am wondering just how did I become so passionate! From my perspective I’m just sharing what I know about children, the Montessori pedagogy, and how best to help children be themselves. Obviously, others see it differently.
After 35 years of working in Montessori classrooms, teaching future teachers and working with many other Montessorians you learn a few things. Every teacher remembers those children that have changed her, that have given her pause, or have clarified something that they themselves did not even know was muddied. I hope to use this blog to share some of those stories with you. These are the comments, children and circumstances that have shaped me. Perhaps they will touch you or strike a chord with you, but my hope is they will ignite a passion within you as well.
I was working in a Montessori Magnet school in Ft. Worth in the mid 80’s. It was my first year working in a public Montessori program and to be honest, there were many nights when I cried. I had come from a strong, private Early Childhood program and I was hired to teach a stand-alone first grade. You have to remember; Montessori in the public system was still relatively new. I remember the debut edition of The Public School Montessorian and the lead article Are You a Public School Montessorian or a Public School Montessorian?
It was a difficult year to say the least. When I met my new principal she handed me a stack of teacher guides and my class list. Lugging the heavy books back to my new but empty classroom I didn’t have the courage to tell her that I didn’t know how to use the teacher manuals! My method classes in early childhood education didn’t mention them, let alone discuss how to use them! My class list has several students from the prominent private Montessori school, which was great because that meant that they had previous Montessori experience. It also meant that they knew what I was supposed to do!
Back in my classroom I went into my comfort zone, unpacking the new materials, and setting up my shelves. My language area consisted of one moveable alphabet and a set of sandpaper letters; many of the children were already reading so clearly, there was work to do. In the mean time my principal asked for my reading schedule and reading groups. I’m sure you can see where this is going—yes, I learned how to use those basal readers and it is here that my story comes to it’s point. I was working with the “high” group, the group of children who had come from the Montessori school. I wasn’t really paying attention, because let’s face it; those first grade basal stories are not that interesting! I looked at my teacher’s guide and asked the question that was next in the sequence and then I looked at my children. The looks on their faces said it all. It said, “How can you ask us such an asinine question? Don’t you think we’re smart enough to already know that?”
That was it, I closed the teacher’s guide and said, “We’re not doing this any more, I’ll figure something else out” and I did. This was the beginning of my journey on how to do it right; how to move each child forward and treat each one of them with the dignity and respect they deserved. I learned how to implement the full authentic Montessori curriculum in my classroom by closing my door and doing what I knew was right for the children. I often think about that first group and the looks on their faces. What would have happened if they hadn’t been so open? But then they were children who didn’t know how to behave any differently. Thankfully, I was open to the message.