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A New Type of Teacher

Thoughts & Reflections

We’ve had as many laughs, as we have had serious conversations, on just how precisely Montessori describes the ideal teacher, the ones who will herald the movement in education that she so passionately, wholeheartedly envisioned as a step towards a new world. Montessori has a wonderful way of characterizing this new type of teacher.

“ The teacher, as part of the environment, must herself be attractive, preferably young and beautiful, charmingly dressed, scented with cleanliness, happy and graciously dignified. ”

If your reaction is anything like ours, it’s one of joy and irony. “Well, isn’t that a lovely thought!” In a more ponderous tone, we wonder, “What could Montessori have really meant by this comment?” Or, further still, “How silly.” Then, more hurriedly, many of us recount our own personal experiences. Or, some might say, misfortunes. “Mrs. X was anything but any of these characteristics.” There is, perhaps, a stereotype of old teachers in worn sweaters, brandishing a ruler, rather than a kind word.

While on the surface there’s definitely a playful nature to these comments, the undertone is also one of seriousness – and, hope. Essentially, Montessori is creating a new set of expectations for a new type of teacher. She sees herself as helping humanity place itself on a new course. If we can get this component just right, and empower new ambassadors of childhood, it will help everything else naturally fall into place. To kindle this transformation in education, Montessori relays that we need to rethink the role of the teacher and, as a consequence, re-evaluate what it means to learn. As she writes:

“ An ordinary teacher cannot be transformed into a Montessori teacher, but must be created anew, having rid herself of pedagogical prejudices. ”

It’s not that ‘ordinary teachers’ are physically incapable of becoming a Montessori teacher. Rather, they don’t have the necessary viewpoint, or what Montessori would call “spirit”, by which to help children learn. For Montessori, if teachers are to meet children where she believes they need to be met, they need to shed certain, standard, widely accepted cultural assumptions about early childhood education. More concisely, they need to adopt an open mind, subject themselves to the power of transformation, and start fresh. No small task, to be sure, as most of us can attest.

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There’s a really beautiful passage in The Child and the Family, in which Montessori describes a similar experience. Having travelled all over the world, witnessing so many different, customary birthing practices, Montessori notes, rather candidly, that none of them were adequate. Why? Because, they had not sufficiently adopted the attitude by which children should be accepted into the world. As she writes,

“ What is really lacking is the consciousness necessary to receive the newborn human in a worthwhile manner. ”

Montessori goes on to elaborate this “consciousness” towards education, which she pointedly identifies as not being fully incorporated by the traditionalists. While “ordinary teachers” perceive the Montessori method as too passive because it ‘requires little of the teacher’, the Montessori Method is itself, she endorses, active, because the teacher constantly works towards the preparation of the environment.


In traditional classrooms, the teacher is the main focus, or the centrifugal force from which children learn. In Montessori, the role of the teacher becomes one of guide: of helping the children learn how to educate themselves. What is more, Montessori teachers are comfortable to exist on the periphery. It’s actually the ambition. They know the strength of learning lies, not in the harnessing power of the teacher, no matter how extraordinary, but in the individual abilities of each and every student.

How exactly does this work? What, more descriptively, will be required of these new champions of the child? Montessori carefully lays out the conditions for a new type of teacher. In a chapter entitled, “What a Montessori Teacher Needs To Be”, she offers three ‘stages of development’, which we will briefly discuss in what follows. At this point, it’s important to remember that the single thread that unites all of these traits is a shared desire to help foster independence.

On the one hand, the environment must be methodically, intentionally prepared. It’s important to keep in mind that the teacher is considered an integral part of the environment itself, not separate, or somehow more essential or more present. On the other hand, this new type of teacher must slowly, patiently, humbly recede from view. Only when it is required, will the teacher emerge from the environment.

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1. Custodian of the Environment
In what may be the greatest contribution to the characteristics of a new type of teacher, Montessori stresses that her vision is one in which the individual will concentrate on the care of the environment.

When “ordinary teachers” see a problem with a student, and proceed to “work on that student” to try to make changes, Montessori goes so far as to say the exact opposite. Namely, and not in the spirit of a contrarian, she claims that it is from the environment that a “cure will come”. The tonic exists already in the child. It only needs to be activated by different surrounds. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with Johnny?”, Montessori inquires, “What is it about the environment that is causing these behaviors to manifest?”

What Montessori enacts, then, is a complete shift in mindset. Education is no longer about the teacher, and their perceptions of the student, let alone the implementation of a pre-set curriculum. Instead, education is about the preparation of the environment, and the role the “custodian” plays in that individualized learning process. As you can see, the rules of the game, so to speak, have completely changed.

For Montessori, a new type of teacher must serve the interests of the child, while working to enhance the conditions in which they can explore their surrounds. At the end of the day, it’s all about how we meet and understand the children. “The teacher who presents herself to the children should remember that they are great people, to whom she owes understanding and respect.”

2. Disorderly Children
If the aim of education is, above all else, to help children concentrate and discover their independence, as that is what is needed for exploration and meaningful, in-depth work, Montessori inspires teachers to act. Action, of course, is defined otherwise.

With her typical sense of wit and earnestness, Montessori stresses that, “the teacher needs to be seductive, and can use any device – except of course the stick – to win the children’s attention”. Here, interruption – which is always frowned upon as it disrupts concentration – is permitted, as the act of concentration has yet to commence. Rather matter-of-factly, Montessori states that at this point, ‘suggesting activities is the chief necessity’.

3. Withdraw
Once the interests of the child has been aroused, the teacher must remove herself from the situation. As you can see in the video above, the teacher presents the work, ensures that the student is immersed in the activity, and then carefully withdraws into the background. As Montessori cautions, the teacher “must be very careful not to interfere – absolutely not, in any way. As soon as concentration appears, the teacher should pay no attention, as if the child did not exist.”

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For many of us, when we close our eyes and picture a teacher, we imagine something else entirely. It’s often an individual, standing at the front of the class, the primary focus of the room, writing an equation on the chalkboard, to which we must obediently take notes. With a birds-eye view of the situation, we see ourselves, not so intently, trying to peer over the head of the student seated directly in front of us, trying to follow along. We eye the clock to see when we can leave and steal moments, when the teacher isn’t looking, to pass a note to our friend, seated three rows over to our left.

“ We must help the child to act for himself, will of himself, think for himself; this is the art of those who aspire to serve the spirit. ”

With Montessori, however, it’s a different vision for education, one in which the teacher assumes a position in relation to the environment. In reality, and this is merely our interpretation of Montessori, it has nothing to do with being “young or beautiful”, but rather, assuming an attitude of respect.

Essentially, and this is where things can seem a bit too complex, the teacher becomes a part of the environment, which is itself neat and orderly – carefully thought out and meticulous mapped. The environment works to play a role in the education of the children through the preparation of activities, expectations and the activation of a new type of teacher.

Written by:

Bobby George

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