by Letty Rising
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The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
― William Arthur Ward
I came across this quote recently, and it prompted me to think about the variety of methods we use to teach children. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the goal isn’t that the teachers are teaching…the goal is that the students are learning. So it makes sense that we would want to identify the most effective strategies to convey skills and knowledge in such a way that children understand.
Let’s take the quote mentioned above and turn it into a concrete example using a topic presented to elementary-aged children in a Montessori classroom and how it can be taught in the various ways described: the Sun and the Earth.
A mediocre teacher will tell their students that the earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis, or maybe even have them read a textbook that contains this definition, with maybe an illustration or two. There might be an assessment to take or a summary to write, and the teacher will assign work and share expectations related to objectives. In this scenario, the adult is driving the process.
A good teacher will take that a step further, not only sharing information but also explaining “why” and “how.” This goes beyond imparting facts! Giving reasons and explanations result in greater understanding, thus further cementing information by helping the child to think and imagine. Knowledge can be explained as a series of steps, or it can be told through a story. Telling stories is often what we use in Montessori to explain things to children, and good teachers know that children are especially attentive when listening to stories.
The superior teacher goes even further, to demonstrate an explained phenomenon. In Montessori classrooms, our demonstrations include the use of visual aids, artifacts, and hands-on materials. In the Sun and the Earth lesson, we have the ball of yarn or foam ball attached to a piece of string that the guide physically swings around their head to demonstrate the rotation of the sun around the earth. In addition, they show a ball with a stick through the center to hold and twist, showing the rotation of the earth on its axis.
The great teacher will go to the final step, which is to inspire. This teacher sparks interest in their students, which becomes the impetus for deeper explorations. At the end of every lesson, you could assign follow-up work, or tell them what they are doing next. However, if you’ve presented information, explained it, and demonstrated it through hands-on activities or visual aids, you have created a recipe for inspiration, and the students will likely be able to come up with their own ideas!
The inspirational teacher has a variety of tools for communication and engagement that are used as strategies for sparking interest. For example, they will ask “Does anyone have any ideas on what they want to do next? The students will offer their thoughts, and the guide will expand on them. “Oh, you want to create a booklet? Do you want to use the special colored pens after you’ve created a draft? Would you like to bind the booklet using the special embroidery thread like how I showed you last week?” The great teacher invites students to share their ideas and is responsive to their thoughts by asking more questions and/or offering suggestions.
All of the abovementioned lead to superior teaching. Even the mediocre teacher has the right idea by sharing knowledge with the children. However, there are various other actions you will want to consider as components of being a strong elementary guide. The following indicators do not represent an exhaustive list but are fundamental actions that you will want to carefully consider and develop agency around in order to elevate your teaching practice.
When it came to teaching, I had a tendency to be more spontaneous than most. I believe that having a highly orchestrated plan is not in alignment with the idea of responsive teaching. We need to be able to respond at the moment, and when the plan is too specific, there is not a lot of opportunity for organic and spontaneous work. However, with that said, in order to feel truly successful, a general plan is important. It’s good to have a rough idea of when you want to present big picture topics throughout the year, and it’s good to create a plan of what lessons you want to give during the week. But, you may want to give yourself some flexibility in what day or time during the week you plan to give the lessons, because the children may be intensively involved in a project that you won’t want to interrupt, or you might wake up one morning and feel inspired to give a certain lesson that morning. Having a plan in your back pocket, and having the mental flexibility to be able to abandon that plan in order to allow for what is currently emerging, will lead to a richly expressive elementary environment.
In order to be a strong teacher, you need to be a responsive teacher. And in order to be responsive, you will need to observe your students. Notice what they like, what they dislike, what is hard for them, what is easy for them. Notice who they like to choose for work partners, and who they shy away from. Notice if they move quickly through their work, or if they take time. Notice where they sit during the day, the conversations they have with others, and their behavior patterns throughout the day.
Listening is similar to observing, but with your ears! Listen to the questions that children ask, Listen to their concerns, their struggles, and their joys. If you can do anything about any of these things, then do so. Answer their questions, address their concerns, support their struggles, and celebrate their joys.
