Parents' Questions About Montessori

An Interview With Andrea Coventry

Andrea Coventry
Andrea Coventry. Photo © Andrea Coventry

Editor's Note: Andrea Coventry is an expert on Montessori teaching and methods. I asked her several questions compiled from questions you have asked me over the years. Here are her answers. You can read Andrea's biography at the end of page 2 of this interview.

Is it important for a Montessori school to be a member of the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale? If so, why?

Being a member of one of the Montessori organizations does have its benefits. Each organization has its own publication that is sent out to its members. They enjoy discounts at conferences and workshops, on materials, and on other publications. They send out surveys, whose results are shared with other members, in an effort to improve the situations for teachers. They offer job listings at affiliated schools, to help job seekers find the best fit. They also offer group insurance rates for their members. Membership in either organization can be done at the school level, or individual level.

Another advantage is the look of prestige that comes with being affiliated with either AMI or AMS. Schools that are affiliated with one of the organizations must often adhere to basic standards of quality Montessori education. The highest “honor” bestowed upon the school is actual accreditation. For AMS, it is known as an Accredited School. AMI calls it Recognition. But the process to achieving these distinctions can be long, tedious, and expensive, so many schools opt to not do it.

Should Montessori teachers be both trained in Montessori methods and techniques and certified by the Montessori association? Is it bad if they aren't?

The training that teachers go through is quite comprehensive, as it encompasses the philosophy behind the method, the materials, and proper demonstration of the materials. It also allows for debate and discussion over techniques, as well as networking opportunities with other teachers. The assignments require the student teacher to truly reflect on the Montessori method and to absorb it. Over the years, the method has been tweaked a bit. AMI tends to hold true to exactly what Maria said over 100 years ago, whereas AMS has allowed for some adaptation over the years. The student teacher will quickly discover which philosophy best fits her personality and beliefs.

Certification is a benefit to a teacher who wishes to do Montessori as her career, as it makes her more likely to be hired by a Montessori school. Sometimes teachers who are certified via AMS will get a job at an AMI school, and go through AMI training to help outline the differences. AMS teachers who were, perhaps, trained by one of the International centers, may also undergo further training. There are numerous books and materials available to the general public, and Montessori is being implemented within homes and schools even without formal training. Some schools prefer to do their own training in-house.

Having certification does not guarantee the quality of education, though. I believe this truly comes from the individual, herself. I have seen excellent Montessori teachers who were trained in-house, and horrible ones who had received multiple forms of Montessori certification.

Why are so many Montessori schools privately owned and operated, that is, as proprietary institutions?

Montessori philosophy is often considered an “alternative philosophy” here in the United States. It was developed over 100 years ago but only made its way back to the States about 40-50 years ago. So, I jokingly say that mainstream education hasn't yet caught up with us? Many school systems have been incorporating Montessori philosophy into their public schools. Many times they are done as a charter school and must achieve certain criteria within a given time frame.

I think one of the biggest barriers to public schools is the lack of funds and of understanding by the powers that be. For example, there is a public Montessori school in my local school district. But because they don't understand the philosophy, they cut out funding for the 3 year-olds to attend. They claim that Head Start can take care of the younger children. But this means that they completely miss out on that foundational first year. And Head Start doesn't work in the same way. Montessori materials are notoriously expensive. But they are of high quality and made of wood. This contributes to their aesthetically pleasing nature, without which children would not be as drawn to them. It's easier to raise funds from private tuition and donations.

Also, many schools were started by churches or convents as a ministry to their communities. I think it is a shame that they are only privately owned, though, as Maria wanted to share her philosophy with everyone. With so many of the schools being private and tuition-based, many children miss out, and it's now labeled as education for the elite. Maria's first students were the slum children of Rome.

Continued on page 2.

In your professional opinion, what are the advantages to Montessori over other approaches to early education?

Montessori was the first educator who brought the classroom down to the child's level. In the very beginning of her book, The Montessori Method, she talks about the rigidness and uncomfortable seating for young children in public schools. She asserted that children learn best when comfortable, and when able to move around.

She also talks about what is basically the self-actualization of the young child. The child learns best when he can use his hands to concretely engage with a material. The repetition of activities leads to true mastery. The multi-age classroom allows for the further demonstration of mastery, as the older children can sometimes “teach” the younger children better than an adult. The child is also able to learn independence, which he has been craving basically since birth. “Help me learn to do it myself.”

Montessori education fosters a love of learning, as children are guided in their educational pursuits based on their own level, and within their interests. They are shown how to access information on their own, how to observe their world, and are never put down when doing something incorrectly. There is a freedom within limits that exist in a Montessori classroom, which is usually one of the first things children notice when leaving the Montessori schools.

Montessori education also teaches the whole child. It goes beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. He learns basic life skills. Practical Life curriculum teaches how to cook and clean, but more importantly, it develops control, coordination, independence, order and confidence. The Sensorial curriculum has activities that enhance all of the senses, beyond just the basic 5 taught to young children, and helps him to observe his environment. For example, that developed sense of smell can distinguish between the fresh and slightly rancid meat.

When it comes to teaching the 3 R's, children seem to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts after having done it concretely for so many years. I think the strongest case in point is in the mathematics area. I know, from personal experience, that I understood those drawings in my high school geometry book much better than my classmates because I had manipulated the geometric solids for so many years in Montessori. As I tutor elementary children in math activities, I can see how brilliantly broken down the processes are in concrete means, such as in multi-digit multiplication. You can see the child's “Aha!” moment as he shifts into abstraction.

All of this being said, I will also admit that Montessori isn't going to work for absolutely every child. Sometimes children with special needs cannot be accommodated within the Montessori environment, for many reasons. Even “normal” children sometimes have difficulty functioning. It depends on each individual child, each teacher, each school, and each set of parents/guardians. But I truly believe it works for the majority of children. Scientific evidence backs this up. Also, if you pay attention to methods being used in “regular” schools, especially from the point-of-view of a Montessori educator, you can see her influence there, even if they don't want to admit it.

Biography of Andrea Coventry

Andrea Coventry is a lifelong Montessori student. She attended Montessori school from the age of 3 through the 6th grade. After studying early childhood, elementary, and special education, she received her Montessori training for the ages 3-6 classroom. She also tutors Montessori elementary students and has worked in every aspect of a Montessori school from After School Care to administration. She has also written extensively on Montessori, education, and parenting.