My Montessori Life by Peter Davidson
38 years ago I was a grad student at the University of Kentucky working on my elementary teaching certificate, and I was frustrated and disillusioned. I was frustrated that education seemed not to have changed or improved since my own childhood. I was disillusioned by the 7- and 8-year olds I met while student teaching who had already self-identified at their young age as “bad”, “stupid”, “lazy” and “disinterested.” It was as if I could see their futures spread out before them, barren and hopeless, and yet I felt powerless within that system to make a difference for them. I was on the verge of giving up on a career in education when a serendipitous occurrence changed my path.
I was working nights as a waiter to pay the bills while still in school. Toward the end of my shift one night a regular customer asked, “What’s a smart guy like you doing waiting tables?” When I told him of my frustration and disillusionment with teaching, he said, “You should go to Bergamo, Italy and take the Montessori training.” Talk about messages from the universe!
I didn’t have the funds to travel to Italy, but I did have a library card, so I checked out the one copy of Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook in the U.K. library. I think I read it cover-to-cover, in just one weekend – an accomplishment in itself. Here was this woman writing in 1914 but speaking to me of a new vision of education, far beyond anything I had imagined, but one that resonated and made sense. She spoke of things I hoped and believed to be true about children and education but which I had never heard articulated before nor had the wherewithal to articulate myself.
I looked back over my own experiences with children in student teaching and tutoring elementary “under achievers,” my experiments with making education more of an exploration and less of a drill, my crude attempts to fashion experiential teaching tools out of clay and paper, and suddenly saw them in a larger context. Here were ideas and methodologies and materials I had been struggling to find or create but in a form that had been in successful use for decades! Here was something that was both idealistic and practical, full of creativity but which also appealed to my common sense.
On Monday morning I showed up at the career counseling center and eventually uncovered a pamphlet from the Washington Montessori Institute. It was now nearly the end of term. Once exams were over, I quit my restaurant job and graduate school program, packed up my truck with all of my worldly belongings and my transcripts, and drove to Washington D.C. I managed to navigate my way through the confusing D.C. streets to find the training center, ran up the steps and into the building and announced that, “I am here to take the Montessori teacher training!” The nice lady at the front desk regretfully informed me that the course was full, but that they were opening a new training center in Cincinnati. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than I was heading my truck back out to the highway, bound for Ohio.
In those days, Montessori materials were made in Holland and shipped across the ocean. When I arrived at the training center office I found the young course assistant sitting on the floor surrounded by enormous wooden packing crates. I repeated my announcement and she responded, “That’s great! Now, how about giving me a hand?” and passed me a crowbar. From that day to this, I have never looked back, and it has been “great” and it’s been hard work too.
After completing my training and teaching for one year in Cincinnati, I moved out to the Portland area to teach at Vancouver Montessori School. In 1981, my wife and I borrowed the money from her parents to buy a tiny Montessori school with one classroom of materials, a lease in a public school building, and an enrolment of 9. Over the next 27 years we, along with a growing community of committed teachers and parents, built one of the finest schools in the Portland area, if not the U.S. The Montessori School of Beaverton today is a non-profit board-run school for 180 students ages three through twelve with carefully designed buildings on six hilly acres. Over the years we touched the lives of hundreds of students and their families.
It is those students, now grown up and many with families of their own, who represent the proof that what we dedicated our lives to was indeed worthwhile. Some are business entrepreneurs, others run non-profit organizations, are artists or scientists or even teachers. What they all have in common is strong sense of self, of personal integrity, of tolerance and inclusiveness, and of mission. They all share a desire to make a contribution to make their community and their world better. They value their Montessori education and many of them consider themselves lucky that their parents found a place where they could realize their potential and grow as thoughtful, responsible and self-motivated human beings. In retrospect though, I was the lucky one. It’s not everyone who gets the chance to be in on the ground floor of building an institution wholly dedicated to good work that makes the world a little better every day and that will outlive me by decades.
Since retiring from Headship in 2007, I have scaled back to part-time work as an adjunct administrator with Montessori in Redlands, California, allowing me the time to travel the world to speak on administrative topics and Montessori. Montessori is an international language and I have spoken in the U.S. and Canada, in Europe and Asia and Australia. I am also the founding President of the Montessori Administrators Association, an AMI affiliate that serves Montessori schools by supporting administrators, and a regular blogger on their parent education site mariamontessori.com. I also serve on several non-profit boards, including the Association Montessori Internationale and this training center, Montessori Institute Northwest.
And so my story is one of moving from frustration and disillusionment to a life of satisfaction and accomplishment, making a real difference in children’s lives and therefore the world, thanks to a career in Montessori.