What to Look for When You Are Looking
Korngold, K T
When you visit a Montessori school, what are you seeing? How can you tell if the school is a good fit for you and your family? How can you as a parent judge from a visit or two whether this is the place for your children? It is important to think about and identify what you want in a school-and to think about whether or not these are realistic expectations. You might want to consider the core values that attract you to Montessori, and observe, when visiting a school, to see how these are expressed in the school day.
Perhaps the most important aspect to note is whether the children are engaged in their work. A Montessori classroom should have the feel of a busy hive, with children joyfully buzzing along at their various tasks. Think of what you would see if you observed an adult gym through a glass window during the busy workout hours. You would see people working hard on different pieces of equipment; you might see a small group mat class happening in one corner; you would see individuals working out by themselves, or others working with a trainer. You would see people deep in concentration. And you would see, for the most part, that people are enjoying the rigor of their work. You would be watching them as they work out “in the zone.”
A Montessori classroom has a similar feel (without, of course, the loud sounds of crashing weights and thumping rock music). The children should be engaged, interacting, involved. You will see children working independently or with a friend. You might see a few children working outside the classroom, doing “big” work that stretches along the hallway, or working in the outdoor garden. You might see a teacher presenting to a small group or a child presenting to another child. A student may come up to a teacher and quietly wait at her side to ask for help. An older student may come over to assist a younger student with a material. You will notice that teachers walk around the classroom, watching, overseeing, assisting, and listening. Sometimes they write down their observations. Montessori teachers are trained to be skillful observers and record keepers. They use these skills throughout the year to observe the students, create plans, and track development. You might notice boxes of index cards here and there throughout the classroom, where the teacher can stop to record notes about a student’s progress.
If the teacher wants to address a child, she will walk over to the student to talk directly-no one shouts across the classroom to get another’s attention. There is a quiet hum in the Montessori room: louder than a library, quieter than a playground. It is hushed enough that when the teacher rings a small chime or bell, she has the students’ attention immediately.
The display of children’s art reflects the school’s attitude toward children. Do you see row after row of the same project, or is there a range of work being shown? Is the artwork hung at a child’s eye level, so the children can enjoy the display, or has it been set up high for adult viewing? Do the children have open or free art time? Is there an after-school art program? Does the work progress in complexity as the children age? Are the children working in different media or does all the art seem to be the same?
A school’s parent association offers insights into the workings of the school as well. Ask members of the association: What are the expectations and possibilities for parent involvement in the school? Montessori is a philosophy that encourages ongoing growth and development, and there is an important role for parents to play in their own development as they participate in the life of a school. Much can be gained from volunteering and contributing your time, talent, resources, and efforts to your children’s school. Meaningful work, the development of new skills, and lifelong connections are possible for those parents interested in supporting their children’s school.
Is there a buddy system to help new families meet and connect with other families? Is this buddy system an arbitrary pairing of new families with old families, or does the school match children with an eye toward building friendships: a new 3-year-old girl with a 3.5-year-old girl in the same class, for example? What are the expectations for your time? Is this a school where you drop your child off at the entrance, or do you bring your child to the classroom door? Is there a parent room, a place where parents can meet, talk, and work on behalf of the school, without disturbing the children or classes?
Often the head of the parent association serves as a joyful ambassador. She is a representative of the school’s “best” side. She (or he) should be happy to answer your questions and will give you a good sense of the personality of the parent body. She is a terrific person to talk about what is great about the school.
No one school will meet all of your needs and expectations. I would love to send my children to a school that provides hot lunch and transportation. Alas, our school does not provide these services (but I’m working on it!). It is important to have realistic expectations about the degree of influence you as a parent may or may not have on a school. If, for example, you’re not comfortable with mixed-age groups at the elementary level, and think a big donation to the annual fund might ensure such a policy change, you are better off going to a school that already functions that way. But, if you would like to help the school provide organic milk at lunch, you may find that the administration would be delighted to have your help securing that service.
My oldest daughter previously attended a Montessori school that did offer a hot lunch to the children. The school included families from a range of income levels, and was able to receive city and state funding for its lunch program. Some families, therefore, did not pay anything for their lunch; others paid a small fee. Delicious, organic meals were produced from a tiny basement kitchen. The meal service was a blessing for all of us. My daughter always ate her nutritious meals, as did the other “picky” eaters.
For the children, hot lunch is more than just a good meal: Children learn to set up, to serve, and to assist in the kitchen. Some schools include older children in menu decisions or shopping. In the lives of over-stressed, busy parents, a hot lunch program is a real bonus as they can be confident that their children are enjoying a healthy meal during a most important time in their learning day.
Schools are constantly evolving: When you join a school, your family becomes a part of a community. As in any community, you’ll find aspects that are a better fit for your family, aspects that disappoint, and others that might challenge you to action. You may notice a previously unidentified need and, as a parent, you can be a catalyst for positive change. At one school a friend visited, she was disappointed that the outdoor play equipment was made of plastic. Although she “loved everything else about the school,” she was saddened that plastic was the best the school could offer in terms of recess equipment. Once her children were ensconced in the school, she talked to the development director about having a community fundraiser to build a wooden play structure out of cedar and recycled materials. The school invited the neighborhood to join in working together on an outdoor play area. The end result was that the school and the neighborhood collaborated to build a new playground. The community spirit that emanated from parents and neighbors working together had a lasting impact on the school.
Look at the makeup of the student body of the school. Is the school diverse? Is this diversity ethnic, racial, religious, cultural, economic? Is diversity represented in the teaching staff, the administration, on the board? Is there a combination of working and stay-at-home moms? For working parents, does the school accommodate children who arrive early and those who must stay after traditional school hours? If you are a single parent, a parent with a same-sex partner, or part of an interfaith or an interracial family, is your lifestyle accepted and supported?
Observe how the children of teachers are treated for an indication of the level of respect granted to teachers. Do families interact with teachers’ families? Are the children of staff integrated with the rest of the student body? At one school I observed, the infants of staff and teachers were kept in a separate infant room at the back of the administration wing. The infant caregiver had no Montessori training (although the toddler teacher for the other young students had Montessori training); the infants slept in cribs rather than low beds favored by Montessorians. Perhaps the worst transgression was that this infant room housed the school photocopy machine-meaning that the infants had to endure constant noise from the machine. I should have turned around and walked out of the building as soon as I noticed that. If teachers are concerned about the well-being of their own children, they are not going to be able to give 100% of themselves to your children.
Ask how the school communicates with families. Are there newsletters? Websites? How often do parents and teachers have conferences? Do teachers regularly report on students’ progress? Does the school provide parent education programs to help parents understand Montessori’s philosophy? Some schools, through school fees, include a subscription to a Montessori magazine as another way of informing parents about Montessori and current trends in Montessori education.
Montessori schools provide the foundation for lifelong learning as well as lifelong friendships and social connections for the entire family. My family keeps in touch with friends from our daughter’s first year of primary school in New York City, although we have all moved to other schools and, in fact, live in different towns. We continue to see each other, send our girls to the same camp, and the girls continue to be close friends. Each school my children have attended has added something special and unique to our experience. Each has had something in common: a dedication on the part of teachers and parents to give the children the best possible Montessori learning experience.
K. T. KORNGOLD took her Montessori Infant and Toddler training with CMTE/NY. Her two daughters, ages 9 and 4, attend a Montessori school in Connecticut.
Copyright American Montessori Society 2006
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