How to choose a Montessori school
January 7, 2011 11:29 AM   Subscribe

What should I look for, and what questions should I ask, when touring a Montessori school?

I am thinking of sending my daughter, who will be 4, to one of the area Montessori schools next fall, which means I should start making visits soon. I've heard that Montessori schools can vary widely in how they practice the philosophy, and I have some anecdotes from local parents about specific schools, but not much of a picture of what might make one school more appealing than another. I'm attracted to Montessori for the relative autonomy students can have and the mixed-age classrooms, as well as the more pragmatic reason that Montessori is the only public school alternative here (and is an option within the school system as well), and that the Montessori schools are the only ones with five-morning preschools, which I think my little extravert would enjoy.

Experienced Montessori parents: what kinds of questions should I ask, and what should I look for on tours, that are specific to Montessori schools? Please educate me.
posted by not that girl to Education (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
WeeThumbscrew is a Montessori kid. I'd probably focus pretty heavily on classroom dynamics... "What if one particular kid is pretty demanding?" "What if my kid is bored/struggling?", etc. A lot of Montessori schools use heterogeneous groupings, which means that it can sometimes be a bit of a struggle for the teacher to make sure that EVERY kid is getting attention, learning well, etc.

Also: make sure that they have pretty concrete learning objectives. "Montessori" shouldn't mean "gol-danged Communist hippie free-for-all"... while lesson plans may be dissimilar from other schools', there should still be a definite list of STUFF Lil' Not-That-Girl can expect to learn.

Ask to see the various kinds of "work" the kids will do. Provides an interesting window into the classroom experience. And little kids "working" never ceases to be adorable.

Spend some time at parent drop-off/pick-up times. They're when schools tend to be MOST disorganized/chaotic. If things are going relatively well during the 9 AM/5 PM rush, that's a pretty good sign... this goes for any preschool, pretty much! Also, you'll get to see how other parents interact with your kid's potential teacher, which is helpful.
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:46 AM on January 7, 2011

Not a parent, but a former teacher. A few things to look for/ask:

1) How many of the teachers have Montessori certificates? That is, how many were formally trained themselves in Montessori?

2) Look at the equipment in the classroom, and make sure it's clean/organized/complete. A fully-stocked classroom can be very expensive, but you want to make sure the basic materials are there. You can find online catalogs that have lists, here's one.

3) Find out what the school offers by way of educating/coaching for parents. Parental involvement at home is a big part of making the Montessori experience whole, so find out what resources are available to you.
posted by Gorgik at 11:49 AM on January 7, 2011

This is going to sound odd, but make sure the philosophy of the school is in tune with your personal philosophy. We have friends in another state who pulled their son out of a very well-regarded Montessori school when the teachers were less than supportive of the child's uncle's deployment to Iraq. Maria Montessori was deeply tied to the pacifist movement, and it is reflected in their philosophy in sometimes odd ways. My friends have since enrolled their son in a different Montessori school which seems to be much more supportive of the fact that they have a member of the family who is in the military.

I'll also say that when I was searching for pre-schools this fall we were basically told by (yet a third) M-school that our family was not "a good fit" for Montessori because we are historic reenactors and so sword-fighting (as a sport) is part of our family life.
posted by anastasiav at 12:28 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a Montessori kid nor is my son, however, some preschools do have Montessori-like learning/style without being hard core Montessori.

For example my son's daycare (he's 2) focuses on indepedence, confidence, manners, education (he can say the entire alphabet), concepts, exercise/mobility, sharing, art, music/singing, self expression, etc. And I like that. Other daycare/preschools were nothing but free for alls. They also believe in no preserative foods (one of the places I visited were feeding the kids marshmellows and McDonalds--so not cool for me).

If you're into Montessori, great. But I would still look into other areas too. You never know if you can get a good blended school with philosophies you like--a little bit of everything.

Good luck and sorry I'm not ultra helpful.
posted by stormpooper at 1:12 PM on January 7, 2011

I'd also make sure that it's a fit for your kid. My own ADD son was deeply frustrated during the "try-out" playdate, zillions of years ago. Getting out one toy or object, putting it on the mat, and then having to put it back before he could go on to another activity was painful for him, and as a serious multi-tasker myself, I sympathized. I sure couldn't have done that--what if I wanted to play with both toys?
And while this might not be a real dealbreaker, I'd ask about what schools the kids go on to, after the Montessori preschool.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:44 PM on January 7, 2011

I work at a Montessori school. The first thing you want to make sure is that the school is certified by the American Montessori Society. The name "Montessori" is not copyrighted, so anyone can call themselves a Montessori school. Seconding Gorgik as well - make sure there's at least one certified teacher in the classroom. AMS certifies training programs and teachers in addition to certifying schoools.

Hopefully there should be opportunities for you to observe classrooms (there may be more than one primary classroom), as well as a chance for your daughter to visit. There will probably be two teachers. One will likely be more of a lead teacher, giving lessons. The other will be the "tonekeeper", redirecting children who need help choosing a work, and generally keeping kids on task. Are children (mostly) happy and busy? Do the majority of children seem to be getting a rug, choosing a work, doing it independently, and cleaning everything up? When children need help or have a question, do they also ask older/more experienced children in the class, or does everyone go to the teacher? For those getting a lesson from a teacher, are they focused on the lesson or appropriately redirected when their attention strays? How do the children interact with the teachers and each other? How do the teachers interact with the children and each other? Is there a sense of teamwork among the teachers? If children need to be redirected (shouting, not working, hitting other children, not listening, etc.) how do the teachers handle this? Are the teachers crouching down and addressing the child at their level?

The environment should be neat, with work on shelves that are an appropriate height for 3-6 year olds. The tables and chairs should be sized for the children as well. Especially watch the snack area - the children will likely be coming 1 or 2 at a time from their work, serving their own snack, eating it, cleaning up after themselves, and returning to work - all independently (i.e. without a teacher directing them to snack). This, more than anything, blew my mind the first time I observed a Montessori classroom. Nienhuis is the classic granddaddy of Montessori work sellers, and is another source for seeing what work should look like. The classroom will have a practical life section (water pouring, scooping things, wiping things, apple slicing, carrot peeling, etc.), science, language, and math. There may also be a library and a computer area.

It sounds like your daughter will be coming into the classroom for the second year of the typical 3 year cycle of a Montessori classroom. You may want to ask the teacher if they think that will present any problems. Do children nap during the day, and how is that handled? Thinking ahead to her following year, what do they do for kids in the 3rd year of the cycle/kindergarten? Do kindergarteners get pulled out for special classes, or do they stay in the classroom?

The most important thing is really how you and your daughter feel about the school. The ritziest, fanciest place may not feel right to you, and the scrappy, small, financially struggling place may seem ideal.
posted by booksherpa at 6:36 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

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