The Montessori educator must master three basic skills: the careful observation of each child; an instructional style that flames the spark of interest in a particular task; and skillful self-restraint.
“From the child itself he will learn how to perfect himself as an educator.”(Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, p. 13)
The art of Montessori education lies not in clever lesson planning, but rather in really knowing and observing each child and understanding what they need to grow. Montessori educators are trained to be expert observers:
“To one whose attitude is right, the little children soon reveal profound individual differences which call for very different kinds of help from the teacher.” (p. 231)
Montessori educators tailor their approach depending on the needs of the child. They do this by becoming expert observers of each child. To inform the help they provide, teachers are trained to notice things such as:
- what the spontaneous actions are of the child
- which materials seem to attract him or her
- how long the child remains interested in a particular work
- what level of mastery he or she has achieved with that work
- the expression on his or her face
- whether the child is developmentally ready to receive a particular instruction
The purpose of instruction is to flame the spark of a child’s interest in a specific material by showing him or her how to use it, and then leaving him or her to do the real learning through hands-on interaction with it. Consequently, instructions are clear, brief, and as simple as possible. They are also carefully timed so as not to impose an adult agenda onto the natural unfolding of the child’s development. Montessori educator Paula Polk Lillard states: “The protection of the children’s right not to be interrupted when productively occupied is key to the children’s development of concentration and interest in their work”(Montessori Today, p. 95).
One of the most difficult skills a Montessori teacher must master is self-restraint. Having the ability to refrain from intervening, correcting, or suggesting what a child ought to work on requires faith in the “exploring spirit” (1912, p. 227) of the child and a good measure of humility. Montessori had deep respect for the “triumphant inner force” which “sends the world forward” (1912, pp.23-25), and nurtured it in her schools.
“To stimulate life leaving it then free to develop, to unfold—herein lies the first task of the educator. In such a delicate task, a great art must suggest the moment and limit of the intervention…”(1912, p. 115).
Self-restraint does not mean allowing a child to flounder. Montessori teachers are aware of the overall progress of each student, offering assistance as necessary. In some cases, a teacher may request special intervention (such as extra one-on-one tutoring or assistance from a special education specialist) for a child who needs extra help.