One of the first things a Montessorian must acquire is the humility necessary to fully comprehend that she is not a teacher. Montessorians are carefully trained not to interfere, any more than absolutely necessary, in the spontaneous process of a child developing a mind, which they are diligently doing – with or without the presence of an adult – every conscious moment of their young lives. We must take care to act only as observers and gentle guides in that autonomous process. Our job is to observe children independently working at this task at their own pace, in the learning environment we have so carefully prepared, and notice when it is time to give them that next little nudge along their individual path of self-discovery. Then, we give them a short presentation in how properly to use a new didactic tool found there, and then get out of their way to allow them to learn by exploring with it.

We must never forget that we are adults and role models, and the children expect us to act like it. A well-trained Montessorian is completely non-judgmental and must never allow her own prejudices to be passed on to her students in any way. She regards her classroom as a temple for developing minds, which she must never desecrate with an unenthusiastic mood. She learns to appreciate the benefit of leaving her personal problems outside, before ever entering that temple. They will undoubtedly be waiting for her attention later; but in the meantime, she can smile with delight as she puts them out of her mind, for the children’s sake, if not her own.

A Montessorian will never raise her voice over anything short of a fire in the building. Children react positively to adults who are calm, yet firm. While they can ignore a yell, they will strain to hear a whisper, and revel in the attention if they think they are the only one who did. Spilled water, or a broken vase, is merely an unexpected opportunity to show a child how to clean up the mess themselves. Rather than experience her frustration (or worse yet – anger), which could bruise the ego of a hapless three-year-old, the Montessori student receives an empowering new presentation in Practical Life from a loving mentor.

Try to put yourself in the mind of a child who just turned three. You are actively creating the mind that will serve as your tool for dealing with reality for the rest of your life, by absorbing data from your environment like a sponge, classifying it, and methodically organizing it in as coherent a fashion, as your woefully incomplete thee-year-old mind can accomplish. Simultaneously, you are diligently working on improving your motor skills and hand-eye coordination. You were blessed with parents who were wise enough, or just plain lucky enough, to have enrolled you in a Montessori school. You find yourself ensconced for a few hours every day in an amazing environment.

All the furniture and appurtenances are scaled down to your size. Even the sink with real running water is down at your level. There are about one thousand different intriguing didactic “activities” arrayed on the low shelves, just begging to be explored by your mind; yet there is not a single toy in the room. The child sized brooms, dustpans, buckets, and mops are meant and expected to be used for the same purpose adults use theirs.

You are surrounded by children from 2 ½ thru 6-years-old, at various stages of development; all industriously and cooperatively using the various activities for the same purpose you are, creating their minds. Seeing the older children’s confidence and competence makes them convenient role models, whom you are anxious to emulate. Gratefully, most of them enjoy helping a tyke when the adult “guide” (she wouldn’t presume to call herself a teacher) in the room is busy elsewhere. It is a safe, nurturing, environment, and you have been in it long enough to be considered “normalized,” and trusted to choose your own activities for the day.

Normalized? Oh, that is one of those unfortunate Montessori buzzwords that have survived the past hundred years. Its primary utility seems to be to horrify parents, who recoil at the thought that their precious little creations might be anything subnormal when they applied for enrollment. It reflects Maria Montessori’s discovery that the true nature of the child is expressed in a love of order, a love of work, a love of silence and working alone, remarkable concentration, spontaneous self-discipline, independence and initiative, attachment to reality, and profound joy. The behaviors adults are pleased to call “naughty,” are generally a result of these needs not being met for the child, and they simply melt away in an environment where they are. Once they do, a Montessorian considers them normalized.

You are irresistibly drawn to the Practical Life area of the classroom today, and being a perfectly normal child, water fascinates you. You have pretty well mastered the bean sorting activities, and thus learned to be careful carrying an activity tray, with real china dishes on it, to a table without breaking anything. You don’t know why the “teacher” (your mom insists on using that word) chose beautiful precious breakable bowls and jugs for the activities, rather than plastic fantastic ones you could be careless with (although she certainly does); but you understand and appreciate that you are being trusted with their care, and you are thus very careful with them. Your increasing competence is a real boost to your self-confidence.

You got your first “lesson” (your “teacher” would call it a presentation) in a water pouring activity yesterday. You learned how to use the sink to fill a china jug with water; carry it carefully to a table, and pour equal amounts into two small glasses. Then you learned that you could empty the glasses back into the jug, and do it again; over and over for as long as you liked. When satisfied, you would pour the water back into the sink, dry the jug and glasses with a cloth, and carefully put them back on the tray. Then you would return it to the shelf, in exactly the same condition you found it, so it would be ready for the next child to use. Amazingly, all it took was one ten minute “lesson” for you to earn your solo wings. Today, you can’t wait to try them out. That little jug is so cute, and the sink has real running water in it!

