Wonderful Mischief

By Richard Goodyear – Kawakawa Head Teacher – High School

In the wonderful book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice has many encounters with the Cheshire Cat who baffles and amuses, confuses and helps and at one stage disappears to the point where only a grin is left. Alice remarks, “I have seen a cat without a grin, but never a grin without a cat”.

Those tendencies to amaze, adapt, amuse, push boundaries and occasionally perplex us, can also remind us of our wonderful teens. They are inconsistent but not untruthful, frequently helpful, often mischievous. In equal measure sincere and sarcastic, robust and fragile, bumbling and straight talking, watchful and oblivious.

Dr. Montessori put it like this. ‘It’s a delicate age…an age of doubts and hesitations, of violent emotions, of discouragements.’

As educators, our job is simple (but not easy). Understand the characteristics of the age-group, prepare the environment and remove obstacles for normal development. Considering the flip-flop nature of the adolescent as outlined above, what environment is needed?

Dr. Montessori named it ‘a school of experience in the elements of social life’. This is one of the ways we think about what we do in the high school. A place where our rangatahi (young people) can try out aspects of the ‘real world’, but where it is safe to make mistakes and where they will have a strong community around them. There are many aspects to this. I’d like to highlight some of the ways we address the need for a healthy emotional environment.

We place a huge emphasis on relationships, and on building a strong, supportive community. We consciously provide many layers to this approach, some visible to the students, while some work away in the background.

Each student has an ‘advisor’ who is their key person for any pastoral issues. That teacher builds a strong relationship with the parents, who are another vital element. If things get too much, a counsellor is provided by the school.

We provide many opportunities for issues to be resolved including restorative meetings. We meet in groups once a week where all those students who share an advisor can discuss what’s going on in the classroom, in a slightly more public way. Then we have our weekly community meetings where students acknowledge each other’s efforts and where class issues can be discussed and resolved.

In the background are regular advisory teacher meetings where we discuss how the teens are going as individuals and how the community is ticking (or spluttering) along and what needs to be done in the coming week as a response. In our full high school meetings (which regularly include specialist teachers) we can have similar discussions but with the full teaching team.

All of this can seem like hard work, but actually what’s happening is that our adolescents, like the Cheshire Cat, are reminding us that life is rich, unpredictable and varied. The more we work to provide an environment that acknowledges this, the more interesting our job is.

Montessori “Elevator Speech”

By Sharon Udy – Totara Teacher – Primary

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, we seem to have a conversation along the lines of, “What do you do?” “I’m a Montessori teacher.” “Oh, what’s Montessori?”

When I was a new teacher I would sometimes avoid this by just saying, “I’m a teacher” but I soon realised that not enough people know about this gem we have discovered, so I changed my answer to, “I’m a Montessori teacher” and tried to answer the inevitable follow-up question the best that I could. This is a daunting prospect, as there are so many aspects that could be discussed, but so little time to do it justice. You may only have a minute or two (at most) to give a compelling and clear statement about the essence of Montessori education.

One term for a short explanation like this is an ‘elevator speech’ – so called because the speech can be given in the time it takes for an elevator to go up (ie. 30 seconds to two minutes).

My Montessori ‘Elevator Speech’ has varied greatly over the years and I have given more or less information based on who I am speaking with and the reaction I am getting from them. As a parent of a Montessori child, as well as a teacher, I can now add more to the speech, but the problem has always been how to fit enough in, and what to leave out!

The Montessori philosophy encompasses all aspects of human development. We learn in our training about the four Planes of Development, their characteristics, and how we can meet the needs of each in our learning environments. Then there are the Human Tendencies and how these manifest in each plane of development. This is the incredibly valuable knowledge which forms the basis of our work, but it is far too much jargon to inject into a short speech.

Instead, I talk about the innate curiosity of a child – their deep desire to learn and their endless questioning. I talk about how students in traditional schools often lose this love of learning very quickly. I talk about students in Montessori schools choosing their own work and choosing how long to continue with it, or about our long uninterrupted work cycle and our open-ended, integrated curriculum.

I talk about the three year levels in each class, where children learn from each other and become teachers – where there is no stigma when 9, 10 and 11 year olds have a lesson together because they are ready for it, or it is a topic of great interest for them.

I talk about how traditional schools are only now experimenting with discovery or inquiry-based learning, flexible seating arrangements, individual and small group lessons, personalised learning and learners and teachers working together – these are all integral parts of the Montessori philosophy and have been for over a century!

Have you got a Montessori ‘elevator speech’? What core elements do you include?