WE CHERISH OUR VALUES
Early one Sunday morning, I awoke to a flurry of emails, all sending me a New York Times article about the successful educational practice of “looping,” keeping a child in the same classroom for more than one year. Although it didn’t mention Montessori (and it should have!) I appreciated everything about the article, except the title: “What Most American Schools Do Wrong,” As important as it is for us to improve what needs improving, I find that a powerful engine for growth and thriving is to focus on what we in schools do right. As we evolve and change – as all schools must do – we must cherish, protect, and celebrate what makes us who we are. WMS is a school that knows who we are.
We Value Grace and Courtesy
I will never forget my first official visit to WMS after I had been hired as Head of School. I spent most of the day observing in classrooms. Following the tradition of Dr. Maria Montessori, Montessori educators are trained to enter spaces quietly, with ears and eyes open.
In one Lower School classroom, purpose built with indoor and outdoor spaces for the needs and strengths of children ages 3-6, a very small child came to the door to greet me. She looked me in the eye, welcomed me to the classroom, and gave me a seat in a tiny bentwood chair. She then asked, with warm confidence, if I would like a cup of hot tea.
I don’t know about you, but when a five year old offers me anything — a cup of tea, a bug, or even a garter snake — I say yes. In this case, I waited a few minutes while she boiled the water in an electric kettle, and went to request her teacher’s assistance to pour. She carried me a teacup on a small wooden tray.
The confidence of that very small person is a WMS core memory I will carry forever. WMS, then and now, develops human beings with the confidence and curiosity to connect.
At our Cherish and Change meeting last Friday, parents shared their reflections. They spoke about how our purposeful Montessori environments give students a sense of agency. Grounded in Montessori knowledge, training and skill, Montessori educators give children the confidence they need to build independence and belonging.
It is no simple thing to structure a school that allows children to interact effectively with one another and with adults they don’t yet know. In a Montessori context, we call that “Grace and Courtesy,” the precursor for confidence, empathy, and seeing all humans as equally worthy.
We Value our Tradition of Innovation
There is a second way that things are going right at WMS: we have a carefully considered mission inspired by a visionary leader.
Maria Montessori was a trailblazer. She began her schools in the slums of Rome with students then deemed “unteachable.” A scientist and physician, she studied those young children and soon demonstrated that education can transform individuals into who they are meant to be. Over the course of her lifetime she went from designing pedagogical tools to focusing on how education could transform humanity.
WMS foregrounds the innovation at the core of the Montessori method. (Indeed, “A Tradition of Innovation” is the title of the statewide Montessori conference we are hosting this Friday.) At WMS, we wake up every day and think, “WWMD?” What would Maria do – with a laptop, with AI, with the challenges brought to our doorstep around human rights and inequality? Montessori’s once radical ideas about human rights and education have been proven over time, and her research and practice inspires our educators and students today.
We Value Children’s Work
A third thing that we are doing right at WMS is focusing on active citizenship. We make a habit of finding real-world problems to solve. Our students study the air, the water, and the ecosystems around them in order to make good decisions about our school’s carbon footprint, use of energy, and commitment to avoiding waste. Following in Montessori’s brave footsteps, we give our students challenging ideas to think about in great depth. We don’t ban books, and we don’t allow students to shy away from difficult concepts. Instead, we inspire vibrant dialogue and debate, and ask students to consider ideas – even uncomfortable ideas – within the long tradition of scientific and humanistic inquiry.
Embedded in our mission is the concept that we honor and embrace our “individual and collective potential.” We are here not just because we want to thrive as individuals. Rather, we are here because we want our world to thrive, with us as citizens in it.
This was another thing celebrated by the people who attended “Cherish and Change.” They spoke about the value of students participating in science fairs, Upper Elementary “Fort World,” Shakespeare plays and the Hero’s Journey. They recognized the value of students running their own businesses and seeing themselves as entrepreneurs. Our 8th graders this year will engage in internships with professionals and do authentic academic research as part of the Troutbeck Symposium.
At WMS, nobody has to wait for adulthood to do real work in the real world.
Independence. Belonging. Purpose.
One final story. I’ve told this many times, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself. My first visit to WMS over a decade ago changed my life forever. Already an experienced high school teacher and elementary school administrator, I was hired in late August somewhat unexpectedly as a middle school humanities teacher at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School. BHMS was a terrific school, but I wanted to see a larger and more established example of Montessori middle school education. My Head of School Dane Peters told me, “go visit my friend Pat Werner’s school – Washington Montessori. That will help you know what to do.”
A newcomer to Montessori, I was a bit skeptical, but I trusted my wise Head of School. I left Brooklyn early in the morning and wound my way up 684 and 202. When I arrived on the second floor at WMS, home to the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, I saw a learning environment unlike anything I had seen in my previous years as an educator at Taft, the University of Michigan, St. Paul’s School, and Poly Prep. I saw students hand-drawing a map of the world from memory. I saw adolescents relating to one another and their teachers in calm, peaceful, and earnestly kind ways. They were asking the best kind of deep questions, clearly from a sense of intrinsic motivation. Moreover, the teachers didn’t need to raise their voices. The students clearly just loved to learn.
In one day, I was hooked, and spent the next eight years of my life recreating that curriculum and pedagogy at BHMS. I sought to reverse engineer everything that had gone right that day, starting by reading everything Maria Montessori had ever written. I saw something going right — perhaps the rightest I had ever seen — and I did everything in my power to create a learning environment that would have the same powerful impact.
WMS parents and educators value that exceptional learning environment. At Cherish and Change, parents described a tight-knit, engaged community. They described the ways in which they come to trust the process of a Montessori approach to child development, in part because the school seeks to be as transparent as possible about our intentional, thoughtful choices. They spoke about the support for children and adults – the ways in which people are seen and heard. They spoke about our processes for resolving conflict, and how they lead people to trust themselves and feel a sense of belonging. They spoke about a school that values wholeness in both children and adults.
This model of education calls out to educators, students and families to belong by standing out and becoming the people we are meant to be.
For all these reasons, I am so glad that we all have chosen this school, together. At WMS, we pride ourselves on being the school our students and their families need us to be, and we get up every day to figure out how to do that even better.