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Maria Montessori Was The Best Gardener of All

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Winona chapter.

She wakes up with the sun every morning wearing a baggy band-tee from the 1990s and grey sweatpants with paint stains on them. My mother, half-awake, slinks to the kitchen and makes herself the first cup of coffee––hot and black. 

When I wake up hours later she is usually drying her hair, dressed in a flowy dress (always with pockets), a pair of colored leggings, and her slip-on no-slip shoes. She grabs her computer bag, her lunch, and her big off-white tote that has an old-school library punch card painted on the front of it, and balances them all in her frail arms as she bursts out the door in a whirlwind at 6:25 a.m. She starts teaching in five minutes. 

Empathy is deeply rooted in my mother’s character. She understands people’s pain on deep levels and carries that knowledge with her from one situation to the next, ensuring that the people around her feel comfortable in her warm presence. Graceful: both in how she carries herself physically––always swiftly moving from place to place––but also in how she thinks and speaks. Firmly and without pause to question the validity of herself, words flow out of her mouth and into the ears of needy, growing children every day. She comes home on her best days with the same amount of cotton ball crafts and “magical” playground treasures (usually a sticky bottle cap or a rather plain-looking pebble), given to her by various wide-eyed five-year-olds, as she does on her worst. It is abundantly clear to me that my mother loves her students. My mother was meant to be a Montessori teacher, and she is one in the truest sense of the title. 

I was in first grade when my mother began teaching. She was a paraprofessional in the charter school I attended first and second grade, and I saw her sometimes in the hallways or the library. It might be because she is my mother, but whenever she walked past little seven-year-old me, I felt a sense of security. Her presence was a soft weighted blanket, hugging my anxious limbs down into themselves and holding me safely at the moment. I could tell, however, that the effect she had was not unique to me: my classmates, many of whom worked closely with my mom on speech, reading skills, or social skills, felt the same. One classmate, in particular, Jackson, a thin, grumpy little boy with dark brown hair and bushy scrunched-up eyebrows, came up to me more than a couple of times and said, “Your mom is nice to me.” Suddenly, my security blanket doubled in size. 

My mother continued to teach in varying capacities for the remainder of my childhood, always choosing to bloom where she was planted. Sometimes finding work proved to be difficult, especially after the economic crash in 2008. She was a paraprofessional and a school librarian, then an employee at Family Video. She ran a daycare from our house for three years and she was a childcare worker for two. It wasn’t until 2018 that she began working at Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Waseca, MN, as a full-time Montessori preschool teacher. This, I would argue, was the turning point in my mother’s career. 

Immediately I noticed that she was completely in her element. Every day when she came home from school in those first couple of months, she had hilarious stories about the children she taught. She spent hours outside of the classroom––after dinner on the couch in front of Rick Steves’ Travel Guide: European Vacation––studying and reading book upon book of Montessori training curriculum. She loved teaching Montessori, and she already expelled all of her energy helping those children reach their full potential. She was usually in bed by nine. 

I would argue that devotion is what the Montessori teaching style requires of all teachers. I had only heard of Montessori when it was talked about at church, where old ladies wearing lacy headscarves called it a school where “the teachers don’t even help the sweet little kids do anything.” This made me concerned and confused because I could not picture my thoughtful, lovely mother ignoring a child in need of help. I was curious and unabashedly enthusiastic to have conversations with my extremely knowledgeable mother. 

I remember sitting down on the black velour Ikea couch that sits against the north window of our living room and feeling the warmth of the sun prickle hairs on the back of my neck. The daffodils in the flowerbed by the front steps were in full bloom. My mom fluttered into the room carrying a large laundry tote of clean, freshly dried bath towels. I pulled a thick knitted blanket over my goosebumpy legs. 

“Hey Hun, can you help me fold these towels please?” My mother always asked for help in a way that didn’t account for “no” as an answer. 

