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Five Steps to Tell a "Real" Montessori School from an Imitation
Parents first venturing into the world of Montessori are often surprised to find out that the name "Montessori" is not protected under copyright or trademark laws. In other words, anyone at all can call themselves a "Montessori School" - even if they have no knowledge at all about the Montessori Method. So how do you know if the school you are considering for your family is the "Real Thing"?
CHECK FOR A SCHOOL CERTIFICATION
There are two types of certifications for Montessori Schools: American Montessori Society (AMS) and Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). There are slight differences between the two certifications, and the emphasis each places on different aspects of the Montessori Method, but both are equally accepted among Montessori practicioners.
AMI and AMS both offer a School Certification process. You should check the school's literature, or call and ask the administrator, if the school you are considering has been certified - and be sure to ask if the certification is current (not expired). If it is, you can be sure that you are looking at the "Real Thing". Both certification processes are rigorous, take two years to complete, and involve quite a bit of documentation as well as site visits from officials before certification is granted. In effect, they have done your homework for you.
But as you can guess, the process is labor-intensive and expensive. Not all schools, especially small preschools and start-ups, can afford the time or money it takes to acquire certification. Does this make them unacceptable? Not necessarily. There are other ways for you to investigate whether your Montessori School is using the method's best practices, or if they are just exploiting the name.
CHECK THE TEACHER TRAINING
The Lead Teacher (sometimes called a Directress or Director) in a classroom should have formal Montessori training, and be duly certified by either AMS or AMI themselves. Some schools allow Lead Teachers to be trained "in-school", and not receive formal training nor acquire certification; I do not think this is satisfactory for a Lead Teacher, and I don't think you should either.
It may be satisfactory for an assisstant teacher in the classroom to not be certified, but I would do some further investigation before accepting that on face value. Is the assistant hoping to become certified in the future? How long have they been teaching in this classroom? Has the Lead Teacher trained them to give lessons, even if only on some of the simpler works? How is the rapport between the Lead Teacher and the Assistant?
If the Lead Teacher holds an AMS or AMI certification, and if the Assistant Teacher either holds a certification or has very positive answers to the above questions, I would feel satisfied that the classroom was in good hands. If not, I would continue my search for another school.
(Note: It is common to see cross-certification, i.e. an AMS-certified school and an AMI-certified teacher. This is not worrisome in the least. Also, you may find a school that does not have their certification but all their teachers are certified. I would ask administration about plans for school certification, but generally this situation would allow me to continue considering the school.)
OBSERVE THE CLASSROOM
When you are offered a classroom observation go prepared! (And if you are not allowed a classroom observation immediately cross the school off your list.)
Read up on the Montessori Materials before you go - and then try NOT to pay any attention to what the children on working on when you get there. It will be very difficult - the works are fascinating even to adults, and to observe children doing things we think they are too young to do can be riveting. But that's not what you need to do.
Firstly, close your eyes and listen. A Montessori classroom should not be silent. It should hum! You should hear children's voices and the sounds of music, chimes, bells, sinks running, blocks clacking, utensils clicking. You should not hear the sounds of discord, arguing, whining, bickering, shouting. It should be a peaceful environment full of activity.
Open your eyes and look around. The classroom should be buzzzing like a beehive. Children should be moving about, choosing work from the shelf, finding a place to work, rolling mats, walking over to observe a friend, getting a snack, washing a dish, going to the bathroom. Some children may be completely engrossed in what they're doing and never move the whole time you are there! That's fine. But everyone should be BUSY, however they interpret that.
You should notice lots of different children working together - boys working with girls, older kids working with younger kids, little kids watching big kids. You should not see signs of discord, boredom or disruption - in one "Montessori" school I observed, children were hiding behind bookshelves in order to poke each other with flags. No, no, no.
About now you should realize that you may not have any idea where the teacher is! The teacher may be sitting quietly with child or two, giving a lesson. The teacher may be standing near a student observing them quietly. The teacher may be helping two children resolve a difference, or she may be refilling a water pitcher. The teacher may be in the corner, overlooking the classroom full of children who do not need her right now. If that is what you see, you are certainly in the right place! For that is the ultimate goal of the teacher - to create independent students in an environment so prepared she is not needed at all!
(Note: If the teacher is leading the class as a whole (outside of a circle time), giving a lesson to more than one or two children at a time, shouting, spending time disciplining, or you have the feeling that the class is out of control - be on high alert! Something is wrong.)
INTERVIEW THE ADMINISTRATION
Even if the school and teachers are appropriately certified, be sure to interview the administration at the school. Don't worry - you can probably take care of this at the same meeting they will schedule to interview you!
Foremost, you'll want to see whether you think the people in the office are folks you can have a good working relationship with. Education, especially in preschool, is such a concert between home and school that you must have open communication. Ask probing questions to see if you feel they will take your concerns seriously, if they will be open to questions & criticism in the future, if they can be flexible or if they adhere strictly to their "policies" with no room for compromise.
Be sure to ask about opportunity for parent involvement in the school. Is there a Parent Organization you can join? Are there formal opportunities for you to volunteer in your child's classroom? How many scheduled Parent-Teacher conferences are there a year? What is their policy on classroom observations? Do they host "parent-child" days in the classroom, so that your child can show you what they do during their day?
Some other things to ponder: What is their policy on siblings in the same classroom? Because of the mixed-age environment, this can effect many families beyond those with multiples. What is their policy on field trips? Montessori schools love to "go out" - how is transportation arranged? Chaperones? What is their policy regarding drop-off and pick-up?
One last thing: ask administration if they can give you the name and phone numbers of a few current parents that you can call and talk to. Not only can talking to parents tell you so much about the school you will never learn any other way, but administration's response to this request will tell you volumes about their relationship with parents. If they don't know of anyone, or put you off telling you they'll have to give you names later, or in any way look flustered or upset by the question, be on high alert!
(Note: Do not let administration distract you with talk of the Montessori Method at this meeting. If you go off on that track with a true Montessorian you'll never come back! If you have questions about the Method or the Materials, save them for the Lead Teacher.)
INTERVIEW THE TEACHER
Your child may be asked to come in for an "interview" or an "observation" with the teacher. This is common and is usually just an opportunity to observe your child's curiosity, attention span, and excitement level. It is not something to obsess over, it is not a quiz, and (generally speaking) your child cannot fail.
But it is also not a great opportunity to interview the teacher. They will be focused on your child, as they should be, and may have a limited time before having to return to their classroom and students. Instead try to schedule to 15-20 minute conference time at the convenience of the teacher.
When you get a chance to talk one-on-one, begin by asking how they came to be a Montessori teacher. If they are a true Montessorian this is a welcome and flattering question, and will lead to a fabulous conversation. It is the quickest way to break the ice and get a glimpse of her (or his) true personality and enthusiasm.
This is also the time to ask about any materials you've seen that you don't understand, perhaps the one the teacher shared with your child at their observation. You can talk about assessments, daily schedules, daily schedules and work periods... anything you can think of about how the classroom works and how your child will spend their day. These questions should be greeted with great enthusiasm and detailed answers.
(Note: the Montessori Method encourages teachers to be the "guide on the side", not the "sage on the stage", so do not be alarmed if your teacher seems shy, reticent, quiet or restrained... these are often the qualities that make the very best Montessori teachers!)