My Life As A Montessori Teacher
The very second I realized that a Career In Poetry would not be a good financial choice, I decided, after kind of loafing along for four years, at Virginia Tech, to finish ASAP so I could get Montessori training and continue my dream of being a writer. I had kept quitting because I just wanted to write, and there seemed no clear connection between getting this degree in English (in the early seventies, there was no creative writing curriculum at Tech) and writing–though, of course, there was. For one glorious fall, I lived with my best friend in bucolic New Hampshire. Another quarter–oh, that’s a whole different story.
At any rate, I started taking at least 24 hours a quarter, and hurried to get out of there, because my new plan hove into sight.
I became interested in Montessori because in my parapetitic life as a student, in which I moved from place to place like a grasshopper, enjoying every room or tiny apartment, all in gloriously old and run-down houses (“Where do you find these places?” my mother asked once, slightly disraught, as she visited yet another environment) I lived in Craig County with my best friend Wanda and a teacher updating her credentials, Bette Hestle. She introduced me to Cecile (then) Keller, who owned and operated a Montessori school in Blacksburg. I thought, hmmm, I could do this–run my own business, have complete control; teach kids three hours every morning, and have enough free time to write.
I looked into training. The main Association Montessori Institute was, at that time, at 2119 S Street in Washington, D.C. I could live at my parent’s house and ride the bus into town (this was before the Metro, and I’d been bussing into town for years–mostly for various jobs). One had to have a degree to take the course, and it was preferred that it not be in teaching. That is so you wouldn’t have preconceived ideas about preschoolers, curriculum, or teaching. You could approach the training process, which entails a lot about how to unemotionally observe activities and behaviors, like a scientist.
Once accepted, I worked for the Department of the Treasury the summer after I graduated university, then began training, which was rigorous. Catholic University had a program that would convert the training course to a Master’s degree in education, for a fee, but of course I would soon be a Famous Writer, with no need for badges. Well, it was the seventies. Right before that were, you know, the sixties.
I enjoyed many aspects of the course. I enjoyed walking around Washington during my lunch hour. Sometimes I would get a sandwich and find an Embassy gardenthat I could slip into, open up the plastic lid of my coffee, and admire the fall, spring, and winter aspects of their courtyards. No one ever objected. I enjoyed early mornings at the schools where I “observed,” when the children arrived fresh and expectant. I did not like the odd strictness I saw at two of the observation schools, though, and decided this was not my bag. I told my mother I planned to quit, and she said, “It’s only a few more months–and at least you’ll be qualified to do something.” I could have taken a few Mickey Mouse courses at Tech in order to teach high school English, but I hated my years in high school, and wanted to do something that would change things, not help perpetuate a system I found boring and wasteful of my precious years of learning.
Once I graduated, I immediately took off with my now-husband, my high school sweetheart,who was in medical school, for a little six-thousand mile trip to various National Parks out west for a six week backpacking stint. While on the trip, I got word from Cecile that she had a job opening.
From the Oregon coast, I accepted. I learned more from Cecile than at any other place I taught. Her ex-husband was the Registrar at Tech, and she had a Master’s degree–eventually, she had several–and her school was lively, fun, stimulating, and original. She incorporated all kinds of innovated ideas such as O.K. Moore’s Autotelic Typewriter (monitered by a hired hand rather than a gigantic computer) and Sylvia Ashton Warner’s Organic Reading philosophy. No time for writing, though–two three hour sessions took up the whole day.
The following year, I married and moved to Charlottesville, where my husband was completing medical school. The only job I could find was at Barret Day Care Center on 5th Street, which was a United Way day care center. I had fourteen four-year-olds with very little equipment–I was expected to make, scrounge, or beg for what I needed. I learned a lot there, too. But–guess what! –no time to write. I was there nine hours a day, as we had to stay there for lunch, too.
In 1979, we moved to Knoxville. I worked at Knoxville Montessori, again in a two-shift situation. I had twenty-eight preschoolers in the morning, and twenty-five in the afternoon. I learned that it was not an ideal situation. Children are fresh in the morning. In the afternoon, after a morning spent in the day-care of the school, with different staff and different materials, they were ready to unwind, not concentrate. I decided to quit that spring, when I attended a board meeting and they laid out their budget for next year. Finally, I asked, “How much will teachers be paid?” They looked at me as if, to their surprise, a brick or a vase had miraculously acquired speech, but responded quickly, “They will be paid with whatever is left over.”
Deciding that their priorities were rather askew, my friend, Maria Jenkins (who had a Master’s degree from City College in New York) and I decided to start our own school. We called it Giving Tree Montessori.
No bank would loan me money. My parents gave me $2,000.00. I bought used equipment from the Virgin Islands, bricks and boards for shelves, found a church basement we could rent, and we were in business. We opened in July of 1979 with eight children. By the fall we had a waiting list, had hired aides, and two years later we were able to open an elementary school in another church, buy a ranch house and convert it into a school, and had one hundred students, many employees, and lots to do. I worked about sixty hours a week.
But guess what? No time to write.
It got easier as we became established and highly regarded; we had fewer novel situations and a little more income, though we always made sure that we were not high-priced, and included scholarship children. Most of the parents of our children were professors at UT or worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The day I turned thirty, I woke up thinking, if you’re going to be a writer, you’d better get started.
For several years, I’d painted all weekend. I painted large landscapes from photographs, and it usually took me two days to complete the pictures. But I’d realized that in order to sell the paintings, I needed to use my own images, so I learned how to be a good photographer, and began a portfolio. That went by the wayside once I began to write. For a year, I got up two hours early, went home at lunch, and spent all weekend working on my novel. And by the end of the year, I had finished COLORSTAR, my first novel, as yet unpublished.
I began to write short stories. As I drove around town, buying snacks and supplies, meeting with insurance agents, etc., I found myself thinking incessantly about my characters, what they were thinking, saying, doing.
I the meantime, things changed at the school. As often happens with partners, we began to disagree about our vision of the school. At my partner’s insistence, I agreed to close the elementary school, although, as I told her, after that we could not longer afford to pay two directors. “Find a way,” she said, but there was no way to do it. It was sad: we had highly qualified, racially diverse teachers (a former elementary school principal, and another teacher with an MA); our students never scored less than the 90% percentile on standardized tests, and we were a community model. Our parents were quite upset with us, as I had predicted. To this day I don’t understand her vehement insistence on this action. However, after a year, my husband was offered a new job in Hawaii, where I had lived as a child, and said that perhaps it was time for me to write full-time, as I had always intended. I finally agreed to leave.
It was very hard to follow through with this, but we did move to Honolulu. I missed my children terribly, and the school building (which I now own completely), was rather like my own body, in a strange way. For years I had been able to move walls, paint, add an addition, buy whatever equipment I felt was needed, implement any addition to the curriculum I thought would be good, and, in general, had a blast. And made money. It was my second home.
Although I haven’t taught in many years, I still think about having my own school again at some point. I have also realized the astonishing scientific prescience of Maria Montessori’s vision about how human children develop and learn, and appreciate more than ever how well she tied her ideas to a concrete curriculum. It has become one of the main themes of my next novel, THIS SHARED DREAM.