January 25, 2017

Princeton Montessori’s Michelle Jacob: “I Always Knew I Was Going to Be a Teacher”

Michelle Jacob, science and math teacher and middle school program coordinator at Princeton Montessori School, feels she has found her vocation and her niche. “There’s always new things I want to introduce to the program,” she said, “but I would love to stay where I am with what I’m doing.”

Ms. Jacob joined Princeton Montessori School in 2008 after ten years at Princeton Charter School and four years before that at St. Paul Roman Catholic School. She lives with her husband and two children in Montgomery, where she serves on the Township Environmental Commission.

Always a Teacher 

“When I was little,” Ms. Jacob recalled, “I would play teacher. I also had some great elementary school teachers who definitely had an impact on me. I always knew I was going to be a teacher.”

Not only did she quickly gravitate toward the profession, but after working at a summer camp with kids from kindergarten to sixth grade during her high school and college years she knew that her focus would be on younger children. Her affinity for math and science teaching came a bit later.

“I feel there are a lot of kids who are alienated from math and science,” she said. “I wanted to show kids that they absolutely can do it, that it’s not a mysterious thing that only certain people can be good at. I wanted to show them that there’s a world out there they can access. I love doing all the hands-on stuff with both math and science. I love when kids discover things on their own. I love when they can manipulate things to come up with new ideas.”

Montessori Method

Ms. Jacob first encountered Montessori through her own children, and she quickly realized that her beliefs about teaching and learning fit perfectly with the Montessori method. “I remember when I was in middle school, for science we just read from a text book. I wanted to make sure that kids didn’t have that completely boring experience in my classes. I wanted them to use their brains and use tools and discover things and be curious and figure things out.”

Noting the similarities between her life-long philosophy and the Montessori philosophy, Ms. Jacob explained, “We do a whole lot of work across the curriculum, with kids inquiring and figuring out what they want to know and how they’re going to figure it out and test it. We do a lot of exploration.”

She continued, “It’s not as if there are no guidelines. There are certainly ways of doing things and materials that help with that, but it’s really about having kids discover the next thing. We emphasize independent work, but also we model and instruct about how to be a good team member. We use a lot of labs, simulations, and real-life skills.”

Ms. Jacob described how her eighth graders pick a particular initiative, a local issue or a global issue, and they come up with a plan for pursuing that issue and making an impact. “One of our students last year,” she said, “was concerned about food waste, so he worked on that problem. He had a shelter and a restaurant talking about how they could communicate and use food more efficiently. And we have a student this year working to get her soccer club to collect supplies to donate to Haiti. So they’re finding a
passion, which will be helpful when they go to high school, because when a kid has a passion everything else falls into place.”

As a science teacher, Ms. Jacob is frequently able to fuse her concerns for the environment with her teaching at the Montessori School. She discussed a lesson on soil erosion featuring a visit from a local farmer and a design project where the students planned what their particular farms would look like.

“Last year we talked about where foods come from and how hard it is to become a farmer,” she said. “We talked about soil. And in the spring we’re going to study water, where it comes from, how we pollute it, how we clean it.”

In the Middle

During her 23 years in the classroom, Ms. Jacob has taught all of the elementary grades, from first to eighth, but middle school is her favorite age to work with. “Most teachers don’t even think about middle school,” she said. “They want to be elementary or high school teachers. The age is challenging for some. Some people don’t remember what it’s like to be in middle school. They kind of black it out. I remember being that age, all the things kids are going through. I can relate to what they’re saying, what they’re doing, how they’re behaving.”

Expressing concern about the inevitable constraints of high school, Ms. Jacob emphasized the importance of children’s middle school experience. “I feel that middle school might be the last chance they have to see that they can do anything they want,” she said. “Sometimes when kids get to high school they get put into little boxes, or they put themselves into boxes where they say, ‘Oh, I’ll never be good at math.’ The opportunity to give them a great experience to be excited about school before they go off to high school is fun for me.”

She went on to describe other pleasures of teaching middle schoolers. “Really they make me laugh,’ she said. “They’re so funny and so excited about things in the world. They say things that are so observant and sometimes so crazy.”

Contemporary Difficulties

In the current troubled climate for education, both public and private, Ms. Jacob showed concern about some recent trends and reiterated her commitment to the Montessori philosophy. “Education could use a big infusion of Montessori,” she said. “The idea of teaching kids just to pass a test makes me crazy. The idea of somebody deciding what a kid needs to know at a particular age is artificial. Some kids just develop more quickly than others, and some kids just aren’t ready because of family issues or health issues, or a whole host of things that could affect them on the test day. I think we need to redesign a lot of the system. We need to have kids more excited about things and less concerned with just filling in the bubbles. We do want accountability, but we don’t want tests to be that accountability.”

Other facets of the contemporary world also pose difficulties for young students, according to Ms. Jacob. “Kids have gotten over-scheduled,” she noted. “They’re almost regimented. They get so used to following a schedule that sometimes it’s hard for them to think outside the box and figure out solutions to problems.”

Social media, she added, has also posed challenges for teachers, parents, and children. “Sometimes kids have a hard time talking to each other face to face, because they’re used to communicating on a screen. It’s not as bad at Montessori where kids work together frequently and get help from each other, but I still see times when they can’t figure out what to do next without a filter between them and the person they need to talk to.”

Ms Jacob concluded, ”We want kids to be healthy, successful, happy, productive adults. They need skills more than they need to regurgitate concepts.”