Maintaining Montessori

School district struggles to find teachers trained in the specialized teaching method

Minneapolis teacher Ralph Sievert, 23, is taking a class at the College of St. Catherine this summer to become certified to teach the Montessori method. Pursuing the two-year degree could cost him as much as $10,000.

But Sievert, a recent college graduate, says it’s worth it in exchange for a job teaching at a Minneapolis school, especially as a young teacher wanting to work in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). In the fall, he’ll teach 3rd grade at Armatage Montessori School, 2501 W. 56th St., which shares a building with a community school program.

Sievert first became familiar with the Montessori philosophy as a substitute teacher at Armatage. He praised the hands-on, individualized Montessori approach to learning. “I like how it’s very child-centered. The kids take a lot of responsibility for their own learning,” he said.

Sievert is one of several Minneapolis teachers currently taking the St. Catherine’s course as part of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed recently by MPS and its teachers’ union as a way to recoup a shortage of Montessori teachers.

He and at least one other young teacher in the class will start teaching at Armatage Montessori in the fall, on the condition that they pursue the Montessori training which extends throughout the school year and next summer.

But the MOA is a temporary solution to a deeper, ongoing problem.

Montessori was established as a magnet program in the 1970s in MPS to lure families seeking an off-the-beaten path option to traditional community school programs. Now the program is offered at Armatage; Seward Montessori, 2309 28th Ave. S.; and Park View, 252 Upton Ave. S. Enrollment has grown steadily, and each school is filled to capacity.

Teachers must be trained in specialized learning techniques for Montessori programs. Montessori is based on Italian Maria Montessori’s 1929 teachings. Children stick with the same teacher for three years. They use learning aids to build skills that become increasingly more advanced through time.

Differences between Montessori and traditional schools are abundant, ranging from how the classroom is organized to the materials they use to how the teacher-student dynamic functions. For example, children don’t learn math with pencil and paper, but with a wooden abacus-like math tool. A moveable alphabet demonstrates how to “sound out” words.

Armatage Principal Joan Franks has compared learning the Montessori method to learning another language. “If you can’t speak the language, then it’s hard. Everyone agrees there should be a trained person in that role,” she said.

Keeping qualified teachers is tricky both because of seniority rules that bump teachers without tenure and the cost of Montessori certification. In some cases, that has led to the hiring of non-Montessori-trained teachers in Montessori schools. Not surprisingly, that upsets parents and other community members who choose Montessori specifically for its principles. They say that not having teachers with the right qualification detracts from the program’s integrity.

A larger, ongoing problem

Acquiring the Montessori credential is a risk. It isn’t officially recognized by the district or state, unlike other licensed credentials such as special education, so there’s little incentive for teachers to go for it. Montessori isn’t the only teaching expertise that isn’t licensed. Music, language immersion and art also require special skills but aren’t qualified with licenses.

Some want to see Montessori become licensed. But that’s a two-year process with the state teacher’s board, and it’s rife with problems. One reason is that many Montessori teachers trained in the philosophy but never formally acquired certification.

Previously, the teacher-realignment practice, which shifted teachers to other jobs depending on their licenses and seniority (a practice that was temporarily frozen this year), shifted some Montessori teachers out of the system.

Last year, the district and teachers’ union arrived at another MOA, which stated that Montessori certification could override seniority rules because, otherwise, it would displace some Montessori teachers. However, after teacher layoffs this spring, there were six Montessori openings at Armatage and Seward Montessori combined. Even though the groundwork had been laid, few teachers with Montessori credentials stepped forward.

That’s why the district encouraged teachers like Sievert and another Montessori teacher in training, Christian Houdek, to become certified. But Seward still has an open Montessori position. Seward Principal Marilyn Levine said she hopes the district will allow her to search for a Montessori teacher outside of the district if no one applies for the job.

Maintaining Montessori

The cost and time commitment of Montessori training turns away some. Right now, the district is also looking into a plan that would compensate teachers for undergoing Montessori certification by boosting their salaries. However, that isn’t likely to kick in until next summer, according to Area “C,” or Southwest, Interim Superintendent Craig Vana.

Dennis Schapiro, a former school board member and the editor of the Public School Montessorian, said the MPS scenario isn’t unique, but it is a snapshot of what’s taking place in mid-sized urban districts nationwide.

Many other districts are coping with a scarcity of Montessori teachers as a result of declining enrollment, flight from desegregation and other political hurdles. Furthermore, Montessori isn’t a good fit with the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind.

“As the parent market for Montessori becomes more middle class, what’s the public policy as opposed to marketing to kids who have fewer opportunities?” raised Schapiro.

But he said he’s optimistic about the MOA that’s allowing for teachers to pursue Montessori training.

“We should be able to find ways to honor both teachers’ needs for security and their integrity,” he said.

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or apratt@mnpubs.com.