Four and a half years ago, I was hired to co-teach with another trained Montessori teacher. She had the lead position and I taught lessons and supported her by managing the classroom (I like to equate it to being an air traffic controller).
She was hired 3 months before I was and she had carefully arranged the furniture in the classroom to fit what her training had taught her. I didn’t question the layout of the classroom at that time because I was her subordinate and she had 5 years more experience as a lead teacher than I did. Along the long wall of windows, my lead teacher arranged all of the shelves in rows perpendicular to the wall (like a ladder). The wall opposite the windows had a large area for walking and for working on rugs. Again, because the lead teacher had more experience, I accepted the classroom setup as it was, although secretly, the configuration looked—and felt—odd to me.
The first few months there were so hard.
The children were out of sorts.
They were rude to each other, they were dismissive of the adults and disrespectful to the classroom and everything in it.
The school had only been open for 4 years, and there had been a number of different adults that had come and gone. At the time, I thought maybe the children just needed consistency. After all, children need time to build relationships and to trust the adults who care for them. The relationship building process takes time.
So I waited.
I watched. I took notes. I looked for patterns of behaviors. I worked on building relationships with the children. I modeled appropriate behaviors and gave lessons on Grace and Courtesy as I wrote about in a previous post. I showed lessons about control of movement like the ones found in Beth Phillips’s Walking the Line in the 3-6 Classroom.
I looked to my lead teacher for guidance and I watched her struggle.
And then I began to notice something.
The children did not have work that met their need for challenge and purpose, and therefore, they flit from activity to activity without sinking into deep concentration.
As I observed the children at work, I noticed that the open layout of the classroom—with the tables and shelves all up against the one side—allowed for a long runway through the space. The children literally ran through the room. There was no reason to slow down and walk with intention. There was a huge free space to unleash their boundless, frantic energy.
The lack of purpose and intention spilled out into the backyard, too. The children dangerously tested boundaries and pushed limits. They didn’t respond to the adults at all. The whole situation was concerning and overwhelmingly exhausting.
And then, something unexpected happened It had been building for several weeks unbeknownst to me. The lead teacher and our school director had a difference of philosophy that required a parting of ways.
Our boss pulled me aside one day after she and the lead teacher had struggled with their differences and asked, “Are you ready to take over this classroom?”
It felt like a left hook to the jaw!
The lead teacher was leaving the school, and it was going to push ME into the lead position!
Yikes! I was immediately faced with a huge responsibility. Although I was worried that I lacked experience and that I might be in over my head, the school director had confidence in me, so I decided to trust her judgment and step up to the challenge.
The first thing I did was rearrange the furniture. I arranged the shelves and tables in the classroom to somewhat resemble rooms and areas, like in a home. The children would have to walk through the environment with care not to bump the tables and shelves as they made their way, meandering through the space. I would show the children how to carefully walk around a friend who has work on a rug on the floor and how to be mindful of their own body within the space.
Again, I waited.
I watched. I took notes. I looked for patterns of behaviors. I worked on building relationships with the children. I modeled appropriate behaviors and gave lessons on Grace and Courtesy. I gave lessons based on what the children seemed to need.
Most importantly: I set limits.
I love this quote from Montessori Northwest, a teacher training center in Portland:
“Maria Montessori recognized that when allowed freedom of choice within clear, firm and reasonable boundaries, children act in positive ways that further their development. Freedom is frequently misunderstood, and many people take it to mean that children can do whatever they want. Montessori believed that freedom without boundaries was abandonment….But this freedom within limits allows for the natural development of self-regulation.”
In chapter 14 of Dr. Montessori’s book The Absorbent Mind, she wrote,” One of the mistakes of modern times is to consider movement separately from the higher functions.” Control of movement starts in infancy as a baby learns to hold up his head or learns to grasp a toy. Montessori taught us that the child’s “work is inseparable from movement.”
Many of the learning materials that she designed have movement built into the lesson. The long red rods for example, are designed to be carried one at a time with care and concentration to the work rug. Indirectly experiencing the decimal system, ten times the child walks to the rug. Ten times the child walks back to the shelf to restore the rods.
Not only is the concept of length learned, self control, body awareness, concentration, muscle memory are practiced as well.
It took about six months as lead teacher for the children in my class to normalize. And although we had our ups and downs (and still do, in my current classroom), when we divert from normalization, I always look at how children move through the classroom. I show the children how to walk the line. I revisit the lessons of grace and courtesy. I take time to make personal connections with the little people.
When things in my classroom are, as my mother-in-law says, “fruit basket turnover”, again, I return to the foundations, including grace and courtesy, personal connection, and control of movement.
Young children need freedom to move and yet they need purpose, guidance and limits. Taking time to connect and build relationships with each of the children, showing the children lessons on the work that is just the right amount of challenge will settle them in a way that is remarkable.