Help me to be tactful!
January 17, 2013 3:22 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I visited a Montessori charter school today. We had a classroom observation as well as a tour of the entire K-8 school. After hearing such wonderful things about the school, we were ... less than impressed.

Our daughter is in her second year of preschool at a wonderful Montessori right now, so we're very familiar with it. We love the philosophy and our daughter has absolutely thrived there.

The classroom observation was BAD.

That being said, the teacher had no control over the class. Thirteen students, and one child commanding all of the teacher's attention. I asked her how they guide the students into working independently, and about choosing work, and she kept saying, "Well, it would be much easier if I had an aide." "Ideally, I would have an aide." "I could help them choose work if ..." You get the picture. But she doesn't have an aide, only classes with 15 or more students do. And in the meantime there are five out of thirteen kids doing NOTHING AT ALL. The children weren't choosing any work at all, because the teacher keeps getting distracted by one child.

So my questions for you are:

What would some constructive questions to ask her, both relative to Montessori and kindergarten,


How do I reference the complete lack of classroom cohesion without sounding like a total bitch?

FWIW, the other kindergarten classroom, that has an aide, was great. We peeked in and it was exactly what we expected. The school overall was lovely. The scary thing is that I've heard a ton of rave reviews of THIS teacher in particular.
posted by checkitnice to Education (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If it were me, I'd go back for another classroom observation. It could be that the day you went in was just a really really really bad day. Alternatively, if you liked the other classroom/teacher better, are you allowed to do teacher requests and simply request the other teacher?
posted by Sassyfras at 3:26 PM on January 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

Well, for one thing, I would handle it by going back for another observation day. My daughter's class full of older 3 year olds and four year olds is usually a pretty peaceful place with lots of teacher attention and great things going on. But every once in a while there's just a day of crazyness - I can tell when I pick her up that for some reason it just hasn't gone as smoothly as usual. So maybe this teacher was just having a bad day. Or maybe she is used to having an aide for the particularly high-demanding kids.

If the second observation isn't better, I'd talk to the director of the school about whether I could pick classes, and about the issues you saw in that room in particular. Maybe she woudl have some insight into what was going on.
posted by dpx.mfx at 3:27 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

maybe she's always had an aide? Sounds like she's used to having one. I think the first constructive question would be "are you going to have an aide this coming school year [if not why not.]"

Can you clarify what the purpose of your comments is? Are you still undecided about enrolling your kid? Would you enroll her if there is going to be an aide, and otherwise not?
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:27 PM on January 17, 2013

If you don't think you are going to have a good rapport with the teacher, look elsewhere.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:32 PM on January 17, 2013

Clarification: I did address it briefly with the principal during our tour. He did assure me that they do deal with behavioral issues, and kind of left it at that. My concern is that there was zero learning going on in the classroom, because of that child. I do believe that I can choose a teacher, or at least state a preference when enrolling.

Our other options are extremely limited, as we're just outside a small, Midwestern, university town. The other options are one public school or a Catholic school.
posted by checkitnice at 3:37 PM on January 17, 2013

My daughter is in Montessori preschool and I would definitely share your concern if I made the same observation. What was the particular behavior of that one child who was commanding all the teacher's attention? Did you ask the principal whether there were any plans to have an aide in that room? In your state, does the law allow having only one teacher and no aide for 13 kids of the age in that classroom? Personally I wouldn't worry so much about being blunt. You saw what you saw and it was not good. That's their fault, not yours, and hopefully they'll appreciate and do something with the feedback. I would call the principal to have a further talk about your concerns and see what he/she says and then take it from there. It's a bummer to have been let down like this, but hopefully it's an anomaly.
posted by Dansaman at 3:49 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my experience with Montessori, I've observed that as a general rule, girls do better than boys at keeping busy on their own. More often then not, if I see a kid wandering aimlessly around the room, it's a boy. So in my opinion, you should try to have your daughter in a classroom that has more girls and less boys because that will reduce the chance of the teacher having to spend time dealing with a child who is not well suited to the self-directed nature of a Montessori classroom. Of course generally girls are also more manageable at that age too (less rambunctious). I know these are generalizations and there are a lot of boys that do really well in Montessori, but when it comes to looking out for the best interests of your child, I think such generalizations can be helpful.
posted by Dansaman at 4:05 PM on January 17, 2013

Dansaman - I do recognize that boys need more guidance and some don't do well with the freedom that Montessori offers. When we got to the classroom, they were having circle time. The boy was sitting next to the teacher. He started to climb onto her, and to talk over her. After circle time the teacher passed out some dittos and the boy simply walked away. Every time she showed another student some attention, he had to interrupt. When she got everyone settled, she sat down with us. He immediately sat behind her on her chair and started to put his arms around her. It was odd and very inappropriate. I told her that I didn't mind if she tended to him, and as soon as she had him settled at a table and started to talk to us again, he pretended to stab some girls with a pencil in an uncomfortable area. We ended the observation early.

