Your child as a teacher

A parent asked me recently why her third year child was grumpy at home, and, some days, didn’t want to go to school (new thing!).  (To clarify, in the Montessori classroom, there are at least 3 ages.  In my classroom, they range from 2-5.  Most children start at 2-3- first year-, 3-4 is second year, 4-5 is third year.  In that time, they move from fascinated newbies to competent olders.  We call the third year children “teachers” and expect a great deal of them.  They always perform. 🙂
It caused me to reflect on what “being a (third year) teacher” means.  It is a LOT more than having a “teacher badge”, and the full weight doesn’t hit them until they are doing it (kinda like parenting, eh?)
We are asking each of them, many times a day, to help us/another child, with a work the younger child has gotten out and doesn’t know how to do, find something, do a chore (dishwashing, putting plates away, making snack), finding their name for snack, washing their dish, using watercolors, finding the markers/clipboards, paper, finding their key word book in the folder and putting it away again, figuring out how to have snack, putting on their shoes, finding where this went on the shelf, putting on their underwear the right way, helping them up when they fall down, helping them wash their hands, listening to them read their key word book, helping them roll a rug……
Not to mention offering comfort.  Story from yesterday that made my day:  Me:(with snuffling 2 year old on my lap) “5 year old, do you know of anything that would help 2 year old?” 5: (looks at 2): “Hmmm. Are you okay?” 2: “Yes!!” (???Keeps crying.) 5: “Do you want a hug?” 2: “YES!!!” (leaps up and they both hug, 30 seconds). 5: “Would you like some ice” (????) 2: “YES!!!!! (Leaps up and they go get ice together. Several other children want ice. Ice all around, via 5.) 
What a great example of one of my favorite MM quotes: “a young child can learn something from an older child which they would never want to learn from an adult.”  So true, every day.
So, if your child is grumpy and worn out after a morning at preschool (more than usual), they are working very hard.  They are using all of their problem-solving, empathy, and patience muscles, which, as we all know, is hard work.
I will reassure you that we do not interrupt any “teacher” at his/her work, if we can help it; they are not here to sacrifice their own learning or process. We do not give them jobs that they would never want (“Can you clean up that vomit?”) or with children who are terribly upset or things which we think are too much.  They are “support staff”, and mostly doing things which we think they will enjoy /feel competent doing.  We are very appreciative of their help, always, and thank them.  We really are appreciative!
The olders are the most enticing thing in the environment.  More so than the materials, and much more so than the adults.  They really ARE role models of concentration, self-directed activity, good humor, calm, purposeful movement, self-regulation, play, enthusiasm, and trust.  They are what convinces the new children that they actually can/will be able to cope in this new space, and may want to.

Wonderful book


Written about Gandhi’s grandson’s memories of him : “Grandfather listened, and when I finished, he wiped his spectacles on his dhoti, put them back on, and looked me in the eye. “Give it time, Arun. You will adjust and go on to do good things. I have faith.”

What we want


What we want, as teachers, is to facilitate children loving to read. LOVING it. Life long readers. I, for one, don’t even care what they, as adults, read: Jane Austin, or 50 Shades of Grey. Motorcycle magazines, or the sports pages. READING (and learning), yea!!!!

But how do we help that to happen. As parents, your job is kinda easy. Read, enjoy reading, and read to your children things that you enjoy reading to them. That’s it, really.

As teachers and schools and school systems, there is a lot of politics involved. This is partly, of course, because there is a lot of money involved.

Ahhhh, the politics of learning. Who knew? This article cites a “report”. Sounds great. The report is partially funded by the association of Waldorf schools. Waldorf schools do not think that children should be exposed to letters until around age 7. They have apparently found a way to attempt to influence the conversation in this way. Sigh.

No, I don’t think Kindergartens should expect everyone to read in Kinder. My son did not read until he was 9, and any attempt to speed up the process, even with Montessori materials, just did not work. I’m sure that, as we continue to learn more about how we learn and how to teach, we may understand more about the processes that impede learning. I’m sure there are many. But Kindergarten teachers should not feel that pressure, children should not feel that pressure. Do any of us learn well under pressure????

And there is this bullshit about “play based preschools”. I’m sorry, I am so tired of this. Children have been learning alongside other people since the Dawn of Time. Do primitive people put their toddlers in rooms full of plastic crap to “play with” until they are “old enough to learn”? What model are we using here?

Montessori teachers, RIE educators, and many other people feel that children learn alongside others with whom they have a relationship. This school of thought is called social constructivism (Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that applies the general philosophical constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings.) and includes not only Montessori but include Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky (

This is not new stuff. It is not radical stuff. It is supported by what we now understand about learning, and best practices about teaching.

