Students, take the reins!

Imagine a classroom full of students; some on computers, some lying on the floor working with manipulatives, some on bean bags reading, others grouped around the interactive whiteboard working on math problems.  The noise level is at a low hum, and the conversations are primarily academic, with the occasional burst of laughter or inappropriate comment because c’mon, they’re kids. Where is the teacher? Sitting on a rug (or at a small group table) working with a group of students.  She’s perfectly positioned for scanning and maintaining order, but the students move autonomously around the room. They have task lists that they are to complete by the end of the week, but aside from the slotted out whole group lessons, students spend the majority of the day working towards completing their weekly goals independently and collaboratively; how they choose, when they choose, as long as they show progress during daily check-ins and have all work completed by the end of the week.  


For some educators, this sounds unrealistic or out of reach.  But what if I told you that this was my classroom and the classroom of many of my colleagues.  What if I told you that once I learned to run my classroom in such a way, I saw the greatest gains and built the strongest relationships with my students.  What if I told you that once this classroom environment was established, difficult behaviors were minimal and manageable.  


Some may ask, how?  


My classroom didn’t always run in this way.  I never really had issues with classroom management or discipline, this was definitely one of my strengths.  My biggest challenge as a teacher came to managing differentiation and cultivating autonomous students. My greatest challenge was learning how to not be exhausted by the end of the day.  


At the beginning of my career, I was very much a traditional teacher.  The students sat in clusters, our day was split by subjects, they worked on a specific subject per period, in silence, while I pulled groups.  What I found was constant interruptions (“I’m finished”, “I need help”, “I don’t know what to do!”), and students who were disruptive because they were bored or uninterested.


Slowly but surely, as my teaching style evolved, I learned to have “Free Choice” centers and flexible seating to alleviate the students’ dependency on me.  But I was still exhausted, I never found time to get to everything I would have liked, and I still felt overwhelmed managing different teaching styles and levels.  


My turning point was four years ago, (6 years into my teaching career), when I got the opportunity to relocate; the district where I was hired paid for me to get Montessori trained.  It was a public school who wanted to adopt the teaching philosophy as a way to better reach the children and better the school’s reputation.  Although it was rooted in Montessori ideology, we were still a public school and held to rigorous and stringent standards.  I had to learn how to balance and marry the Montessori belief in “following the child” while making sure to cover my public school bases.  It was not an easy task, but what resulted were students that would leave my classroom being independent and excited learners. I had students no longer loathing coming to school and instead, they were begging their parents to allow them to attend even when they were sick.  Students who not only cared about making me proud but took pride in their own progress and success.


This was not an overnight success, and the first year of combining the two schools of thought was a hot mess, and extremely stressful.  However, Year 2 was better, and Year 3 of being this new and improved teacher was by far my best year teaching, the progress that my students made was insane, and my level of stress and exhaustion was minimal.  Year 4 was another story. I went into it thinking it would be just like the year prior, but it wasn’t, and I spent months tweaking the formula until we fell into a smooth routine that worked.


So now some tips and tricks to cultivate students that work harder than the teacher.  (Remember: Highly effective teachers are teachers who facilitate!)


  • Be strict with the routines, not rules.  I was told by a mentor to not let them see you smile the first couple of weeks of school and to lay down the law.  That may work for some, but it didn’t for me. I’m a mother and very loving by nature. I treated my students like I do my children and how I would like my children treated at school.  From day one, we established routines, and I was strict with maintaining them. I explicitly taught each routine, and we had routines for everything. They earned rewards for implementing them correctly, and there was signage and reminders all over for those forgetful few.


  • Establish clear boundaries.  Through the daily meeting, open forum, and role-playing (very Montessori-esque) we discussed what was acceptable and what was not.  The children participated in providing concrete examples and created the guidelines for positive and negative consequences. I taught conflict resolution and together we developed a routine for how to handle conflict in our class (ie Peace Corner, Peace Book).  This showed them that they were respected and heard in our class, and it empowered them to uphold our class beliefs. The rules were simple: respect self, others, and the environment. And we brainstormed together on a daily basis on what each meant and looked like.


  • Controlled freedom.  I’ve heard some people refer to Montessori as kids doing whatever they want or a free for all.  But it is just the opposite. It’s about meeting each child where they are and empowering them to take control of their learning.  How does this work in a public school setting when we have a set curriculum and standards? Well, I can only speak for my classroom. I would slot out whole group lesson times for each subject, as well as small group schedules (strict with the routine, these times were non-negotiable, unless coming from admin).  Around the classroom, there was space dedicated to each subject with standards-aligned activities for the students to choose from. On Mondays, I would spend the day teaching / reviewing all the activities so the students knew exactly what to do, there were also instructions included for each. The students would also receive differentiated task lists, that had non-negotiable items that I needed them to complete, and activities that they would choose for each standard being covered.  As long as they were working on the standards being assessed at the level of required rigor, it didn’t matter if they were all working on different things. Some things were for review, while certain assignments I checked and took grades. It sounds like a lot of work, but by mid-year, planning was quick, and the activities were reused with new content, I would add/retire activities periodically and the students loved feeling like they were in the upper grades. The students looked forward to their independent work times, and that itself was an incentive for them to stay engaged during whole group lessons. The system itself was a reward, and they knew that if they were not respecting the routines or boundaries that they helped develop, their freedoms would be restricted (they loved flexible seating and their freedom to choose what to work on).  


I cannot stress enough that this was not an easy task and it took time to cultivate an environment that flowed, but once it flowed, it was magical.  As educators, we often hear, “teacher as facilitator”, but no one gives us concrete ways to make this happen. It is really just observing and researching what has worked for others and tweaking it to fit your own style and the group of students.  Focus on one thing at a time, and be okay with stepping outside your comfort zone, it will be worth it!

Brenda Matos

Former teacher turned product designer on a mission to continue the work of making a difference in the lives of children by providing teachers with the right tools.

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