About Emily Madden

Emily Madden graduated from the North American Montessori Center in 2011 with her International Montessori Teaching Diploma in Preschool and Kindergarten Montessori. She is the Head of School at Conway Montessori where she has taught for 10 years and attended preschool as a child.

I’ll never forget the first year I started teaching. I was slightly skeptical of the whole process, although I believed in it (because I am the product of the Montessori school I now direct) millions of thoughts swarmed my head. “Teachers are ‘guides’ in the classroom and educational process,” “How am I going to keep 40 children occupied this long,” “What if they don’t care what I have to show them,” “What if they are quickly bored and I cannot keep up with each and every child’s varying demands,” “What if…,” “What if…,” “What if?” I had to stop myself and trust the hundred-year-old process.

As my mentor teacher started class, I was amazed! The children got busy, each working on something completely different to the next. There was no fighting. There was no arguing. There were no tears. Just peace. In the moment, I could put all my worries and anxieties behind me. This was beautiful! The longer I taught, the more adequately I could assess this notion of an “individualistic” approach and when the time came to conduct my first parent/teacher conferences, I had all the proof I needed to become an advocate for my students.

The great Dr. Maria Montessori wrote in her 1971 pamphlet The Four Planes of Education that “I have found that in his development, the child passes through certain phases, each of which has its own particular needs. The characteristics of each are so different that the passages from one phase to the other has been described by certain psychologists as ‘rebirths.’” Each child is unique. Every child is different. No two children are the same. Researchers have proved time and time again that children learn at different rates; therefore, I find that children are more satisfied when given choices and freedom in their education.

What sounds to some to be a far-fetched and unrealistic concept for surpassing benchmarks and standards has become a crucial component to my career and philosophy as an early childhood educator and administrator. For my faculty and students, class time spans a three-hour time block. During that time period, students are free to work on meticulously designed and arranged lessons in all of the crucial academic areas. The children are happy and excited each morning to come to school and are quickly engrossed in their academics. Children love choices!

Think back to a time in school where you were forced to learn about a subject and you weren’t interested. What did you do? My guess is that you, like many students, checked out. Your vagabond focus carries your thoughts away to distant lands and time which only the class bell can bestir you from. Did you learn anything during that study? Did you retain any of the information? Perhaps, yet presumably, not.

Children’s interests vary. Sally adores ponies while Jane creates the prehistoric world of dinosaurs. Matthew yearns to be a world class chef while Luke is passionate about cars. Why does this diversity have to stop with preferences? Why can’t it apply to their educational experience as well? Over the years, I developed the vital ability to observe and assess each student. I was able to become an educational partner to the child, guiding them in the direction they wanted to go. My students developed concentration and mastered academic concepts with great pleasure and pride. For example, a student of mine was fascinated with counting. So, I gently scaffolded the child’s learning in the math area by presenting the Montessori counting frames. This material is designed to teach the child numeration and move the concept of numbers from the concrete and physical number of objects to the written form that represents numbers. The child was elated and quickly became more and more adventurous, diving deeper into mathematical concepts and, after a few short weeks, had mastered addition and subtraction! When the child had exhausted his enthusiasm for math, he immediately submerged himself in language and reading.

The beauty of this self-guided and individualized approach is that the child does not ever feel forced or required to do anything. The guide helps navigate the student through windows of opportunity, thus eliminates the fights, the struggles, the constant repetition that drive early childhood educators to the brink of insanity. When the child is ready, they will move on and develop interest. Children who are willing and wanting to learn about a subject pick it up faster and more accurately, thus giving the teacher rich opportunities for extending learning.

Time after time, as I prepared myself for parent/teacher conferences, I questioned the bar that the state has set for preschoolers. My students performed above the state standards. Four-year-olds were reading, five-year-olds were writing in cursive, three-year-olds were doing addition. The year rolled on and the task of quenching the desires for knowledge became more and more advanced. As Montessori guides, we go with it. We celebrate their accomplishments and encourage them to take the next step up their academic ladder. If we placed all of our students into nice, neat little boxes wrapped with a pretty bow, children would inevitably fall behind, lose interest, become just another face in the sea of students while the average students stayed average.

I encourage you to strive to protect and foster each and every student’s individuality. Embrace it and treat it with care. And when you do, never let it fade away into the land of theories. You will be surprised by what your students can teach you.

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