We are at the point in the school year where Montessori educators seeking employment are doing interviews, and parents are going on school tours. In my short but blossoming Montessori career, I have had the blessing in disguise of working for an unusually high number of different programs.
The level of insight, ideas, and skills I now have as a result of working for so many programs is something that has improved my “educator toolbox” significantly. It has really helped me understand what I have gotten myself into by choosing to work in this field, the array of offerings available in our field, what I want to achieve in this career, and what I hope to give to those I serve using this career as a service vehicle.
I don’t think that working for one employer endlessly would have given me the insight I now feel very blessed and fortunate to have. I now have the undeniable confidence and certainty that I can make successful Montessori education for toddlers happen anywhere that will allow me to serve, versus the confidence that I can make it happen in one singular environment. Don’t get me wrong, job hopping isn’t glamorous and there has been a LOT of prayer that has been the undercurrent of what sometimes feel like miraculous successes in the classroom. But the insight, skills, and growth it has given me to have had so many jobs is priceless. Let’s just say if there was a legitimate job title for a “traveling Montessori educator”, just like they have for traveling nurses and traveling therapists, I would be all over it.
One of the biggest questions that crosses the mind of trained Montessori guides seeking employment, and a question parents might be asking themselves (if they know better) is “What style of program should I seek? AMI, or AMS? What does that mean for me?”.
In order to help others gain a little more insight on AMI versus AMS programs, I have included my impressions of the different kinds of programs I have worked for in the past. My hope is that you can get a loose feel for what’s out there in the Montessori world, both as a parent, or a trained educator looking for employment opportunities. It’s a pretty long read because I have worked for a lot of places. But if you have time, here it is.
Ultimately, what I’m discovering is that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether a school is AMI or AMS. It really comes down to the just right combination of factors that makes for an exceptional school and work environment. Although AMI is somewhat glorified as the creme de la creme of Montessori offerings, throw in a terrible boss and corrupt politics, and I promise you will dread the reality that comes with it. Your goal is to choose the school that has the most critical factors dialed in, for the positives to outweigh the negatives, and to avoid any factors that are toxic deal- breakers.
I will say though, that generally, AMI trained teachers (the teachers, now. Not necessary the school itself) are guaranteed to deliver high quality Montessori education whether they are employed in AMI or AMS settings. Some schools only hire AMI trained Montessori guides, but do not advertise themselves as AMI schools. This is because AMI training is highly reputable, and guaranteed, the AMI trained teacher will produce results.
To me, the factors that matter for educators seeking positions are:
~ normalization of the classroom, not so much the numbers. It is a myth that lower numbers equates to a peaceful classroom.
~ visual order/ level of chaos.
~ supportive, present, trained, non-corrupt administration.
~ no unusual politics behind the scenes.
~ staff retention history.
~ whether you are permitted to use the training you received.
~ how valued you are as an employee.
~ whether there is actual Montessori work on the shelves, or if the staff are just making it up. There’s a difference between montessori-inspired, montessori-based, and Montessori. A trained educator knows what’s Montessori, and what’s not.
~ If the school is growth-minded and wants to improve/ grow (for example, if the school looks chaotic/ disorganized, lower quality, and they show no inklings of a desire to fix problems, this is not good).
~ receiving pay you can survive off of, ideally with full benefits. If you are not taken care of, why are you working somewhere? And I confess I have made the mistake of choosing low-pay positions and positions with no benefits in the past. I now realize I can’t do that anymore. Do they think the food is going to magically show up in the fridge? LOL. Do they think I’m not concerned about what to do when I need to go to the doctor? P.S. young children carry a host of diseases that you as a teacher can get. All of us need health care benefits.
To me, things that should matter to parents seeking schools are:
~ Children and staff who behave calmly and peacefully. Children’s behavior and staff behavior is telling. It may be busy, and there might even be a lot of children in the room, but it should not be out of control and there should not be yelling or too much crying.
~ low staff turnover. Don’t be afraid to ask how much the teachers get paid and if the teachers receive benefits. If the pay is low and teachers get no benefits, there’s risk for high turnover. Don’t be afraid to directly ask about the staff turnover. This info should be willingly disclosed. Just ask “how long has this teacher been employed? And the teacher before her?”. You should always yelp schools, and look up schools on glassdoor.com. Again, don’t assume a school’s rep. Find out.
~ trained teachers. You can ask to see the teacher’s training evidence! Don’t just assume! The teacher basically is the Montessori program. So if you don’t have a trained teacher, you are not going to have a proper Montessori program. Make sure the training is complete, or highly likely to be completed in full.
~ present, non-corrupt, ideally Montessori-trained administration. Again, use yelp and find out about a school’s reputation. Other parents have no qualms about being forthcoming about administration.
