A happy place to learn!
In 1962, Betty Hengst, a first-year English teacher, sat in the Melbourne High School teachers' lounge and was advised by the other teachers "You know, this is going to ruin you for teaching anywhere else."
"What incredible luck I had, to learn how to teach from a principal who was at least fifty years ahead of his time," said Betty. "Each day was a wonderful adventure, discovering that 'the sky is the limit' when the school's only goal is teaching students how to learn."
Ten years later, after trying out many schools as a substitute teacher, Betty faced the fact that the Melbourne teachers' words were true; if she was going to be happy with a school, she'd have to start it herself. By now, Betty and her husband, Werner, an IBM systems analyst, had another urgent need: they wanted the best possible education for their four- year-old daughter Christy.
"When we signed the lease for our first classroom we had only seven children enrolled," says Betty, whose warmth and enthusiasm put me at ease right away. "Now the school has five locations in Yorktown Heights and Carmel serving over 320 students who range from infants all the way up through the sixth grade."
"They come from more than 20 different school districts, and some parents drive over an hour each way to get them here."
"Our number one priority has always been the children, which is why almost the entire budget is spent on those things that directly help the students - excellent teachers and first-rate teaching materials, and a ratio of six to one! With that many children and more than 50 teachers, we still have only 5 on our office staff, counting Werner and myself."
Such a small administration may seem unusual but it fits perfectly with Montessori's philosophy.
"We choose our teachers very carefully," Betty explains, " and then trust them to do what's best for the children without constantly looking over their shoulders, As most human beings do, they live up to that trust."
"Each of our classes is different because each of our head teachers has his or her own set of talents and interests. We treasure that variety, and I think the enthusiasm for learning that is transmitted to the children may well be our best achievement. And, it helps to have some very capable and versatile administrative people."
Executive director Elizabeth Silverman is an example. Silverman has been with Montessori for 16 years. "She is one of those people who never say 'It's not my job'," Hengst said. "She does whatever needs doing and she does all of it incredibly well."
Both of Silverman's children were students at Montessori, and her daughter, Nancy, also became a teacher. Nancy's daughter and her twin babies, in turn, are enrolled.
June Willis, the registrar and bookkeeper, has worked for the school for 21 years. Hengst calls her an "unflappable rock" in the office, even when things get hectic. Diane Dobbins, the capable and gracious secretary, is the newest office staff member."
Nationwide, the turnover rate for pre-school teachers is more than fifty percent per year. At Montessori that number is less than 5 percent. "That makes my job so much easier," Hengst said, "because I don't have to spend lots of time trying to find new teachers - not to mention the security that gives the children!"
Stability in the teaching ranks is also nothing unusual. Tamiko O'Reilly, head teacher of a nursery kindergarten class in Yorktown, has taught at Our Montssori School for 25 years. Like many of the teachers, O'Reilly started her career with OMS as a parent working part-time to help with tuition for her children.
"I like the trust and confidence our director has in my ability to run the class." said O'Reilly. "She trusts me to do the best job possible and I can't betray that trust."
Nancy Zegarelli, O'Reilly's assistant, agrees. "I've worked here for 15 years," she says, "and still, every day is exciting," she said. "We know that the children are eager to learn if only we give them the chance. We expect a lot from these kids, and they never disappoint us."
"We strive for a sense of harmony." added O'Reilly. The Montessori philosophy assumes that children are naturally curious and that they have a natural desire to learn. In the same way that Betty gives me freedom to run my class, I encourage Nancy and my two other assistants, all Montessori-trained, to use their ingenuity to come up with new ways to help our children. The whole team uses that same approach with the children, according to O'Reilly.
Elaborating, she said, "Gold stars and other rewards are not necessary. They actually do harm because the reward becomes the important thing, rather than the work, and takes on a life of its own."
Linda Teach is in her 24th year at the school, teaching a class of three-, four- and five-year-olds. Similar to many teachers who have family members educated at Montessori, both of her grandchildren are enrolled in the school, having started in the infant program.
"I see our role as teachers of these little ones to be nurturing, caring and loving," Teach said. "Many of the children whose parents work full-time are with us for six or eight hours a day. During that time, they need someone who really pays attention to them as individuals."
