How to Choose a Montessori School

A Montessori classroom complete with adult observation chair

A Montessori classroom complete with adult observation chair

So it is time to pick your child’s first school, but how do you sift through all of the available choices? How do you know which Montessori schools in your area are quality and which are not?

Many parents are not aware that there is no official governing body, patent or copyright ensuring the legitimacy of Montessori schools in the United States. Maria Montessori was a great visionary. But while Dr. Montessori did establish a teacher training program, she did not establish a way that would ensure that when a school has the word ‘Montessori’ in their title, a certain standard or credibility is upheld. You may find in your area some ‘Montessori inspired’ schools that may not follow the Montessori curriculum in the way Dr. Montessori intended, and other Montessori schools that do hire credentialed teachers and follow the pedagogy. Some child care providers know they can charge more money or increase enrollment if they say their school ‘incorporates Montessori’ or ‘is Montessori inspired’, because Montessori is often associated with a valuable, high quality education (and rightly so). But the result is watered down Montessori schools that can mislead parents and sell families short on the true benefits of Montessori.  It's like buying "Olive oil inspired oil"  that is actually 90% canola oil and 10% olive oil.  Why would you want to pay the same price for something that is an inferior product?  You would not expect to gain the same health benefits from a diluted product and a diluted Montessori program would also not contain the same benefits for your child.  Some of these childcare providers are well-meaning and may have a genuine interest in the philosophy, but without the accredited teacher training, your child will not have a real, authentic Montessori experience and the Montessori Method will not be implemented the same way. So what do you look for as a parent and how do you know if the school you are checking out is the real thing?  As a trained Montessori professional, I am here to give you the inside scoop on how to pick the best Montessori school for your family.

The most important question to ask a potential school is if your child’s teacher is trained in Montessori and what that Montessori teaching credential is. You can then do a search on that teaching credential if you want to learn more about their qualifications. The reasons this is so important is not all Montessori schools are able to find credentialed Montessori teachers to lead each classroom. Montessori teachers can be a lot harder to come by:  Every year, there are more job openings for Montessori teachers than there are graduates from Montessori programs. But any authentic Montessori program insist on at the very least having the head teacher of each classroom being Montessori trained. The two largest teacher training programs in the United States are Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and The American Montessori Society (AMS). Both produce excellent teachers, and if your child’s teacher received either of these trainings, that is a big first step in ensuring your child will have a great Montessori experience. There are also many online credentialing programs that teachers use to learn the Montessori method. . But in general, make sure your child’s teachers have attended a MACTE accredited program, which is an international standard and accrediting body for Montessori education.

the hundred board

AMI and AMS both offer Montessori schools the opportunity to become an affiliate of their organization and become accredited. You can check these organization’s websites to see if your child’s potential school is affiliated and what standards they had to meet to do so. Personally, I have worked at both affiliated schools and unaffiliated, and have considered affiliation for my own school. My conclusion is that these affiliations are often costly and can be unattainable for smaller schools, so not all great schools out there are affiliated. 

While credentialed teachers are often the best indicator of an authentic Montessori program, I also want to mention that the character of the person teaching your children can sometimes far outweigh what credentials they may have or what prestige the school may have. I have known many WONDERFUL teachers who are not Montessori trained at all, and they are great teachers because of who they are as a person. Be discerning and trust your instinct. See if you will feel comfortable communicating sometimes difficult messages with the person who will be your child’s teacher. People are the ones that make the school, not the facility perks or the fact that they have a Spanish program, so meet your child’s potential teachers and trust that first.

Your next questions to this potential school should involve finding out about staff retention. How long have the teachers been there for? Is there a lot of staff turnover? You want to make sure the staff is happy and supported, and committed to staying with the school- after all, nothing upsets a class more than a teacher leaving mid- school year.

So what is the best way to really tell if that school you have your eye on is the one? Make an appointment to observe! Many parents do not know about classroom observations and simply contact schools requesting a tour. When you tour a school, think of it as being walked through a carefully crafted sales pitch ( after all, we are all trying to run a business here! ). During a tour, you are interfacing with an adult (usually the head of school) and although you may walk into the classroom, you are often not in there long enough to really see what the whole picture is and whether or not the classroom is functioning well. Many directors (myself included) give tours at the calmest part of the day when not much is going on or when no children are present at all. One school I taught at only gave tours at lunch time, when all of the students were just sitting down eating, so there was not much action for parents to see. It’s not that schools are hiding something, it is just that we are trying to make tours manageable without interrupting the classroom routine.

Observation is totally different. It can be scheduled with the school in advance and allows you to be a fly on the wall in a way that does not interrupt the children’s learning. It will give you the most accurate picture to what really happens in a Montessori classroom and will allow you to evaluate things like, “Do the children seem happy and engaged?”. The best part is, good schools WANT our parents to observe! We teachers want to share Montessori with you and we want you to be amazed at how awesome Montessori can be when done right!  Observation lets you really see the flow of the classroom, level of contentment among the children, and how the teachers interact with the children.

So, here’s what you do:

Find 1 to 3 Montessori schools you are most interested in, and make appointments to go observe. Plan on your observation lasting 30-60 minutes. You will be greeted by staff when you arrive and directed to an observation chair (Montessori classrooms have observation chairs set up just for this purpose- we love observers!) Pay attention to the following as you are observing:

How the children interact with each other: There should be a good balance of children exploring work both individually and in groups of 2-3. Are the children respectful and kind in the way they address one another? Are there older children helping younger children with tasks? Are the children excited during learning?

How the adult interacts with the children: Are the teachers respectful in the way they address the children? Do they make eye contact and/or sit down on the child’s level so they can converse in a meaningful way?

The noise level: Montessori classrooms should neither be chaotic or completely silent. Some teachers may pride themselves in saying, “My classroom is so quiet you can hear a pin drop!” While that is a nice thought and does happen naturally once in a while in my own classroom because everyone is so focused, I truly believe the best Montessori classrooms have a hum to them, which rises and falls in volume, as if many worker bees are busily moving about the hive. This, in my opinion, is when the best learning is happening, and the children are most content.

The classroom itself: Take a look at the shelves and the materials on them. It should all be clean, very neat, and in good repair. There should be as few plastic trays or materials as possible. Instead, classroom activities should be made of real materials such as wood, metal, and glass.  Everything should be beautiful and inviting to the children.  There should be artwork hung at the child’s level, and little nooks for quiet solitude.

I hope you find the school that best fits your child's needs. Remember to be realistic about your driving distance, work schedule and budget. There is no point to get your child into that dream school if in a few months you will have to take them out because the long drives or financials are not working for you. There is always more than one good school, and more than one good educational philosophy, so go with what will give your family the most consistency and stability in the long-run. And don’t forget to trust your gut feelings!