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Cultivating Respect

"The teacher's happy task is to show [children] the path to perfection, furnishing the means and removing obstacles, beginning with those which she herself is likely to present (for the teacher can be the greatest obstacle of them all.)"
—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Montessori taught us to deeply respect children, not interrupting when they are concentrating, allowing them to discover their own mistakes rather than pointing them out, observing without judgment. However, the ability to transform old habits and apply Montessori philosophy in the classroom can be challenging.

Montessori teachers appear to give many choices, but sometimes we make veiled demands and pressure children to do things they don't want to do. Are we truly inviting children to a lesson or are we, in reality, demanding they attend? When we allow a child to continue working, if he'd prefer not to join the circle, we are respecting his need to concentrate.

Back to the Source!

The preparation of the teacher is an ongoing process. For inspiration as well as for answers, many Montessori teachers regularly go back to the source and reread Montessori's classics (especially when their classrooms have not yet normalized). Whether you choose The Secret of Childhood, Discovery of the Child, or another, you can find yourself reconnecting with ideas and ideals you may have forgotten, and you give yourself the gift of intellectual and perhaps even spiritual renewal.

There are other excellent books that can help us put Montessori principles into practice, augmenting our classroom management skills and transforming old conditioning. The Tao of Montessori, Calm and Compassionate Children, Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful, and others offer insights and teach concrete skills, such as active listening and compassionate communication.

Fostering Intrinsic Motivation

How do we impact children in the ways that we communicate? Are we fostering their intrinsic love of learning? Many adults view phrases like "good job" as positive reinforcement. But that approach places the adult in the position of evaluator, creating dependency on extrinsic motivation.

Rather than, "Good job, you are so helpful!" We could state our observation, feelings and needs: "When I see you mopping up the spilled water, I feel relieved, because I really value safety. I didn't want anyone to slip!"

Creating an Environment of Respect

Montessori Grace and Courtesy lessons are essential for creating a peaceful classroom in which everyone is respected. (See our article Cultivating Peace in the Classroom.) A relationship-based program that has helped many teachers deepen the respect they wish to give children is Nonviolent Communication (NVC). The basic steps of NVC, including how to resolve conflicts peacefully, are similar to those outlined in the book, The Peace Rose. Feelings and needs are shared and a solution to the problem is requested.

For example, the teacher could model:

  1. Neutral observation: "When I'm poked while I'm giving another child a lesson..."
  2. Feelings: "I feel frustrated."
  3. Needs: "Because I need to concentrate."
  4. Request: "Would you be willing to put your hand on my shoulder and wait until I acknowledge you?"

Feelings and Needs

Adults and children alike feel comforted when their feelings are understood. What a rich vocabulary we can give children to help them express their feelings: concerned, disappointed, dismayed, perturbed, overwhelmed, amazed, excited, grateful, inspired, proud.

In the normalized Montessori classroom, children begin to understand that all humans share the same basic needs. We can model for children how to empathize with their own and other's needs for acceptance, celebration, consideration, cooperation, community, harmony, inclusion, learning, love, order, peace, play, reassurance, safety, and support.

Observations vs. Judgments

In The Montessori Method, Montessori emphasized how difficult it is for a teacher to learn to observe with "scientific curiosity and absolute respect." She described how a teacher, untrained in observation, can trample a child's "delicate act of free choice...much as an elephant tramples the budding flower about to blossom in its path." (The Absorbent Mind)

It is common to hear adults evaluating and judging children, rather than making neutral observations and being curious about why a child is behaving in a certain way. It takes discipline and practice, but we can strengthen this essential Montessori skill. Rather than: "She is daydreaming," we could observe, "She is looking out of the window." (And perhaps find out that the child is watching a bird.)

Rather than deciding that a child is "playing with his food," we could observe that the child is nibbling his cracker very slowly. We might find out, as one Montessori mother did, that her son had discovered that "when I nibble the corners off the square crackers I turn them into octagons!"

Rather than judging a child as "acting out," we could look for a reason for the child's frustration, noticing perhaps, that she was working independently until someone gave her help she didn't want.

Empathy in Action

In his address to a Montessori teacher's conference, Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, spoke about his son Rick's first experience attending public school. Marshall was worried that it might be a shock for the 12-year-old, who had only attended Montessori schools where compassionate communication was used. Rick came home after his first day of school, not looking terribly happy, and told his father that a teacher had said to him, "My, my, look at the little girl."

Marshall asked his son (who had shoulder length hair), how he'd handled it. Rick replied, "I tried to hear his feelings and needs and not take it personally. ...I heard that he was irritated and wanted me to cut my hair. ...I felt really sad for the man. He was bald and seemed to have a problem about hair." (See Teaching Children Compassionately for the transcript of Rosenberg's address.)

The Ongoing Process of Transformation

As teachers we can frequently return to the source - Montessori's words, philosophy, and method - for inspiration and encouragement. Reading more current authors, whose thinking aligns with Montessori's, we can continue to transform ourselves into teachers who communicate a deep respect for children, as we strive to more authentically put Montessori philosophy into practice.

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2014

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