Breathing. Part two: Respiration

By Thomas McGrath – Deputy Principal High School

Repetition of inhalation and exhalation of breath is one of the defining features of human life. When tasked with paying attention to it, we can consciously manipulate it. But, for the majority of the time when we are not paying attention, so vital is its function that it goes on without us even knowing.

Montessori certainly set forth an aspirational view of what can be achieved in education, and what children are capable of. But, to only aspire would end in certain death; you would literally run out of breath.

Montessori’s concept of ‘perfection’ tends heavily towards the verb – perfection is a process, and is most associated with the human tendency towards repetition. In getting closer to the aspirational, we must regularly step back, evaluate, consolidate, and (*gasp*) rest. The four planes of development do not conform to the idea that progress is a straight line pointing up. In fact, the planes are commonly portrayed in the form of a zig-zag to emphasize this nonlinear process. Montessori called it the ‘constructive rhythm’:

If we take the measurements of the first period of growth, we will see that during the first year there is tremendous development, during the second year this development begins to wane, and during the third year it slows down even more. This rhythm repeats itself in each of the other periods. In each section of the three-year periods, a period of great effort is followed by a period of rest. So life develops according to a law. All life follows the same law and the periods are the same for every child. (p.23, The 1946 London Lectures)

This constructive rhythm is to be carefully observed and nurtured by a prepared guide. Montessori, perhaps not surprisingly, is nothing short of aspirational in her aims here either, writing that “it is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” (Childhood to Adolescence, 1948)

To prepare oneself and love the universe is a very personal process. But, whatever form it takes, it requires focus and care. Modern neuroscience would no doubt say the most constructive preparation we can afford ourselves is quality sleep, and of course a healthy diet, exercise, and positive social connections.

While similar to our ability to forget about our breathing, part of our own constructive rhythm and preparation for each day, and each phase of life, is about paying attention to those aspects which make, and keep us, human, but are so easily neglected or entrusted to autopilot.

And so it is, that the aspiration of changing the world for the better is powered by the respiration of love, care, and rest. Simple, but certainly not easy.

Breathing. Part one: Aspiration

By Thomas McGrath – Deputy Principal High School

Correctly applying the Montessori Method has got to be one of the most ambitious and aspirational tasks known to humankind. If you thought school was just about writing, maths, and eating your lunch: reconsider.

Through her incredible years of international research and work with children, the education Maria Montessori believed possible was one that transcended the classroom and paved the way for a brighter future. Montessori stated that “establishing a lasting peace is the work of education … all politics can do is keep us out of war.” (Education and Peace)

Peace as described by Montessori is not just an absence of war but a deliberate and sustainable state that requires constant care and nurturing. This state is to be brought about by those who have been guided through each plane of development by a prepared adult within an appropriately prepared learning environment. For this to be effective, once through the first (and most important) plane of development (0–6) where the self is constructed, the Montessori guide in the second plane (6–12) must do nothing less than assist the child to comprehend the entire universe:

If the idea of the universe be presented to the child in the right way, it will do more for him than just arouse his interest, for it will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than any interest and more satisfying. The child’s mind will then no longer wander, but becomes fixed and can work. The knowledge he acquires is organized and systematic; his intelligence becomes whole and complete because of the vision of the whole that has been presented to him, and his interest spreads to all, for all are linked and have their place in the universe on which his mind is centred. (Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, 1989, p. 6)

In the third plane (12–18), the work then centres on developing the personal agency and interdependence on society that is required to convert their honed understanding of the universe into work as a practising adult that will bring about the betterment of all.

The word ‘aspiration’ contains the root word ‘spiro’, which relates to the breath. To ‘aspire’ is to ‘breathe upon’. The connotations are that to achieve a large task, one breathes upon it; focusing their life’s energy to it. All Montessori guides must, in their hearts, believe that what they are doing is ultimately contributing to a state of lasting prosperity and harmony amongst humanity, natural species, and the environment. So, to achieve Montessori’s vision, we must inhale deeply and prepare ourselves for a lifetime of work.