“Sure, I guess…hey Mom, what even is Montessori?” I hoped she would lend herself to me––it was these teaching moments from mother to daughter that made me feel so connected to her; when my mother loved something, she loved it wholly, and history was one topic she truly adored. 

“In the early 1900s, like 1905 or ‘06, there was an Italian teacher and doctor named Maria Montessori, hence the name. She was researching psychology and started a childcare center in Rome. Eventually, she developed a methodology for teaching in a way where the child leads their own instruction.” She shook out a large maroon bath towel. “Her famous quote became the foundation of the Montessori method: ‘Do not do for a child what they can do for themselves.’” 

For some reason, this quote struck me. “So does that mean you don’t help children with anything?” I thought about the old church ladies who were discussing how strange Montessori was. 

“Of course not. There are intricacies to this that come with studying hours of giant textbooks,” she pointed to the stack on the end table, “that tell an educator how to help a child become their own source of learning.” At this, she took the basket of now-folded towels and carried them out of the room. I shed my wooly blanket and went back to gazing out the sunlit window. 

My mother continued to work at the catholic Montessori for another year. Once in a while, I would visit her classroom to help with a craft or to deliver the Diet Coke she forgot in the fridge at home. I remember one day in particular that caused me, an eighteen-year-old with close to no interest in working with children as a career, to fall in love with Montessori too. It was winter and very cold outside, but immediately upon entering the classroom, the metaphorical ice that encrusted me melted away. The children––about fifteen of them, all preschool-aged––giggled, gurgled, and babbled noisy nonsense from the circular alphabet carpet that covered the front of the cozy classroom. The naturally-decorated stucco walls had posters of large, solid-colored shapes; it is one of Montessori’s somewhat strict classroom visual requirements to have all of the standardized geometric shapes posted at or above eye-level for children to refer to for completing their work. Ferns and succulents lined the window sill––the children adored getting to water them. My mother was crouching in front of the small students with her shiny blonde hair wound into a braided bun, wearing a teal jumpsuit. She was holding up thin wooden tiles that had the letters of the alphabet on them, asking the children what sound each made. 

“B! What sound does the letter B make? Clark?”

“Buh-Buh, B.”

“That’s right! Buh-Buh, B, just like in butterfly, or banana, or baby baboon!”

She looked up amid high-pitched giggles and smiled at me standing in the doorway. She stood up and said, “Hey friends, look who came in the door! It’s my daughter, Page.” Their expressions were hilarious: some were yelling “Hi!” and waving ferociously, some looked confused- probably at the idea of Ms. Joslyn having a “daughter,” and one little girl with braided pigtails looked like she might begin crying. I simply waved and smiled back. Comfortable warmth radiated from the room––from these children––from my mother. 

The attention faded back onto my mother, and she announced it was “works time.” I had heard of Montessori works before, but I had no idea what they were. I assumed they were little worksheets or guided projects for the kids to complete––something I considered to be “work” when I was in school, because it was, in my opinion, mundane and boring. When the children rose from the carpet and started walking in all directions calmly––happily even––I was pleasantly surprised. I looked at my mother, who was sitting over by a small girl named Haddie who was working on a work called “The Trinomial Cube:” a 3D wooden puzzle that requires patience as students attempt to fit the small wooden blocks into their spaces in a particular order. Haddie had a rosy-cheeked smile spread across her fair face, and she was quietly pondering which piece she should begin with. And then I felt it again––the blanket of warmth. It all clicked. My mother was watching Haddie intently, observing her every move and gauging her learning without intercepting any possible progress she was making. When little Haddie placed the last block into its spot, my mother crouched forward and rubbed her back, saying “Good Job Hads! That was terrific work!” With that little boost of confidence, Haddie dumped the cube back out and started again. Haddie was wrapped in the blanket too, and it was adding to her learning experience. 

After an entertaining day of runny-red noses and pigtails, light-up sneakers, and picture books, I was hooked on the idea of Montessori learning. I saw how positively those goobery little kids were affected by my mother’s presence––the presence of a Montessori teacher. I watched how they absorbed every bit of their work like nutrients for a garden ready to grow. 

