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Useful Lessons of Failing, Learning and Growing Through This Tough and Beautiful Profession

Reflections and Truths from Stefanie Rubli

This is the journey of one ESL teacher in Mexico with a passion for studying language and the process of

language acquisition. Stefanie has been exploring Montessori philosophy and teaching since 2017. She has a background in art history and a bachelor's degree in education. She has found sign language to be a powerful communication tool and is fascinated by the complex nature of communication itself and the science of being resourceful.

Until a time that still feels incredibly near, I wasn’t a teacher. And I don’t say this in the cliché sense of teaching invariably being a lifelong pursuit, but in the sense that I was a bit lost in between eclectic jobs, living in Mexico City, when an unexpected opportunity to teach English in a Montessori school arose, and suddenly, I became one.

I want to share how I have failed, learnt and grown through this tough and beautiful profession. I hope that you can find this somehow useful and connect with these observations and still-in-processs conclusions.

When I started, what was asked of me was flexibility. That, I could provide. With no hard-to-break teaching habits, no expectations of systematic lessons or instructions to work with, but with a scientific spirit willing to experiment, I started my teaching journey.

The Director explained that even though Maria Montessori was deeply specific and used unique materials, interestingly enough there were no clear instructions or standards for teaching the second language in the whole of Montessori’s orthodoxy.

The coordinator showed me what other teachers did, the available materials and their new strategy, which consisted in working with an Oxford book inside the main Montessori environment. To express the significance of achieving this new program, she showed me a small classroom outside the Montessori environment, the English classroom. It was a TV room full of paper, with photocopies from a wide variety of content: reading texts, tests, paperbacks, worksheets, templates to make crafts, old flashcards, Montessori presentations in binders, VHS tapes from a 1980s teaching program, incomplete puzzles and board games, Montessori material for English native speakers, music CDs and cassettes. Everything was useful(ish) or at least not trash, but difficult to assemble or to find out how to make use of. Each year, the teachers were entirely in charge of managing how to teach the second language themselves, with no guidance or structure whatsoever.

I’m writing all of this to paint a clear picture of the conditions in which I started teaching because I think that generalities without context in such complex systems are of limited usefulness.

We had three main tenets:

  1. Always speak in English

  2. Use the children’s Oxford book according to their level of knowledge of the language.

  3. Stick as much as possible with the Montessori philosophy, and blend into the routine of the Environment.

They fixed a program that was half traditional and half Montessori (traditional in the sense of working with the Oxford book and following a program outside the Montessori planning). After three hours of Montessori lessons and a 40 minutes English session for each learner, the English teacher would have to be a bilingual facilitator for the child to be independent during the rest of their activities of the day.

The school had multiple groups, including an Infant Community group, House of Children groups, and Workshop I and II classrooms. There was a small cellar-like space designated for English teaching, with just a TV to play YouTube songs. Three English teachers shared schedules so that each student had at least three classes a week. As a teacher, I had a mix of Elementary I and Elementary II students and had to figure out how to incorporate traditional English materials into a Montessori environment.

It's worth noting that none of the staff, including guides, coordinators, and directors, spoke English. This made it difficult for both teachers and students to communicate in the multilevel Montessori environment with a foreign language.

Over the course of two consecutive school years, I continued to develop my teaching structure. I worked with multiple small groups using their English books to practice grammar, assist with research projects, participate in chores, cook meals, read stories, and play games. What I noticed was that despite using the same books, each child learned in a unique way. Some preferred to learn through storytelling or art, while others enjoyed structured practice from the books. Additionally, the environment varied based on my teaching strategies and the level of freedom I had as an English teacher.

Throughout this time, I witnessed children making an effort to communicate with me in English and showing a positive attitude towards the subject. Hearing them sing songs, understand stories, and participate in activities and assessments with success, I became increasingly confident that the hybrid approach we developed - blending Montessori and traditional methods - was effective. This brought me great happiness.

Then the school year 2019-2020 arrived.

Just as I was settling into my teaching role, the pandemic hit and completely changed everything. It became clear to me that education was going to take a massive hit, and I was faced with the daunting task of quickly adapting to teaching Montessori online.

Initially, we created home videos of Montessori presentations and provided follow-up work for students to complete independently. However, it was a struggle as many of the teachers had no prior experience with creating online content. We experimented with this approach for three months, using various Montessori concepts and eventually introduced weekly Zoom calls to explain things that couldn't be taught through videos.

After a suspense-filled summer, the school decided to switch to using Google Classroom for online learning. I was tasked with teaching English to two different workshops, overseeing other English teachers, and developing a structured online program. We tried various methods to keep the students engaged, including video presentations, grammar exercises, cooking challenges, reading sessions, and talent shows. We even had online movie sessions, DIY gardening, and e-mail exchanges. The goal was to keep the students engaged in learning despite the unprecedented circumstances.

Although not all students responded equally to the online teaching methods, some showed great progress and demonstrated that they could accomplish amazing things on their own with a little encouragement. It was challenging to assess student progress due to varying factors such as limited internet access, lack of participation, and inconsistent attention. However, the focus was on encouraging independent learning and fostering engagement, which was successful for many of the students.

