We’ve had a lot of transitions this past week. It reminded me of when I made the transition from a Toddler teacher to a Primary teacher. I was terrified but so excited. I wrote this narrative right after the transition and I like to reflect upon it during times of change. It helps me remember a time I was unsure and faced a new challenge only to find that I could adjust and build myself back up again.
This is that narrative.
Of two things, I am absolutely sure of. The first, is that Montessori is much more than a noun. It is a verb. It is a lifestyle that, once learned, will change the way you look at children, yourself, and the world. The second, is that a glass of wine can do wonders for both the spirit of the teacher and the survival rate of your classroom.
Seven years ago, I started working as an assistant teacher in a toddler classroom. It was supposed to be my summer job after college before I move to New York and perused a publishing career. Instead, I was bit by the Montessori bug. We’ve all been there. We walk into the classroom and see the children spontaneously and joyfully working, and suddenly it all makes total sense. I worked under the most wonderful lead teacher for two solid years. I studied her ability to connect with children, how she knew what to provide next for the child, and how she ran a classroom with an abundance of grace and courtesy.
After two years, I wanted to try it on my own. I wanted to experience the joy of being a guide for toddlers. It was a fantastic adventure. Everything about toddlers calls to me. Their chubby arms, their emotional exploration, and their development of autonomy. One group in particular, about three years ago, really had an impact on me. There were twelve of them ranging from 13 months to 2 years. Ten boys and two girls. Our days were anything but easy, but they were full of joy. I made the decision that I couldn’t part from these twelve children. I desperately wanted to move with them up into the primary classroom. To do this, I began my training while I was still in the toddler classroom, and finished when I moved up with them.
The Primary classroom that I was moving into, was anything but normalized. In one year alone they had four teachers cycle through. The children were desperate for guidance, challenging materials, a prepared environment, and love. I was terrified to bring my twelve toddlers up into that room and disrupt the steady and loving foundation we had built for two years.
My training talked about the bridge shelf. How this shelf could be introduced in the environment for a period of time in the beginning. It was used as a tool to help connect the toddlers who were moving up to the new environment. In this situation, I knew I was going to have to set up a bridge shelf that connected even the kindergarteners back into the environment.
The first day I walked into my new Primary classroom, it was a disaster.
Itwas during the teacher work week. I had a solid week to turn the environment into a comforting and inviting atmosphere before the children returned and my toddlers joined us. The first step was to have a cleansing ceremony. I asked my closest coworkers, and friends, to join me as we saged the room… burnt bay leaves… and exercised the demons that had taken control of the classroom.
Once that was finished, I needed to get organized. I decided that the best way for me to survive my first year was to plan everything that I would ever put out on the shelves in advance. I knew I could stray from this a little as the time went on, but it would give me a sense of control and a blueprint for the year. I created month boxes. These boxes contained practical life materials, geography units, science and language lessons, as well as all my themed math and counters for that month. I then transferred these themes or units onto a paper time line that told me what to put out and when.
I began communication with my new assistant early. I wanted to set up a healthy way to express the expectations and routines of the classroom that I would be implementing. We started a notebook that we were able to pass back and forth the summer before I moved into the new room. These notebook entries created the backbone for what our year would look like and gave us a solid foundation of what to expect from one another.
Setting up the environment during the work week was my biggest challenge. I love to rearrange classrooms and was so good at it in the toddler classroom, in my humble opinion. However, I was intimidated by the number of shelves, materials, and space. The room was so large that it took me several tries to place everything where I thought I needed it to be. I would learn that it wasn’t set up to the best advantage and would change the layout two more times during the year until I felt it was the best fit.
The first day arrived. At our school the children ring the bell outside of the classroom door, we answer it, and they walk in. It helps with separation from the parent and is a signal to the child that their work day is starting. I was completely unprepared for answering the door for 22 children. I was used to 12! I felt that as soon as I got one child in the door, it would ring again. I would be setting up snack, and the bell would ring. I would be helping a child find the bathroom, and the bell would ring. I would be showing a child what works they could or could not do, and the bell would ring. Ring, ring, ring, ring! It felt like I couldn’t settle, the children were all fine, but my anxiety went up a notch with each ring.
I felt in that first week that I was just trying to make it through the day. I was moving all over the classroom helping the new children know what work they could do on their own, and setting stronger limits for the children who were supposed to be established in a classroom and work cycle. I found myself relying more on the children that I brought up, then on the oldest children in the classroom. We were a reversed Montessori environment. I had bipolar feelings of utter joy that I was in Primary and with such fantastic children and then feelings of being completely lost.
