I walked into AMI Elementary Montessori training in the sweltering Maryland summer of 2010. I had been out of college a short time and had recently found my way back to the Montessori school I grew up at. While trying to consider how to turn my American Culture degree (“Study what you love!” they said.) into a job that could actually support me, I started working as a substitute. I was back between the old walls of my childhood, handling the materials and finding a familiar excitement and awe in watching the children learn and truly enjoy the process. As I marched off to various job interviews, yet came home with stories from the classroom, my dad echoed the sentiment. “Do what you love,” he said.
So there I was in Columbia, Maryland, waiting nervously in a windowless conference room with the air conditioning blasting against the summer heat. In shuffles a little, gray haired woman, old enough to be my grandmother and simply beaming at her new students. She promptly sat down and clasped her hands on the table in front of her, smiling at each of us. Then Kay Baker got right to business.
Early into training, Kay told us, “You must come to training, away from everything that is comfortable, to be with people you do not know, to prepare yourself.” I wasn’t so sure about that on days when a cubed root lesson may be followed by singing “Mouse, Mousie” and then topped off with a lesson on dozens of leaf shapes. While I truly loved much what I was learning, the sheer volume of it overwhelmed me. The elementary curriculum is like a giant web of knowledge, so even though you may be giving a math lesson, it could contain the Greek roots of words or a historical story about an ancient civilization. As Montessori elementary teachers, we are charged with giving children “the world.” It can feel like an impossible task.
As the grueling pace of training wore on, Kay, was careful to plant seeds of wisdom and practicality into our lessons. One of the human tendencies Dr. Montessori identifies is the tendency towards perfection, yet Kay reminded us that this does not mean we should work to be perfect. Instead, she emphasized the journey of perfecting. As she wrote us long, complex sentences, spanning feet of paper and encouraged us to analyze them, she engaged in debate and discussion and was delighted when one of us would point out something she hadn’t yet considered.
In learning, there are moments where it clicks. It may be after long hours of practice or perhaps with new words that strike perfectly to form understanding. Kay inspired these moments joyfully, and always with a twinkle in her eye. These times in training reminded me of other moments in my life, many from my childhood years in Montessori classrooms. Lessons that got me so excited to research endlessly. Assignments with space to investigate my true interests. Opportunities to do what I love.
Doing what you love and finding joy in learning is a crucial component of Montessori education. Children are born into the world with an innate curiosity and interest in the things around them. In Montessori elementary, the interconnectedness of all topics allows children to strengthen all of their skills while developing their passions and engaging in the learning process. When education offers opportunities to explore these passions, this fire keeps burning within the child and a love of learning becomes an orientation to the world.
At the end of training, Kay sent us off and reminded us, “It is an impossible job. We come to it because we love.” I once thought it odd that she did not define what or whom we love. After years in the classroom, watching children come alive through their pursuits and grow from the challenges presented when they dive deeply into learning about what they love, I understand. Kay’s words were precise and purposeful. It doesn’t matter if something is impossible, for if we do what we love and come to the world curious about what we can learn, aren’t all things possible?
In memory of Kay Baker, who loved learning and passed away on April 20, 2019.