Adding Equity to Montessori Training
The importance of including anti-bias, anti-racist education
Montessori educators love their training. For most, it is a transformative experience, one in which they come to see the world, and certainly children, in a special and distinctive way. Cosmic education unites practitioners in a vision of community that is cohesive and connected. Montessori education gives practitioners a shared philosophical grounding and a shared pedagogical voice. Community does count.
In an educational world where many do not understand the Montessori approach, the opportunity to come together to share commonalities is crucial. Doing so feels good, because other Montessori educators get it. But there is a flip side. Becoming effective teachers means acknowledging that both adhering to and critically assessing our training and practice is necessary. Montessori education has much to celebrate, but also much to contemplate, as practitioners continue in their calling as not only Montessori educators, but as educators in general, and citizens of the world.
Montessori education strives for equity. Equitable is defined as “fair and impartial, such as ‘an equitable balance of power’—fair, just, impartial, even-handed, unbiased, unprejudiced”. But the truth is that people do not live in equitable communities. My home state of Minnesota is a state that on the outside might seem fair, impartial and unbiased. But in a 2017 study by 24/7 Wall Street (“Black and white inequality in all 50 states”), Minnesota was ranked the second worst state in the nation for racial inequality. Sadly, racial inequality exists in all states to varying degrees.
“Many underlying causes contribute to the ongoing racial inequality in the United States — and mostly they are interconnected. Higher poverty often leads to less education, poorer health outcomes, and more crime …
In the United States, a large share of public school funding comes from local property taxes. African-Americans are about five times as likely to live in poverty and in high poverty neighborhoods than white Americans. For this reason, they are also far more likely to attend underfunded schools. The effects of attending schools with meaningfully different quality as a result of simply growing up in a particular neighborhood can affect people throughout their lives”
Further findings from a Minnesota Public Radio story (“Report: Minnesota 2nd worst state for racial inequality”) include:
Median household income for black families was $30,306. For whites, it’s $66,979.
The white unemployment rate is 3%. For black people, it’s almost three times that.
The home ownership for black people is 21.7%. For whites, it’s 76%.
A 2017 St. Paul Pioneer Press report (“15 years later, MN schools are more segregated, and achievement gap has barely budged”) stated that “Fifteen years into a nationwide push to provide every student with an equal education, Minnesota schools have grown more segregated and the state’s nation-leading academic achievement gap refuses to close.” The only state doing worse than Minnesota on all of these factors is Wisconsin. Rounding out the top five worst states for racial inequality were Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois.
Given the bleakness of these kinds of reports, what can be done? Montessori education believes that honoring the contributions of all people makes for a better world. Montessori educators believe in the children’s ability to bring about a more peaceful world. The question before educators now is—how to work toward a more equitable world? How can teachers push back against the systems of prejudice and bias that contribute to the so-called “achievement gap?”
Montessori stated in Education and Peace: “An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.” Montessori practitioners who believe in equity, peace, and the great potentialities of children cannot stand on the sidelines of justice. They can use their collective voice, their communal voice, to prepare children for the times in which they live. This preparation is, as all Montessori educators know, dependent on the preparation of the adult.
So I issue a clarion call to training centers to consider this issue. I know that many already do. However, reflecting on my own experiences, I did not receive any explicit training on how to better include those who are marginalized by society. I did not receive training on how to deal with oppression. I did not, either personally or with my training group, consider white privilege or systemic racism.
I did read and write about children as the “builders of humanity,” and how education must build a new world with our children to bring about peace—amazing and inspirational ideas. I did receive instruction on how to include cultural ideas and materials from around the world. I made geography folders. I learned how to initiate peace education. I learned that respect meant quiet voices, quiet bodies, and following the child. I taught children to respect themselves, respect others, and respect the environment, but I did so without breaking down the word “respect” in light of culture. And I was never asked to critically consider how to adapt my teaching or Montessori pedagogy to help “young people to understand the times in which they live.”
I do believe much of the fault lies with me. I wanted to reproduce the perfect Montessori environment, as illustrated and demonstrated so beautifully by my trainer. I blindly followed my exemplary instruction without critically assessing its efficacy. While my approach was effective for the mostly white, middle-class children in my room, I never stopped to think that I might be perpetuating a white, European-American-centric ethos in that environment.
At the same time that I critique the omissions in my training, I also revere the incredible gifts I received. I believe both conditions can be held simultaneously. Just as Montessori scientifically assessed educational efficacy, so must we. Our work includes critically reflecting on our practice—what is working and what is not—and what might be missing. As we move forward to grow Montessori schools, Montessori education must adapt to meet the needs of all children, without losing the inspirational wonder that resides at the core of Montessori.
As Montessori practitioners, we can tell ourselves that we are not part of the problem, but part of the solution. That is partially true. Montessori does promote a global cultural view and recognize the unique gifts of the individual. But critically examining Montessori practices in a way that most were not trained to do is crucial—to consider whether guides are truly including anti-bias, anti-racist approaches in their communities. The children guides are interacting with now will go out into the greater world community. Will these children be perpetuating stereotypes? Will they have examined their own implicit bias? Will they believe in the American myth of meritocracy? The late Fred Rogers remarked: “We live in a world where we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘it’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
At the AMI refresher course this year, Gretchen Hall, the AMI/USA board president, challenged us to “continue to open our minds and our hearts to the future. We must drop our individual roles, identities, badges and acronyms. We must not be self-serving, but united in our service to children. We must build bridges between the chasms we have created. We must stand beside all who work for social justice and on behalf of children. That is our legacy and our mission.”
While I believe she was referring to the relationship between the AMI community and the rest of the Montessori world, taking her message a step further is crucial. Montessori practitioners must build bridges to the rest of the educational community. All children, not just those in Montessori education, deserve the right to live and grow in equitable communities. Can the Montessori community reach out? Will it move beyond its small and somewhat insular communities to work for the equity of all? I believe Montessori would answer yes.
Teresa Ripple, (AMS 3-6, M.A.Ed.) is an assistant professor and the program director for the Early Childhood and Montessori Programs at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.