The Discipline of Inspiration for Montessori Teachers

I want to talk to you about the discipline of inspiration — how to maintain inspiration in your Montessori work. It can be hard to stay true to the Montessori principles and ideals, especially in places where Montessori is new and the professional community is not well established. The Montessori vision we were presented in training is very different — sometimes disappointingly different — from the realities we face in the real world.

Inspiration and passion are so important to or work. It makes us strive to do our best, to challenge ourselves and not be complacent. Without inspiration we are just ghosts looking for the hope of life. But with inspiration, we are empowered to breathe new life into everything and everyone around us.

So I just want to share some of my experiences and observations about inspiration in our work. My hope is that what I have written will give both novice guides and those working in difficult sitations a new perspective on the role of inspiration for dealing with the challenges we are facing and how to face them.

Real Talk about Real Challenges

After I graduated from my Montessori training, I decided to work overseas in Africa. When I made this choice, I did not realize the amount of support I would need to get through the first year and to be effective in the classroom. I was naive. I thought it would be fun and easy. After three months the children would start to be normalized. I was sure everyone would be convinced about the strengths of Montessori education and do everything to support it. I figured I would have no trouble finding my way because my training had equipped me. Anything else needed would come from my own personal reservoirs.

Well, I was very wrong. I soon found out that many people join the Montessori movement for not so great reasons. Some people just want to make money, others just need a job, others have no clue how important the philosophy is or what it’s really about. Some parent just want a place to drop their children off at school and don’t really care about the curriculum per se. I even worked with people who were totally against Montessori and actively worked to undermine the Montessori aspects of the work environment. The results Montessori promises take time to develop, but many were uncomfortable and sometimes unwilling to wait for them. Those were some of the challenges that came from outside the classroom and outside of myself.

I also had challenges from within. After the first few weeks in a stressful and sometimes hostile environment, doubt began to creep in. Maybe I’m doing this wrong. Maybe adding non-Montessori elements will help things. Maybe what I think is progress in the children and classroom is actually nothing at all. Maybe my times of observation are really just laziness. Maybe I’m too sensitive. Why am I always sick and tired? Perhaps I’m not meant for this. Maybe the problem is me — I don’t know what I’m doing or I missed something key in training.

I desperately wanted help. I wanted someone to come into my classroom, observe and identify all the problems and tell me how to fix it. I tried reaching out to my trainer, which helped some, but there was no way she could act as a mentor. I didn’t know where else to turn for help.

Later, things did settle down and I found a rhythm. It was working — the children were becoming normalized. But it was exhausting work. The hardest part was the criticism from non-Montessorians. One day they would complain that the children were working so well because I was being too strict with them. Other days, they would complain that I didn’t “look like a Montessori teacher” or “act like a Montessori teacher.” I didn’t want to be closed off and not listen just because they were not trained. So more doubt came in: maybe they’re right. Maybe I am misinterpreting Montessori. Have I become my own standard? How do I know if I’m doing this right? How do I know that I’m not being too hard or soft on the children?

At the heart of it, I really just wanted to be one of those Montessori teachers who was sure of herself and her methods. I wanted guidance to navigate the world of children with ease. Unfortunately, in the country I was in Montessori was just beginning, the type of personalized guidance I was looking for was just not available.

I don’t say all this to make you feel down or feel sorry for me. I would just like to highlight typical challenges that we Montessori guides face wherever we are. We’re doing an important work and before we look for solutions I think it is important to be honest about the challenges we face. If any of these issues resonate with you, please understand that you are not alone. These aren’t necessarily the same challenges that people working in more established areas face. They have ease of access to training centers, experienced Montessorians, well stocked libraries, and a significant number of schools where they can observe and ask questions. The same is true for administrators.

Because of all the challenges and stress I was facing, without realizing it, I was losing my joy in Montessori and being a Montessorian. I wasn’t inspired. I would go to work and do what I had to do, but without any passion or joy. It showed on me and I was really worried that the children would soon lose their joy, too. When I realized it, I tried hard to get my passion back. I would reread Montessori works, watch videos, look at inspiring pictures and guess what? None of it worked! I felt empty inside. Nothing resonated or even made sense. Anything I read was just words on a page. I had to admit to myself one day that the fire was gone and I had no idea how to reignite. For a time I just figured that a vacation or change of place would help. It was one of my reasons for moving to Russia after just one year of teaching in Africa. But as the saying goes, when you move to a new place, nothing really changes except the weather.

