Submitted by Margaret J Kelley
A Montessori education can feel like a bit of a mystery for parents. With no testing, no grades, no classroom volunteers, no weekly emails with photos, it’s natural for parents to wonder, “What’s going on in there?” While Forest Bluff School offers opportunities for parent education with tours, book discussions, evening events, a yearly parent visit in the classroom, and an invitation to always call a teacher or member of the leadership team with questions or concerns, it is undeniable that choosing a Montessori experience for your child requires a leap of faith.
Few people are better equipped to talk about that leap of faith than Sarah Robbins. Her experience with Montessori in general and Forest Bluff in particular is multifaceted. She is, first of all, a parent of two Forest Bluff graduates, who both attended from the age of one through eighth grade. Her older daughter attended the local public high school and is now a freshman in college, and her younger daughter is currently finishing up her freshman year at that same high school.
Sarah herself taught at Forest Bluff directly after her Montessori training. She taught for five years in the 9-12, three years in the 6-9, and then moved to New York, but traveled with the Secondary Level class on many of their trips. She moved back to the area in 2006 with her husband and older daughter, and taught the Secondary Level for ten years with her husband. She is currently in her seventh year teaching in the 6-9 again. Sarah has encountered hundreds of the Forest Bluff graduates of the past 30 years, and taught most of them.
I myself am a graduate of Forest Bluff School, and while I have experienced it as a student and as a teacher (although for a much shorter period than Sarah), I have still not witnessed the transition from eighth grade to high school as a parent. While I intrinsically have faith in the process because I lived it, Sarah offers a perspective that goes beyond the student experience. She can speak about the concerns and questions of parents who are watching their children navigate this unfamiliar education. And she can bear witness to the hundreds of different students she saw make their way through the Montessori program and find fulfillment and productivity in their lives.
When I sit down with Sarah, on a dreary Saturday morning inside of a bustling coffee shop, and we discuss the premise of this interview, she immediately turns to a metaphor Dr. Montessori used to share. “It’s like when you plant a bulb,” she says. “You water it and fertilize it and wait for it to grow. And the temptation is to keep pulling the plant out to make sure the roots are growing. But every time you lift the plant out of the ground, you interfere with the growing process. You have to just let it grow.”
Dr. Montessori used to tell this story as a caution for overeager parents and teachers, who were tempted to continually check on a child’s progress—quizzing them on where they are in the process and what they know. This reassurance is relief for the adults but interrupts the child in their growth. Every time the plant is pulled out, the process is interrupted. We must have faith, trust the process, and, rather than scrutinizing the roots, watch for the blooms. That is how we know the child is growing.
What was it like to bring your daughter to Forest Bluff as a parent for the first time?
“It was great,” Sarah says. “All the things that I had been missing were there. A community is so important when you are raising your child—especially when you are doing it differently from the cultural norm.” Sarah says that she was calling Haley Tate (Young Children’s Community Teacher and current Assistant Head of School) regularly before coming back to the Midwest, and writing letters with Paula Lillard (Founder of Forest Bluff and current Head Emerita). Most of what she received from them was “perspective taking,” as she calls it. “Older people who come before us share wisdom with us—the wisdom that comes from being a part of the community where the parents are deeply committed to this way of raising children.”
Our school is small, and because of the emphasis on the continuum of a Montessori education, parents encounter each other again and again throughout the years, sharing knowledge, experience, and perspective. Sarah was on the receiving end of this wisdom for many years, and at this moment I think to myself (not for the first time) how lucky I am to be on the receiving end of her wisdom.
Not only do parents learn from each other, but in a place like Forest Bluff, she says, the parents and teachers work collaboratively together over the course of three years to support the children. They ask again and again, “How can we help this child who is a part of both of our lives?” Sarah shared how grateful she is that her daughters had teachers who were so positive about them. “They saw my children in a different way. They helped me to reframe my struggles with them.” These gifts allowed her to continue to see the best in her daughters and support them in their development.
Did you ever have any doubts about a Montessori education?
“Yes,” she answers, right away (in case anyone thinks that Montessori teachers don’t have their own concerns). “There were times during their experience when I had natural doubts about whether it was working.” There were times she worried when she couldn’t see academic abilities improving. There were times she worried about what they were accomplishing and if they were making enough progress. Just like the analogy with the plant that Sarah shared at the beginning of our conversation, it is clear that she, too, was tempted to pull them up by their roots to make sure they were growing. Faith is not always a constant. Trust must be earned and re-earned, through conversation and reflection. “In the end, I kept them at Forest Bluff because, no matter what I was worried about, I knew it was worth it.”
