I’m a quick study, but a slow learner. That is, given a new situation, or a new experience, I’ll quickly think I know how to do what’s new, or at least I’ll pretend to others that I know. And I believe it, too, that I know…and then the task comes to hand I realize, “What’s the deal with this?”

© MariaMontessori.com

I was like that as a young Montessori teacher, for sure, a long time ago. Which was more or less the result of my experience as a teacher-in-training. Bergamo, Italy. Camillo Grazzini…Mario Montessori…Mrs. Honneger reaching across the table and whacking me on the forehead. “Que cosa?” she’d ask. I drove her nuts with my questions. We had to ask her, what, I was going to ask Mario? “Uh, Signor Montessori, I don’t really get this…” That wasn’t happening, he was the one giving us the lesson! “That lesson you gave us was great, but I don’t get it…what am I supposed to do?”

With lesson after lesson cascading upon us, especially at the end of the year shortly before exams, when it was vitally important to remember every nuance of where the decimal point went, or which cube preceded what cube, my particular style of learning became incredibly helpful. I mean, I could recall all the little details, I still can, BUT the child…the children who would receive those lessons? Where were they, and how would I present these lessons to those children?

So, the children in my first classroom, those receiving the lessons, ended up way over on the other side of the bell curve of the learning cycle. I knew the material, every detail. I knew how to present the material, upside and down. But the children? Where were the children in my lessons, they were as mystified by my lessons as I had been by those given to me by Mario Montessori.

That first class? San Francisco. Diamond Heights. Team-teaching a 9-12 class with Linda County. We had Joe DiMaggio’s niece in my class. Francesca DiMaggio Topper. I recall asking her, “Were you born in May?” “Why do you ask me that?” “DiMaggio, it means ‘of May’ or ‘in May.’ “It does?” “Yes.” “No, I wasn’t born in May, it’s my mother’s maiden name.” “DiMaggio? Like Joe DiMaggio?” “Yes, he’s my uncle…my great uncle.” This to a lifetime baseball player. I could hardly breathe. “Joe DiMaggio is your uncle…”

So, where was Joe DiMaggio’s niece in my lessons? She’d watch me. She’d listen. I’d explain. I’d move along. I presented square root from start to finish, with every nuance and every detail, in about 11 minutes. From introduction, to working with the material, to abstraction, to binomials, to trinomials. 11 minutes. Maybe less. I could dazzle. Square root takes up more than two dozen pages in my album, and in those days I could remember every detail I’d typed. I’d get started on those lessons and just “GO.”

Finishing up, I asked Francesca, “Any questions?” Her glazed eyes were a clear indication of my inability to reach over and around to her side of the bell curve. I knew what I was doing, that’s for sure. “So, what am I supposed to do?” she asked with a deep-seated bleariness. “Here,” I said, “start by building a square with these pegs…” and I went back to the beginning of the lesson, and eventually, step by step, we began to rebuild the lesson I’d just presented.

This was my pattern during those first months as a first-year teacher. I’d determine a lesson needed to be given. I’d make the presentation. The kids would look at me, “What are we supposed to do?” “I just showed you…” Eventually I realized there was something missing. It was Mrs. Honneger who had said to me, “If the children aren’t doing the work it means you made a mistake.” “Me?” “Yes, you! Not them, not the material, you are the mistake!” Well, I never.

© MariaMontessori.com

My wife, Frances, pregnant at the time and working gleefully in her 6-9 classroom, which was in another facility out on the avenues, explained, “You’re giving them everything at once…they don’t know what to do. Present the lesson in bits and pieces, let them understand each step of the way…You’re just showing them how well you understand the material, you’re not giving them a chance to figure anything out!” I looked for this suggestion in my album. It wasn’t there.

So, I began to figure out that Frances’ guidance was a key to the children’s success. Eventually, I mean, like I said, I’m a slow learner. Just last week, 40 years later, I found myself explaining too much in a brief moment as a substitute. But I caught myself, and smiled.

Maybe I should poke around and see if I can find Francesca. Where’s Joe DiMaggio’s niece, today? She was a wonderful girl. Geez, she’d be in her 50s, now. I bet I could give her a much better square root lesson than I did when I was slowly learning what it actually means to be a Montessori teacher.

Jim Fitzpatrick is the founder and Head of School at Santa Barbara Montessori School, an AMI school on the beautiful California coast.