About a month and a half ago, I was accepted into a volunteer position at a nearby Montessori school. Since then, I have experienced an educational environment I had no idea existed and have learned so much. Everything about Montessori is still so new to me, and I have been hesitant to write about it for fear of stereotyping parts of the teaching method, theory, or school because of my limited exposure. Finally, after six weeks of volunteering my four hours, I feel ready to start putting what I observe into words. I am so thankful to the director, "K." for allowing me to have this experience.
K. must have thought it strange when in our first emails to each other, I made reference to her "teachers." Before my first visit, when I imagined a hypothetical Montessori school in my mind, I pictured something similar to the public schools I have worked at as a paraeducator, similar to the schools I went to when I was younger. I had no concept, besides the odd ideas of Waldorf schools I had briefly researched, of a school with so few students and teachers. There is another Montessori school in the city where I live that seems, from what I have heard, to be as large as what I had imagined, but the school where I volunteer, which is in it's first year, has only K., the director, and A., (an assistant? I haven't asked, but she is mostly there when I am, coming and going some of the time on errands) as teachers for the six students, two of which are K.'s children. There is another teacher I have met a couple of times who is the head of the early education division, on the opposite side small building. I do not know much about the early education, because they do not meet on Fridays, the only day I am there. I remember that when I was learning about Waldorf, I found it so strange that the teacher of those schools stayed with her students throughout their elementary years, but after having experienced my Montessori school for a while and having read a little more about Montessori schools in general, it seems only natural in this environment.
Almost immediately upon my first visit, I noticed how much emphasis the students put on manners. When I sat down at the table during lunchtime, (a thought never contemplated in public schools!), they told me that they were "practicing polite table conversation," an idea adorable and novel to me at the time. Politeness and consideration is prevalent in all areas, but it is not strictly reinforced, as in families that have strict, written rules and punishments. In fact, the school has no written rules that I have seen, only gentle, oral reminders of what is expected, and the only punishment that has been given while with me present has been, "Please go sit for a little while on the peace pillow," a big pillow in the quiet library section of the building, merely a chance for the student to catch her breath and settle herself. Without strict rules and punishment, students are allowed to explore their actions, view the reactions of others, and decide for themselves how they wish to act. That being said, the students at my Montessori school are (for the most part) extremely well behaved.
Another thing I realized after only a few visits was that Montessori students seem to need a lot less physical attention than I am used to. At the public schools I have worked at, there are little ones that attach themselves to me immediately, even after having just met me. It's a sort of gradual effect, actually. A couple immediately love you, a few only need a short amount of days before they are comfortable with you, some need only a month or so, and then, of course, there are the ones that take a lot of time and effort to warm up to strangers. Nevertheless, I have come to expect receiving a sudden hug at some point or another from every one of the public school children I work with. But even after six weeks, I have not seen any affection from my Montessori students apart from tone of voice and facial expression. That's not to say that it bothers me, it's just something that I find curious.
There are a few explanations I have mused on for why this is. The first is the amount of non-physical attention received in the classroom. With 20-30 students in the public school classroom, it's hard to address each one as often as they'd like. Because they get fewer chances to speak to a teacher, they might show their affection in quick hugs. Montessori students (at least, the ones I have observed), on the other hand, have a teacher available almost literally whenever they need her. Because they can talk to her whenever they have something to say, they need less of a physical expression.
Or perhaps the parents of Montessori students treat their children on a higher, more mature level than public school parents. After being able to solve problems on their own and live day-to-day becoming more independent, the children need less and less physical affection, at least from strangers.
One last idea, I'm almost afraid to voice (and please don't think me heartless for saying so!), assuming that Montessori students come from financially better off families than public school students, and thus presupposing that their families are more frequently able to show their children physical affection, they would not require as much from strangers. It does sound horrible to say, doesn't it! I hope this is not the case, but it is something I have mused on.
Anyway, more about Montessori later. I have a coffee date with K. in a couple of days, and I hope she will shed some light on some other questions I have so that I will feel comfortable sharing them.