Risk-Taking Mindsets: Montessori Scientists in the Field

When people think of “risk-taking”, they usually imagine base-jumpers in flying squirrel suits screaming towards earth or the gambler putting it all on the roll of the dice, or the guy without a helmet barreling past on a Harley. What people don’t picture as the epitome of risk-taking, is being a preschool teacher…but they should.

Risky Business

Risk is defined as: a situation involving exposure to danger. My experience has been that when you are faced with something risky, you weigh the danger, then build courage through knowledge and skill so you can leap or not, and have a strategy for extraction ready in your back pocket.

I am very familiar with risk-taking: it’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember. Coming from an adventurous outdoor-oriented family, I have numerous tales about the risky situations we faced. My earliest memories are of being lost in the forest hiking with my family and of being thrown out of a boat into the mighty Willamette River in Oregon. As a child, the forest was my backyard and I was master of the canopy with lookouts in the mighty firs and cedars.

Now in my middle years, I can see how the risks I faced as a child may look a bit reckless on the part of my parents, but I actually think this is where they served me well: they offered me opportunities for risk-taking where I gained familiarity and practice with risk and failure, essential ingredients for surviving the vagaries of life. I found out that the riskiest leaps in life have the highest return on investment in terms of personal and professional growth.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset

Being open to a new approach and not being afraid to fail in the undertaking are indicators of a growth mindset which enabled me to strategize for the challenge of leading 24 three to six year olds all day every day and ultimately, love it.

The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. —Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

Little did I know that my comfort with risk taking would be a necessary skill and one validated by my chosen profession as a Montessori teacher.

Overcoming Growing Pains

My personal path to understanding my affect was paved with growing pains. Like many that have come before me, this story could be theirs as much as it is mine. My first year teaching was a doozy. Every day was a constant trial trying new strategies to settle the class and meet the children’s needs. I felt like I was drowning. I wondered how I was going to survive the chaotic class I acquired; the more intensified the mayhem became, the more my confidence plummeted.

Humans are endowed with an amazing ability to adapt to change, yet it seems we’re also vulnerable to complacency, quickly accepting our “new normal” as some kind of immunity to the pain of adapting. Maybe one of the greatest dangers to effective teaching is accepting the status quo. The antidote may differ according to the sensibilities of the afflicted, but for me, I tapped into my upbringing and training to shake up my perceptions of what I had accepted as normal.

After several months of daily despair, I finally found the humility and courage to ask an outside observer to visit and give feedback. Her advice? To find inspiration that would help me at least finish the year with the children and work on having a new start next year. Her words alone were enough to inspire me: the anticipation of facing the chaos for that long kick-started me to shake my fixed mindset and stretch my understanding of my affect.

Scientist in the Field

Standing on the shoulders of the work Dr. Maria Montessori, I pulled up my proverbial knickers, donned my Field Scientist lens and began a lifelong quest of embracing learning opportunities.

We must revise our concepts, our attitudes, our educational systems if we wish to help man to become more cultured, more disciplined, more open to abstract ideas; if our aim is indeed to help him grow to become a citizen of the world. —Dr. Maria Montessori

Today, as a Montessori school consultant, I observe public and private schools across the United States and am witness to a broad range of approaches and effectiveness in the classroom setting. What I’ve observed is there is a noticeable correlation between the adults’ mindset and the smooth running of the school or classroom.

Making the Difference

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck promotes the idea that our mindset is the understanding of where ability comes from. When an influential adult like a parent or teacher, coaches a child to embrace their mistakes and stretch themselves in their efforts to learn, there is a marked difference in the child’s overall performance and well-being.

I contend that this same phenomena is true for those serving children: preschool teachers that embrace what doesn’t work as an opportunity that defines learning, are more likely to influence this growth mindset in children and create a more effective approach to classroom management.

The danger to teachers of a fixed mindset, one that promotes the idea that ability is innate and cannot be changed through effort, is that it threatens to paralyze them from risking an action that might fail since a failure would reflect on that innate ability.

Author Keith Heggert emphasizes in Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff, that there are identifiable ways in which adults can acquire this effective mindset including getting formative feedback, working in a climate in which mistakes are seen as opportunities, and where effort is noticed rather than innate ability.

In hindsight, I am grateful I was young with energy to take on the seemingly Sisyphean task of transforming a disordered classroom climate into a peaceful learning one, one lesson, one day at a time. After a painful year of risking new strategies,some minute and others epic, I witnessed a harmony descend upon the classroom which floated into the next year.

That may not seem as extreme a risk as rafting the Grand Canyon, but in the life of each child in that classroom community, the risk I took in disrupting the status quo, made a far-reaching difference.

Sounds like risk-taking by a preschool teacher to me.


To find out about optimizing your Montessori environment, contact Tammy Oesting, lifelong learner and risk-taking adventurer, at tammyoesting@classroomechanics.com


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, avrene.

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