Hope and Faith

This text was originally published at www.LarMontessori.com, in Portuguese. It was translated into English by Gabriel Salomão.

Never should I forget this event

in the life of my fatigued retinas.

Never should I forget that in the middle of the road

there was a stone.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazilian Poet
There are children for whom the method of Montessori seems to fit perfectly. The child walks in: slow, deliberate, smiling, merry. Montessori then approaches her: silent, noble, fascinating. They embrace, and continue together, through a life of concentration, work, constant endeavor and sublime joy. 

This is not about these children. It’s about the others.  This is about children who, upon seeing Montessori in the distance, stop stagnant, frozen in shock, fear, pain, or despair. It is about children who stare, scream, or throw themselves down, laughing uncontrollably. It is about children who play with non-existent beings and conjure fantasy creatures from stones on the ground. It is about children who run to Montessori, and, after embracing her, pull her by the hand, imploring her to throw down every object, break every dish, and push every colleague, with insatiable and appalling freedom. Finally, it is about children who shrink away in fear from the firm look, the refined hand, the words direct and simple, who surround themselves with a moat full of dangers that, while locking Montessori out, also locks the child in.

This concerns children who, in a moment of despair, cause us to say, “I think the method of Montessori does not fit her” or, in even greater despair and hopelessness, “I believe she does not fit the method of Montessori.”

These children exist. Maria Montessori met some of them during her lifetime – many, in fact  and a number of them came from the wealthiest classes. She first commented on these children in her book The Secret of Childhood. We find these children along our paths as parents, educators, teachers, caretakers, nurses, babysitters, and childhood professionals. They challenge our suppositions, our knowledge, and our competence. These children make us doubt ourselves.

After meeting the child who kicks away any material presented to her, many brave and daring teachers who choose to employ the method of Montessori find themselves thinking that perhaps the method lacks the possibility of imposing limits… and children need limits. Fathers and mothers who were raised by rewards and punishments often whisper to themselves and those they trust that the Montessori classroom was a success, but sometimes her method must be adapted to children of our time; sometimes, it needs some tweaking to fit into today’s world.

Even more challenging is what happens when one encounters the child who, facing the material, steps back. This child does not wish to hear a story, sing a song, take part on a walk in the garden, work with a mate, or feed the classroom pets. This child is silent; she looks aimlessly around the classroom and could even go unnoticed by the teacher. To her parents, she appears to be a tranquil, obedient child. But she does not want to do any of the things suggested for practicing the method of Montessori at home. She wants to stay in her corner, and there is only one thing that will keep her attention: the television. So, the television it is. It’s not Montessori, the parent might think in justification, but Montessori does not have to be the same for everyone.

The first child is punished. The second one, ignored or forgotten. The first child is repressed; the second one, hyper-stimulated or left aside. Both run the same risk: being left out of Montessori. All of the materials are used with them, but forget to maintain balance, well-being, and normalization. We remember that every child must learn, but we forget that she can and mustbe happy. We remember to educate her hands so that she writes – before reading! – but we forget to help her concentration to grow. This is where our mistakes begin.

To educate human hands, to help them learn new content, to instill an ability – these do not need Montessori to happen. Other schools teach writing. Other schools teach colors. Showering and eating are learned from time with the family, as are not-hitting-the-door and brushing one’s teeth. We do not need the methods of Montessori to ensure that every lesson takes place and every ability is acquired. We need the methods of Montessori for the scientific miracle which is the development of the human brain. We need her methods for concentration, for joy, for the love of work and silence, and for autonomy. We need her methods for independence, and we need her methods for life.

However, this is easy to forget. It’s easy to forget that the materials of Montessori are not just a set of playthings to keep children busy – that they are not just a stylish new fashion for home décor. It’s easy to forget that the methods of Montessori are not the newest, nor the most popular. It’s easy to forget Montessori is not one of those personalities that appears as a fad to shake up the conversation about education and then fade away. It’s easy to forget that Montessori did not develop the “Montessori Method,” but a Scientific Pedagogy, the Method of Aid to Life. It’s easy to forget that Maria Montessori’s aim was to save humanity, that to her this is a new world, full of miracles, and, with respect to miracles, that children know how to do them well.