Now, how do we achieve this and still stay alive? Tune in next week for part two…

Looking on in wonder

By Michael Draper — Physics Teacher

The mistaken idea that the adult must mould the child in the pattern that society wishes still holds sway…. The child is not simply a miniature adult. He is first and foremost the possessor of a life of his own that has certain special characteristics and that has its own goal. The child’s goal might be summed up in the word incarnation; the incarnation of human individuality must take place within him. (Maria Montessori, Education and Peace p. 15)

With our Tāwari students starting their NCEA exams and preparations for the end-of-year concert underway, I find myself thinking back to what it was like to be a parent of Wā Ora tamariki with the end of the school year approaching.

One of the things that always arose in me at this time of the year was the desire to find out what my children would reveal or demonstrate to show how much they’d achieved that year. I would find myself thinking, “What will my children produce? What will they have to show at the end of this school year?” Behind this was a desire to have things that I could point to proudly and say, ‘’Look at what my children have done. Look at what they’re able to do.”

I was also aware, however, that I didn’t want my enthusiasm for individual achievements to unbalance my children’s development of their own intrinsic motivations.

Maria Montessori understood this problem:

The child who has never learned to work by himself, to set goals for his own acts, or to be the master of his own force of will is recognizable in the adult who lets others guide him and feels a constant need for the approval of others. (Education and Peace p. 18-19)

Her solution was as profound as it was simply expressed: “We must help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself” (Maria Montessori, Education for a New World, p. 106).

The child, in fact, once he feels sure of himself, will no longer seek the approval of authority after every step. He will go on piling up finished work of which the others know nothing, obeying merely the need to produce and perfect the fruits of his industry. What interests him is finishing his work, not to have it admired, nor to treasure it up as his own property. (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind p.251)

As a parent, it is nice to remember that the examples of our children’s work that we cherish at the end of the year are only the tiniest glimpse into the true work that they have achieved, and that it is the children themselves, their growth and development, that is the far greater wonder.

The right to make mistakes

By Carolyn Bohm —Rātā Teacher

We have all been scarred by childhood experiences; whether an academic subject we struggled with, constantly felt stupid for when called upon in class, and still struggle with today, or something athletic, artistic, or social that left us feeling inadequate.

Some we managed to overcome and are stronger for, but others still haunt and impact us today. Therefore, it’s only natural we would want to protect those we care about, especially children, from the same experiences.

While this is a justified and healthy response, it can, if taken too far, deprive children of the valuable experience of struggling, problem solving, making mistakes and self-correcting

It is a delicate balance for us to walk, protecting them from real harm, but also letting them make mistakes in a safe setting so they can learn the evaluating skills they will need as adults when mistakes might have higher consequences.

This juggling act appears all the time in the classroom.

While watching a child do a bead frame multiplication problem I noticed him start to move on without finishing the process of exchanging and I had to bite my lip to keep from pointing out the error. I so wanted to tell him and spare him the frustration of doing the whole problem over again. However, as I waited, I saw his eyes go from the bar he was still working on, to the bar he should exchange on, and back again . . . . and then he slid over the bead he almost forgot to exchange. When he did, I couldn’t fight down a smile of victory ­— of his victory. For if I had taken away from him his right to make that mistake, I also would have taken away his chance for the victory to be his.

It’s a constant mental weighing of “how wrong could this go?” So wrong I need to stop it (falling from a dangerous height or redoing the problem enough times to cause damaging frustration)? Or just wrong enough to be inconvenient?

I find myself flinching internally as I watch a child walk across the room with one more box than is practical, balanced in her arms and then have to watch her pick it up when it topples over and makes a mess all over the floor. But she is far more likely to re-evaluate how many she can carry next time after cleaning up this miscalculation, than if I’d intervened and stopped her.

No one wants to watch someone suffer the slings and arrows of life unnecessarily, but it is important to give our children a safe environment to make mistakes, learn from them, and experience the victory of overcoming the obstacle.

It’s a constant challenge and we too will make mistakes – jumping in too early, not jumping in soon enough – but that’s okay, because when we do, we model how to learn from our mistakes.

Let’s talk about kai (food)

By Amy Johnson — Kōwhai Head Teacher – Preschool

As the season changes and different fruit and vegetables become more available, there is a real buzz about morning tea in preschool. What kai will be available today? Capsicum? Pears? Cucumber? Grapes? Which will I prepare for my hoa (friends)?