As a teacher, it’s important to be reflective, and strong teachers continuously reflect. . Self-reflection will help hone your teaching skills, as well as improve your interpersonal relationships. Self-reflection involves taking an honest look at your actions and seeing how they affect yourself, the people around you, and the work you are doing. The two main ways that we learn to grow are through self-reflection and by feedback from others. If we only rely upon feedback from others, growth happens more slowly. However, since we take ourselves wherever we go, self-reflection can be a continuous process and the fastest path to individual growth. Recognizing areas of improvement and learning from past mistakes can lead to better decision-making.
After observing, listening, and reflecting, it’s time to implement! The strong teacher takes all of the data that has been gathered and does something with it. And this “doing” often involves experimentation to identify what might work better next time. A lot of people get stuck here because implementing means trying something you may not have tried before, and that can be anxiety-provoking for many! When we do something that hasn’t been tried, there is a strong likelihood of messiness, mistakes, and even failure. However, as teachers we can’t get stuck in the mud, paralyzed by fear of the unknown. Especially when things are not going well, and it is clear that something new needs to be tried. Take the information, formulate a plan, implement that plan, and know that the implementation may not be the ideal solution on the first try. That’s okay…keep going!
In order to be a strong elementary guide, you need to be curious, and ask questions. Why has that child pulled out the checkerboard every day and sat in front of it, only to complete one problem during the 3 hour morning work cycle? Why does the left corner of the room next to the door always seem to gather a noisy group of children? Why is it that this child loves to read and tell stories but hates to write? These are questions we ask ourselves. We also ask the children questions. What do plants need in order to grow? How has it been outside at recess with your friend Abby? What work do you need more practice with? Staying curious and asking questions keeps our level of engagement high, and allows us to solve problems.
Communicate regularly and communicate clearly. This applies to communication with your students, with your colleagues, and with parents. Being a strong teacher means being both intentional and explicit with your words…when giving a lesson, when explaining guidelines, and when sharing expectations. Part of communicating is checking in with the person you’re communicating with to make sure that you understand, and that you are understood. When communicating with colleagues, communication is essential in order for the classroom to function at an optimal level. When communicating with parents, be sure to offer them a glimpse of their child’s life through written notes or verbal conversations.
Although the quality of adaptability is important for all teachers to have, the Montessori pedagogy is rooted in the notion that humans are adaptable, and that we adapt to what is happening in our environments. This takes us back to the notion of planning…as a teacher you want to plan, but you also want to be adaptable should the unforeseen arise. The unforeseen can be as grandiose as a worldwide pandemic, or as small as a child who asks if you can wait 10 more minutes to give them the lesson you have planned for them because they are putting the finishing touches on a project they’ve been working on for weeks. A strong teacher is flexible and can shift plans quickly when a need or desire arises.
A strong teacher makes it a point to connect with every single child, every single day. Whether it be a smile accompanied by a touch on the shoulder, asking how their soccer game went the night before, or offering to sit with them for a few minutes while they are working through a hard problem, connecting with students is one of the most effective teaching strategies. Children will be most open to learning from someone they know cares about them.
A strong teacher doesn’t take their Montessori training and expects that this alone will prepare them for a lifelong career as an educator. Strong teachers continue to learn and grow beyond their albums. They seek knowledge and understanding where there may have been gaps in their training. They seek knowledge related to current scientific understanding and best teaching practices and integrate their newfound information seamlessly with the Montessori approach.
The strong teacher continues learning not only how to teach, but how to respond to their students’ emotions, and also additional information regarding all of the topics covered in Cosmic Education. A strong teacher is a lifelong learner.
A strong teacher knows they have a lot of influence, and that their words, actions, and even beliefs have the ability to motivate and inspire their students. Strong teachers look for opportunities to point out things they find interesting and do so while exuding enthusiasm, reverence, and awe. They also know how to model interest and engagement by pouring themselves into something they love and sharing that with the children. Whether it be a teacher who loves to knit and shares that love with their students, or write, or garden, or dissect plants…we all have things we love, and it’s good for children to see us doing things we love because witnessing joy is inspirational.
If you’re wondering if you are a strong elementary guide, use this list of indicators as a reference throughout your teaching career. Take a look at it now, and then pull it out from time to time to see if there are any areas where you have noticed yourself growing stronger, and other areas where you are not feeling as strong. Sometimes we can get caught up in situations and circumstances that take us away from being at the top of our game, so to speak, and revisiting these strong teacher indicators can help you find clarity of where you might have gone off track, and revisit the areas that might need attending to at the moment will help you grow.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.