8 Tips for Finding a Montessori School (the last one is Knoxville specific!)
You're thinking about sending your child to a Montessori school - yay! Of course, being a Montessori teacher and running a Montessori parent education center, I am pretty biased towards them. But I do think it is a great choice.
Choosing a school for your child is a daunting task, though, particularly when you are selecting a school for at least three years. (More on that in a minute.) So let's talk about some things you should know when starting the hunt.
1. There is no trademark on the name Montessori.
No trademark means absolutely any place can put Montessori in their name. There is no governing body over all of Montessori. If you are really interested in an authentic Montessori experience for your child, you are going to need to do a little work to verify that the schools you are interested in offer that experience. It's not a huge task - and I can help! - but it is usually a big surprise to families, so I want to put that out there first. You are going to need to do a little research.
A great place to start is with the rest of the criteria on this list!
2. Classic Montessori materials will be readily available and complete on the shelves.
Most parents are looking in a 3-6 classroom (or will tour a 3-6 classroom even if they're looking for a toddler or elementary space), so we'll start there.
The space will have a pink tower with 10 cubes. They will have the red rods with 10 rods. The classroom will look neat and clean, with lessons on trays, and you will almost feel too big for the space. It looks distinctly different from your classic daycare with cheerful plastic toys, and very few things will be battery operated. (I want to say no things will be battery operated, but I just bought a practice drill for my students. The things that take batteries will be real tools with a real purpose - not just for pretend or distraction.)
Everything is child sized - the chairs, the tables, the water pitchers, the cups, all of it!
Maria Montessori named her first classroom 'The Children's House', and that is reflected in each of the classrooms - it feels intentionally made for children, not for adults. While each space will have it's own personality, they all have the same essential materials.
3. The daily schedule prioritizes a 3 hour work cycle.
Schools will tell you their schedule of events for the day, like when they have lunch, go outside, nap, and some of them even have it posted on their website. Look for a full three hour work cycle in all classrooms with children ages 3+.
This long session of uninterrupted work time is a hallmark of Montessori because it allows for the children to get into deep work with the materials on the shelf. They have time to come in, say hello to their friends (water cooler chit chat), pick some easy work (the equivalent of checking their e-mail), before settling into deep focused work. They get to take a break to eat snack, wonder around thinking about what to do next, before picking the next thing. They get to build their ability to self-direct their work.
Toddlers will have a shorter work cycle. It will often start around an hour and grow as the children in the community grow. They will be able to tell you how the adjust it as the year progresses to accommodate the development of the children.
4. They will have multi-age classrooms based on a three-year cycle.
Children 3 - 6 years old will be together in a classroom (preschool + K), 6-9 (1st-3rd, or lower elementary), 9 - 12 (4th - 6th, or upper elementary).
This means your child will stay in the same classroom for all three years with the same teaching staff.
The three year cycle is a magical and often overlooked benefit of Montessori education. Children who get a three year cycle are really comfortable in their space. They take an ownership of the environment that does not happen when they are moved from year to year. They notice when things are out of place and return them to the shelf. They help welcome new students and make them feel comfortable. By the third year, they are helping teach lessons to the younger students, and solidifying their own mastery over the material. They develop close relationships with their peers, and they have ample time to work deeply with the materials on the shelves.
When you are choosing a Montessori school, you are making a choice that you ideally intend to be a good fit for the next three years. (Exceptions for if you are looking at a toddler program, where your child will stay in the class until they are 3... but hopefully you are moving them into the school's 3-6 year old program after they finish toddlers!) It also means that schools are prioritizing their classroom growth from the youngest of that cycle: three year olds have a greater chance of admittance than four year olds or kindergarteners. First graders have a greater chance of being accepted that third graders. Fourth grade over sixth grade, and so on. The philosophy is founded on children being in the space for that time period, and enrollment reflects that foundation.
5. The teachers treat the children with respect & act as a guide.
Maria Montessori called her teachers 'guides'. While not every Montessori school uses that language, the authentic ones do follow the principle: the teacher is there to help provide direction but is not at the front of the classroom telling everyone what to do.
A Montessori teacher knows what each student is learning individually and directs each of them forward on their individual learning path. You will hear a lot of, "Hmm, what do you think you should do?" or "I noticed that [x] happened when you did this. What are some ways we could fix it?"