How did you decide that staying at Forest Bluff was worth it?
“By the time I had any questions of my own, I had already seen hundreds of students graduate from Forest Bluff. I saw children who I personally taught—many of whom had their own distinctive challenges—who were doing beautifully in high school and college,” Sarah tells me. This is a place where her unique seat in the audience was able to give her faith to carry through. Seeing child after child graduate and excel in their own individual ways helped her to see all the ways that this could work out for her girls. And gave her the confidence to believe in the program.
“It’s important to keep in mind,” she says, “that whatever my daughters didn’t learn or didn’t get is an integral part of their journey too.” In the areas where they didn’t excel, they learned how to make up for that and get the support they needed. “They have an ability to talk to adults realistically. They believe that adults are there for support and to work collaboratively. They know how to get help.” Ultimately, this will serve them for the rest of their lives. No one excels in everything. Everyone needs to learn how to objectively assess their strengths and weaknesses, and seek support when they need it.
“Montessori is an education for life,” Sarah says. “It is so much more important for your child to develop the skills that you don’t see right away. Scrubbing a table isn’t really about scrubbing a table. It’s about concentration, process, hand-eye coordination. In the same way, doing fractions is only kind of about doing fractions. It’s about developing a mathematical mind, learning how to work and problem-solve, learning how to work with other people, learning how to check your answers and get help when you don’t know.” For all these reasons, Sarah stays committed to a Montessori education for her children and for the children she teaches.
What are the ways you’ve seen Montessori come to fruition for your daughters after graduating?
Sarah shares that she has seen Montessori allowing her children to blossom not just in their areas of strengths, but in their areas of challenge. “My older daughter had a struggle with one of her high school teachers. She was having trouble in the class. Her solution was to go and talk to her teacher every day. One day she came home and said, ‘Mom, I think she’s just lonely. Her ankles hurt and she doesn’t have anyone to talk to. She’s an interesting person and she’s traveled everywhere.’” While it is perhaps beside the point, Sarah shares that her daughter ended up with an A in the class.
This same child, who did not love math in high school, went to college and said, “I miss math. I’m going to take a math class. I miss using that part of my brain.” As in the previous example, while perhaps beside the point, she got an A in her college calculus class. Sarah reflects that because she hadn’t felt graded or judged during her formative years, she didn’t have ideas about what subjects she could or couldn’t do. She learned holistically as a child, and when options in college opened up for her, it was natural for her to be drawn back into that way of life.
“Both my girls are willing to try anything. Nobody ever told them they couldn’t do something,” Sarah tells me. Because of this, they both feel they can try new things. The Montessori environment gave them confidence and proactiveness. It gave them the feeling that the world was meant for exploring and learning.
How does the Montessori classroom encourage a child to explore and learn?
“When I think about my class, I know I could show them so many things, but there is tremendous value in their own exploration. We have to leave them time for it. Otherwise we get in this mentality of cramming things in. We say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could show them mammoths virtually?’ But they stop wondering the minute you give them answers. It’s not theirs anymore.”
This line gives me pause, and I take a moment to reflect on it: “They stop wondering the minute you give them answers.” So much of the Montessori approach, and the idea of an education for life, is wrapped up in this quote. How much joy, motivation, and curiosity is wrapped up in the idea of wondering? And what happens when a child is in an environment that encourages them to pursue that wondering?
In Sarah’s classroom, as in all well-functioning Montessori classrooms, children wonder. Then they devise research projects, math problems, or sentences to analyze, that satisfy their wonder. They have to organize themselves and their peers, define the edges of their project, and work until they have an answer. Then they have to assess whether their wondering has been satisfied by what they have accomplished. And what is lost when they are given answers? Or when teachers “cram things in”?
Sarah goes on: “In the classroom, I show them the lessons, but I can’t make them learn things.” Of course, it is her role to show them lessons, to guide and encourage, but, as a master teacher, she recognizes that the learning ultimately comes from within. All she does is set the stage, again and again and again, until the children themselves are ready to learn.
What can we do as parents to support our children in becoming functioning, productive adults?
“Front load your parenting,” Sarah says immediately. “The work you put in now to give your children an environment where they are independent and responsible for themselves will pay off when they are in high school and college. Teach them how to cook now. Teach them how to do laundry now. You don’t want to be teaching your child how to take care of themselves on the drive to college. Save that time for other conversations.”
