It’s spring break! I always enjoy the change of pace and chance to recharge come this time of year. As in past years, I’ve spent large parts of my spring break on school-related items: attending a national conference, writing my summative reflection for administration (why is our school a better place because you are here?), completing an excellent school visit, making new materials. That commitment has me thinking…can you take a vacation from a vocation? I consider education my vocation, for which I have “a strong feeling of suitability.” It’s that arena to which I can answer yes to the crucial triage of vocation questions: Yes, it brings me joy. Yes, it serves a need. Yes, I have ability or the ability to grow.
And, perhaps as importantly, I can push through the difficult pieces for the moments of joy…like a conference report season laden with bureaucratic changes, contrasted with an open house in that same time. As I talk with prospective families about the Montessori Method (I recommend Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius), I forget the progress reports and uncooperative computer systems that complicate the task. Like a snowy 2.5 hour drive to observe in an excellent school…and the immediate feeling of wonderment on entering that classroom, as I set about identifying the best elements for replication or adaptation. Like the continuous cycle of parent conferences and pointed questions…that push us to be better observers and more compassionate and effective teachers.
I will say at this point that these “challenges” may seem benign or quizzical to many Teach for America teachers. My own TFA experience was rife with challenges that at times seemed much more consuming and troubling than the ones I name. The important piece is whether you emerge with the same, or a heightened, passion for educating our children. I was tenacious because I cared and believed we could do so much more for children in Atlanta and beyond.
I am drawn not only the equity vision of “One day all children [in this nation] will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education” but also its vision of quality. I am thrilled to work in a Montessori school environment which views the child as “naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment. It is an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child—physical, social, emotional, cognitive” (American Montessori Society). Good teachers everywhere believe in these principles but are mismatched with an environment and culture that promote teacher-led learning, extrinsic rewards, conformity, and rote learning.
It takes courage and vision to transform these environments into more effective ones of community, empowerment, and joy in learning. A Montessori classroom looks so unfamiliar to some. Why are children walking around and appearing to choose materials off shelves at whim? Why are twelve-year-old children playing with blocks on the floor? Isn’t the abacus a relic of an earlier time? What are today’s objective and standard? What is all this talking, and where is the teacher, anyway?
However, look a little closer and you will see a child mastering mixed numbers using fraction circles, a boy explaining integer addition to his teacher whose eyes dance as he gets closer and closer to articulating his discovery, friends researching Native American warfare and the origins of lacrosse, a child persisting on a challenging algebra puzzle, a boy and girl measuring the capacity of a conical glass and checking their calculation with water, fifth-graders taking the square root of a five-digit number using colorful pegs, winded children graphing their heart-rates after physical activity, a teacher and student editing his report on the Boston Massacre, wide-eyed children learning that one in five people suffers from hunger and responding with a school-wide food drive. You will hear laughter, conversation, problem-solving, maybe a little hormonal banter, questions, hypotheses, and project proposals.
Montessori is my vehicle for realizing equity and quality in education. A warm and engaging Montessori environment challenges the status quo of education. The method provides an actionable blueprint for a thoughtful, effective classroom where adults and children can learn and live their vocations. One day, all children in this country will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.