When we welcome children into our community, one of the first things they learn about is the rituals, the sociability and tikanga around food at school — how we wash our hands, get a placemat, pour a drink of water…these things are grounding, settling and community building. Whether it’s in playgroup where children as young as a year old might help prepare and serve themselves fresh scones and fruit, or in preschool where a new 3-year-old might be offered and served cheese and crackers by an older peer, food plays a central role in how we build community. This year I have come to especially appreciate the times of sharing and preparing food together as we have had weeks when we could not always enjoy these activities as freely and safely as a community.

We all know as adults, how lovely it is to get together with hoa (friends) and catch up at a café; or to celebrate something with whānau over a special meal, especially when everyone contributes a little bit of themselves. Who doesn’t love a potluck? School events like Matariki are a wonderful example of this. Eating together is fun, enjoyable, and socially bonding. It nourishes our bodies, minds and souls. Throughout the school, even though shared or community lunches can sometimes be a little hectic, and certainly can be learning opportunities in every age group, they do actually bring our classroom communities together in a very unique and amazingly social way.

Dr. Montessori talked about the importance of these practical life skills.

To spread out carpets and roll them up after they have been used, to spread a tablecloth for dinner and to fold it up and replace it carefully after the meal is finished, to set the table completely, to eat correctly and afterwards to remove the dishes and wash them, placing each object in its proper place in the cupboard, are tasks which not only require increasing skills but also a gradual development of character because of the patience necessary for their execution and the sense of responsibility for their successful accomplishment. (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child. The Montessori Series. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2007. p 64)

And although our children are lucky enough to get these experiences at school, they are not limited to the classroom environment.

What food rituals and preparation can your children be involved with at home? Clearing and setting a table? Helping to make the salad? Or the dessert? Maybe discuss with your whole whānau and figure out ways your child(ren) could increase their “sense of responsibility” at your meal times, then watch their contribution nourish them physically, emotionally and socially.

MIM 2020  —  Meeting in the Middle

By Zena Kavas — Biology Teacher — High School

Wā Ora Montessori high school recently co-hosted and participated in the annual Meeting in the Middle workshops, a meeting of Montessori teachers spanning 4 different time zones, New Zealand and Australia, with participants from Bali and the United States fitting in with us. Although we were originally looking forward to hosting this event in person and showcasing our amazing school and learning programme here at Wā Ora, the COVID travel restrictions have allowed to us to explore how to present and participate in an on-line meeting and conference.

Many of our teachers hosted on-line workshops — Thomas was one of the hosts, Sarah Jane ran an inspiring workshop on micro economy, Jason hosted a workshop describing the next 8 days of life in the lead-up to Coffeehouse, and David explained how he designed and continues to build the Maths programme at Wā Ora. There were also workshops and discussions on:

– teaching in these COVID times, with discussions on how different schools are dealing with the range of issues that the future holds in terms of on-line teaching

– sharing ideas around the issues and successes of timetabling

– planning a senior Montessori programme that covers the learning that is necessary for the needs of the students

– a humanist approach to creative self-expression, and how to integrate the humanities with mathematics, technology and the sciences

– creative solutions to overcoming barriers, and the euphoria of overcoming the odds

Meeting in the Middle is a wonderful opportunity for us learn what other schools are doing, to share our successes and challenges, to discuss curriculum and programme development, and to collaboratively explore and problem solve. And equally importantly, it is a chance for us to catch up with and get to know other adolescent programme Montessori teachers. Although we teach to the New Zealand curriculum, it can sometimes feel lonely, and that we are marching to a different beat. So we make the most of these chances to be part of the Montessori community. Maria Montessori said “we shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity” (To Educate the Human Potential, p. 6). Although this quote is referring to educating the child, it is also very relevant to how we, as adults work best — when we are supported by caring colleagues in our community, and can share our experiences, both triumphs and our tribulations. This gives us the courage to continue to innovate, to try new ideas and to continue to improve how we teach.

Ironically, I got some great ideas from other Montessori teachers here at Wā Ora, shared over the Zoom forum with our overseas colleagues. I have come away from this conference feeling inspired and supported to continue developing the programmes that I teach.

