Have you met Susan Harper?
I had the great honor of interviewing a new teacher at Maharishi School, Susan Harper. Read this blog to
get to know her and find out how she’s invigorating the Kindergarten through second grade program at our school!
“Susan, can you tell us about your background in Montessori ?”
I began working as classroom assistant in a Montessori school in 1995. My younger son was enrolled in the infant room. After a year, I was invited by the director to take my teacher training. I trained with Dr. Feland Meadows, Director of the Pan American Montessori Society. Shortly after that, I was hired to teach in an upper elementary (9-12) classroom at Athens Montessori School (AMS) in Athens, GA.
I took my Elementary training with Ceres York, Director of North Carolina Center for Montessori Teacher Education (retired). I was at AMS for 11 years. During that time, in addition to teaching, I was the administrator and a teacher trainer for MTI, Montessori Teacher Institute, working in Georgia and South Carolina.
My family then moved to Auburn, AL. I took a job at an independent school where I helped them become a Montessori school. I then worked with a group of parents to open a Montessori (farm) school in Montgomery, AL. All students spent time working with and learning from a group of urban farmers. I took a position at a small Montessori preschool back in Auburn and served there for the last 7 years as lead teacher.
My husband and I planned to move to Fairfield when he retired. I sent a letter of inquiry about whether there were any positions open at Maharishi School and here I am!
Bringing Montessori to Maharishi School
“What makes Montessori special in Kindergarten through second grade?”
Actually, it is unusual. Kindergarten is traditionally part of the Primary (preschool) program in Montessori. Dr. Montessori describes the Planes of Development in/as 3 year increments/cycles. That is why the classes are multiage groups. Each child is given the opportunity to be the novice, the worker bee, the leader. We are going to include Kindergarten with the lower elementary students this year.
The shift will take a little time and each child will find his/her place in the class. This is part of what we call the “normalization” process. The initial orientation, establishment of routine, understanding of expectations, taking on responsibility, development of self control and skillful focus and concentration. Settling in and relaxing in the prepared environment created just for them and getting to work!
“For those who have never heard of Montessori, how is it different from traditional school?”
Montessori is different from traditional educational methods in many ways. Montessori focuses on the whole child and respects each child’s individuality. When they arrive that first day in the preschool class at 3 years of age they are shown how we do things. Slowly they are given more lessons and more choices. It is not a free-for-all; quite the contrary, it is a carefully designed environment that is stocked with real life objects and tasks that encourage the child to follow their natural instincts to prepare themselves for life, to become independent, to rely on themselves and to be self sufficient.
The lessons for the 3-6 year old are designed to prepare the child for the work ahead in math and written language. For example each movement of a table-scrubbing lesson, is preparing that 3 year old for writing, moving from left to right, top to bottom. The scrubbing motion is strengthening the muscles needed to hold and wield a pencil. And then there is “freedom” of movement. Children need to move, just as they need to rest. Dr. Montessori observed that children are not meant to sit in a desk all day, especially if that desk does not fit the child’s body.
The 6-9 year old group that I will be working with is moving into the next plane of development. These students are ready to learn! They want to know everything and they demand justice and fairness.
The Elementary curriculum is research driven. This is the best employment for this age child. They learn and want to share what they know. They are very social. For the next 5-6 years they will be internalizing a great deal of information, developing and following interests, and growing. These are the years of loose teeth, leaner, rangier bodies, rapid growth spurts.
There are no letter grades in the Montessori classroom. Children work at their own pace and personal level. Work is evaluated by both the teacher and the student. Dues dates are given to help the student develop good time management and organizational skills that will prepare the student for real-life expectations and experiences. There is little homework in the Montessori classroom. Students ideally have intensive, uninterrupted work cycles where they are able to focus and complete more than adequate amounts of work.
The students govern themselves for the most part. Teachers facilitate group meetings where they can sort out issues, problems, or develop plans for a future event or project. Students learn to be an active and respectful community member, taking responsibility for their words, actions and deeds.
There is freedom in the classroom. With freedom comes responsibility. If a student is having difficulty making good choices or is overly distracted, a teacher might make suggestions to assist that student in getting back on track. This is generally enough to help a child redirect his/her focus and get back to purposeful work.
“I’ve noticed that the afternoon teachings are Montessori and not the mornings. Why is Montessori not incorporated into the morning structure of reading writing and phonics?”
Maharishi School has been using The Lucy Calkins phonics, reading and writing program for the last few years and have found it very successful. I have not trained to use this program (yet) and will be using traditional Montessori materials for phonics, reading and writing with the Kindergarteners. The Preschool will continue to use traditional materials as well. In fact, this year cursive writing will be introduced in the preschool and I will be doing cursive with K-1 students too!
Goals for teaching this year
“What are some goals you have for this year as well as in the long term for teaching Montessori at Maharishi School?”
Covid-19 has changed a lot of our plans. I am flexible. That is part of being a Montessori teacher. Rather than be a grumpy rock in the stream fighting the water that will flow regardless of what I do, I go with the flow. My goal this year is to be a stable presence in the classroom for my students. I want to do my job, which is facilitating student learning, encouraging independence and self control, inspiring students, opening “doors and windows,” honing skills, and encouraging exploration. My goal is to make our classroom a place where we all want to be: peaceful, exciting, studious and playful.
My long term goals are to expand the program over time to include the entire Elementary and perhaps Middle School one day.
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