~ organized, preferably beautiful classrooms. Once you are trained or when you get a few school tours under your belt, you can start to discern the visual difference between higher quality and lower quality schools. Look up pictures online. If the school has no photos on the website from within the classroom, that’s not a good sign. Beautiful, flourishing schools want parents to see what they have to offer.
~ an engaging outdoor space. Outdoor spaces is where a lot of schools fall flat. The school will invest a ton on the classroom indoor space and run out of money to work on the outdoor spaces. Pay attention to what the children have to do, more so than does it look landscaped. If there’s not much for the children to do and it’s not well landscaped, that’s not a good sign. Children need to move and they need proper outlets and equipment to get all that energy out and work on their gross motor skills.
I’m discovering that very few schools completely meet the mark. I have had a mix of great aspects and horrible aspects at AMS schools and AMI schools alike. I have observed a variety of environmental set ups from AMI-based and AMS programs alike, and seen a mix of what works and what doesn’t work as well. I have seen amazing outdoor spaces at schools, horrible outdoor spaces, and yet an absolutely amazing program with no outdoor space at all. I’ve had amazing bosses, and horrible bosses. I’ve had co-workers who have become my friends and colleagues for life, and I’v had co-workers that literally lied about me and got me fired because of it. It’s pretty much a crap shoot.
I am AMI trained. I feel pretty loyal to AMI training. But if I had to pick, my favorite program of all time to work at was designed and operated by an AMS trained woman. It is worth mentioning that I have only worked in California so far. California is also a huge state. So maybe the trends I’ve personally experienced are regionally specific, and perhaps purely coincidental to my particular region of California.
Before you dive into the details of my experiences, it is also worth noting that if you are a Montessori job seeker, an AMS trained guide typically cannot get hired for an AMI position. But an AMI guide is usually hirable for positions at either AMI or AMS programs. Legend also has it that if you want to work for an AMI accredited school, a lot of them ask for a minimum of five years previous guide experience. If your goal is to stay AMI employed, know that you will need to get work experience from somewhere if you are fresh out of training. Chances are, that means you will have no choice but to either work for AMS programs in order to get the experience you need, you may need to move in order to find an AMI-based program that prefers to hire AMI teachers but may not be accredited or affiliated, or you might just need to start your own program ASAP.
I also want to caution people that the training centers are the pinnacle of Montessori idealism. I cannot emphasize enough how perfect the training centers are, and how much that perfection impresses upon your expectations of what “Montessori” is supposed to be. Well let me just burst your shangri-la bubble, because when you step out into the real world, you will NOT find that level of Montessori dreaminess very frequently. Those beautiful social media pages and the few rare beautiful schools out there that emulate the training center’s level of perfection and beauty are the exception. The norm is a lot of uglier, or more behind the scenes corrupt schools that miss the mark. You’ve been forewarned. Dr. Montessori was letting us in on an important secret of childhood: deviation. Deviation is fully a thing; and we should acknowledge it and pay attention. Because guess what? It even applies to entire schools, to heads of school, to school owners, as well as the individual children who will show up in your classroom.
Lastly, here is some helpful vocabulary for parents so that you can put Montessori programs into better context in this post and as you tour schools:
AMS: American Montessori Society. The predominant American Montessori style wherein the creator was AMI trained, and then broke off to create her own “sect” of Montessori education that differs in style from the original AMI tradition. Practiced worldwide, though it is labeled “American”. People can work as teachers in the AMS tradition having not completed the entire training. All adults working in an AMS classroom are considered “teachers” regardless of training level.
AMI: Association Montessori Internationale. The original Montessori heritage started by Dr. Montessori. Lead teachers are called “guides” (see below). In order to work as an AMI guide, one must have completed the training course in full, and have received a diploma from the AMI.
Guide: a trained Montessori professional in the AMI tradition. In the AMI style, there is one head guide per classroom typically; and all other adults working in the room are considered assistants or aides. Only the lead guide is permitted to give lessons in the AMI tradition, because s/he has completed the formal training about how to give lessons correctly and how to use all of the materials.
Assistant: assist the trained AMI guide. Is not typically permitted to deliver lessons to the children on how to use materials, because they do not have any formal Montessori training and wouldn’t know how to present materials with all the nuances that allow children to get all there is to get from guidance. Presenting materials to children is a trained art meets skill and experience of the guide.
Class size: the number of children attending a program daily. For AMI the standard for 0-3 is no more than 12 children, and 3-6 no more than 24 in the locality where I live and work. Class size is not to be confused with “student-to-teacher ratios”. While a ratio might be 1 adult to every 5 students, there might be over 20 toddlers in one room.
