One of the more unlikely beneficiaries of the economic downturn has come to light in recent weeks: more people are signing up to learn to teach Montessori.
The teaching method prizes independent learning for young children, and Montessori Centre International, the institution responsible for training teachers, is reporting a significant rise in interest – as a result, it believes, of the recession.
"People are more interested – maybe there is something positive in horrible situations," says Barbara Isaacs, the centre's academic director. In the first week of term alone, she says, she had to interview an extra 10 people wanting to get on to the course. "This is an opportunity for people to think about what they really want from their lives."
One of the things attracting career-changers to the profession is the relatively flexible process of becoming a qualified Montessori teacher. The full-time early-childhood course takes 36 weeks, plus 420 hours of teaching practice. The part-time course also takes 36 weeks, but can take up to three years with teaching practice hours. There are several study schedules to choose from, including evening classes; both courses have two entry points, September and February; and there are a number of other part-time and distance-learning options.
The course is simply the starting point for prospective teachers. "We give students the tools, but it is a lifelong journey," says Isaacs. One student is Christina Rochford, 37, who began the Montessori course in September and is due to finish in July. She worked as a call-centre manager for 12 years.
"I just made the decision that there is more to life than the drudgery of working in the middle of London and running the rat race," she says.
Like many Montessori career-changers, Rochford has witnessed firsthand the benefits of the method, having sent her son to a Montessori school. "I think socially and mentally the children are a lot more balanced because they're allowed to have independence to understand right and wrong and work as a little community," she says. "They can explore the world without being given structured days. It's more organic."
The Montessori method is generally understood to be learning through play. Often, says Isaacs, people don't understand what that means. "High-quality play is hard work. It requires cognitive skills, social skills, invention, creativity and lots of concentration. We do not have a better tool for children to learn than play. If they can engage in an activity, they get a lot out of it."
The main challenge for teachers, says Isaacs, is "not to be the teacher. You observe the child and you help the child – only if they need help." Teachers are required to carefully prepare classrooms and to diligently observe which elements work for which children. Like all teachers, they must also have energy in levels similar to those demanded by City jobs, Isaacs says.
Many former business professionals say they feel refreshed by life as a teacher in a Montessori school. "The children are very different to your clients and tend to be extremely straightforward," says Simon Arthur, who set up the Pelican Nursery in Kennington, south London, after working in the City (see box). "You get away from all that office nonsense," he says.
One concern is the relatively low starting salary of £16,000-£17,000. But many teachers begin with an eye to setting up their own nursery, which can be turned into a profitable venture.
Yet to talk of money is perhaps missing the point. "It's more about what you're giving back to society," Rochford says. "It's a great chance to do something meaningful."
Farewell, rat race
Simon Arthur, 41, runs Pelican Nursery School, a Montessori nursery in Kennington, south London. "Although I had a good job in the City, it was boring me to death and I was tired of working for other people. Retraining as a full-scale teacher takes a long time and I really wanted to start my own business. So a good compromise was to start a Montessori school.
The course was only a year and I was still working while I was training, doing three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Having done the academic part, I arranged to be made redundant; I wasn't exactly a star employee anyway. Then I did the required teaching practice hours.
I'd always known that I couldn't survive on the salary, so I sold my house to raise the capital to buy St Anselm's Church Hall in Kennington. It was quite a big risk and I wasn't very experienced, but I got loads of advice – everybody in the Montessori community helps each other out. In May 2007 we opened with two pupils. Now we have about 45, and we first made a profit in September last year.
From my point of view, I'm certainly making more money now doing this – although I'm working a great deal harder.
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