Why does Montessori captivate these young minds so well? How does this work? The first item of research I stumbled upon was the name Maria Montessori, and I immediately remembered what my mother had said about her: “do not do for a child what they can do for themselves.” I found that what my mother said was true; Maria Montessori founded the first child care and formed a theory based on her observations about how children could and should learn. 

Montessori is heavily based on self-directed play. This means that there are designated “works,” with the purpose of learning and completing, but the children are in charge of their own engagement with whatever work it is. If the task is to fold a dish towel and the child folds it in triangles instead of the regular rectangle half, it is considered acceptable because the child was able to engage with the work in a way that furthered their understanding of the world around them. 

The next information I found is that there is a general “hands-off” teaching method that is used in the classroom. This goes along with Maria Montessori’s famous mantra. Basically, teachers shouldn’t intervene in a child’s learning process, whatever stage of that process they are in. A common example of this in preschoolers is coloring with crayons. Say a little boy finds a coloring page of a rocket ship and decides he wants to color it in for his work, but when he goes to color in the wings, he asks you to do it for him. In Montessori, teachers should not give in to this, which can be very frustrating for both the child and the teacher. 

Instead, other methods of instruction are suggested, like hand-over-hand coloring, or demonstrating and mimicking the action for the student to repeat on their own. These are ways that Montessori teachers help children without interrupting any important progress they may be making through their newfound independence. You cannot stop a vine from growing where it wants to along the pergola. 

Wanting to know more, I called my mother on the phone one Sunday afternoon, hoping to catch her in between her various home projects. To my surprise, she answered, and I heard her tuneful voice on the other end of the line say, “Hey Sweetie. Everything okay?” Warm, fuzzy blanket. 

“Hi Mom, I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about Montessori.” My mother started working as assistant director of a Montessori center in my hometown. I started working there as a certified substitute teacher’s aide in November of 2020, and my younger sister Mya works there full time as a teacher in the preschool classroom. Being a sub, I have not yet gone over the entirety of materials on Montessori methodology––just the required training courses. I was curious about some aspects of teaching, and what my mother thought of them. 

“Having taught in both regular public preschool and Montessori preschools, I was wondering if you had any insight as to how the methods of teaching are different?”

“Well…” she paused, and I was suddenly worried that I had brought up a touchy topic. “Both the learning and classroom look different. Regular preschool rooms look more colorful, louder, and have more cartoon characters. Montessori feels more simple.” I thought of the Sacred Heart classroom––naturally-finished furniture…hardwood floors with carpets and rugs. “In regular preschools, there’s much more of a focus on circle time and structured lesson plans with themed, cookie-cutter worksheets and crafts.” 

“How come that isn’t a part of the Montessori curriculum? Are themed lesson plans bad for kids? 

“No, of course not. It just adds a layer of structure that is sometimes too rigid for individual kids to deal with.” I pictured my classmate Jackson from first grade, and how he was never able to sit still during craft time, and how he liked how my mom taught him how to do things. It was all starting to make sense. 

“Okay, so what’s harder about teaching Montessori for you, and what parts do you like the best?” I was half-expecting her to say the typical teacher response of, “everything is my favorite,” but she did not. 

“I really struggle some days, especially with conveying lessons about respecting the environment––it is hard to introduce them all at once, and it usually doesn’t go well––maybe because of a faster society?” By this, I believe she meant that children these days are growing up in worlds that often move too fast for them to understand; keeping up with new technology advancements, trends, and social norms can be exhausting. When children come into the classroom, they often reflect their outside environment’s effect on them by taking it out on others or the classroom, which can be hard to control. 

