To Teach or to Guide?

“To aid life, leaving it free to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator.”
Dr. Maria Montessori

In Montessori schools, the word “teacher” is often replaced with the word “guide”. Are these terms truly so different?

The Teacher

Generally, when we use the word “teacher”, formal classroom instruction comes to mind.  The teacher stands at the front, communicating information to a large group of students who are seated at desks or tables, with the intent that the students acquire competence in the area of instruction.   The teacher structures the classroom routine around the transmission of this information, at set times of the day, for a set duration, and in a large-group setting.  All students learn simultaneously according to the schedule set by the teacher. 

We can say that the teacher (actively) transmits information and the students (passively) receive information.

The Guide

The American Montessori Society says that the role of the teacher is to “guide individual children to purposeful activity based upon her observations of each child’s readiness and interests.” (Emphasis added.)

We use the word “guide” rather than “teacher” to communicate that we do not deposit information into the mind of the child, but rather come alongside the child in the unique learning journey that he or she began before birth

The guide observes and supports that which is innate in the child – their interests, strengths, weaknesses, curiosity, and drive to discover. 

A guide does not dictate when or how learning happens.  Instead, she follows the cues of the child, and provides learning as the child demonstrates readiness and interest.  She introduces a variety of activities to the child, and then steps back to allow self-discovery.  Children in the Montessori environment become an active part of their learning journey, rather than being passive recipients. 

By using the word “guide”, we are communicating that:

  • Children have an innate desire to learn, discover and explore
  • Children are self-motivated learners
  • Children find joy and purpose in self-learning
  • Children enjoy the independence and sense of responsibility provided by self-directed learning
  • Each child is unique in development and interests and we guide them not towards a standardized goal, but towards their own potential
  • Our role as adults is to provide children with the right environment to support their learning; this means providing them with activities and work to enrich their interest and development but it also means removing obstacles to their learning (sometimes that means we step back and allow the child to struggle and self-correct; we step back and allow a child to immerse themselves in one material that fascinates them, knowing that as they use the materials over and over again, learning is solidified)

The Montessori guide understands their role is to support rather than dictate learning, respecting the process that nature has set forth.

Montessori guides with infants

Observation is Essential

In order to effectively support the learning of individual children, the Montessori guide spends significant amounts of time in the classroom observing the child.  The child is constantly communicating to us, not just with words, but with their actions, handling of materials, peer-to-peer conversations, and more!  It is up to the adult to listen and watch for these messages.  If a teacher observes a child struggling to hold a pencil, she may understand that the pincer grasp must be strengthened.  She will provide the child with opportunities to learn how to work with different materials that meet this need.  Or, a teacher might observe a child mastering and repeating an activity – and provides a demonstration of possible extensions of an activity, or introduces a complementing activity to provide further stimulation and learning.  Observation is an essential tool for a teacher to master so that they can truly guide the child. 

Observation is also an important tool for parents to master.  Many of the struggles we encounter in our parenting journey can be resolved by observing our child’s non-verbal cues, and intentionally meeting their needs in our home and family environment!

For both the teacher and the parent, it can be said that we are to become students of our children.

Struggle & Discovery – A Natural and Critical Partnership

Do you remember struggling through something as an adult or a child—perhaps a project, a math problem, fixing something—and almost “getting” it . . . when an older sibling, friend, parent, colleague or supervisor comes in to give unasked-for “help” and completes it for you?  Typically, rather than feeling gratitude, we feel annoyance because we have been robbed of the joy and satisfaction we get when our struggle turns into discovery and accomplishment. 

You have probably read a book to your child about the life cycle of a butterfly and are aware that when a caterpillar encloses itself in a chrysalis, a sacred transformation begins.  The transformation does not end until the caterpillar-turned-butterfly struggles out of the chrysalis.  To skip this essential last step would be crippling or even deadly to the butterfly and counteract the beautiful process that has been unfolding since the caterpillar first began its life. 

Perhaps you have had the joy of watching a caterpillar go through the process of metamorphosis with your child – and have heard your child express a desire to “help” the butterfly out of its chrysalis.  You might have warned your child that even though a they have a good intention to help, this act of “kindness” may actually destroy the butterfly.  You might have explained to your child that the struggle is part of nature’s process.

It is easy for us to understand the need to respect nature’s process in the life of the butterfly, but how often do well-intentioned parents, teachers and other adults fail to respect the natural learning process of a child?   

  • Do we rob our child of the struggle and joy of self-discovery by doing things “for” them?
  • Do we set our child along a predetermined learning journey with limited ability to adapt based on their unique development and interests?
  • Do we turn our child’s learning into a race or a competition by pushing, pulling, prodding, praising, bribing, or comparing?
  • Do we measure success by grades and tests or by the happiness of our child and learning and experiences that cannot be quantified?
  • Do we grow frustrated or disappointed when our child does not “perform” or “learn” like his or her peers, or do we strive to understand and appreciate their uniqueness, seeking ways to support and guide them?
  • Do we try to live vicariously through our children or do we strive to allow our children to live, “free to unfold themselves”?
Montessori guide helping young girl

Dr Maria Montessori said, “The work of the teacher is to guide the children . . . to lead the children to concentration and to help them in their development afterwards.  The fundamental help in development, especially with little children of three years of age, is not to interfere.  Interference stops activity and stops concentration.”

A few questions we can all ask ourselves . . . “

  • What are some ways that I might be interfering with my child’s development?
  • When did I last take time to intentionally observe my child?
  • What is one thing I can do differently to better support my child?
  • What is one thing I can change in my child’s environment to better meet their needs?

In Conclusion

Many of us have had incredible teachers in traditional and non-traditional classrooms who have inspired us, mentored us and guided us, fueling our journey of discovery.  A teacher doesn’t have to be called a “guide” in order to have these characteristics, however, many Montessorians prefer to use the word “guide”, as it better describes who a teacher is and what they do!

A Montessori teacher comes along side each child
in their individual journey of learning,
guiding them to reach their full potential.



Pin It