Normalized: the ability to create and establish a classroom that is calm, peaceful, and functional. This is a huge goal of a positive learning and working experience in a Montessori classroom.
Administration: school owners, heads of school, school directors, assistant directors, the school board.
Mixed age groups: the classroom features children from a range of ages, such as 18 months to 3 years old, 3-6 years old, etc; as opposed to only one year olds, only two year olds, only three year olds, and so forth.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCES
My first exposure to Montessori education whatsoever was with a beautiful and well-resourced AMS primary Montessori program. My entire Montessori career developed thanks to my stint as a behavioral therapist for children on the Autism spectrum. Having no idea whatsoever that Montessori even existed at this point, I was told I would be responsible for accompanying my client with autism to his classroom. I was absolutely stunned by what I experienced. The classroom was extremely organized, cute, and beautiful. The teacher, who I still remember to this day, was pleasant, happy and graceful.
I remember that three year old children were learning about Australia which came as a complete shock to me. Then when the lunch time routine unfolded, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It reflected a formal meal in a banquet hall except that it was preschoolers dressed in street clothing, and obtaining the food from lunch boxes. Lunch featured classical music playing quietly in the background; and the children were required to wash their dishes and clean up after themselves. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing– a bunch of preschoolers conducting themselves like little adults. To my completely untrained eye, I was sold on this whole Montessori experience.
Style: AMS. Impression: beautiful, organized, bright, peaceful. All staff and children seemed happy and to be thriving. No experience with administrative end. Class size was good, class was normalized. One adult, two assistants.
Then came my first Montessori employer. I was hired as an assistant in a nido ran by an AMI trained guide, and eventually became a lead AMI guide.
Style: AMI. Impression: generally beautiful and organized depending on the guide’s vision and ability. Children all learning a lot. Sometimes chaotic in the classrooms because they will push class size to its AMI allowed maximum, and do not “screen” the children they allow in the program. Untrained administration and high staff turnover. Reputation for doing really messed up things to past employees. Not all classrooms had connected outdoor space. Outdoor spaces somewhat weaker/boring. Indoor spaces included all classic “bigger” practical life opportunities. Staff have the freedom to practice AMI Montessori. If they can’t find AMI guides, they will hire anyone. No benefits for full time staff/ small business. Pay is low. Head of school works on site, owners sometimes work on site, none of the administration are Montessori trained even though the school has existed for decades. One guide per classroom, multiple assistants per classroom which often does not help things. School has no qualms about laying off employees to save money. Program definitely doesn’t screen the children they allow to attend to find out if they will be a good fit for a Montessori environment; and to be honest, a lot of the children would be better off at lower-structure, high-running around kinds of programs. Administration is out of touch with teacher needs and program needs because they aren’t trained and don’t care.
I resigned from my position with that school to pursue a health profession grad program, during which time I worked at another AMS primary program that was to this day, one of my favorite programs of all time.
Style: AMS. Impression: amazing. Cute, beautiful, peaceful, children learning a lot, staff was positive, loving, and consistent with no turnover. Class size was ideal. Outdoor spaces were immediately connected to classrooms; and were beautiful and well-done. Mostly wooden materials and very limited plastic. Home-like, cozy atmosphere that could have been designed by an AMI trained person if you didn’t know any better. Would happily model my own program after this small-house-converted-to-school model. Staff fully benefitted and paid well. Owner was a teacher, and two other teachers worked daily. Never more than 3 adults in the room total.
The health profession grad program I was in was not fulfilling me, and in fact I started to hate it, even though meanwhile I adored the little Montessori job I had found. Despite my straight A’s and stellar reviews and experiences from fieldwork, nothing I did could please the difficult, crabby, picky faculty in the grad program. I was miserable at a level I have never experienced in my life since. So I quit that healthcare grad program. Massive student loan debt aside, I have zero regrets. I got my master’s degree anyway (same situation, straight A’s, great reviews; so it wasn’t me), and had the time of my life living in Portland and Baltimore during summers.
From the time I quit that awful health program, I then worked at:
~a badly run AMS school.
Style: AMS. Impression: not good. Staff literally screaming at children all day, every day. They would scream to get everyone’s attention. Too much visual chaos. Music constantly playing in background. Unfair treatment towards male staff (males weren’t allowed to check children’s knees for scrapes or toilet children even though male staff was a dad of a toddler-aged daughter). A lot of adult-created art work. Outdoor spaces detached from the rest of the classrooms and had to walk quite a long distance to playgrounds using walking ropes. A lot of plastic and dollar store type of cheap materials used for practical life. Owner worked on site. Pay was fair and employees fully benefitted. Likely they do not screen the children the allow to attend.
