Montessori education allows children to create their own learning paths, building on student interests to create a community of knowledge. This educational philosophy has been highly successful, creating some of the greatest thinkers of our time. Yet, choosing the right Montessori school is not always easy. Because Montessori is a method and philosophy of education, rather than a step-by-step way of teaching, the schools that offer a Montessori approach will vary in quality and implementation.
If you have decided that Montessori is the best learning approach for your child, then here are some tips to help you select the right program.
Ask About the School’s Vision
Is the school traditionally Montessori, or does the school allow for modifications in the curriculum and educational structure that are in line with changes in culture? Both are valid options, but you will need to decide which is best for your child, and you must know what the school’s vision is before choosing. At Charlotte Prep, we offer a Montessori Early School, starting with toddlers at age 2. We then offer the Montessori Primary cycle, which feeds into a traditional K-8 Lower and Middle School. Our vision is to build life-long learners by giving them the solid, concrete foundation that the Montessori Method provides. Additionally, the Grace and Courtesy component of Montessori helps children to develop the problem-solving, social, and leadership skills that they will carry forward throughout their education.
Look for a True Montessori Learning Environment
The Montessori learning environment has a unique look, and unfortunately some schools claim to provide a Montessori structure, when in fact, they do not. How can you spot a true Montessori program?
- A warm environment that feels welcoming and safe
- Montessori learning materials, charts, art and live plants
- No rows of desks, but rather a classroom filled with child-sized furniture grouped into curricular areas
- A practical or life-skills area
- Few toys
- Mixed-age groupings
- Child-sized toileting facilities
- Neat and orderly organization
- Materials prominently displayed and within reach of children
- A lack of workbooks and traditional school papers
Watch the Students
If the environment looks good, make sure you schedule a tour during a time when students are in the classroom. You should see students who are working together with others around the room, and are acting in a safe and respectful way. You should also notice students actively engaged in learning, working with materials, and freely selecting the activities and work of their choice. If you observe a conflict arising, you will see students, sometimes with the aid of teachers, solving those conflicts peacefully and respectfully. Often there will be a Peace Table at which children may work out differences, or a “watching chair” from which children or adults may observe peacefully.
Overall, the classroom should be buzzing with activity. With the exception of the morning circle time, the students are not going to be sitting quietly in the Montessori classroom. In every area of the classroom, students should be using all of their senses to learn. Above all, the children should be happy and content, working hard while also enjoying their time in the classroom.
Observe the Teacher
In the Montessori school, the teacher’s role changes from what is traditionally thought of as a “teacher.” Instead of standing in front of the classroom giving instruction, the teacher will be engaging with small groups of students, teaching how to use materials, or presenting lessons to smaller groups. Montessori teachers will also spend a significant amount of time observing their classroom, determining where students could use more encouragement, or what materials need to be introduced next.
The Montessori educator is a mentor and facilitator, not a director. He or she should model peaceful and courteous communication at all times, interacting respectfully with the children and adults in the classroom. The teacher should seem happy and at peace, enjoying the students and the task of guiding instruction. Teachers will most often sit or crouch to achieve eye-level contact with the child while communicating.
Select a school that has Montessori-trained teachers. A traditionally trained teacher who tries to adjust to the Montessori world will likely struggle to fully embrace the educational structure. If possible, find a school where the assistants are also trained in Montessori.
As you can see, choosing the right Montessori school for your child requires a visit. An initial tour of general information, an observation of the classroom, and a visit between the child and teacher are all part of the enrollment process. By doing a little homework and spending the time getting to know the schools you are considering, you will be able to find a school that perfectly meets your child’s needs and embraces the vision of Montessori education.
Sharon Vanella is an Early School Lead Teacher at Charlotte Preparatory School in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has a B.S. in Education and a B.A. in Spanish from Miami University in Ohio. Before joining Charlotte Prep in 2006, Vanella taught and was the administrator at Charlotte Montessori School for eight years.