A prepared adult in a young person’s environment

By Stuart Mason—Chemistry Teacher — High School

Last Monday classes sang ‘Tanti auguri a te!’ and ate cake to celebrate the 150th birthday of Maria Tecla Artemisia Montessori, born in Chiaravalle, a small town on the Italian Adriatic coast. Of course we know the subsequent story of the first female Italian to graduate as a medical doctor, whose work with children in Rome led to her developing what she called a scientific pedagogy, a stage-development model of education centred on the needs and tendencies of the child. She was influenced by the thinking of others but she based her work in scientific observation, and the pedagogy we implement today is her set of conclusions about child development, generally regarded as the work of a genius. “It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method… I have studied the child; I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method” (What you should know about your child, 1961, p.3).

Dr. Montessori’s instructions on how to be a prepared adult in a young person’s environment are pretty clear. We are told “the child has a mind to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself” (The Absorbent Mind, 1949/2007, p.5).  Therefore, we should “respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them” (The Child in the Family, 1956/1970, p.88). We must never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed because “the essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self” (The Absorbent Mind, 1949/2007, p.142), and independence is a consistent theme throughout the planes of Montessori education.

A young person’s job is to self-construct. The judgement required of the adult is to know when and how to intervene, or to trust, stand back and observe. Sometimes a good compromise working with adolescents is ‘Spray and walk away’: share an adult opinion about the problem then leave the young person to make their own judgement and take their own action.

The adolescent must never be treated as a child, for that is a stage of life that he has surpassed. It is better to treat an adolescent as if he had greater value than he actually shows than as if he had less and let him feel that his merits and self-respect are disregarded. (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948/1997, p. 72)

It was well over a century ago that Dr. Montessori began to tell us about the importance of respecting the dignity and autonomy of young people as an aid to their development. However, in many of the institutions in which children find themselves today there seems to be only slow progress in the direction of those principles. So I tautoko those birthday greetings.

Buon compleanno, Dr. Maria.

Why look at History?

By Joel Batson–Tōtara Teacher

In these tumultuous times I thought it apt for us to take a glimpse at why we look at the area of history.  Funnily enough, it was an area that either wasn’t taught that well when I was a kid, or I just didn’t really pay much attention to it.  Iwonder how it was for you growing up?  Either way, I certainly didn’t learn very many terribly deep lessons from history when I was young.  And that’s really the crux of the reason why.

In the Montessori classroom we look into history — to be specific, human history, in order to learn from what happened in the past and, hopefully, help children to think about how they might apply those lessons to their actions in the future. As the old adage goes: if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.

The way we look at history is inherent in the word itself. We use stories. We essentially look at the story of humanity.  We encourage children to use their imaginations to transport themselves to other times, places and locations in order to imagine walking in the shoes of other humans, just like themselves, as they sought to meet their fundamental needs in a myriad of different ways.

Examples could include telling stories about how the first cities came together in Ancient Sumer; how it seemed that the growing of a surplus of crops in the fertile soil of the Euphrates river valley encouraged greater build-up of people living together; and how this method of living was so very different to most other people living at that time who mostly led hunter-gatherer lifestyles, living hand to mouth most months.

We might also look at the stupendous architecture of the Egyptian civilisation and what it seems was needed for those people to put together their systems of worship, governance and building.  We look at what it may have been like each year as the Nile river flooded its banks and the fields then had to be re-marked out with a clever system of maths that gave the Egyptians extremely accurate corners. So accurate, that the same system seems to have been used to build the pyramids themselves.

From these sorts of stories, the emphasis is really on how it was that these humans met their needs. What we mainly find is that for these humans to have achieved such wonders as building the pyramids, organising themselves into civilisations, figuring out planting fruitful crops or finding food in harsh conditions, the thing they most often had to have figured out to achieve all of those amazing feats is cooperation.  Just how do 2, 3, 4 and more different people get along with each other effectively in order to achieve a common goal that ends up being good for everyone in the picture?

Perfection or Perfectionism

By Tania Gaffney–Deputy Principal Primary

The Montessori concept of Human Tendencies may be something you have read about before.  There are a few different lists of tendencies that Montessorians have come up with over the years, but they are all fairly similar.  I want to talk about one human tendency from that list, which is perfection, or we could call it exactness or precision.  This is the tendency to perfect ourselves by striving for accuracy, precision and the elimination of mistakes.

