“Oh you’re a preschool teacher, I could never do that job!” is a phrase I hear almost every day when I choose to speak to other adults (outside of my co-workers, of course). “Toddlers!? You’re nuts!” That’s another one. “You must be so patient!” They all say. The truth is that I am pretty patient. I also believe that toddlers are joy personified. When they jump and twirl and laugh and hug so tight, I feel so full of life. And when they cry their deepest cries, I believe them, because life can be oh so difficult at times. This is my second year working with toddlers. I will tell you that I do not continue to do it because I am perfectly fit for the job. No, I believe it is because the job is perfectly fit for me.
This is my first year as a lead teacher. I came to Charlotte Montessori School a little over a year ago. I’d learned about Montessori in High School in an Early Childhood Development course. (I admittedly only took the course for the opportunity to take home an electronic baby for the weekend. The great responsibility enticed me and when the sweet plastic babe was placed into my arms I called him “Ponyboy”. ) Years later when I was visiting Spruce Pine, NC, where my sister and her family live, I tagged along to tour the nearby Montessori School where my 2 year old nephew was to attend not long after. As I walked through the classrooms during the tour and listened to the school’s director speak about the materials, the daily schedule, the focus on each child, I felt a thrill well up inside me. The more I began to read about Montessori, the more I felt a pull towards it. The language made sense to me. Of course we are to treat children with respect and dignity! Of course we should use positive discipline! Of course they should be given natural materials and given work with purpose! Of course we should use soft quiet voices and only use words to guide them. Of course.
I went to Queens University of Charlotte to study Relational Communication. I took classes such as conflict management, family communication, communication theories, and non-verbal communication, etc. I thought perhaps I’d go on to become a counselor or a mediator of sorts. I wanted to bring healing and peace to the world in some way. However, when I pictured myself in those environments, I immediately felt burdened. I’m not sure I am ready to deal with such heaviness, I said to myself during a real heart to heart. I think that is okay.
I’d driven past Charlotte Montessori countless times and after my visit from Mitchell County, I e-mailed Michelle Cochran about volunteering at the school to gain perspective. She e-mailed back and told me that there is no volunteering at the school, but I could join the sub list. I was looking for a job change and felt a bit discouraged at my lack of free time to offer myself as a sub. A few short weeks later I received an e-mail that they were hiring for Assistants! A-ha! Here we go. I jumped in feet first.
The first class I observed at the school was a second year toddler class. The children were walking about the room choosing work and returning it to the proper place. Washing their hands. Using the bathroom. Independently navigating through their environment with confidence and stride. I interacted with one little girl and looked at a book about fish. I pointed to one and asked her “who does that look like?” (Thinking she would say “Nemo”) She replied, “That looks like a clown fish.” I realized then that this place was going to teach me a lot.
Fast forward a bit and I now have a year of being an assistant under my belt, I am part way through becoming an American Montessori Society trained Toddler teacher, and I graciously accept the title of “Lead Teacher” to twelve positively beautiful, fascinating, and perfect little people.
It hasn’t all been easy. In fact, I will say it has been quite difficult. My first few days as an assistant in a classroom were nothing like what I observed that first day (Don’t worry, everybody warned me it wouldn’t be). But I stood in the classroom full of hope and love and ready to teach the children about clown fish and daffodils and the blue blue sky; instead I was met with ten sobbing children who were not quite ready to be embraced by my arms or my ideals. I learned to take direction (swiftly) from a seasoned leader. I learned to build trust with children and their parents. I learned to step back and observe. I learned that, as a guide, I would not be playing with play-dough alongside the children, as I may have been if I were babysitting. I learned to stand-up diaper. I learned to think quickly, to remove too big of a bite from a child’s mouth, to wait for their reaction to a fall instead of dive to their rescue, and to hold space for all feelings.
I also learned to take long deep breaths. I learned to ask for help when I was frustrated or low on energy. I learned to let the little things go and to look on the bright side. I learned the power of hugs. I learned that washing your hands really really does matter. I learned that as soon as I think I have been pushed to my limit- emotionally, mentally, and physically, that, in fact, I am only being made stronger. Patience is not a stagnant personality trait that some have and some don’t. Patience is developed and crafted and must be washed out and reshaped and reformed for each new day. I learned a lot about forgiveness and grace. That children, if not joy, are grace personified, for they are the most forgiving of all.
This year I have truly immersed myself in Maria Montessori’s philosophy. She was a woman of incredible drive, purpose, and intellect. She was a peacemaker, a philosopher and a physician. She was a visionary. She is the reason we are all here today (at the school/on the blog). “Oh, Maria, how can I ever be like you?” I ask myself almost daily. This week I decided to listen to an audio book on my way to and from work. This particular passage I decided to interpret as a response to my cry to Maria.
“I hope you’ll have a good time, Anne. You’ve worked very hard this past year and have succeeded.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve come so far short in so many things. I haven’t done what I meant to do when I began to teach last fall. I haven’t lived up to my ideals.”
“None of us ever do, “said Mrs. Allen with a sigh. “But then, Anne, you know what Lowell says, ‘Not failure but low aim is a crime.’ We must have ideals and try to live up to them, even if we never quite succeed. Life would be a sorry business without them. With them it’s grand and great. Hold fast to your ideals, Anne.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
And so, I too, will hold fast to my ideals. I am grateful to be able to look to a philosophy that reminds me that like the children, I too am a process, not a product. I’m grateful for each day that I am granted the opportunity to speak softer and kinder, to allow space for growth, to practice getting myself out of the way of what nature is doing in these lives. I do not work with toddlers because I am perfectly fit for the job. I work with toddlers because I want to be fit for the job, to be worthy enough to care for them. Because life surrounded with children is grand and great and full of joy and grace and love.
“Now, what really makes a teacher is love for the human child; for it is love that transforms the social duty of the educator into the higher consciousness of a mission.” Maria Montessori