Miss Green was a character. She achieved local fame the Halloween she arrived at school carrying a large, empty picture frame centered on her face. She was the perfect Mona Lisa. The same year it was her mission to promote observation. Miss Green cut a scarlet “O” out of felt, stitched a safety pin to the back of her letter, and gallivanted through classrooms, pinning teachers and administrators. Miss Green was loved for her spunk and for her mission.
Miss Green’s scarlet letter helped her peers remember that observation can be an exercise that pulls an adult to the edge of his seat. It can stretch the observer’s eyes wide open to a new vision for a child or for a community. To observe is to be determined, optimistic and faithful. The observer must garner her resources, resist the urge to move or talk or help. She accepts conflict, discomfort and frustration, and understands that all things observed at a moment in time are also part of an ongoing process. Something wonderful will be revealed.
We know these things are true, but it is mighty hard for adults to sit still. Adult attention spans are as limited as children’s. Our best teachers and parents prefer to stay busy, act responsibly, and help. We cannot quiet our inner dialogues, nor can we free our minds of opinions, memories, goals, judgments and good ideas, especially when we are observing children we know well. When a father looks at his sulking fourteen-year-old son, he remembers his toddler acts of defiance. When a teacher examines a space she has painstakingly prepared, it is difficult for her to notice the places where her environment is not meeting the needs of her children.
The importance of observation to the work of a Montessori teacher is well documented. It is an essential component of teacher training, as necessary as practice teaching, reading, and attendance at lectures. Every Montessori teacher leaves training with an understanding that observation should be a part of her daily work with children. Teachers encourage parents to observe because we know it will help them understand their children. Through observation, parents and teachers learn how to establish expectations that are healthy and attainable.
Children can and do change in remarkable ways. Observant adults do discover ways to aid the development of every child. Challenges morph as children age. Impediments to learning that young children reveal through their disruptive behavior become less obvious. Older children are much more adept at hiding their fears and failures. People who work with adolescents scrutinize posture, expressions, tone of voice and subtle social cues. Observing well as children age requires a lifetime of rehearsal.
There are occasions when an adult observes with the hope of aiding the development of children and is surprised by joy. She rises from her chair renewed by a glimpse or a fleeting moment that offered small window into her own soul. In those rare, precious moments of insight, the observer realizes that he is engaged in a quiet uprising against the disorder and confusion that is normal in our world. Observing with a balance of intelligence and compassion allows the adult to accept failure and frustration. Hope becomes a firm foundation. The observer believes, she knows, that in very small but magnificent ways her commitment to observe is making the world a better place.
Simone Weil said that absolute, unmixed attention is a form of prayer. Weil was a Jewish mystic, a French philosopher who was radically committed to social justice. Her words endure because they transcend religious denomination, politics and profession. Music, poetry, great works of art, and the type of teaching that alters the course of human history depend upon absolute attention. Observing without interruption or distraction can redeem. Miracles sparked by observation are not always apparent, though sometimes they are, and they do continue to occur. Change may be fleeting, relief may be temporary, but observation will always transform and renew lives in a way that is much like prayer.
Maria Montessori was a physician, a Catholic and an educational reformer. Her work with disabled and impoverished children began in observation. Observation is the single thread connecting the many phases in her long career. Though they never met, Montessori and Weil’s lives and thoughts overlapped in many ways. Both women believed in the power of observation. Both women worked tirelessly for the underprivileged. Both women longed for peace.
There are adults who remember the first time they observed Montessori children at work. In ways they may not have been able to articulate, they understood that the children were inspired and engaged in activities with a passion seldom witnessed in other environments. Strong Montessori classrooms are abuzz with the purposeful, self-directed movement of children who are already firmly grounded in the respect and determination that sometimes flowers into perfect peace. Some of these adults speak of their first observations in terms usually reserved for conversion experiences. Sitting in the observer’s chair, quietly watching, we decided to alter the course of our lives.
Many of the same adults would freely admit their daily routines no longer include observation. The demands of home and family and school are too great. The burden of responsibility silences the quiet inner voice that continues to urgently whisper, “observe!” Teaching and parenting becomes a slap-dash combination of family and classroom management, and crisis intervention. Weeks or months pass before an exhausted parent or teacher stumbles into the observer’s chair.
Adults who are attracted to Montessori as parents and as educators are usually educated, knowledgeable, people who want the best for our children. Without observation, unobserved Montessori children will continue to grow; healthy children do. Parents and teachers who rarely observe will nonetheless notice improvement and maturity. Without observation the quality of time and the strength of the relationships we share with children will not be a good as they might have been if we had observed more often.