This led to my first breakdown. Being with 22 children, in a Primary environment, with a new teaching assistant, new expectations, new limits, was not what I thought it was going to be. I’ve seen other Montessori classrooms. In fact, during my training I had to observe eight! None of them looked like my room. None of them struggled the way mine did to be quiet or calm or peaceful. It felt like chaos. I began to question what the term normalization meant or if I ever knew what it meant. Why weren’t the children responding to my limits? Why was there a lack of grace and courtesy?
I remember the teacher next door coming in and asking, “who was that I heard crying today?” or “What was going on in your room today?” I would later discover this was the sound of me birthing a normalized classroom.
Normalization is not something that comes easily nor is it something that a teacher can do completely on her own. She has to learn how to trust the environment. This was a huge hurdle for me. The children were wild, how could I trust that the environment would correct this? They needed ME to be the one to show them how to act or learn. I doubted everything Maria taught me.
Then one day I let go. I watched as a three-year-old went over to the knobless cylinders and took them to a table. She hadn’t had a lesson on them. In my training, I was tested on exactly where to place these knobless cylinders, how to manipulate them, how to grade them. This child was going to stack them up and knock them down. I was sure of it. I had to let go. I was busy helping a child regain control of his emotions and wouldn’t be able to step in to show the girl a lesson. She placed everything on the table. She looked at it for a few seconds. She stacked them up. She took them down. She stacked them a different way. She took them down. She stacked them one more time, then put the work back on the shelf and went to do something else.
She survived not having a lesson on that work. She is still surviving not having a lesson on that work. I discovered that Maria Montessori’s lessons could teach the children even when I couldn’t. I learned to trust the environment. I learned to trust that my children would push through a false fatigue if I remained still and peaceful. I learned that they could wander the classroom without disrupting someone’s work and eventually discover areas of the classroom independently.
We weren’t perfect, we weren’t even the ideal Montessori classroom, but we had found our way.
Around November I hit my second breakdown. I feel this is one that all Montessorian’s will go through. The “am I enough” breakdown. It’s different from the “this is chaos” breakdown, because now you question if you’re providing enough challenges, giving the right lessons, recognizing the sensitive periods, or being the role model that they need. Parent teacher conferences consisted of Parents asking me why their child wasn’t reading, or why their child hasn’t had a lesson on the chains yet. I felt the pressure that I wasn’t enough for them.
Then one day, a boy sat down next to me with his rug. He retrieved the trinomial cube and began to work on it. I knew that he had been struggling with recognizing the patterns and could hear him saying, “Red touches red. Blue touches blue. Black touches black. Yellow touches yellow,” as he was working. I watched him make mistakes. I watched him correct them. I watched him complete the trinomial cube, put it away, and roll up his rug. He would never know that I had tears in my eyes and the blossoming hope that the children were learning, were being challenged, were succeeding the way in which was natural.
By January, we had hit our stride! As a classroom, we had more confidence. The children seemed focused, engaged, excited. I had lists of who I wanted to present to, what each child’s goals were. It felt like we were a train that spent the first few months chugging up hill, and now we had crested over the mountain and were cruising down into Montessori Valley. The biggest sign of success for me was the emphasis we, as a classroom, placed on Peace.
We prided ourselves on the simple grace and courtesy lessons that made our classroom feel harmonious. We placed a huge emphasis on peace advocates and recognizing what they did for our world. We constructed positive ways to handle conflict resolution, such as asking “how can I make you feel better?” when someone has been hurt. Remembering that you can be kind even in anger. We moved together as a class united.
As teachers, we go through a similar transition as the children. We’re cautious, curious, and excited. We recognize when the honeymoon is over and have to power through on faith. My first year as a new Primary teacher is not how I anticipated it. Sometimes it was everything I hoped for. Sometimes I had to face the reality of situations and create new expectations for myself. I learned to laugh though the stress. To drink a glass of wine when needed. To cry if I have to. But I also realized that I love Montessori. That it still makes perfect sense to me. I learned how to trust it more, to practice it with care, and hopefully to spread it to others. I learned that while there is a bridge shelf that sits in the classroom as an offering to ease children’s minds, the teacher is the true bridge shelf and will always be the connection the child needs.