Maria Montessori faced obstacles…many of them. She was a female at a time when women had few rights and few opportunities. She was passionate about science at a time when the greatest career goal for a woman was that of teacher…and in her early years, she adamantly designed NOT to become that.
She fell in love with and became pregnant by a man whose conservative family values forbid him to marry her. At the height of a career that had made her famous by age 30, this monumental obstacle might have meant the last we’d hear of Maria Montessori.1
But Maria made a different choice for herself. She chose to remove the obstacles.
The obstacle of an unwanted pregnancy was not the last she would face. In fact, it might seem that the series of obstacles she overcame throughout the remainder of her life might have led Maria to different conclusions about persistence, perseverance, and transformation. Her writings show us that she valued all of these, especially the required transformation for being a successful devotee of her method.
Montessori viewed obstacles as a natural part of living, common to us all, and significant for growth and achievement. For Dr. Montessori, the key to achieving one’s potential was experience. Her observations, deeply influenced by her own obstacle-laden experiences, had shown her that sensory experiences were the true foundation of learning, possessing the power to free the individual to achieve their potential. She held up Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy as a stellar example of how sensory learning had unlocked Ms. Keller’s severe limitations and produced "a woman of exceptional culture and a writer." 2
A recent social media debate got me thinking about obstacles. The discussion focused on the question of whether withholding recess as a “natural consequence” for lack of work during work periods was appropriate or successful. The debate ran the full gamut from absolutely never (“The children who struggle to work during work-time need recess more than anyone.”) to absolutely. (“This is the only meaningful tool [to the child] in the teachers toolbox.”)
I’m not here to open up the debate. It was clear that folx came to that discussion with their minds made up and were not generally about to change much one way or the other. But I wondered if considering the obstacles present in the situation might be the key to becoming aware of how we perceive our responsibility, and ourselves, as Montessori guides facing the obstacle of the child who doesn’t work or the child who doesn’t behave respectfully.
If our task is to remove the obstacles, wouldn’t this shift our thinking to focus on what those obstacles might be for the non-working child? Using our tools of observation, wouldn’t we spend our time watching and wondering about what experience might compel that child to become engaged? And then, wouldn’t we seek to discover how we could provide that deeply moving (sensory) experience without getting in the middle of it…without being “the obstacle between the child and his experience”?
When I think of the work-play/worktime-playtime relationships, I wonder about the sensory experience the non-working child is having during worktime. What experience might be hindering the child and keeping them from engaging in work? How does the threat of missing playtime influence that engagement or lack of it? How does missing playtime influence the student’s desire to work the next day? And how does the teacher’s decision to refuse playtime influence the child’s sensory experience of their life at school? Does it have the positive outcome desired by the guide? Or does it block the student from developing their own inner drive and self-discipline?
My early years in the Montessori classroom were guided by colleagues and mentors who set the rules and taught me the ways of the various schools in which I worked during those formative years. Sometimes guidelines like “if you play during worktime, you’ll have to work during playtime” were in place with the good intentions of helping children learn to focus and manage their time and their learning. Sometimes those guidelines worked. I suppose, in those times, the guideline was an aid to the discipline of focus and not an obstacle. Or was it an aid to fear of loss or an aid to awareness of another person’s power to dominate the outcome or an aid to acceptance of a social construct of working for reward?
In the early days, those questions didn’t cross my thoughts. In time, my teaching practice became more confident and my trust of the child to show me their need grew. I’m not sure I have yet achieved removing myself as the obstacle…how about you?