~ Then came my stint with a horrible AMS school, even worse than the aforementioned bad AMS program. I’m pretty sure the director lied to parents about the lead who worked ahead of me. Firstly, I was hired on the condition that I would be starting a brand new toddler program for one of this school’s campuses. But when my start date arrived, the director literally pulled a switcharoo on me that very day, saying that the toddler lead at another campus had quit unexpectedly, and they needed me to take over. (To this day I’m convinced they fired her. I have since met other former employees of that company and learned that the owner fires people all the time).
The school used to have constantly rolling video camera feeds parents could see at all times from work/ home. The mistrust from parents was so bad that parents would literally tell me to my face that they did not trust me. I would have to leave the daily work cycle in my classroom periodically in order to have meetings with small groups of parents to try and calm their worries and answer all of their questions. But nothing I could say about my training or qualifications could reduce their mistrust. Never mind the fact that I got a classroom of almost 20 toddlers to normalize beautifully, which should have spoken for itself. But then the director chose to remove the video cameras. This caused the parental mistrust to skyrocket to an all-time high. There’s only so much hate one can take from parents before you realize as an educator that you’re not valued within that school community. No one ever knew what the woman before me was doing in that classroom. It’s also worth mentioning that within days of getting hired for that classroom, one of the assistants told me she was planning on quitting. Getting to this school for work every day also required a one to two hour commute on my end each way. So I moved on, seeking jobs closer to my home.
Other details: this owner owns maybe four other campuses. Owner appears to be into the “more is better” model of opening as many schools as she can. Site director for the site where I worked was inexperienced and had just begun AMS Montessori training at the same time as accepting the site director position. Site director often felt like an inauthentic communicator. Another teacher at this school had cops called on her by an angry parent. Class size was very high, but I commend myself for my ability to normalize this group quickly. Parents were extremely mistrustful. No previous observation records were taken by the teacher, and no student presentation or progress data was ever made available to me. So no one knew what the teacher before me had been doing in that classroom. Cupboards were full of junk and useless materials. One cupboard even collapsed spontaneously because it was full of materials and not bolted to the wall. Upsides are that most of the assistants were very sweet, hard working, and cared about the children. Pay was exceptionally high, the highest I’ve ever been offered, and fully benefitted. Every campus has a site director, while the owner is in and out. This school loosely did screen children they allowed to attend using an extensive intake form. This school did NOT use mixed age classroom format.
~From here, I got hired at a little AMS school much closer to my house.
Style: AMS. Overall Impression: fair to good. The owner was questionable in her vision and had a somewhat difficult personality to vibe with, but I believe she was well-meaning and AMS trained. The owner worked on site at one of the campuses consistently but was not a teacher. Other campuses all had site directors that I believe used to be or still were teachers. Primary lead at my campus was very good. Primary outdoor space was decent. toddler outdoor space was horrible. Teachers were required to use curriculum units, come up with themed curriculum activities for every single day, which was horrible. Pay was very low, but employees received full benefits. Low pay caused a lot of assistant turnover. Mixed age classrooms.
And then I got hired at…
~The “best” Montessori program in my area. But this did not last very long because one of the assistants ran to the boss, lied about me, and the way the director handled the rumor immediately shed light on the fact that the administration and politics of this school are hor.ri.ble. I basically got full blown shunned from this campus for a full week while the boss deliberated what to do about the rumor/ lie, when all this rumor merited was for us to sit together as a team and clarify obvious complete misunderstandings. I was told that if I spoke to anyone else who worked at the school, or if I spoke to any parents during my week of being shunned, that I would be fired on the spot. I’m pretty sure this kind of threat and treatment is illegal. I didn’t think to make a legal issue of it, but in retrospect, maybe I should have.
Parents cried when they found out I wasn’t going to continue working there. Luckily I’m still in close contact with my favorite families from that job (:
Style: AMI. Impression: insanely beautiful campus and hands down one of the best outdoor spaces I have seen because they have existed for such a long time. Discovered that administration/ politics were absolutely hor.ri.ble and cult-like if you work here– either they love you and you were in, or they didn’t like you for any reason and you were out, and it didn’t matter what the actual fruits of your classroom had to say about your impact as a guide or how much the parents liked you. I cannot recommend this program to others and encourage other guides I know to steer clear of this program despite its reputation, the fact that it is AMI, or how beautiful it looks because of what I experienced. The politics is basically as not-Montessori as can be. The politics would have been brutal even if they were not a Montessori school, which makes it extra ironic because Montessori is supposed to be pro-peace. Tuition at this program is also the highest in the area by a landslide. Pay is good, and fully benefitted. Nonprofit. Mixed age classrooms. They screen the children they allow to attend.