Montessori –My Big Disappointment

I’ve posted recently about how wonderful I think the Montessori system of learning is – the caring, considered approach to helping children learn to become independent and confident young people.

Well, this week my daughter took her first step into the Montessori classroom and what an awful shock I received. I looked at the school six months ago. The woman I will call ‘P’ was helpful, encouraging and seemed very genuine in her approach. She spent almost an hour talking about the school and showed great enthusiasm for the teaching approach and children.

It was almost as though I had stepped into a different place when we arrived on Friday afternoon for my daughter’s first session. Thankfully, the Montessori philosophy encourages parents to remain with their child for the first week or two so I was aware of exactly what went on.

Being the kind of conscientious, over prepared person I am, I arrived 10 minutes early for our first class, thinking it would correct etiquette for handing in our enrolment form and paying term fees. When I arrived I was met by P, who had always been so polite and helpful, in person and on the phone. But instead of being warmly greeted I was told by P that they only have a 45 minute break between sessions and this was there lunch break. My daughter and I were left in the foyer to ‘wait.’

Well, my daughter was extremely displeased at not being able to get started and head into the classroom. I took her out for a walk and we looked at the scrappy flowers around the garden, while I collected my own thoughts after this unexpectedly cold reception.

Eventually, once she had finished her lunch P took us up to the classroom. She explained my daughter could select a toy of her choice from the shelves. She went fine with her first activity and we placed it back on the shelf when she’d finished with it. The next one she chose was a large and cumbersome tray containing two glass bowls and beads. She was nervous about handling the large item so I helped her carry it. Well, I was told in no uncertain terms that she had to ‘do it herself.’

Next, my daughter chose a rather difficult activity that involved fine motor skills. With a pair of tweezers she had to pick up tiny beads and put them into the holes. She struggled with this activity and asked P to help her. P kept insisting she could do it herself and my daughter became more and more frustrated by the task (so much for the Montessori philosophy that children shouldn’t be expected to do a task they can’t easily manage themselves.) As soon as P moved off I encouraged my daughter to put them away.

P soon came back to sit on the opposite side of the table to where my daughter and I were working. Not having introduced herself or even spoken to my daughter directly she said, gesturing to P “what that one doing Mum?” I said, “That’s P….” P responded by abruptly saying that her name was P…. It took a lot to bite my tongue and not say, “Well, if you’d introduced yourself to her she would have known your name.”

Then there was the attitude towards the other children. The other Montessori directress named “M” also failed to introduce herself to my daughter and didn’t seem to interact with the children at all. One little girl cried as her mother quickly slipped out of the classroom. M took the little girl who had just been left by the hand and abruptly told her “there’s nothing to cry about.”

P and M quickly engaged in complaints about the behaviour of one of the boys there. Something like “it’s going to be a fun day with …” and a roll of the eyes about covers it. He was repeatedly reprimanded for refusing to engage in the activity he’d selected and was told that if he didn’t put it back on the shelf he couldn’t have any more toys. As it turned out, the boy’s mum explained he’d been very unwell and had a seizure the previous week. Mind you P and M spoke much more politely to the mother about her son’s behaviour than they had to each other.

Story time was like going to a funeral. The children were all expected to remain completely still and quiet while M read in a monotone voice. One boy’s enthusiasm over the story as he pointed at the pictures was quickly thwarted with a couple of pushes of his hand away from the book. My daughter was told to ‘shhh’ when she made a comment.

In Montessori style the children are encouraged to wash their own hands. After my daughter finished a pasting, I took her to wash her hands. As P had shown me she was able to do it all herself, which was wonderful. However, before fruit time all the children had to wash their hands first. That seemed reasonable and they all took turns. M began to get impatient pretty quickly though and began ‘moving them along.’ When it was still taking longer than she liked she started literally grabbing the children’s hands and roughly washed their hands herself. Just as my daughter had discovered she could wash her hands herself she was roughly handled and the washing was ‘done to her.’

On the way to the table for fruit, I noticed another child took my daughter’s pasting without her permission and was waving it around. As M and P made no attempt to sort this out I took the pasting from the child myself and my daughter and I hung it up to dry.

Harder to explain was the lack of warmth and caring that I would have expected in a Montessori setting. There was no laughter, chatter or interaction with the children. My daughter was not listened to or acknowledged. Being a very sociable girl, particularly with other adults, I noticed her dismay at being pretty much ignored and certainly not engaged with. My spirited daughter had entered the room with her joy and enthusiasm to be met with children who were engaged in isolated, structured activities. Yes, they were behaving beautifully but where was the light and joy? Where was the social interaction and enjoyment? Where was the ability for children to express themselves and feel happy?

To top it all off we left with the distinct smell of an unchanged pooey nappy. Oh, and I finally got to hand in my forms that P had forgotten all about. I know that not all Montessori school are like this as my niece had a wonderful experience under this system of learning, and it’s certainly not anything like what the approach promotes. Right now, I’m just feeling extremely disappointed and unsure of what to do from here. I guess I’ve just entered the world of having to accept, or reject, my daughter entering the world without me.

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