Beginner’s Mind, Montessori Mind – Zen and the Art of Montessori Teaching

Being involved in a Montessori teacher-training course offers the great benefit of staying in touch with the thoughts, hopes, ideals, and sheer terror of the first year of teaching, summer after summer.  The goal for the first month (and possibly the following eight) is often described simply as survival.  The stresses and trials of those crisp, panic-filled autumn days are well-known and somewhat unavoidable.  Classroom management is still a heady fantasy, five sets of parents calling for conferences after the first week is the dull reality. With support, the transition can “go as well as can be expected,” but Sunday nights can still be one big insomnia-inducing stomachache.

Montessori believed that the first task for new teachers was to transform themselves. It can therefore be argued that much of the job of becoming a Montessori teacher is achieved by the sheer act of deciding to become one, and the corresponding changes that decision brings forth.  Certainly much of the value of a teacher-training course does come from the personal growth that occurs often outside the lecture and practice room than in it. Lunch conversations with other students, impassioned debate with trainers, standing by the broken copier.  Inevitably, the largest deficit felt by many of these “never been in the classroom” beginning teachers is their lack of experience.

Yet this perceived, inherent weakness is actually their potential strength.  And ultimately that may be true for all teachers.  In the classic collection of Zen talks given by Shunryu Suzuki (1970), Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Richard Baker writes, “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, free to doubt, and open to all possibilities.  It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything.”  The nature of this Beginner Teacher’s Mind can manifest itself in several positive ways in the classroom.  If appreciated for what it is, Beginner’s Mind can yield benefits in setting up environments, observation of activity, and even presentation of material.

Often the first daunting task of a new teacher, aside from attempting to learn the rest of the staff’s names, is the setting up of the classroom environment.  A pile of boxes containing both Montessori and teacher-made materials sits in one corner.  A collection of shelving, tables, and chairs lines the wall.  If they are arranged without any thought or planning, the result would of course be of little use.  Lack of experience in itself, when coupled with a lack of knowledge, yields no benefit.  And yet, with a basic understanding of a Montessori environment, of sequence, flow of movement, sight lines, aesthetics, etc…, the lack of experience in setting up environments can be an advantage.  Beginner Teacher’s Mind looks at a space and sees it for what it is.  It doesn’t attach negative past experiences to a particular setup.  It doesn’t falsely anticipate problems.  In short, it sees the possibilities and is open to the opportunities presented.  In this way, even if an environment fails to work for this particular group of children, for this particular teacher, for this particular year, at least it has failed honestly.  The environment works or doesn’t work in reality, not based on assumptions.

The arrival of the human environment, usually 20 or so children, presents another opportunity for career angst.  With course presenters nowhere to be found, children arrive, drop lunch bags and coats at the door, and start getting involved, with concern only for their own butterflies-in-the-stomach.  The process begins to unfold.  Activity, purposeful and not-so-purposeful, takes place.  And with any luck the teacher is in a position to observe.  The task is incredibly daunting, when there seems to be little enough time to catch a breath, let alone process what’s happening over there in the corner near the aquarium.  But with a foundational knowledge of child development, behavior, socialization, and so forth, Beginner Teacher’s Mind can see, really see, those 20 or so individuals for what they are:  20 or so individuals!  Beginner’s Mind doesn’t watch an activity and falsely anticipate a predicted outcome.  Beginner’s Mind, in short, has the gift of the Clean Slate.  It sees each child without an accompanying file, without an accompanying filter of experience.  What a marvelous ability.

One of the truly wonderful aspects of teacher-training is demonstrating material that has an “A-ha” to it, a concept or idea that surprises or amuses or just fits together so well.  Sometimes after I have presented the advanced constructive triangle equivalence work or the search for a triangle’s orthocenter, there is an eruption of spontaneous applause.  The breadth of this incredible curriculum we can offer is so full of wonder-full ideas that it is easy to forget what it feels like to see them for the first time.  I have a tremendous amount of faith in a teacher who can get excited when the check for the snake game comes out even.  This is Beginner Teacher’s Mind in full glory.  That mind doesn’t give a half-hearted presentation because “it’s never worked before”; there is no “before”.  When the beads in the bottom of the bowl match the remainder at the bottom of the long-division problem, the reaction of the teacher is crucial.  And when the teacher is blown away by the beauty of mathematics (or history, geometry, language, biology), chances are, so will the child be.

This is not to say that the first-year teacher sleeps peacefully, awaking to the gentle prodding of the morning birds. No.  Sheryl Crowe (1993) sang, “No one said it would be easy.  But no one said it’d be this hard.”  I don’t think she ever taught Montessori, but she gets the idea.  Beginning teachers still have the challenge of finding a structure, a way of ordering their work that allows it all to make sense.  And the implication this holds for experienced teachers is obvious.  The challenge for those who have been in the classroom for 3, 7, 12 years, is to maintain an admittedly difficult balance between experience and positive naivete.  For the essence of Beginner’s Mind is really just truth.  And the truth of our classroom reality is that every day and every student are truly unique – and therefore the benefit of experience, while helpful, is undeniably limited.  The difficult child who could not work effectively in a group on Monday is not the same child on Tuesday.  No situation we ever encounter is unaffected by the variables of time and environment.  The only reality is Now.

Rob Keys

Montessori Life – Winter 1996


Suzuki, S. (1970). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill.

Crowe, S. (1993). No one said it would be easy. From the album Tuesday Night Music Club. Hollywood, CA: A&M records