It dawned on me that I really did not understand inspiration. So I made it a personal project of mine to learn more about it so that I could stay inspired in my work and life in general. I cannot say that at this stage I fully understand inspiration and all its deep details and inner workings. But I’ve learned some surprising things that have really changed me from within and have brought me closer to becoming the Montessorian that I want and need to be. I’m really excited to share them with you.

Understanding Inspiration

The following three quotes from Oswald Chambers helped to consolidate in me an understanding of inspiration that has revitalized my approach to Montessori work.

“It is the preparation made in the closet that prepares for the great mission of love and peace.”

Inspiration is an art that we must cultivate. It is an essential part of our spiritual preparation. It does not come by or maintain itself. We have to approach it as our discipline until it becomes as automatic as breathing. This means that we will not always feel or notice that we are inspired, just like we do not always notice that we are breathing. But we are inspired and must take care to do things that keep us inspired. It’s a spiritual preparation that we do in private, but will equip us to be effective publicly.

“Whenever Inspiration comes, it is to do the most natural simple things.”

Inspiration does not have to be associated with a feeling. Just because one does not feel inspired does not mean that one is not inspired. Rather, inspiration is associated with small actions. Inspiration makes it possible for you to do the most mundane things and render them beautiful. As I was learning more about inspiration, I thought this would make me an effective advocate for children and more convincing with parents. Well, it did, but not in the way that I expected. I was expecting something like a stronger voice, speaking with more authority, etc. Instead, when inspiration would hit me, I would do small things like revitalize a tray, clean out my messy teacher closet, introduce a new activity, or practice one that I was rusty at. But those little actions began to have major impacts on the children and my relationships with colleagues and parents in a positive way.

Beware of harking back to what you were once, when Life wants you to be something you have never been.

Inspiration looks forward not backwards. When I was searching to reignite my fire, my reference point was how I felt during training and who I was when I received my diploma. In my mind that person was strong, confident, happy, and ready. I associated being inspired with who I once was. However, what I was doing required me to be something, or rather, someone I had never been. When I looked at my situation and work honestly, I understood the type of person needed to get the job done. I was inspired by this new vision of the Montessori life and myself. Inspiration was easier to maintain with that goal in mind. I knew what I had to do. I had to focus on my spiritual preparation in a new way without looking back to who I once was. I had to stop making a fetish of my past inspirations and inspired moments.

Spiritual Prepration for Inspired Montessori Living

So, with all these revelations in mind — the quality of my daily preparation for work improved. I would go to class early and remind myself to do these things in addition to what I had been doing before. I reminded myself to stay true to my training. There are critics everywhere with varying levels of credibility who might lead you to doubt yourself and how you do your work. I had to make a conscious decision to stay true to my training and make that my standard. However, I didn’t just stay in my head — I continued to read Montessori and reread my albums. Dr. Annette Haines, AMI Teacher Trainer, spoke at a refresher course I attended and said that the year she decided to follow her albums which was after many years of Montessori teaching, her teaching was forever changed for the better. It was the same for me.

It’s a challenge to do things exactly as you have them in your albums. However, as I became more proficient I felt less the need for a mentor to tell me what I was doing wrong. Try it as an experiment — I’m pretty sure that you will be pleasantly surprised at the result. Just as with any practice, there will come a time when one will not have to stick to the letter of ones albums or training, but if the time for that has not yet come there is no shame in that.

All those doubts, critiques, and stress had made me quite defensive and sometimes offensive. I do not know if it has been the same for you. I always felt that I had to justify what I was doing and why. At the same time, I would also question others in a similar way. It is a vicious cycle that actually increases self-doubt and confusion. The way to break that is to be merciful and patient with yourself and others. I stopped responding to the doubts and critiques. I literally stopped talking and just went about doing what I felt I had to do. I showed myself mercy by reminding myself that I may not be doing things perfectly, but what I was offering is far better than any traditional offering. I gave myself time and space to figure out how to do things correctly, just as I did with the children. I showed others mercy by not questioning or critiquing unless asked.