The methods of Montessori demand from us, especially with those children who wall themselves off from the world or run away, hope and faith. It is necessary to deeply believe, in every shadowy corner of our unconscious hearts, that the child will reveal herself through the work of her hands.It is necessary to wait patiently, full of energy and life, with total attention in our eyes, for the moment in which a child and a work will talk to each other, and the world will have one more piece in place. This, however, does not mean passively watching. It means to actively wait: aiding, observing, and giving space.

We often wish that children would fall in love with the materials in the classroom in the same sequence in which we wanted to introduce them. It would be magnificent, as though it were all masterfully choreographed. But that’s not how it always works. So we need to be flexible. To believe in the child. To have faith. We need to remember that we may be wrong about an interest, a sensitive period, or a capacity already (or not yet) conquered. Once we have perceived our mistake, we must have hope. Hope that, by following the child, we may get it right next time.

We should know the planes of development. At the very least, we should know the most important sensitive periods. It behooves us, if we want to use the methods of Montessori, to know the characteristics that a piece of work must have if it is to be worthy of our children. We should know the most general principles for preparing a child’s environment. We should know the properties of the child’s mind and its state of grace: the Normalization. But these things alone are not enough.

When we put all of this to work, applying the first components in the web of relations which link all of the factors of the methods of Montessori, we must feed our engines with hope and faith. We must believe that, although she might take longer than others, the child will sprout. That, in a prepared environment, with adequate work available, there will come a moment when the child will embrace Montessori. There will come a time when they will begin their walk together.

It might be not forever. A new argument might arise, and a new struggle could appear. It’s possible that the child, who took six months to concentrate for twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes without shifting her focus or attending to other stimulus and external interferences, will falter.  It’s possible that the child, who, after a whole semester, finally found her way to balance, will fall. Especially if her extra-school context makes things much harder, or if, unlike the school, the home has nothing that adheres to or complements the methods of Montessori. 

When the child falls, it is our job to believe again. We did not lose her forever. We didn’t lose her at all. She simply diverted a little bit from her path of joy, well-being, and tranquility. But she will willingly come back before too long.

It is not our job to call her. It might be to try and reconnect her with a piece of work, but it is not to call her to concentrate, not to call her to be joyful. Montessori is concentration. And nobody concentrates because she is ordered to do so. She can only concentrate willingly. It is only possible to come back to the path of joy through personal choice. Our job is to believe and to wait. To do everything we can, and then to believe and to wait.

Some children challenge us. They challenge our faith. They challenge our hope. Some children challenge all we know. These children are special. It is these children who will make us take a step further, go a little bit farther. It is these children who will oblige us to jump over a crack in the ground larger than our legs. These are the children who will make us run the risk of falling, collapsing, and failing miserably. These are the children who will provide the impetus needed for trying something we would never otherwise try. These are the children who will make us look defiantly at Montessori, her books, and our trainers, shouting with our eyes that: “You are all wrong! Montessori is not for every child.”

These are the children who will make us believe Montessori is for everyone. For each and every child, with no exception. These are the children who will push us to the limit of our resistance and will make us remember the words of the woman of Calcutta: “I have found this paradox: that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” Trusting to the limit, believing beyond our power, we find that there are moments when there are no options apart from believing.

And so, one day we will find out, thrilled, incredulous, and tired, that the child has concentrated at last. That she jumped over that crack with us. That she got to the other side. We will look up to every book, to Montessori, to our trainers, with tears coming to our eyes.  They were right.  The methods of Montessori are for each and every child – they are for everyone. And we will find out that this is how it is because the aims of Montessori are not to learn better and faster. Montessori’s aim is to aid life. And where there is life, there may be help. Where life sprouts, there may be Montessori.

– This text is entirely based on real children. Each phrase, example, metaphor and overstatement portrays the specific case of a child witnessed by the author. Numbers relative to time of concentration and attitudes of children were also truly observed. Some of these children demand hope and faith still. Others are balms, which assure us: if it worked with them, it may work with every other.

Gabriel Salomão was a student at a Montessori school for twelve years. Today, he works with Montessori for schools and families. Gabriel has developed two surveys during his degree at the University of Sao Paulo – the first, on Montessori for teenagers, and the second on the importance of silence in the Montessori method. Currently, he is working on his thesis on the ‘Development of the Montessori movement in the United States’ also at the University of São Paulo. You can visit Gabriel’s own blog at www.LarMontessori.com