Sebastian was a very particular child. Prone to believing he was right and making his opinions known to all, he was a student for whom daily struggles were common: arriving on time, staying on task, choosing challenging work, doing work that was not always his choice, sticking to a schedule, etc. For a teacher still relatively new to the field of elementary education, Sebastian was a challenge for me amongst a Montessori classroom of able, driven and disciplined upper elementary students.
There came a day when Sebastian began working on a grand castle construction, with cardboard and paint and construction paper. It was a project not directly linked to a unit of study which I had introduced, but seemed to engage him and keep him happy. This went on for days, then a couple of weeks – to the exclusion of most of his other work. From my, then, myopic perspective Sebastian was falling behind. I became worried and resentful, and began to react to his intransigence from that ungrounded place of fear.
Teachers are masters at being able to adapt to their immediate environment. In training, a student teacher gets one version of what is right and just and good for children – and works to justify this vision with one’s own. Then, in his first posting, he receives the principal’s version of what is best, and again works to adapt his beliefs to this. Parents, too, offer their perspectives, desires and needs – which one also factors in to his teaching practice. Lastly, but most importantly, the children demonstrate to the teacher their needs for real and deep and purposeful learning.
The teacher is, therefore, asked to wear multiple filters of perception that are often at odds with one another. Or, if not directly opposite, contradictory enough that the teacher can feel stymied and cautious, rather than joyous and alive for his students.
Slowly, a change happens. A teacher, so wanting to do right by all of the multiple stakeholders at the door, will resolve the competing interests to form a vector that forges the truest path between: doing a little of each to move forward with a new definition of authenticity.
And so it was with me and Sebastian: me placing demands upon him to do and achieve; he resisting and acting out with daily bouts of defiance. There were good days, weeks even, when a balance could be won where both he and I felt like we were doing our jobs – learning and teaching.
What I did not expect was that, all along, he was teaching me.
Nearly a month into his work, I came to tell Sebastian that it was time to wrap up the project – that it had gone on too long and that the other works that he was responsible for were going unaccomplished. Despite previous attempts at bargaining, and trading the completion of my list of to-dos for time on his castle, Sebastian remained determined and undaunted.
When I said it was the end – time to put the castle away for good, to take it home and move on – Sebastian became protective and angry. Unbelievably, in retrospect, I thought this was just another example of Sebastian being determined to do work only on his terms. He and I were equally frustrated. I felt that my authority was being undermined and, as a new teacher to this classroom and school, I believed that it was important that I make a stand.
Finally, with tears welling in his eyes, Sebastian looked up at me and said:
“But this is my work… It’s for me!”
A that moment everything changed, both for me as a teacher and as a person living in the world. That’s when I got it. That is wasn’t about the curriculum, benchmarks, standards, mandated testing, or the concerns of the parents; it was about Sebastian at that moment, in that space, with that work. That’s when Montessori’s vision and hope for the world all made sense.
I grew more in that instant than in any seminar, more than any mentor could have taught me. It was about Sebastian having ownership of what he was learning. Without my oversight he was masterfully delving deeply into personally relevant work. Through that work, he grew in ways that I could have never hoped for through prescribing lesson material for him to practice. Once I could see that, and accept it as the way forward, everything was transformed for Sebastian and me. We had a deeper connection, and that connection was our mutual love of work.
Many years distant now from that experience, I often reflect on that moment. In training and coaching teachers, so much of what I speak of today is learning to let go; that is, letting the children show you where to go with them and how. Naturally, there is a balance. We have to be mindful to not let the pedagogical pendulum swing to the opposite extreme – where freedom to learn is mistaken for the end in itself. But it is the essence of what we do. Children have an untapped awareness and understanding that has the power to transform their connection to schooling, education and to life – if we only listen.
Seth D. Webb is the Instructional Leader for the Upper Elementary Department at Free Horizon Montessori, a charter public school in Golden, Colorado. Read more at his blog, Finding Our Center – Reaching Out.