Assistants can be a wonderful asset in a Montessori classroom. In a Primary classroom, they are almost a necessity! Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with many dedicated and caring assistants. Unfortunately, there have also been a few disappointments. I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be important things for assistants to remember in a Montessori classroom. This is by no means a complete list, but it does include things that I have discovered throughout my journey of Montessori teaching.
- Keep the environment tidy. The teacher is responsible for presenting the children with a clean and inviting environment each morning, but the assistant should help care for tidying up the environment throughout the 3-hour work cycle. The teacher is often busy giving lessons and the assistant can take the time to straighten lessons on the shelves, check materials that may need to be replenished, wipe up any unnoticed spills or crumbs, etc. In short, keep it looking nice!
- Help with behavior management. This role is huge. Again, often the teacher is busy giving lessons and if little Johnny is having a fit because he can’t do his favorite pouring lesson, please address it! If the child is being disruptive to the peaceful environment and cannot be calmed, remove him/her temporarily until he/she has regained composure. I often tell my assistant to leave the consequences up to me, if any are needed. But often, if children are removed from the environment, calmed, and redirected then they can rejoin with no further action required.
- Assist in checking work. I realize this is different for some classrooms. Some teachers prefer to check all the lessons themselves. I personally want to be the one to give an initial lesson to a student, but I do allow my assistant to give any follow-up lessons or check work, once I have made the expectation for the work very clear. Assistants need to thoroughly understand the goal of a lesson before checking it. For example, I once had an assistant who gave students mastery for laying out objects to the correct beginning letter sound…even though the students could not tell her the letter sound. After I explained that the whole purpose of the beginning sound object lesson was to teach beginning sounds and that students needed to be able to name the sound of the letters, then the problem was cleared up. Often in lessons like this, students memorize where objects go and can get the layout correct but cannot give the letter sound. So it’s very important for assistants to fully understand what mastery looks like for each lesson before being allowed to check off lessons. Once they understand this though, they can be a wonderful asset in record keeping!
- Be proactive and a self-starter. Don’t wait for a teacher to tell you what to do. If you see something that needs to be done, do it. If you notice an area that needs help, offer your help. Don’t overstep your boundaries, but do be available and willing to help with whatever is needed.
- Follow the teacher’s lead and support the expectations of the classroom. I cannot emphasize how important this is. Children will often play a teacher and assistant against each other much like they do a mom and dad! As much as we’d like to believe Montessori children are perfect angels that do no wrong, it simply isn’t true. Especially in a public school setting. If a teacher has set an expectation to have quiet voices in the classroom, don’t yell across the room at a student. You are responsible for modeling the expectations for the children. If you don’t, the teacher will be in an uphill battle all year long. My favorite personal example of this has happened several times over my career – I use a music box to signal clean up time. I model the expectation that when the music box starts, you clean up and come to the rug. I realize students may be “sooooo close” to finishing a lesson, but the music box signals clean up. They have the option the leave the work out if it’s a long work, but they still need to come to the rug. I’ve had a couple of assistants who completely ignore the music box and continue working with a child (or group of children). It doesn’t take long for the others to see that it’s not a big deal then for them to ignore the music box (and for that matter, any other expectation the teacher has set). Before you know it, clean up time goes from 5 minutes to 15 minutes. Simply put – model the expectations that the teacher has set forth, regardless of how you feel about them.
- Do not do parent conferences. I never thought this would be an issue, but it is. And even more so when you have co-workers children in your class. Assistants should not at any time be discussing a child’s behavior, progress, or other educational information with a parent without the teacher present. Most teachers are willing to have assistants sit in on parent conferences, but it is a huge no-no to take it upon yourself to talk to parents about their child without the teacher knowing.
- Be on time. Things happen. But make a habit of being 5 minutes early to your classroom. It just makes everything flow much more peacefully. And be sure to inform your lead teacher ahead of time if you will be out…don’t let her find out when the substitute walks in!
- Allow the children to make mistakes. I actually see the opposite quite often. Assistants (and some teachers) will sometimes offer too much help to a child on their work or allow the children to become very dependent on them. Developing independence is difficult. But it is necessary in a Montessori classroom. If too much assistance is given on works or too much direction is given in the child’s routine, then dependence on the adult is formed. Children also do not learn to persevere or use critical thinking skills if an adult gives them “the answer” every time they encounter a problem. An example I experienced recently was with a student who was having a bit of difficulty reading a sentence strip to match to a picture. I knew the student was capable of reading it, as he had done it several times before, and I encouraged him to sound out the words and try before asking for help. He immediately went to my assistant who read the whole sentence to him. Of course, this was only one instance. But in a classroom where this happens continuously, children will become uninterested in trying to figure things out on their own if they know an adult will give them the answers. Encourage mistakes. They are learning opportunities and help develop a growth mindset in children.
- Collaborate with the teacher and share your ideas. I once worked with an assistant who had a fabulous background in foreign cultures. She brought so much diversity and experience to our classroom! The artifacts that she shared with our class were amazing and the kids loved hearing stories of her childhood. Share those experiences and backgrounds with the teacher and the children! Maybe you have an idea for a new lesson – share it! Two heads are better than one, especially when it comes to teaching!
- Leave the cell phone in your purse. Unless you have a necessity for it to be out and visible, keep it away. Nothing is more distracting to a teacher or the children during work time than someone who is constantly checking their phone, texting, or checking Facebook. If it’s an important text or call, leave the room. Otherwise, put it away and check it at lunch. And truth be told, this is a good reminder for teachers too!
I hope some of these suggestions are helpful. Valuable assistants are so important in Montessori classrooms. Without them, I do not believe we as teachers would be able to accomplish as much as we do with their help. Comment with your thoughts!