(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here. 

Montessori, like Zen, is one of those words that many people are familiar with and yet few understand. When I tell someone I’m going away for the weekend on a Zen retreat, they get a faraway look in their eyes, no doubt imagining scented candles and a Yoda-like guru with a background in Swedish massage, and say, “That must be so relaxing.” Little do they know that the majority of the weekend is spent staring at a wall, planning an escape route. 

When I tell people I work at a Montessori school, the (mis)perceptions are even stranger. “Is that one of those schools for little prodigies?” they might ask, “where they learn to cast spells and mix potions?” No, that’s Hogwarts.

Before I started working at Cambridge Montessori School, my own perceptions were equally vague: wasn’t Montessori that weird wing of my high school where toddlers were led around on a rope like farm animals? Jen, the elementary and middle school director, cleared up my confusion by giving me a Montessori crash course. 

Maria Montessori believed in following the child, she explained, so the students are really comfortable around adults because teachers are not authority figures lecturing from on-high but “friends” in the Montessori parlance; basically, just really tall, caffeinated people. The kids, said Jen, will call you by your first name, and are naturally inquisitive—they are not afraid to question you, and often interrupt you to do so. 

Despite this introduction, I found that Montessori kids were pretty normal, after all.  I’m reminded of the Zen master who was once asked to define Zen and responded, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” My students loved gym and their cubbies were messy and without my help at recess they would’ve lost as many mittens as there are grains of sand in the river Ganges. At lunchtime, they ate. At naptime, the toddlers slept. But the more time I spent with them, the more they began to reveal what made their particular brand of ordinariness so extraordinary.

One day during recess Sara, a second grader, called me over. 

“Alex, Paola and I are having an issue. Can you help me talk to her?”

“Sure,” I said, wondering what I might do to mediate. “Let’s find Paola.”

We found her by the swings and the girls sat down together on a nearby bench.

“So what’s going on?” I asked.

Sara turned to her friend and calmly laid out what had upset her and how she hoped Paola might change her behavior in the future. Paola listened calmly and then turned to me.

“Oh you don’t have to stand here Alex. We’ve got it.”

Stunned, I slowly backed away as the girls resolved their issue and went back to enjoying recess. It was the most mature thing I’d ever seen kids do. Then I realized it was perhaps the most mature thing I’d ever seen anyone do. Such conflict resolution skills are part of the Montessori peace curriculum, and though not all the students (or the adults) are as adept as Sara and Paola at employing these skills, I see traces of them daily. What Buddhists might term wisdom and compassion is called grace and courtesy at our school.

Subbing in the classroom gave me more glimpses of the Montessori philosophy at work. Unlike in my public school days, the teachers did not stand before rows of desks and lecture. Students unrolled rugs on the floor upon which to do their work. When finished, the student would clean up the work, roll up the rug, and put it away. 

Much of the work, I noticed, consisted of objects you could touch, interact with, and manipulate. The students used beads and blocks when working on math, and laid out word sorts [a developmental word study] on the rug to practice spelling and grammar. At first, such methods were foreign to me—isn’t learning something that happens in your head, where abstract concepts can be processed and turned into knowledge? But as a Zen practitioner, such sensory-based methods make intuitive sense. On the zafu, understanding comes from opening body and mind to one’s moment-to-moment experience. Why should the classroom be any different? 

This environment stems from the Montessori belief in independent, self-directed learning. As in a monastery, a teacher’s role is not to provide answers but to encourage questioning. When a student completes a problem, draws a picture, or scores a goal, no one says, “Great Job!” Such feedback only teaches children that what matters is the approval of an authority figure. Instead, I often hear teachers mirroring a student’s feeling of pride and accomplishment back at herself:  “You must be really proud of how hard you worked on that,” or even, “What do you think about it?” Though this can make one sound like a second-rate psychoanalyst, it shifts the focus towards the process, rather than the result.

On retreat, no one is there to pat your back or hold your hand. When I tell a teacher about the marvelous insights I attained during the last round of sitting, I’m often asked, “What are you noticing right now?” 

When Huike, desperate for peace, cut off his arm and asked Bodhidharma to pacify his mind, Bodhidharma did not say, “Great effort! Here’s how to pacify your mind…” He said, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it,” forcing Huike to confront his request and question into just what it was he was asking. A student who sees the inherent value in questioning will be content despite a lack of approval or answers. And as we really tall, caffeinated people know, the older you get, the less approval or answers you will find.

A new monk once approached Zen master Joshu and said, “I am anxious to learn the first principle of Zen. Will you teach it to me?”

“Have you eaten your porridge?” Joshu asked.

“I have eaten,” the monk replied.

“Then wash your bowl,” Joshu said.

Montessori, like Zen, may not for everyone, and its students are far from perfect. Just the other day I found myself asking a student why she pushed someone in gym rather than tell me about the issue. 

“Because then I wouldn’t get what I wanted,” the student said.

“And did you get what you wanted by pushing?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And what was that?” 

“Revenge,” she said.

It was one of those infamous teachable moments that makes education such a rewarding endeavor. After all, there is not enough caffeine in the world to keep a good teacher interested in a classroom of flawless kids, and our students sure get messy. But more often than not, they wash their own bowls.

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