When you’re striving for accuracy in an activity, there is really only one way to get there and that is by repetition, which is really just another word for practice.  Sometimes we come across a child that is averse to repetition or practice, and in fact is averse to learning new things or going outside of their comfort zone. The reasons behind this can be in case they make a mistake and fail and so seem in their own minds to be no good at it.  Instead of striving for perfection or accuracy these children, who are often called perfectionists, struggle with wanting to be right first time, with no mistakes.

If you think about learning something new, how many of us could say that we could do ‘it’ right the first time, with no mistakes.  We might have been ‘quite good’ at something first off, but it was probably because we had some sort of background in it already, e.g. if you’re a violin player then you can probably have a go at the base guitar and be fairly good, but you still won’t be fantastic until you’ve had some practice.

When ākonga are perfectionists and refuse to participate or have a go at something then they are closing themselves off from the possibilities of the world. As adults I think it’s our job to try and open up the world for those children again.  There are some ways that we can help with this, for example, modelling the way we speak about activities: “Look how far you’ve come! Remember what that was like when you first started doing it?”

Model trying something new and failing and being okay with it; use the words, “I’ll have to practise that to get better”.  Another way of supporting practice is by encouraging independence.  Don’t do everything for the child as they then get the idea that they aren’t capable and need an adult to come alongside them and help every step of the way.

Talk regularly over dinner about mistakes you’ve made — encourage the whole family to join in and share, saying what you learned from it or what your plan is for next time, to show that the journey of learning isn’t over for that thing yet. Eventually your child will join in and share their own examples.

This may be a chance for some parents to reflect on their own Human Tendencies, as I’ve heard parents of ‘perfectionist’ children say it’s something that they have struggled with themselves, and may still do.

Teamwork and sport

By Sarah Jane Lambie and Emma Brazil – Co-Sports Coordinators

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. – African Proverb

Teamwork, collaboration and the importance of helping each other succeed is a feature of Montessori education — in all aspects of our daily school life. Our classrooms are multi-age, providing the setting for older students to learn how to be role models and to help the younger ones. As older students model kindness and leadership, teach skills and inspire younger students, so the sense of community deepens as students work together to all be the best they can be.

Accordingly, our school spaces could be described as

…incubators for teamwork, filled with students working together to support, encourage and question each other, learning much more than just the academics they are working on. They learn to have ideas accepted, improved upon and maybe even rejected. Each time they work together, they are learning the soft skills needed to succeed in school and in life (

In the school environment at Wā Ora, we work to the notion it is teamwork, not competition, which is what it takes to succeed in life, including on the sports field.

However, when it comes to sport, competition is an inevitable component. Our teachers and coaches support students to keep this in perspective by showing them ways to use the competitive aspect of sports to manage the paradox of wanting to distinguish themselves as individuals while at the same time wanting to be a valued, contributing and liked part of the whole… a good team player.

From this, students learn that participating in team sport binds and connects people —in friendship, skill, enjoyment and the thrill of a united struggle that is (hopefully!) not life threatening.

Dr. Montessori (1949) wrote that sports “…challenge us to acquire a new skill … and this feeling of enhancing our abilities is the real core of our delight in the game.” (p. 180).

Playing in a team also requires the virtues of courage, persistence, perseverance and patience. Being part of a sports team brings frustrations and challenges with all of these. But, by sticking with the team, students have opportunities to develop and practice the valuable life skills associated with these virtues along with the value of applying them to other aspects of their lives… always remembering to be gracious in victory and in defeat.

People do not stand alone; our species is just not made that way. We are all part of teams, small and large. Throughout level 4 lockdown, we worked together as a ‘team of 5 million’ to rid our country of the Covid-19 virus. During this time, we were separated from all but immediate whānau having time to reflect on the things we took for granted before coronavirus.  We learned that humans need to be together. This was particularly evident in the cancellation of sport and sporting events, one of the main spheres where kiwis come together to participate in person, in the same event, at the same time.

Thanks to our efforts, we are one of the few countries able to participate safely in sport and mass gatherings again. Let’s support each other to get involved as players, coaches, managers or spectators, and revel in the joy of coming together in sport.