After piecing some other information together (just checked my email), this teacher's classroom was originally regarded as very peaceful and well-run. This boy was apparently transferred from the other classroom in the middle of the year ... and now it's chaos.
posted by checkitnice at 4:16 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I was in Montessori preschool, there were at least 2 aides/student-teachers.

Maybe ask the head of the school why your kid's teacher doesn't have an aide. I don't know how someone would singlehandedly wrangle 15 preschoolers. I remember wandering off during story/sing-a-long time into the coat closet and needing to be gently told by an aide that we can't just wander off.

This was in the early 80's.
posted by discopolo at 4:37 PM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is the principal's fault, and the teacher was telling you this. It sounds like you missed the message.

Talk to the principal and tell him how shitty and unsupportive it is to force that poor woman and the rest of the students to deal with that boy without an extra aide!! (Ok. Be nicer. But that is your message.)

Be direct. I would not send my child to this school, but I would tell him how unconscionable his decisions are regarding the teachers and students.

It's his job to make sure everyone is cared for.

It's fortunate for that teacher and these students you can highlight the principal's failings to him.

I Hope he takes it onboard.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 5:08 PM on January 17, 2013 [25 favorites]

Sometimes people (including educational staff) don't quite grasp how destructive one child can be to the entire classroom dynamic. There is every chance he was transferred because it's a smaller class, because the teacher is good, but instead of the extra 'time' (fewer children) helping him, he's expanded to need even more time.

You are in a position where you can make it extremely clear that this sort of number crunching is unacceptable. If there is a high-needs child in the class that changes the class dynamics. And you can make it clear that the teacher was doing everything possible to mitigate the issues but it was impossible because of the staffing issue.

Me? I'd play hardball; if my child is in that class and that other child does not have an aide or a helper, I will take her out. I will not knowingly put her in a class with a child who acts like that. I'm not a big fan of blaming kids but that child needs more support than he is getting, and it will impact the rest of the class.

(I came close to this at my daughter's kindy - there was one boy from playgroup who is an utter jerk to her and everyone and I was not willing to put her in the same class with him. We were able to change classes without an issue so it didn't get brought up but I would have.)
posted by geek anachronism at 5:26 PM on January 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

It seems what you're asking, really, is a question that should be directed to the principal, along the lines of "What are the school's plans for supporting teachers who may dealing with individual students who need extra support?" If you must, specify social/cognitive delays, or developmental delays. Your tone of voice can indicate you have a concern beyond this being a general question if you want to be tactful.

This is a question that you can ask any principal, and probably should. There is a very good chance that in any school system your child is entered into, that there will be children who fall somewhere on the spectrum of Autism Disorders. It's not that that classroom isn't cohesive - it's that these things often don't even begin to be assessed until children hit kindergarten and they can be tracked and monitored and then referrals and support systems accessed. And unless the school has a plan in place for it - teacher training, referrals, social workers, aides, EAs, TAs, Spec.Ed. Assistants and Support Workers - this is what happens.

My daughter had such a student in her kindergarten class. I volunteered in it at least weekly for two years, and now I work in the school, and often in kindergarten. The student's behaviour was similar to what you described. The teacher spent at least twenty minutes in each half-day taking notes to get the child the needed help- in a class of over twenty-five, parent volunteers and one TA were very necessary. Only now in 2nd grade is this student getting the full assistance needed- and we're very lucky to have two ASD classes. Many of our ASD students are being integrated into regular classes and programs, with varying degrees of success. It can be all over the place if there are no programs, training and no support, and it all depends on hundreds of factors including the weather, schedule changes and their support at home. If the teacher hasn't had training, and if there's no plan for this or any student, it can be quite a mess, as this article outlines.

I'd say have and express some sympathy for the teacher; have a care for the student and his parents who are also likely having a hard time; and ask questions that lay bare the fact that it's obvious that support is needed due to the classroom dynamics you witnessed -- because if there's one thing principals hate, it's when things look bad to the parents at schools.

This could be as simple as the fact that he's one of the youngest students (some of the kindies in the class where I'd been working recently didn't turn four until January, and aren't even toileting well let alone not hitting - and they're really needy for physical contact) or like other students I've been distracted by when there's one of me and twenty-six of them: Some are delayed; some had never been in a preschool or any programs whatsoever and had no herd mentality; some are shelter students and have experienced trauma; some have different cultural backgrounds that weren't big on structure for small children... It could be a number of things, none of which matter as long as there's a plan in place to deal with it. Teachers need parental support, and saying something would likely help. I think she was hinting as best she could that she needs outside influences to speak out about this, because teachers only have so much of a voice in schools.
posted by peagood at 5:52 PM on January 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

I really like peagood's framing. It's hard in an understaffed public school (charter schools are, after all, public schools and generally don't have appreciably more funding) setting to manage a classroom with one or more children whose behavioral issues are disruptive. Hard on the teacher, hard on the student(s) with issues, hard on the other students.