Then she makes an observation about a trend she sees happening at her daughter’s high school. “At her high school, there are days when school starts later. I see some parents working themselves up asking, ‘Why didn’t we know that school had a different start time today?’ Their children are in AP Calc! And they can’t get to school on time by themselves!”
This anecdote highlights one of the main differences between a conventional education and a Montessori one. “It’s the difference between being propped up from the outside rather than built up from the inside. Traditional education scaffolds from the outside, but Montessori builds from the inside. That’s why we can’t see it.”
Sarah has brought us back to the anecdote about the plant again. The roots are growing. It’s our role as parents to keep watering, keep tending, keep parenting, with the knowledge that our children are building themselves from the inside—where we can’t see it. An AP calculus class won’t prove that they are growing up. Knowing how to get themselves to school on time will. It’s our leap of faith, believing that when the time comes for them to go to high school, college, and beyond, they will be able to care for themselves.
How do you think Montessori shapes the way children see themselves?
“Taking the leap of faith is telling your child—ultimately, it’s on you. Both of my children came into this world with the understanding that their life is their own. I am here to support them and lovingly guide them, but I want them to have a feeling of self-agency.” Sarah adds with a smile, “It all starts with the floor bed.” (The Montessori bedroom for the young child is set up with a low futon on the floor rather than a crib, so that infants can explore a child-safe room rather than waiting for their parents to get them out of bed.)
This way of supporting children affects how they view themselves and their capabilities. They see themselves as having autonomy and purpose in their own lives. Sarah goes on: “With a Montessori experience, children practice making choices and being agents of their own learning from the time they are born. They know what they like, and what they don’t like. They have an identity and agency to move forward. That doesn’t necessarily happen when you’re never given choices. When they are doing things, they are building their identity. Everything they do is purposeful in some way. It’s all about the environment. If they are sitting in front of a screen, or learning passively, they’re missing out on making choices. Those are the choices that are leading to their development. Whether they choose to spend their free time baking, knitting, building forts outside—it all becomes part of them and their competence.”
When children have this experience repeatedly through their childhood years—both at home and in the classroom, they inevitably develop the sense that they have agency and a developed identity, and that the world is there for them to engage with and learn from.
Sarah tells me, “Conventional school takes children out of their natural state by constantly keeping them from following their instincts. When that happens for years and years…” She trails off, but the implications are clear. A child who is supported in following positive natural instincts will see themselves as the agent of their lives. They understand, as Sarah said, that their life is their own.
How does Montessori shape how we see our children?
“Parents today see this world of opportunities for their children—they can be math geniuses, fluent in another language, have an Etsy account where they sell their handmade goods, or be sports stars. It’s enticing to think that you could give your child everything. Or that they could be all these things. Parents are being sold this idea of their children.” She adds, “We have to resist.”
Then she goes on: “We have to see our children for who they are—with all their strengths and challenges—and help them make the most of themselves in their world.”
This is a different way of viewing children: “We can either see them as a product or as a person. They are going to be who they are. It’s their task in this world to be just who they are. Not someone else.”
Montessori provides an environment where the goal isn’t a shiny, flashy end product. The goal isn’t a child who’s been crammed full of as much knowledge and information as the teacher can get in there. It isn’t a high school student who takes AP Calculus but can’t—or won’t—set their alarm to get to school on time.
Sarah shares another analogy with me: “I heard somewhere that the question isn’t really whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. It’s whether there’s enough water to satisfy your thirst. To me, this is how I want to view children. I don’t need to view them as more than they actually are, or less. I want to view them as enough—as they are.” The Montessori approach allows us to see children as they are—with their strengths and challenges—and encourages them to develop and make the most of their strengths, while also being honest about their challenges. We can see them realistically, and they can see themselves realistically also, which allows them to thrive, try new things, and get the help they need when the situation calls for it.
In the days that follow my talk with Sarah, it is this last analogy that stays with me. It’s easy to swing between being too hard on our children and being unrealistic about their strengths. It’s tempting to dream about all the things they could be, and then try to find ways to make them be all those things.
But what if I imagine that my children are neither half-full nor half-empty? What if I understand that they came into this world with enough? Then, my role as a parent is to provide them with a learning environment that allows them to come into the fullness of who they are. It’s a space where they follow their natural impulses to learn and explore. It’s a place where they challenge themselves and develop themselves. It’s a place where they view themselves realistically, have an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and have no fear about trying new things.
Montessori is this place. It requires a leap of faith, yes, as we are not provided regular opportunities to scrutinize our children’s roots. But what it gives is much more. It gives our children wholeness—the unique wholeness of who they are. And a sense that they are, in the end, enough.