So, should we demand that all Kindergarten teachers in the US, who have learners of all types and stripes (non-native English speakers, at-risk children of all types, like homeless children and children who have a variety of special needs, diagnosed and not), teach all children to read by June of the Kinder year? Hell no!

Should we “protect” children from being expected to learn anything until age 7, so that they can joyfully “play”? Hell, no, either. Children want to learn what people know and do. That is why they learn to walk and talk. They are hard-wired for this. To deny them this is to tell them that they are incapable, and need “special service”, creating dependency and helplessness. For some, the extended time in “pretend play” causes them to lose a grasp on the reality of what is going on around them, and what the other children/people are doing and saying.

Yes, this is not a complete rant. I am not saying that children need to sit and look at flash cards, either. Of course not. Most of them cannot sit at all! Children learn through movement, relationships and relevance.

But please do not fight an absurd assumption (all children can and should learn to read by age 6) with an equally absurd one (no one should have to learn anything until age 7).

Sharing starts with understanding Ownership

imagesThis statement is so important.  One of the many things that RIE and Montessori have in common is the belief that children need to feel ownership: of their bodies, of their abilities, of their feelings, of their actions.  Then, they can take responsibility and pride, and build on those accomplishments.  This is why the american emphasis on sharing is so unhelpful.  Not that we do not want children to be generous and empathetic, but that this is so difficult, and yet so expected.  Young children do not begin to develop real empathy until age 4!

Below is a lovely post by a fellow RIEer 🙂

Sharing starts with understanding Ownership.



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I just read a Facebook post from a friend who was crediting her sister (wonderful picture of the two of them!) for inspiring her in her work.

I immediately thought of Martha. Martha MacDermott. She was a consultant at the school where I did my internship. Our director had trained at Xavier in Cincinnati, where she was on faculty.

You can see Martha above, laughing. This is how I remember her. This is a celebration of her, so in the larger picture below, you can see the bagpiper celebrating her Scottish upbringing. Her speaking was even more intriguing because of her lovely accent.

Montessori herself was an intimidating, inflexible person, it seems. You had to be, to be a woman with a powerful international presence at the turn of the century. Look at Margaret Thatcher, 50 years later! And Martha was also tough, but it was always clear that she was only telling you what she knew to be true, and that she was always on the side of clarity for the children. She wanted children to understand, and to love what they were learning, as she did. This was so obvious.

In the above video, Martha tells that she started her training in London, in 1958. This was just at the beginning of the Montessori “revival” in the US, so, soon after, she came here to mentor many new schools.
I have many “Martha stories”, and I love telling them. It is wonderful to have a new place to tell them:) My staff and children will be so pleased, that I am not telling them, again!

1) Martha comes, and it is her 60th birthday. She does the “walk around the sun”, and does it by decades, after giving a lovely lesson on counting by 10s with the bead materials. Then, instead of telling us a story for each year, or decade, she sat and told us (3-6 class) about a birthday she spent in an air-raid shelter during the London Blitz. Not a sound was heard, as all the children watched her face.

2) All the teachers are watching Martha give a variation of the checkerboard (Montessori multiplication lesson). The boy, with whom she is working (aged 7 or so), is intrigued by being the center of attention, and starts to make himself belch on command. Fascinating! What will Martha do? She stops, and puts her hands in her lap until he is brought up short and looks at her. She asks, quietly: “Do you know who I am?” He stammers: “Well, yes, you are Martha!” She answers, with delight: “Yes! And I am also someone who very much wants to do this lesson with you today. Will you do it with me?” Lesson continues from there, with great appreciation from both participants.

3) Martha comes, and tells the children (3-6) all the stages of her trip, from leaving her apartment to getting on plane to fly to Charlotte, to driving to Boone, with all the stops on the way. The children are riveted.

4) A 3 year old watches Martha and an older child do the entire 50 piece US puzzle map. She obviously loves it, and, when it is put back, goes and gets it, and falls, scattering all the pieces. Instead of telling her that it is too big for her, and that she has made a mess (reading out of my own script), Martha looks in the face of crying Lou and says: “We can fix this together.” The she helps Lou match the pieces to the control map by color: “Which color shall we do next?” This all takes about an hour, during which Martha does not look annoyed, or like she would rather be doing more important work. When I asked her later why she did not name the states as they put them in the puzzle (cramming in information was always in the back of my mind), she answered: “That was not what drew her to the work, and she has plenty of time to learn them. She was having a sensorial experience with the shapes of the pieces.”

5) My daughter adored Martha, and wanted to write her letters. As a 5 year old, they were brief, and had invented spelling. Martha answered each one, with stories from her day.

Martha said, “Maria started a new conversation on the planet for the possibility of children and it will never be completed.” Thus, the Montessorian’s job continues.

I am striving every day to see children as Martha did.