At my mom’s acupuncture clinic in Mexico City, I struck up a conversation with a patient in the waiting room. She was a fashionable and wealthy 40-something woman, and when she found out I was the doctor’s daughter, she asked me what I did for a living and where I lived.
“I’m a Montessori guide in San Diego,” I replied, well aware of the misconceptions surrounding the type of work I do. I expected her to ask, ‘What’s Montessori?’ or to disdainfully say something like, ‘Oh, isn’t Montessori where children do whatever they want?’
Instead, she almost jumped out of her chair and exclaimed: “Oh my goodness, I LOVE MONTESSORI!!!”
Before I could get a word in, she began to tell me her story, and I realized that I had to share it with the world.
“I have two daughters,” she began. “My eldest was in a great pre-school when we lived in another state, but then we moved to Mexico City and I didn’t know where to enroll her (in Mexico, all middle-class children attend private fee-based schools chosen by their parents). I visited the school that was across the street from my house, but they told me that they used the Montessori method through kindergarten and that since my daughter was six years old, she would not be able to start first grade until the following year.
“It saddens me now to think that I didn’t know what Montessori was and believed all the misconceptions that float around. No way would I enroll my child in a hippy New Age school where children do whatever they want. All kids want to do is play! How were they ever going to learn? What kind of education didn’t use homework, tests, or grades? Heck, my husband and I are both products of traditional education, and we turned out just fine!”
She laughed, rolled her eyes, and continued…
“Some friends highly recommended a traditional all-girl school that had been around for generations, and although it didn’t align exactly with my spiritual beliefs, I went along with their suggestion and enrolled her there. The school told me they would accept her into the first grade, which thrilled me because she would be exposed to more academic subjects!
“By the middle of the school year, my daughter was a wreck. She had developed gastritis, refused to eat, was having trouble sleeping, and would cry every day on the way to school. Her grades were mediocre at best, so of course I took it upon myself to help her improve, and I became her teacher in the afternoons. I bought a chalkboard and a stool and would sit with my daughter, going over her homework and reviewing what she had learned at school. I would drill her for hours: ‘Two plus two is four, four plus two is six, now it’s your turn!’ Let’s go!’
“When final exams came around, I was so stressed by her lack of progress that I… I…” She looked down at this point, and when her eyes met mine again, they were filled with tears. “I hit my daughter over the head with a book and yelled, ‘Why aren’t you getting it?’ You see, her performance validated my success as a parent. We were turning in the homework. We were getting a C – on a test. We were writing a book report.”
I was taken aback by her honesty and openness. This is a very typical phenomenon among middle-class families around the world, yet very few parents have the courage to look within themselves and realize the implications of their choices. The woman continued…
“During Summer vacation, I laid off the academics and watched my daughter blossom. She played the piano by ear, did pencil sketches and worked with watercolors, and organized her bedroom impeccably. I couldn’t understand why at school she had such a hard time remembering her books, organizing her calendar, and following the teacher’s instructions!
“When second grade began, my daughter became a mess again. A few months into the school year, I was summoned by her teacher, the principal, and the school’s psychologist. ‘Your child has A.D.D. and you’re going to need to medicate her,’ they declared.
“That one sentence triggered the maternal protective instinct that had lain dormant inside me. I took my child to a private psychologist, who spent several weeks getting to know my daughter. She then asked me: ‘You’re her mother and you know her better than anyone else. Do you think she has A.D.D.?’ I thought back to the Summer and answered from my heart: No.
“That same afternoon, halfway through the school year, I went looking for a new school for my daughter. The psychologist recommended the school across the street from my house, the very same one I had dismissed because of their Montessori program. I went to them and begged them to accept my daughter mid-year. They told me they would have to move her back to the first grade, which was no longer Montessori but still respected several tenets of the method, including group work and research-based learning. I told them to do whatever they had to do, I was that desperate.
“At that time, my younger daughter was almost three and seemed ready to start pre-school. The director of the school asked if I would be interested in enrolling my little one in their Montessori program. I told them: ‘Sure, whatever, I don’t care, I’m just worried about saving my older one at this point!’
“They gave me some brochures about the method, and that’s where I learned who Maria Montessori was, where the method originated, and how things really worked in the classroom. I was invited to observe a class in progress, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! Everywhere I looked, tiny little children were working with so much purpose and determination! One watered the plants, another made orange juice, a third was building a tower, while another one formed sentences with plastic letters on a rug. There were probably 30 children there, each one doing something different, and the teacher was off in a corner giving a lesson. Nobody was running or yelling or breaking things! I finally realized that this is what education should look like.
“That was seven years ago. Today, my older daughter still struggles with school, although she is more comfortable in this new learning environment. She gets by with a C-average, although I know she’s very brilliant. She has a hard time keeping her school work organized and needs my help to get through homework, although at home she’s very detail-oriented and continues to excel in music and art. Meanwhile, my younger daughter, who is now in fourth grade, is the flip-side of the coin. She is extremely responsible and loves to learn, not only from books but from everything and everyone around her. I never have to ask her about her homework and she is always challenging herself. For one child, learning is a struggle; for the other, it’s a joy.
“I often wonder what life would have been like for my older daughter if I had found Montessori when she was young. I can’t change what happened to her, but I can help parents avoid the mistakes I made. Now, every time I meet someone with a young child, I tell them to enroll their child in a Montessori school. You’d be surprised at how many parents tell me they don’t like their child’s school but are afraid that the transition to another school will be difficult. I tell them that nothing is more difficult than seeing your child systematically lose their joy for learning.
Our care of the children should be governed not by the desire to ‘make them learn things’, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within them the light which is called intelligence.— Maria Montessori
Pilar Bewley is an AMI trained Primary teacher. She is currently enrolled in AMI Elementary training in Bergamo, Italy.