One of the most important things I had to do was accept that my feelings and desires had changed. After training, most of us have one career path in mind — to be a teacher or admin. It’s expected, right? After all this specialized training on how to allow children to be free, well, we should be in the classroom or at least making classrooms possible. We rarely allow ourselves to imagine any other Montessori path. It’s ok if after even the best days at work, you realize that this is not where you want to be or should be. You are no less a Montessorian because you are not in the classroom or managing a school. The Montessori movement is in need of many creative skill sets to make Montessori education a possibility for every child. Be bold and ask yourself: is this what I want or need? Do I feel like doing something else?

Allow yourself the space and time to come up with the answer and it may surprise you. For a time I thought I would just give up Montessori for a while or perhaps forever and I had made peace wit that. But one day, as I watched my students playing during free time, I realized that I love being in the company of children. I wanted to be a guide— I just needed to find the right context. Making that specific context will take time and resources that I do not have yet, but I know that no matter what I want to be a Montessorian directly involved with children on some level.

If you look around the Montessori community worldwide, you will find many people who were bold enough to ask themselves these questions and were ready to accept who they really are. The results are delightfully creative Montessori businesses that create materials or support parents; bold collaborations and networks that make Montessori accessible; mission driven Montessori associations that advocate for children, teachers, and parents; and a variety of blogs that invigorate readers with thoughtful debates and deep discussions. I encourage you to give yourself the same freedom that you give your students in class to be true to your inner guide. Accept who you are today and live consistently.

Don’t Seek to Inspire Others

Another very important thing I had to learn was to not try to inspire others. That was hard. I wanted to inspire others just as I had been inspired, but I found more often than not this desire stemmed from my ego. It also came from an unwillingness to discipline myself to the point that being inspired was as automatic as breathing.

If I am truly honest, the people who have inspired me the most in life are not those who worked hard to inspire me. Actually, such people have often driven me away with a list of things I needed to do or be. The most inspiring people have always been doing what they do best — just being themselves and true to their inner guide. That quiet confidence to develop and lead the life that is in them inspires me to do the same. So, I’ve stopped trying to inspire children and adults. Instead, I continue to develop the life that is in me, this person that I am becoming as I focus on what really matters. I find that my sphere of influence may be smaller, but my impact has been greater — at least according to what those around me have said.

Practical Steps for Inspired Living

I would like to suggest a few practical steps for inspired living. These have really helped me to maintain my passion for life and work in general.

  1. It’s really important to observe yourself at work in a similar way to how you observe your students. It goes back to the point about accepting that your feelings and desires may have changed. By regularly observing yourself, you’ll be able to anticipate your needs better as well as come up with creative solutions for going about your life and work.
  2. Seeing is believing and looking at high performing Montessori classrooms will inspire you in so many ways. If you can’t physically visit one, I highly recommend watching the videos on www.MontessoriGuide.org. These are high performing classrooms that may give you ideas for how to work more effectively.
  3. This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways: you must surround yourself with inspired passionate people. Their energy will feed yours and your energy will feed theirs. The most exciting collaborations are coming from like minded Montessorians finding each other and sharing their collective passion.
  4. There are so many ways to be a Montessorian and not all of them are directly in the classroom or related to managing schools. Please explore them. There are so many Montessori needs that I am sure you can help with from where you are with what you have. It could be advising parents, blogging, making Montessori materials or clothing, starting a Pinterest page or a Facebook group for a particular Montessori issue. Really, the possibilities are endless. For the sake of yourself, children the world over, and others, please begin to explore the many Montessori outlets and see if one of them is for you.
  5. Get involved with the larger Montessori cummunity in small ways. Don’t think that you have to be able to do big things to be involved. Attend sessions, offer your services and you will find inspiration is the easiest thing to maintain.
  6. Out of all the practical things I have suggested here, this is the most important: help other Montessorians. You may be struggling, doubting, or whatever. But take some time to look outside of yourself and your situation and seek to help and support other Montessorians the way that you would like to be helped. We all share common troubles and difficulties and would benefit from your concern and help. By taking time to find ways to support us, you will inadvertently be supporting yourself. In the end, you will always be the greatest source of your own inspiration. You will set and achieve your own highest goals. You will become confident in your work through your own efforts. You will set the Montessori standard for your community. Knowing this frees you to see that you are more than enough to help others no matter what your going through. You and the inspiration you carry are needed. So help us and rest assured that we will help you.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for all that you do!