During those times we spent four to six hours online, every day, both teachers and learners. Technical issues were constant, and we had to be effective. We had to become even more mindful of our facial expressions, our attentiveness, our clarity and intonation while speaking, our gestures while explaining. I observed that kinesthetic learning helped to have a pleasant class with the kids. I started to use some sign language to communicate and get their attention, by spelling words with my hands or acting-out some verbs or have them do it too. I started learning through the American Sign Language Channel in Youtube, and eventually became so fascinated that it made sense for me to learn Mexican Sign Language. I felt then, and still feel now, continuing to study it, that it expands my understanding about how humans can more deeply express and understand each other using their bodies and facial expressions with care and intention. I also hope some day to be sufficiently proficient in MSL to teach deaf learners with a Montessori approach.

Eventually, after months of remote classes, the computers shut down and the school finally reopened. There was relief and excitement to be together again, but the return to normalcy would carry challenges of its own. Many children were more than willing to experience school life again, but many others had new difficulties with socializing, concentrating and dealing with frustration. A soft hand was needed, we had all gone through varying amounts of trauma.

Having gone through all of this I come back again and again to some fundamental questions:

  • How to tackle the dramatic range of English levels that you are bound to find in each classroom?

  • How to prepare a rich, attractive resourceful multigrade bilingual environment?

  • Which strategy shall the teacher use: a bilingual assistant? A bilingual guide to give presentations and have all the environment’s material in both languages?

  • Whether to use a grammar book and have the entire group working together at some part of the day to practice?

  • How to work as a traditional language teacher immersed in the Montessori environment and work with small groups?

  • Can we work with the second language with a Montessori approach in a standardized way to help the teachers have some guidance?

I’m sorry to have more questions than answers. But I reckon they have not been asked enough.

After a while, I joined another Montessori school with the excitement of finding a new perspective on language teaching in a Montessori environment. I realized soon enough that they were trying to figure it out too. Again with no specific method, system or proposal, it all relies on the possibilities and imagination of the teacher.

I am still to this day experimenting, adapting, and trying to fathom a Montessorian second language teaching strategy, including sign language, technology and cosmic education.

So, with an awareness of how much this is still a work in progress, I would like to share what I’ve found to be true:

  • Be part of the environment, even if that means there are three adults in the classroom. Being the trustworthy adult allows the teacher to observe and understand the learner’s needs. Having an English class happening in an isolated space and in a particular schedule goes in against that principle. I feel that having an active bilingual element available that blends into the environment’s dynamic is important for kids to acquire language and get used to using it daily.

  • Embracing the fact that the second language is also a part of cosmic education is key. I observed that being aligned with the guide’s planning and complementing it is very effective, for example when I integrated the Great Stories to my lessons. Connect with the guide’s needs and the kid’s interests.

  • The grammar book can be a rich and useful tool. It allows students to be mindful with their own process of learning a new language. Having an attractive and structured input where they read, identify and write, grant the kids familiarity with new concepts, materials and ways of learning. Understanding and analyzing grammar is something they are used to do with their Language Montessori Material, so using and enjoying a grammar book is within their experience. It also allows the school to have a guide and a structured reference for teachers to work with.

  • Building a standardized Montessori-like material for the second language teaching is proven to be difficult to ensemble because language is part of culture. So, the English level of the community and the relation plasticity, the use of language vary according to the cultural connection the community has with language. In Mexico City, we have a large community of Americans coming for short periods of time, especially in the most globalized parts of the city. The kids experience vocabulary while socializing, and it feels more relevant to learn grammar and vocabulary, to interact with a foreign and welcome them. In Mexico speaking English is a matter of social class.

  • Boost interest in reading. Having enough new, varied content promotes knowledge, sensibility to art, voluntary projects etc. Honing your own skills as a storyteller also furthers this point.

  • Permit and promote the use of the computer for research. It enables the learners to self regulate, be aware of the breadth of the Internet and how cautious they should be. Let them create knowledge using the technological tools they know and love to use (all, of course, with supervision).

  • In my particular case, because of my personal interest on inclusion and kinesthetic personality, sign language has been useful. Not only for teaching spelling, phonics, developing non-verbal communication, but also to raise awareness on compassion, empathy and community. As Maria Montessori said, educate for peace.

  • Become a source of mindfulness. Meditation and socio-emotional intelligence dynamics complement the Montessori pillars of self-reliance, self-knowledge and self-care.

  • Be fun, innovative and help children create memorable and meaningful moments through their own work and effort. I consider the emotional bond that we build with language to be what encourages us to appropriate it. If we relate using another language with insecurity, fear or any other negative emotions, that language will never be part of our life. The guide should enhance situations where the learner experiences success and fun by using language.

I feel grateful for the chance to share this. I know my experiences come from a particular time and place, but I believe that the answers can only arise from reflection, communication and learning from each other. So I end this text hoping something will resonate with you, dear fellow teacher, and also awaiting the opportunity of learning from you.

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