On a day sometime in September 1990, I experienced one of the most profound days of my life – I observed in a Montessori classroom and knew in every cell in my body and soul that I had found my passion. I don’t recall the exact date but I do recall the very moment when I just knew. This. Was. It.
I was 17 years old, an au pair to a young boy who would eventually be diagnosed with Bipolar as a teenager after many painful years. He was 5 at the time and had been expelled from 3 schools prior to starting at his Montessori school. Because of his history with behavioural issues, the directress, Susan, asked that I accompany him to school so that if his behaviour became out of control, I could take him home immediately. But until he misbehaved, my instruction was to sit as unobtrusively as possible in a corner of the classroom.
In the year that I did this, I only took the boy home twice. Otherwise, day in and day out for a year, I observed and learnt how a Montessori classroom worked. I was a completely blank slate – on the first day I didn’t even know how to pronounce Montessori…
And I will cherish that year always because before I knew the word “normalization”, I witnessed it. Before I had studied the 52 steps to pouring beans, I observed presentations and practice. Before I read about the explosion into writing, I had the privilege of experiencing it through a child. No words, no theory, no knowledge – just experience.
Susan was the most incredible mentor – one of the truest Montessorians I have ever met. She has no idea how profoundly she influences my daily practice, even today nearly 30 years later.
I went from that experience to studying Montessori in the first group of students to do their part-time training in South Africa with the London Montessori Centre (under the guidance of Lucy Thomas (now Cronje) in 1991. Lucy too has no idea how much of a positive influence she continues to have in my daily experience as a Montessorian. I even still use notes she gave us in lectures!
Why am I sharing this? Well, today I encountered yet another experience of being faced with a comment like “ can you please look at using AMI trained people so that…” and you know, such a divisive statement shocks me to my core.
I have the utmost respect for AMI – its history, its current leadership and its invaluable role in being the keepers and protectors of Dr Montessori’s legacy. But AMI alone are not the keepers and protectors – we all are. Even if we were not trained in an AMI training centre. I do not believe for a moment that AMI’s leadership endorses any form of superiority, divisive or judgmental actions and words. In fact I know the opposite to be true. But it is present in our community and it is a problem.
Unless we start embracing the idea of WE, and mean it, Montessori in South Africa is going to continue to shatter into tiny, fragmented pieces. Until we stop the “them” and “us” mind-set, we will not progress. Until we value our diversity and our richness, we will not survive.
We need to move beyond the “them” and “us” because it is restrictive, punitive and unproductive. We need to move towards ourselves and each other and start truly engaging with understanding and consciously practising Dr Montessori’s famous quote : “We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”
What does this mean? Well perhaps it means…
The realization that when we criticize the school down the road for not being authentic enough, “AMI enough”, we are behaving like products of traditional education – criticizing, ostracizing, judging, having a “pass/fail” mentality.
Instead we need to understand that that school is part of us and therefore we should extend to them all the things we learnt about being a spiritually prepared adult. Where is our ability to be compassionate, extend a hand and heart, help, guide, mentor? Why is it so hard for Montessorians – AMI trained and not AMI trained – to apply what we do with the children to each other?
I am not saying endorse poor practice – I am saying we need to change our response to it. If we keep judging, if we keep criticizing, if we keep telling people they are inferior, we are going to keep the status quo.
Instead of looking at organisations like SAMA as the “them” and ourselves as the “us” understand that if you are a SAMA member, you are SAMA. When you ask the question “What does SAMA do for me?” ask it first in the mirror. Because SAMA is not separate from you.
Back to the beginning…and the gift of my first Montessori encounters. To this day, I have no idea if Susan was AMI trained or not. No idea if her school was AMI or AMS affiliated or not. I have no idea really where Lucy Cronje did her Montessori training.
What I do know and remember so vividly is that they SERVED CHILDREN. First and foremost, they served children (and continue to do so). And in the moments of memories of them, this is what stands out more than anything. It is not their paper credentials, it is not their external affiliations – it is their service to children that makes them a part of me.
And in my understanding that it is the service to children that makes an authentic Montessorian.
Your authenticity as a Montessorian does not come from an external source, not from a piece of paper that tells you “You are now authentic”. It is through your internal actions and service to the child that authenticity is present, so gently, so humbly and so perfectly.