So you’ve grasped the theory, submitted hundreds of essays and now it’s time to begin your practical placement. Maybe you already work in an early years setting, or like me, children are something you have only read about in books.
It is the first day of school all over again. Nervously clutching your school bag and packed lunch, you wait for the teachers to tell you what to do.
You are brought into the classroom, where the children are asked to say hello to the new teacher.
You regard them warily. They regard you right back. Don’t look them in the eye, you think, or maybe that’s cats.
They are small, and cute with pigtails and dinosaur t-shirts. Kneeling down you smile hello and introduce yourself.
They sense weakness. They clamber over you and plant a flag on the top of your head.
The teachers take pity on you, or perhaps try to prevent your ineptitude from undoing years of hard work, and effortlessly dispatch them back to their work mats.
It’s a steep learning curve, wrangling the little ones. Learning how to gently prevent them from hanging off your leg and encourage them back to their cycles of activity.
Soon enough, the novelty of a new ‘teacher’ wears off and the calm, ordered Montessori classroom resumes.
It does get easier, though the children will continue to surprise you everyday. And astonish, baffle and outwit you too.
With the benefit of hindsight, here are twenty things that can help the first days go smoothly:
- Observe, observe, observe, and stay out of the way. This applies to both the teachers and the children.
- Locate your key points of contact. Meet with your mentor, the safeguarding officer, the first aid lead.
- Find out what to do in the event of an emergency. Learn who is the first aid lead, where the fire alarms are stationed, emergency exits, fire drill procedure, first aid kits, and epi-pens.
- Learn the names of all the staff. Note who is in charge each day, is there a rota of responsibilities, which days different staff work at the setting. Be friendly and offer to assist them however they would like. Bring in biscuits and offer to make the tea.
- Introduce yourself to the children. Be warm and friendly. Explain you are a new teacher and how excited you are to be in their classroom and to meet them all. Ask if they have any questions for you. You may not get much back from them to begin with, but as they become accustomed to you there will be A LOT of questions.
- Learn the names of all the children as quickly as you can. Don’t try to remember them by what they are wearing, like I did (i.e. Layla is the blonde girl in the pink dress). They change their clothes. And then you have to start all over again.
- Plan your objectives for the coming days. Your objectives to start with are to learn how the setting operates. Ask your mentor to show you around, show you where all the important documents are first aid equipment are. Learn which children have allergies and special requirements.
- Get copies of the setting’s policies and procedures. Read and re-read them until you can probably recite them verbatim. Your mistakes could get you dismissed, kicked off the course, or worse endanger the children, staff and business.
- Learn the safeguarding protocol straight away. Find out who is the safeguarding officer, who is the point of contact for reports, and what/when/how to report concerns, and what to look out for.
- Observe how the teachers set boundaries and say ‘No’. Saying ‘No’ to a child is hard to begin with, and takes effort to learn how to do well. They may show they are saying no by encouraging a child onto something else. They may remind the class of the ground rules. They may ask the children to reconsider and think about what they are doing or asking. There are countless ways of saying, and showing, ‘No’ – find out which approach your setting prefers.
- Observe how the teachers calm an upset child. This will be in accordance with the policies and procedures in the setting. Some settings may distract the child with a walk or take them aside for a chat. In others, the teacher may give the child a cuddle and take them to the book corner. Learn your setting’s approach.
- Help by maintaining the favourable environment. Check the toilets to see if they need flushing (probably), if the floor needs mopping (definitely), soaps are accessible, towels are clean etc. Don’t put activities back that are left out, the teachers will likely remind the children to tidy up and will be a work-in-progress to encourage self-discipline
- Avoid interference during the work cycles. Note down your thoughts and questions, and ask for a convenient time to discuss with your mentor.
- Be careful not to walk on work mats. I found this tricky to begin with, as there are lots of them to navigate.
- Preparation of the teacher – consider what to wear. Don’t wear heels, anything tight, or anything short. You will be down on the floor, bending over, walking around all day long. Be neat and tidy, hair tied back, no jewellery which will catch.
- Write up your notes immediately after the session. There will be an overwhelming about of information and stimulation, most of which you will promptly forget. You will need it all for your weekly reflections so get it done.
- Observe which Montessori principles you can see in action. It can be quite amazing to witness a child choosing an activity from the shelf, unprompted, roll out a mat, and work away totally engrossed. Look for examples of self-discipline, non-interference, the 3 period lesson, teachers following the child.
- Leave your phone in your bag. Never take it into the classroom. Taking photos will be forbidden, unless you are granted express permission from teachers and parents.
- Analyse what you have found hardest or most surprising. I anticipated I would be very extroverted in the classroom, and I was surprised to find I was shy and self-conscious for the first few sessions.
- Role model healthy eating habits. You will be eating where they are eating – in a Montessori classroom there is no staff room or area, you’re right there with the children at all times. So don’t bring a packet of quavers and a jam sandwich for lunch to wash down with a diet coke. Show the children you are eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and then mainline sugar when you get home.
I hope you have found this helpful, and do let me know in the comments if you have any other tips that can make those first few sessions go smoothly!
Smile, be friendly, stay back, and observe.