Every other year there is a big Montessori conference in Lower Austria visited by teachers from all over the country. For the past three days, three of my colleagues and I have partaken. (Hence, the interruption in my . . . prolificness? prolificity? prolificacy? in this blog.) It’s a part of my continuing education, which German speakers call “Fortbildung”. I love that word. The root Bildung means “edification” or “development” or “education”. The prefix fort means “away” – or in more Shakespearean terms, “Begone!”
And there is something utterly true about that term if the education you are continuing happens to be in the realm of Montessori. Most of us spend 12 years in the established school system learning the norms. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to “unlearn” them. Looking for alternatives. Looking for solutions to our various discontents. Trying to rediscover our unstandardized selves. Trying to reignite the fires that fueled our preschool imaginations, the ones sometimes extinguished prematurely and sometimes violently by an over-regulated and over-worked, frustrated, dissatisfied, distracted, oblivious, impatient, or simply unsuited-for-the-profession teacher.
It occurred to me today that all this, THIS, is what Montessori is about. Whether the actual practitioners can really achieve this non-educational edification is another matter. I left the conference with mixed feelings.
The lectures were impressive. A woman with Asperger’s Syndrome gave an amazing talk. Hypersensitive to sensory overload and out of sync with those around her, she had somehow managed to survive her school years and successfully go on to college and Medical School. She became a doctor. She went on to specialize in Autism, gain respect, write books, and get invited to speak at conferences. In ours, she was admired universally as much for the self-deprecating stories she told as for her unique insights. She admitted in the speech that she had no friends and would like to have one. When she was done, and after listening to the sustained two minute long applause, she thanked us humbly, adding: “But . . . my! . . . you are all very loud!”
On Day Three, a Montessori Guru and object of much lavish idolatry related his evolution as a teacher. His talk was charming and full of truths. His love for the profession was clear and he encouraged us all to emulate it. What he didn’t seem to realize, however, is that his effervescent personality was something that maybe 5% of the crowd shared. He was a star teacher. The rest of us sloths could dream of his success, but without the larger-than-life personality to make it happen, we were not likely to achieve it. We would have to find our own ways, authentic for each individual us.
Day Two was Workshop Day. I had chosen one called “You are the toolbox – children are teachers.” Why did I choose it? 50% because it was the only workshop with an English title. 50% because the deadline was looming ominously, I didn’t understand any of the workshop descriptions, and I figured “whatever”. Click! Registration accepted. Workshop #11 it is.
Five minutes into the 7-hour workshop, I decided that I had struck gold, however unscientific my choice had been. The two teachers were immediately likeable. They put us at ease. We laughed a lot. And then we got into it.
It was all about breathing. And becoming aware of our own physical well-being. Finding our centers. Being in-the-moment. And looking into our own inner selves to discover the answer to the questions: “Where am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What do I want?” These were questions I had dealt with over 40 years earlier. It was going to be a long day.
Then we introduced ourselves, one after another, around the circle. Of the 20 people there, 17 of them were the same person with a different hairstyle – a frustrated Kindergarten teacher, working within the established school system and looking for help. She wanted to find herself again because she realized that her own well-being was essential to being happy and effective in life and work (one or both of which was not satisfactory at the moment.)
At some point, it was my turn. I confessed to NOT being stressed out or frustrated – to loving my job. This made me immediately obnoxious. My accent, however, worked its usual charm. From that moment on, the workshop became bilingual.
We breathed. In and out. We defined friendship. We breathed again. We lay down and breathed again. Lunch time came. In the afternoon, we did yoga. Lots and lots of yoga. The cameras showed up – so somewhere out there in YouTube World is a video of me leading the group through a yoga routine in dubious English. If you watch closely, you will see the moment when I almost wrenched my shoulder out of the socket in the process. I felt fairly blasé about this at the time – all the breathing and stretching was taking its toll.
At the end of the workshop, we all had to choose one or two picture postcards from the large number laid out on the floor. Then one-by-one we showed our selections to the others and said why we chose them. We saw a lot of butterflies and rainbows. Some of the participants cried. I chose two that reminded me of the scenery I had seen in the past two days and explained my choice by saying I was happy to be where I was at the moment. The saying on one of them was “When you lose your way, you get to know it.” I interpreted it to mean that always concentrating on the goal or finish line will make you to forget to look left and right – to see where you are and what is actually around you. Then I wondered with a little shudder at how uncharacteristically esoteric I was becoming.
But I WAS happy to be there. The conference was located in the Wachau – a particularly beautiful stretch of the Danube dotted with medieval villages and vineyards. I was not only relaxed from all the breathing and stretching, I was in travel-mode – i.e. just leaning back and letting things happen. Taking in the surroundings. Not thinking about all the unfinished work and details I would have to take care of when I got back home.
My peaceful state of mind was doubly obnoxious when I met up with my three colleagues after the workshops. They were all exhausted, restless and slightly fed up. They had also spent the day with variations of the same frustrated Kindergarten or elementary school teacher, listening to revelations they had personally come to at least 10 years earlier. In their cases, though, the other participants had left with the feeling “That all sounds great, but unfortunately it won’t work in MY situation. I’m handcuffed to the rules of the system.” I tried to infuse my colleagues with my newfound inner peace and equilibrium. I suggested we all breathe and do some yoga. They opted for beer and a good dinner instead. After comparing notes on our workshop experiences, we all agreed on one point: Thank goodness we don’t work in the established system. We’ve got it so good in our little school – and with one another.
Some impressions of the Wachau: