Humble Horizons Montessori

What is 2020 teaching us about Montessori Education? Part 1: Things every educator should know about diversity and equality in this field

As the BLM movement predictably fades back into the ether of the crazy history of 2020 and social media trends, what can be said? Was the BLM movement a sufficient jolt of a reminder that we still have a LOT of work to around diversity in everyday life and in Montessori education? What do I feel like my personal lessons have been about the status quo of diversity and equality specifically in the field of Montessori education? Here are my continued thoughts as a black (former) Montessori educator. (I’m still unemployed as of writing this post).

1>> If you think that we’re going to donate our way out of being prejudice, let me just politely remind you sirs and ma’ams that that is not how paradigm shifts occur. Now that the light shone from the BLM movement is fading into grey, people seem to think that they are “doing their part” by donating to black charities and black organizations. Um… no, that’s not how you create true social change.

I believe it is a fallacy of white supremacy to think that people can just throw money at problems and be absolved of the sins and harmful ways of operating. Creating equality in Montessori education isn’t something you can buy you way out of, folks. You need to behave your way outta this one. Change through actual action and policy changes in your company or organization is how you’re going to un-guilt yourselves post-BLM. I used to work at a school that did “Diversity Drive Fundraisers”; and I see different organizations popping up online alleging to change the realities around blacks in Montessori by donating to such and such organization.

Sometimes in life, to create change you need to show up in deed and in action, and not just with your pocketbook. Those of you who now realize that your school is perpetuating white supremacy need to change at a heart level, too. The black students and educators are in fact out there; and would love the opportunity to work for your school or have their children educated by the Montessori method. It’s now your job to figure out how to bring that to fruition.

2>> Oh, hi, field of Montessori education, the BLM movement was indeed talking to you, too. Boy was I saddened and surprised by how some Montessori schools responded in the face of the BLM movement and media. Even when I read my training centres statement on black lives matter, I almost wanted to vomit in my mouth as they basically referred to themselves as an organization led by a privileged group of white women. I think Maria Montessori would have been rolling in her grave if she saw some of the correspondences and straight up radio silence that some Montessori schools presented when confronted with the truth that black people are still not treated and regarded equally in America. And that black children and educators continue to remain among this countries’ chosen recipients of unconscious bias.

When I interview for different Montessori jobs, nearly 100% of the time the person at the gate deciding who comes on board at their school is a white person. If these schools genuinely care about diversifying the workforce of your school, you will try to make a way to say ‘yes’ to black people becoming part of the team. And the truth is, a lot of you just don’t want to do that.

You’ll try to rationalize and make excuses as to why the POC just wasn’t (ugh I hate this phrase with a passion) “a good fit”. When instead, you could and should be using the exact same energy to figure out how you can use them in your company, leverage their strengths, and create a space where they fit. Ideally one that isn’t the school janitor or cook (not that there is anything undervalued about said jobs. At this point I am so desperate for a job I would LOVE to be the janitor at a school. They get paid pretty well sometimes!). I’ve literally seen the most painfully incompetent people somehow get hired at Montessori schools. Adults who literally tell me they can’t cut out triangles, who miss 24 days of work in a school year, who literally graffiti on school property with sharpies– but they all weren’t black. So they easily made it onto payroll and remained hired for way too long.

Black people aren’t the only ones barred from breaking into the Montessori community, either. Montessori schools as of the year 2020 lag behind the diversity finish line in other demographic measures. Especially in the private preschool sector, which is the dominant format through which Montessori education will be experienced by most families.

3>> Now that we have time to reflect, how did your Montessori job or school show support for the BLM movement, or comfort your school community in the times of social unrest? If your school or job did not issue a single statement acknowledging the tension in the social climate during the BLM movement, that says something about the business you chose to work for. The absolute minimum responsibility that every Montessori school in this country had was to perpetuate Dr. Montessori’s values around peace. No one said anyone had to take sides. No one said anyone had to furnish some admission of guilt to confirm that your school is in fact dominated by white people or has zero black educators hired alongside minimal numbers of black students (even though we know that remains the truth in most regions of America).

The very least every Montessori school could have done, and can always do in the face of any social unrest for any reason, is to re-anchor and remind your parent body and your staff to the truth of why Montessori exists: to perpetuate peace through education. And if your school or job couldn’t even realize they were supposed to do that, then it should make you question the leadership. Not even gonna sugar coat it.

3>> Did the post-BLM cascade of commercial support reveal to anyone else besides me just how many industries actually ::did:: operate under this frighteningly invisible paradigm of white supremacy? The white supremacy and unconscious bias in this country is so automatic and ubiquitous that I, a black person considering myself to be very “woke”, discovered that even I couldn’t even discern some of it!

There were these mini-awakenings I had, much to my own surprise, thanks to the BLM movement. I’d be cruising through Whole Foods, would see what looked like a lower SES black family, and think to myself, “whoa! wait– it’s true! I don’t normally see families that look like them shopping in this store!”. Richer-looking black people, hate to say it but, sure. But that family? The BLM movement was right– they didn’t fit the mould of my mind’s expectations of “who belongs”.

Companies that I have sincerely adored, benefitted from immensely, and “followed” on social media for years suddenly came out after the BLM movement and revealed that they were hiring their first ever, not-behind-the-scenes, publicly represented black employee in the entire history of that company’s existence. Was your Montessori job or company like this? Did you catch yourself having these “mind blown: it’s true!” reality checks?

4>> As one of the only black Montessori educators I know after being in this industry since 2012, Montessori schools and companies, I think it’s safe to say that every school needs to be auditing your diversity profile through a much more honest lens moving forward. And if you’re a Montessori guide of color looking for a job post-training, it’s your responsibility to care about doing this just for your own sake of awareness around what you’re stepping into. Let’s do this together using the schools that I have been employed by, as an example.

school #1: I was the only black employee hired between 2012 and 2017. In that time, I had 1.5 black students. There may have been one other in primary. Of the lead guide staff, zero of them were of ethnic minority except for me and one other woman. Of the other ethnic minorities hired at that school, all of them were assistant staff making less than $15 an hour. It’s possible that the owner’s wife may have been mixed race. But she never revealed her ethnicity, acted very white-washed, and could have been Italian. (relevant tangent: if you’re a POC, you understand what that means in the professional workplace to “whitewash” yourself– basically you’re trying to pass and neutralize your POC-ness in order to be accepted in the professional setting; and also to make sure everyone else feels comfortable around you. This sometimes takes a conscious effort on the part of the POC; or sometimes a POC is so well-assimilated into white American culture that there is just nothing about them that culturally indicates that they are a POC. Only their skin and hair texture puts them in POC category. For others, we have to consciously code switch if we know our work environment doesn’t allow us to be our authentic selves).

I was at one point laid off by this school because the school hit financial difficulties. I had worked at the school longer and had a more reputable training than the white colleague they chose to keep as the toddler guide over me. Owner/Heads of school? All white.

school #2: I was the only black employee hired possibly in that school’s entire existence, established in the 1940s. My white, elderly assistant used to make subtle racist remarks to me, including this gem I have never forgotten: “my neighbor’s son got shot by the police the other day– and he wasn’t even black!”. I ended up being falsely accused of insufficient work based on a literally insane allegation furnished by the aforementioned white assistant of mine. Through that whole allegation situation, I was fear mongered into silence by the blonde, white head of school while they “decided what to do” because they could not prove the allegation was true and never would have because it was absurd, and then I got fired anyway.

When I went back to that school one day to get a form filled out for a subsequent job, one of the staff who saw me walking on the playground stopped me said, between us, “OMG! I can’t believe you’re here! What in the hell had even happened?? You were the only black teacher this school has ever hired, and they went and f*cked it up”. Heads of School: all white.

School #3: they did a much better job hiring people of color and of diverse demographic, in general. They had hired myself and two other black men. Good job. It is worth mentioning that this school exists in the exact same city as the other two aforementioned schools. So it’s not the city’s diversity profile, per se. Owner/head of school: white.

School #4: number of black guides hired: just me. Staff of other ethnicities included Asian guides and other ethnicities of assistants, but definitely no other black employees to speak of. Owner: very white. Number of black students on my campus? zero.

School #5: number of black guides hired other than me: 1. Number of black students: 1, the son of the other black guide. Owner/director: Jewish/Israeli … with white skin and blonde hair. She did not fully deny her Jewish heritage so I give her that. But when it came time for the holiday season, she definitely blanketed to “Happy Everything”, instead of allowing our school to explore different cultural practices.

School #6: number of black guides hired other than me: zero. I was laid off from that school also due to financial difficulties. Number of black students: two siblings who were half black and a third student in primary who was half or full black. This school featured a board of directors who essentially called the shots and who I never met or saw in my life. So I couldn’t tell you what ethnicity was leading the school. Director was a woman of color who never revealed her ethnicity. Director of many years who ran the school before her was, surprise surprise, white. She looked like princess Elsa from Frozen.

School #7: very small private preschool that only hired three staff total. We were white, Persian, and me, mixed black. The owner was Filipino. Number of black students who went to this school, probably zero. But technically I cannot say for sure. This town was definitely predominantly white. I had an absolutely excellent experience working for this school and was always treated very very well. We all were. When I chatted with the owner one day about how she was able to get the school started (because it is so beautifully run), she said that in the process of opening, she was afraid the town would reject her because she was this woman of color who came out of nowhere to start a school. Luckily, they embraced her; and her school is absolutely wonderful.

Two more points worth mentioning about how Montessori schools and the Montessori industry can improve its diversity profiles…

5>> Many schools have a trend of asking and inviting their assistant staff to pursue training in order to become lead guides. If that is the case, then schools should actively choose to hire more assistants of color who show the promise and desire to continue their own education, and then to financially incentivize these individuals to become lead guides. It is no secret that schools will offer tuition reimbursement to staff who are willing to pursue Montessori training. It’s also no secret that getting montessori trained ain’t cheap and requires quite a bit of personal sacrifice for those which require travel. So it’s not like Montessori teacher training is particularly… accessible to people who don’t have a lot of money or resources. Also worth mentioning that I was the only black person in my Montessori training cohort, coincidentally.

Why is it important to have more trained black Montessori guides? And more black people existing at your school in positions of power, and not just as the assistants? Children don’t really see skin color, you might want to argue. But actually it does matter that black people are seen in leadership roles in the Montessori industry, be it as the lead guide, heads of school, or other decision-making roles such as program design, hiring managers, or HR. Why?

Because all of the children in our classrooms are going to learn what black people are like based on lived experience interacting with us. A lot of people, and many of these kids, still live in cities and towns where they might literally never encounter a black person. Especially if there just so happens to be Montessori schools in their city, the likelihood that the city is predominantly white is probably higher. I know that more urban and diverse places are creating more and more Montessori schools; but in my personal experience, I saw lots of white faces at my Montessori jobs.

That would make an interesting study, future Loyola University and Master’s degree-seeking Montessorian fledglings out there: a diversity study in Montessori education. A black teacher might be the only black person a lot of Montessori kids ever meet in their little lifetimes, TBH. Those kids are thus going to learn that we are humans, too. That we are kind, loving, warm, caring, smart, and not scary, just like their not-black mommies and daddies. Or maybe despite what their mommies and daddies say about black people in their home.

When children have a black teacher, they are going to see black educators in positions of power and know that black people can be leaders, too. This is especially critical for the few black students who attend Montessori school. The children innately know who is in charge of a group because children are sentient beings more than they are logical. and they know who runs the room. If your school only features people of color in assistant roles, they will come to know instinctually that the people of color are never the ones in charge.

Another reason your Montessori school needs to hire more black lead guides is that black people in general aren’t the highest income earners of all time. So if you allow a black person to become a lead guide at your school, it improves their socioeconomic reality to an extent (in comparison to being only an assistant is what I mean by “to an extent”. The truth is this entire field generally does not pay people a livable wage). Earning the income of a lead guide or head of school can allow a black person to transcend the SES barrier black people generally face. This could then translate generationally and allow their children to experience better things in life. This opportunity is especially true for single mothers of black children.

6>> I learned a long time ago before I moved into Montessori that it is really important to have photographs of all kinds of ethnicities of people featured in the art on the walls of your classroom. Ideally art that features black and other dark brown skinned people. It’s a detail a lot of educators don’t even think about. And is WAY more important than you might think. I even had a friend whose parents were also from Hawaii like mine, and when she came to my house there was art on my walls of Polynesian women. And my adult friend commented that she didn’t have any art in her home featuring brown-skinned people. It’s another one of those “unconscious bias” things.

I once had a kindergartener engage me in a discussion about ethnicity. This little cutie patootie knew that he was Filipino and Jewish, and was proud to share his knowledge of his own background. “That’s so cool!”, I said. “I’m half filipino, too! Half filipino, half black”. “What’s Black?”, this child said to me. Mhmm.

Thank GOD, this classroom had a poster on its wall featuring people of a variety of ethnicities. I could point to the black person on that poster and say “this person is black”. And it easily clicked for that child. I also had a Montessori two year old once ask me why my lips were two different colors, LOL. This was clearly the first time she had encountered a person of color whose lips weren’t just solid pink. My answer was “I don’t know, that’s just how they are”, and we both started laughing. This was arguably, an amazing observation made by a toddler. People indeed do look different; and you gotta hand it to babygirl for her attention to detail. If the children can’t see human differences somewhere, they will never learn. And the more they can see it realistically portrayed, and not just in some cultural tourism kind of way with like, African tribespeople, the better.

… and finally, my last realization following the BLM movement >> To up and coming Montessori trainees who are also pursuing your master’s degrees at Loyola university or other universities in conjunction with your Montessori teacher training, one of you needs to complete your capstone or thesis on the diversity and demographic realities of Montessori schools, as an industry. And the field of Montessori in general, whether the training centres are AMS, AMI, or any other one, need to start forcing your university students to complete actual fresh research, instead of allowing them all to skate by with a capstone project that stands on the back of older, out of touch, pre-existing research.

When everything you study about Montessori education is based on pre-existing research that probably doesn’t even focus specifically on Montessori education, (I completed a capstone. I know very well what a literature review is) you are not going to break new ground and make current, relevant, and insightful research findings that lead to eye-opening change. So start allowing your students to do fresh and real research. Because it is necessary if we ever want this field to move out of the 1800s and if we ever want people to start valuing the outcomes produced by Montessori education.

Thanks for reading, and I hope some schools and companies will take these points into consideration.

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