This does not mean they are not doing anything - quite the opposite, really, with 20+ individual trajectories to keep in mind. It means that their method of teaching is to give your child a lot of autonomy, and to guide them in ways that they don't necessarily notice they are being guided. It's not uncommon for Montessori children to feel they have taught themselves, and that's entirely the point.
6. The teachers are Montessori trained.
I put this one AFTER the respect because I have complicated feelings about it.
One the one hand, I whole-heartedly believe in authentic Montessori training. The most well respected training globally comes from the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the American Montessori Society (AMS) has a strong standing here in the United States, and the International Montessori Council (IMC) is growing in esteem. As there is no trademark on the name Montessori, there also is no trademark on Montessori teacher certification, and they are not all equal.
While I first look for AMI, AMS, or IMC approved training in staff bios, I want to recognize the barriers to training access. First, there are no teacher education programs local to Knoxville. The closest ones are a four hour drive away, and even then most do not offer each program every year. Second, they require in-person attendance for at least several weeks over the course of a consecutive summers at a minimum. Third, to earn a full certificate, you need to have already obtained a college degree, so take the barriers to a college education and add more steps.
Since quality training requires some level of in-person attendance, you need to be able to afford to not work while paying for an additional place to stay (no dorms) while paying tuition - all to take a job that, on average, pays less than a public school teacher's salary.
So, I do like to look at this, but I also like to look at it in context. Maybe the school has trained teachers on staff who mentor other staff, or there is an administrator who teaches continuing education to their team, or they have regular outside trainers come on site. Ask the question about teacher training, but be open to hearing the school's creative solutions! Above all else, notice how the teachers are interacting with the students, if you can, and base it on that criteria instead.
Now that we've covered the philosophy side of things, I want to end with some logistical tips.
7. Enrollment starts earlier than you think.
If you want to send your child to school in August, I recommend visiting schools in October/November of the year BEFORE. This can be a hard timeline to wrap your head around when your child is barely 2. It takes time to schedule a tour, find time to do a classroom observation (highly recommended), and fill out applications. Enrollment starts around February at most schools, and the most popular ones fill up quickly. You want to apply early for guaranteed spots!
September: Make a list of schools you are interested in. Look at their websites. Talk to your parent friends about them. Search your parenting groups for families already going to those schools and reach out to them.
October/November: Schedule tours! See which schools make it to the top of your list. For the schools you love, ask if you can come back to do an observation. These were standard pre-covid but adjustments have been made in this post covid world, so this may not be an option. If it's not an option, and even if it is, try to talk with currently enrolled families. Learn what they like, what they dislike, what other schools they considered.
As soon as applications are open: Send them in. Sometimes there is an application fee, so you want to be prepared for that. Knowing which schools you are really interested in keeps you from paying enrollment fees to places you don't actually like. Some schools take applications all the time, some don't, so you need to do a little research. (For those that accept them all the time - there ARE families that register their babies when they are born, particularly for difficult to get toddler placements. They fill up fast, and the waitlists are long!)
January/February: Re-enrollment season for families that already attend the school. Once the school knows these numbers and the re-enrollment period is over, they will know how many open spots are available.
March: You find out if you got in or are waitlisted!
8. The Montessori Alliance of Tennessee put together a handy list.
If you are in Knoxville (or anywhere else in Tennessee!), you can use their Find a School page for a list of all the schools.
Click through and find links to each Montessori school in Knoxville! A lot of the above criteria can be answered on each school's website. Read about their philosophy, check staff bios, and look at their pictures. Some even post their parent handbooks, which would tell you things like daily schedules and parent expectations. This list is also super handy for mapping out the schools and gaining an idea of which are near your house or close to work, which is always my first question when I do school consultations with families.
If you need extra help or have questions, reach out to me! This is a big decision. I can not tell you which school to attend, but I can help you think through your choices, hear your reasoning, and provide guidance about all the things you need to consider.
During the course of your research, you may find a gem of a school that does not meet all the above criteria but is a great fit for your family. YAY! I celebrate all schools where you feel secure in your child's safety and education. That is the main goal. So while I love authentic Montessori education, I love even more that you are an informed parent who made an intentional choice with the best knowledge available to you. All of that is a success in my book.
I hope your hunt for a school is a successful one!