She continued: “The Role of the teacher is to be a facilitator of the environment; it requires a lot of off-hours work with thoughtful planning. The goal of Montessori is that children would interact with the environment as if the teacher wasn’t even present, which gives us time to observe.” It was finally making sense to me what the purpose of Montessori teachers is: to give preschool children a sense of normalcy, routine, and a platform for growth that is so important for kids who are coming to learn from many different backgrounds. “Montessori makes it easier for me to connect with the children because of this.” And there it was: the comfort, the blanket, my mother, and Montessori all wrapped up in a shiny bow. All Montessori teachers want is to connect with their students and to help them see themselves as important and able in a world that is constantly changing. 

Since I interviewed my mom, the management of the Montessori center in town has severely declined in professionalism. The director is consistently absent from the administrative roles required to run a business and refuses to work in the classroom with the children. Unfortunately, an aspect of childcare that is often overlooked is the staff’s relationships with one another. When the director of a childcare center is unable to step up to the plate in an organized, confident way, it is impossible for the business to score a run. The director neglected the needs of their staff, underpaid their employees, refused their employees the time and materials they needed to prepare curriculum and their classroom, and emotionally abused the employees through multiple forms of manipulation. My mother––the glue that held the classroom together (aside from the puddle of Elmers that is usually spilled on the craft table)––has left the childcare center due to this, and I do not have a single doubt in my mind that whatever she chooses as her next endeavor will be filled with determination to be better than what she just came out of. She will continue to be the positive influence she is wherever she goes. “There is no place for petty, immature drama at a preschool,” and when it gets in the way of teaching and caring for the children, that’s when you know that your heart is in it for the wrong reasons. Maria Montessori would be disappointed. 

From the time that I have spent working at a Montessori, I know just how important it is that we, as teachers, be caring and attentive, while also keeping the methodology of Maria Montessori alive. I see little boys get dropped off by their parents in the mornings without a hug goodbye, and I see little girls start crying when their parents come to pick them up in the evenings. A five-year-old wearing a Spiderman t-shirt will fall asleep at meals. A three-year-old with a lisp and rosy cheeks will be bouncing on their cots at nap time. These things happen, and it’s normal in any classroom. But because I’m able to more closely observe my students’ behaviors, giving out smiles and encouragement when I see them struggling becomes infinitely easier: I can see which leaves need pruning and which shine brighter than the rest. When people say that Montessori teachers “don’t care about the well-being of their students,” they don’t know that we see their sweet little petals fall to the ground in defeat when they are having bad days and we cry in our cars on the way home. They don’t understand that the method that allows us to grow relationships with our students helps them realize their place in the world in grander ways than in public preschools. Anyone who claims that Montessori isn’t an effective form of learning for kids didn’t get to see sweet Gus’s little pale face shine when he wrote his name with that green crayon for the first time, and they didn’t see Andie’s wide-eyed smile when she realized that the jigsaw puzzle was put together. It is part of a preschool teacher’s job to care about their students, and Montessori only furthers that effect. When my mother came home from work at 5:45 p.m., her once blow-dried, braided hair fell limply around her shoulders. She collapsed on the couch––some days she clicked on Rick Steves’ Travel Guide: European Vacation, but more often, she told us stories of her day––how Sam, a little ball of energy, sat down and played trains with Drew for half-an-hour. Or how Harper finally didn’t cry during nap time after months of struggles. These genuine, human accomplishments are moments to celebrate growth in the classroom. Forget about the drama, it only quickens the weeds’ growth. But, the organic learning and the comfortable compassion that cultivates it are what emphasize the truth of Montessori’s message.

Page Sutton

Winona '23

Hey! I'm Page, and I am a junior undergrad at Winona State University majoring in Applied and Professional Writing and Creative Writing, and minoring in Literature. I'm from Waseca, Minnesota, but I moved around the state a lot as a kid. After college, I plan to work as an editor/publisher while also pursuing authoring on my own. I enjoy reading, watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix, baking (and eating said bakes), kayaking, and snuggling with my two dogs: Janey and George. In my head, I am dating Harry Styles…in reality, however, this is not the case, but I am a huge fan.