"Since we have three ages in the same class, only about a third are new children each year. The other two thirds are 'old hands' and they set the tone for the class. The other two thirds are 'old hands' and they set the tone for the class. It's a wonderful example of positive peer pressure. Being in the same class for three years gives the children continuity and a chance to experience the role of the youngest, middle and oldest child. It's almost like a family."
"But best of all," says Linda, "I can teach something new to a small group according to their ability, not their age. Children are ready for multiplication, for example, at all different ages, so it makes sense to teach it when, and only when, they are ready."
Having the children for three years means Teach really get to have a relationship with each one. She gets a lot of Mother's Day cards and birthday invitations and is starting to get children of my first students in my classes.
Clara Marullo, an honors graduate of Oxford University, teaches a class of fourth-, fifth- and sixth- graders.
"What I like about teaching here," she says, "is that I can really make a difference, really help these kids learn to think and to become strong, competent people."
Marullo's class is participating in the JASON project, which involves real research and the thrill of discovery on a near-adult level. At the same time, my students "are learning to work together, to bounce ideas off each other and to respect each individual point of view."
Having three ages in the same class may appear a bit of unorthodox but Marullo said it's one of the strengths of the program.
"The kids teach each other,and often the teachers learn as much as the learners," she said. "They are all going through that golden age of childhood when they are fascinated by the world that's opening up before them and are not yet distracted by the stresses and raging hormones of adoloscence, so it's a time of opportunity for us teachers to challenge these students to strive for excellence."
Marullo is both a teacher and a parent at the school. Her son, who is four, came home from school in tears the other day, she recalls, "because he wanted to stay and finish his Antarctic food chain. And this is just one of the wonderful projects invented by his teachers."
No academic limits are imposed on the children, and, like their teachers, they are free to grow at their own pace. "When I first started to teach at Our Montessori School, Betty, the director, told me she had never known a teacher to invent a boring lesson. This has stuck in my mind as a kind of mantra, and I see it work in the classroom every day."
As a teacher, Marullo said she adores the freedom to design my own projects and, as a parent, is excited to see how the children respond. "How many other elementary schools can put on a play in French or sing in Slovak?"
The third element in this transit is parental. Patti Bancone whose daughter Lucy is enrolled in Teach's class, said her child likes the individualized attention from teachers.
"She is a strong-willed little girl and, for a while, she insisted on holding onto her security blanket." said Bancone. "Without a big power struggle, she was allowed to lose the blanket gradually, as the teachers got her interested in other things. The teachers are just great, each one different and loving in her own way."
David Pineiro recalls how his wife, Annette, visited the Montessori infant class in Carmel only a week after they moved into their new house in Brewster.
"She was crazy about what she saw," he said. "The four-to-one ratio, the quality of the teachers, the give-and-take among the babies, all of it made her feel that she could safely leave our daughter Amalia, only six months old at the time, in this environment."
Pineiro said his wife particularly liked the fact that the teachers seemed to really enjoy working with the kids and the kids seemed to love every minute, too. "Amalia, now in the nursery class, has done so beautifully that we enrolled my son, Armand, in the same program," Pineiro said.
According to Faith Lippe, whose daughter Stefanie attended a nursery/kindergarten class in Yorktown, she is constantly telling other Our Montessori.
"Stefanie blossomed in the mixed-age environment," said Lippe. And Lippe loved the way the kids helped one another and the respect the teachers showed the children and each other.
Stefanie came home counting in French, recalled Lippe, who can see how the "concrete Montessori math material has developed her understanding of math concepts."
Helen and Paul Hastings of Croton-on-Hudson have three children enrolled in the school. "They are all flourishing," says Paul, "each in their own unique way. The school offers them exactly what they need when they most need it, and not only in academics, but in social and emotional development as well."
The Hastings' youngest is not yet eligible for school-bus transportation and I ask about the chore of driving her all the way to Yorktown Heights.
"It's well worth it," Helen said. When we first enrolled our oldest, we were so impressed with the attention he received and with the skill his teacher showed in identifying his needs that we were sold on the school.
We have always felt that Montessori offers the next best thing to home schooling, with some added benefits to boot."