Montessori and Me (so far)

By: Callum McDonald.

Late last year, I decided to make a “treechange” for term one 2015 and temporarily transplant myself from my Richmond sharehouse and live on my dad’s chestnut orchard in Stanley. Having grown up a “city kid”, I felt a yearning to discover what had drawn dad to this part of the world. So it was with a hopeful, open mind that I came ready to see what teaching in rural Victoria was like, and roll up my sleeves to help dad harvest some chestnuts.

I have observed that a Montessori classroom is a special place. This sentiment has almost certainly been expressed in exactly those words countless times since Dr Montessori founded her first Casa dei Bambini in 1907, but it bears saying again. Clichés become clichés for a reason – because just like a really good song, they express how an experience makes you feel in such a way that no other combination quite sounds right at that time and place.

I’ve seen quite a few different kinds of schools in my short years as a teacher, and none of them are quite like this! Having spent at least a school day with every class (and dozens of full days in total) at Beechworth Montessori, I have been hugely impressed by the quality of teaching and the commitment to observation and note-taking supporting further learning by all the directors and assistants at the school. The indirect results of this are environments where wonderful, willing learning occurs every day. So no matter what your connection to this school is, you are a part of something special, and that in turn makes you a little bit more special than you otherwise would be. Now you can hopefully forgive me for waxing sentimental (bordering on saccharin), here are a few of this things I’ve learned.

Possibly the most powerful way in which the school has resonated with me has been the fact that the copious quantities of Montessori theory I read clearly informed what I saw happening in classrooms. Not just the techniques, but the lofty, high-minded philosophical aspirations of the pedagogy as outlined by Dr Montessori were being enacted in everyday life. Here I must thank Heather, who was kind enough to direct me to and often lend to me, some wonderfully stimulating reading material, and regularly discuss what I thought about it. Furthermore, all the staff at the school have consistently been kind enough to chat at length with me about Montessori pedagogy, and was ceaseless impressed by the way that what they observed, and then explained what they were observing. It all just made sense. Having a stable philosophy, sets of terminology and materials provides security and certainty to students – they can see what is expected of them, and what they can expect in return. Knowing that pedagogy cannot be held hostage by political considerations means that this state of surety and the slow, deep learning it enables is just as good for staff.

Two experiences have driven home for me the unquestionable legitimacy of Montessori education at all stages of development– spending some time at the fledgling Montessori program at Beechworth S.C. under Laureen Barnard; and meeting a successful former Montessorian, who explained the ways in which his time in Montessori had set him up. Both these experiences showed me that Montessori is not going to bring up “perfect” people, but rather sensitive and independent thinkers who are capable to figuring out what they want and breaking tasks down into manageable goals.

I have come to the firm conclusion that the Montessori programmes in Beechworth achieve a stunning amount of “differentiation” – a current educational buzzword that is all the rage in teacher training, and which basically means that teaching is targeted at individual students and calibrated to reach them at the point that they are ready to learn. For instance, mathematics is learned as a continuum of small skills and checkpoints that will be reached at different speeds by different students. The beauty of Montessori is that it creates an environment in which this can realistically take place, simply by assuming that kids want to learn, and are capable of a lot more than adults generally give them credit for. By teaching students to be in charge of keeping track of what comes next for their own learning, this gives them a sense of ownership, and internal motivation that burns brighter and longer than any external reward could.

My time at Beechworth Montessori has not changed, but rather focussed the “teacher” part of my mind on which educational outcomes are truly important, and which are created for expediency or to meet situational demands. No school is perfect: kids need to break rules, push boundaries, and make mistakes as they begin the long process of figuring out who they are; what they want; and what they can contribute to society. When students make mistakes, it should be in the context of learning something they don’t already know. Because students at work in Beechworth Montessori programs are continuously building on things they know that they want to, and are ready to, learn mistakes are always opportunities for growth, not punishment. This is a magnificent and nourishing environment which breeds collegiality and esteem amongst students and staff alike.

There must be a thousand and one reasons why Montessori education is so special, and I’ve so far been privileged to see more than a handful. As I pack my bags and prepare to hop on the train back to Melbourne next week, I hope that I’ll have the chance to encounter a few more back in the big smoke. For now, I want to say a HUGE thank you to all the staff, students, and parents who have made me feel welcome in this extraordinary school every minute of every day that I’ve spent here.