Public Montessori programs often face challenges because of a much higher teacher:student ratio, and more varying learning and behavioral needs among the student population, than private Montessori schools generally have. If the teachers and administration don't understand the resources that are needed to teach to the Montessori method, students aren't necessarily going to get the benefits of the method.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:17 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a former K-1-2 teacher, reading between the lines, I fully agree with jbenben. The teacher was put in a terrible position by the school head, is doing the best she can, and wants to make that clear to you, and she can't say "This isn't working - I hate it too, and I'm totally unsupported by the school staff." So she repeated several times to you what essentially translates to "This situation isn't ideal and isn't what you'd normally see if things were being managed correctly."

As a prospective parent, this is definitely cause for you to sit down with the President and talk about what you saw, and ask if it is normal policy not to have an aide in a self-contained class. At that age level, these days, that's very rare - it may be an interim situation. But I'd sure want to know what the full story was and let the principal know that it was impacting our thinking about whether to enroll.
posted by Miko at 7:59 PM on January 17, 2013

Maybe just observe a different school and find what works for you. Every teacher and every class is different. You're probably not going to get an entire sequence of K-8 for your daughter with amazing teachers every single year.

The best you can do is to look at what fits. If you don't think you got the full story, I agree with the others that you should probably do a second run-by but if there are still problems you have every right to simply not go to this school.

It's not your responsibility to inform the teacher of her classroom management problems. If you want to do it just to be nice, a tactful way would be to write a letter of your observations and concerns to the principal.
posted by Peregrin5 at 10:12 PM on January 17, 2013

Keep in mind that this disruptive child shouldn't shape your entire decision about your daughter's educational future. I think there's a management issue at the school that needs to be addressed, and you should push them to do that, but this kid could be gone tomorrow (family moving out of town, whatever). I would say, if your other schooling options are limited, try to work around this rather than run away from it. Heck, even talk to the kid's parents if the opportunity comes up. I was in my daughter's classroom the other day and a boy started pounding on my legs with his fists (not in a mean-spirited way, and not with the intention of hurting me, but it was inappropriate) so I told his father about it when he arrived a few minutes later - after all, I figured he would want to know. In that particular case, I felt the kid is restless and needs to be outside running around instead of in the classroom. Solutions can be found if teachers and parents all get involved.
posted by Dansaman at 6:51 AM on January 18, 2013

I just wanted to echo the comments of others that this does not sound like the teacher's fault, it sounds like she knows she needs an aide and the administration isn't giving it to her for some reason right now. While this is a problem in the short term for the days where the classroom is interrupted by the one boy's behavior, it does sound like long term the problem is solved when the teacher gets the support she knows she needs. Assuming that happens (and it would be helpful of you I think to write a letter or better yet make a phone call to the administration, to give this teacher support), the problems that you saw should not really be a long term issue for your child.

I guess I'm just saying to remember that your child is a potential member of NEXT year's class. While it is possible that this teacher will be thrown another high needs child in the middle of the year, it seems sort of unlikely. That may be a somewhat heartless and pragmatic way of writing off this year's experience, and there is the remaining issue of the administration potentially not supporting its teachers sufficiently, but I offer that up for what it's worth.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:01 AM on January 18, 2013

your child is a potential member of NEXT year's class

Depending on whether the school uses looping groups, which is common in Montessori schools. The other kid could potentially be part of the classroom of the OP's student on and off through graduation years from now. That's worth asking.

If the needy student doesn't develop more self-control, though, it wouldn't seem like the right setting for them, and a good staff will counsel that family out to another placement. I think it's fair to ask, more generally, what happens if over time a student is a bad fit for this educational approach.
posted by Miko at 7:11 AM on January 18, 2013

I've heard a similar story from a teacher's perspective -- maybe it'll be a helpful angle.

I have a friend who works as a classroom aide at a well-regarded, upscale preschool. One year they had a particular student who had what sounded like autism (not that I would really know), but in any event required almost full time attention in order to avoid disrupting the class.

Typically in that situation the parents would have to provide a full time aide, but for whatever reason it didn't happen that year. The upshot, my friend said, was that she felt bad about the education all the kids were getting -- they couldn't do the kinds of group activities they would normally do, because that one child would set off the other less-focused children, and the whole thing would fall apart. And I believe this was a classroom with multiple staff, parent volunteers, other students with aides, etc.

My conclusions are: (1) There are some rare kids who are seriously disruptive and can't really be in a classroom without a dedicated aide, at least until they can learn skills to deal with their situation. When you talk about a child with no interest in activities, excessive physical contact, interrupting and disrupting whenever other people are getting attention, this might be one of those kids. (2) Even really good schools might not know how to respond when one of those rare kids come along and the parents aren't able or willing to deal with it -- especially in preschool, before the state is required to pay for services under the IDEA.

I have no idea what's going on in your case, of course, but maybe this will be helpful background when you're trying to figure it out.
posted by jhc at 8:52 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well, I emailed the teacher with some general questions and then asked about the situation that had happened that day.

That was a week ago.

I've heard nothing from the school since our visit. Lovely. Thank you all for your input, I'm guessing the school thought we weren't a good fit.
posted by checkitnice at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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