Saturday, October 10, 2009

Uncomfortably Numb

“A method of educating young children that stresses development of a child's own initiative and natural abilities, especially through practical play.”

Definition of the Montessori method on

Reading the above quote, I was already suspicious of “practical play”. Since when was play supposed to be practical? I want to share some highlights from the instruction sheet I was given, the first time I was a Montessori Substitute for a three to five-year-old classroom (I left all spelling/grammar errors – parts in italics are mine):

Please do NOT interrupt a child that is working quietly.

But I will have to interrupt when they are constantly off-task.

“Please speak softly and use a quiet voice.”

I can do that.

“Children are expected to work either at a table or on a work mat.”

Sounds easy? Ha!

“Please do not clean up after a child.”

Just nag them to do it themselves all day.

“Materials are referred to as ‘work’.”

That’s because the materials aren’t fun.

“If a child seems to be wandering, please encourage them to chose their favorite Practical Life or Sensorial Lesson.”

They know what that means? I don’t.

“Unless it’s an emergency, please do not interrupt the teacher when she is giving a lesson.”

Why not? What would happen?

“Please put all personal items in a cabinet. Cell phones should be turned off or hang the ringer on silent.”

Though the silence will be periodically broken by loudspeaker announcements.

“When in doubt, PLEASE ask the teacher.”

Just not during the one or two short lessons.

I am by no means an expert on Montessori. In the spring, I only subbed for the Montessori school three times. Before then, I knew virtually nothing about the method, and therefore, had no opinion. But after one day, I witnessed much to garner many opinions. Other disgruntled teachers (forced to teach it) tried to get me to share my impressions of the program, but I remained vague. “I feel like a nag instead of a teacher,” one teacher confessed. Another worried that the non-English-speaking students would be delayed in learning English, since there’s little talking allowed. “All they learn is, ‘Please be quiet,” she joked. This school adopted this program because it had too many failing state test scores, so it was a way to attract parents, instead of losing them. Other than that, what they’ve gained by adopting Montessori is less clear to me.

I am sure that a Montessori private school is vastly different than a public one, because public schools are only so flexible. I am told the kids are supposed to spend the day engaged in various “work” activities that they choose, which works marginally well with five-year-olds, but it’s a disaster with three-year-olds. Two hours into the day, the youngest ones cannot deal with the regimented program, and begin to act out in their own ways. Some look like they could nap on the spot, rubbing bleary eyes or splaying on the floor. But until this year, they only had to endure it for three hours. Near the end of their day, the children went out for recess (Once, I saw a three-year-old fall asleep on the playground). Afterwards, the four and five-year-olds went to lunch, while the three-year-olds went home. The rest of the day was much easier, but no less boring (For me and the children).

This year, the three-year-olds are there ALL day. And three-year-olds in the beginning of the year are A LOT younger than at the end of the year. The entire class runs less smoothly in early in the year. Few remember to clean up, so I must always recall who was doing that “work” and bring them back to clean up (A mini-battle of wills). I also must remind them to put their “work” on the rugs (Another mini-battle of wills). And this “work” does not much resemble what you’d see in preschool or kindergarten classes. The children seemed under-stimulated. And I felt like I’ve taken a sedative.

I know someone who just began working at the school; she complained me that her class is little more than a daycare. The teacher I worked for today confirmed this when she said, “We need to ask them if they need to use the bathroom often because yesterday there were three accidents.” Yikes! Was I going to have to clean up after that? By the time the three-year-olds had naptime, they were too exhausted to sleep (I spent the many minutes coaxing them to remain quiet and on their mats). Afterwards, several of the little ones cried easily or otherwise acted out until the day ended. I knew they were being problematic because too much was being expected of them. Many times, I was tempted to scoop up these toddlers for hugs or let them play and behave like they’re supposed to.

I haven’t witnessed much joy among Montessori students nor have I been very impressed with what they’re learning. The five-year-olds are supposed to be modeling proper behavior for the younger ones, but this rarely happens (More likely that they're reminded that they're supposed to be modeling). Perhaps as the children get older, they build on these early lessons. I’ve heard that it all comes together at some point. But I have yet to see the benefit of Montessori – especially for three-year-olds. I think if parents saw their own little ones going through the motions of the day, they’d be less enamored with the philosophy. Whether it’s practical work or practical play, there seems to be very little room left for dreaming or imagination.


  1. This actually does not sound like a Montessori program at all, please do not judge the method by what was going on in this school. It sounds like they use a few Montessori buzzwords, but aren't following through with the method. My students thoroughly enjoy their work, and the teachers work very hard to match each child's specific interests and development to their work. All of our students are extremely well mannered and the olders are wonderful role models for the youngers.

  2. I'm sure that's true Tammy. It's probably a mixture of such young children, a program that doesn't completely commit, along with most teachers having been forced to recently convert to the program. My husband's cousin is a product of Montessori, and he's a lawyer and a well-adjusted human being. I hope that in a few years, the school will improve, but I'm also hoping I won't be subbing to see it!