Bummer. By the time you got up from the morning “circle,” another child already had that pouring activity out and was doing the exercise. It wouldn’t have even occurred to you to get upset or make a fuss over having to wait your turn. One of the cardinal rules of a Montessori classroom is that nobody is ever allowed to disturb another child’s work. He could leave it to go to the bathroom, in full confidence that it would be exactly as he left it when he returned. Oh well, he will be finished soon, so you choose to sort some more beans while you wait. Ah, now it is back on the shelf; but first you have to complete your present activity and put it away as you found it, before you are free to change activities.

That done, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to take the tray with that precious jug to a table (any empty table will do, none is assigned). You do so with the utmost of care, and take the jug and glasses off the tray and set it aside. After putting on the obligatory apron (water activities can get messy), you go to the sink and get your water. You carry the jug carefully back to the table, one hand on the handle, one supporting it from underneath, just as the “teacher” had carefully shown you how to do. For the moment, you actually love that precious jug even more than the Montessorian who bought it, and she treasures it a lot. To break it would be unthinkable.

You do the exercise repeatedly, in rapt concentration, for half an hour. Your mind is focused exclusively on what you are doing, and is almost oblivious to what is going on around you. With each reiteration, you become a little more confident and competent at pouring just the right amount without spilling hardly a drop. Yes, you are developing self-confidence and a measure of self-esteem regarding your competence, and it feels great. You don’t need any kudos or encouragement from others; you can see for yourself that you are getting better at it. Then, the unthinkable happens. Your wet little hand slips on the jug and you drop it on the floor. You are shocked and virtually petrified in horror, as you watch the water spread among the broken shards of that treasured pitcher.

What happens in the next moment makes all the difference in the world. You are not an idiot; you know for yourself that you just failed, and the last thing you need is a mad cow swooping in, or jeering peers, to point it out to you. You were not being careless, quite the opposite; it was an unfortunate accident, and if other’s didn’t notice that fact, it is their failing, not yours. You just fell off a horse, and the immediate consequences will determine how soon you are going to risk getting back on it. More importantly, it may leave an indelible impression in your developing mind, regarding whether the risk of failure is worth the consequences of trying a daunting task. Unfair censure is just that debilitating to self-esteem and a budding ego, in the mind of a three-year-old.

In far too many adult-centered classrooms, this experience would have turned out negatively. Even a generally loving and caring teacher might not have suppressed her dismay at the loss of her favorite jug (you probably can’t imagine how much Montessorians love their “PL” baubles, the one area of the classroom where their own individual tastes are on display). The other children probably would have sniggered at the victim’s dismay or laughed aloud. The flustered teacher would have shooed everyone away while she cleaned up the mess, to keep others from spreading it or knocking something else over.

The whole classroom would have thus been affected, all concentration broken, and all attention focused on the drama. The poor little culprit/victim would be crushed, and probably break into tears, which everyone would assume she deserved, as punishment for her clumsiness and attempting to pour water before she was “big enough” to do it properly. The teacher, for her convenience, would then probably replace the pretty little jug with an ugly plastic one, which couldn’t be broken. Then, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some child used it for a hammer, or threw it across the room in a fit of frustration; activities unheard of in a normalized Montessori classroom.

In the child-centered environment of an authentic Montessori school, the child would have received a very different experience. The Montessorian wouldn’t have dreamed of allowing her personal pique to have shown through in the slightest. She would have been there in a flash, with a smile on her face and a consoling, yet ever encouraging voice, barely above a whisper. Children on the other side of the room might not have even noticed the commotion, and would continue concentrating on their own work. Nor would there have been any peer censure. A five-year-old boy would have immediately gone for a mop and bucket for the water, without being asked. A four-year-old girl would get a broom and dustpan for the shards.

Everyone involved would have been intent on helping the hapless child with an accident, and the teacher’s highest goal (beyond the “teachable moment” for the cleanup lesson), would be to make sure the child would remount the proverbial horse ASAP. With ego fully intact, this child would be ready to resume the mission of creating a competent adult out of a child, on her own, with only minor assistance and minimal direction. The most valuable lesson of the day was that it is OK to fail, as long as you never give up trying. â—„Daveâ–º