Empowering All Young People to think for Themselves
Christopher A. Guanajuato
Teach for America 2003 New York City
Lead Elementary Guide and Elementary Program Founder
Montessori East in Nashville, TN
I grew up in the Mexican immigrant inner-city community of East Los Angeles, California. On weekends I worked with my grandfather rehabilitating houses in South Central Los Angeles and remember seeing them destroyed by the riots of 1992. At this time I was also a volunteer at L.A. County’s Children’s Hospital. During these formative years, I made the distinct connection between my sense for social justice and my love for science and working with younger children. By the age of 10, I definitively decided that I was going to become a community medical doctor who worked to positively impact the lives of children and their communities.
I became the first in my family to go to college and brought myself to medical school at the age of twenty. In my time there, I took coursework in holistic and integrative medicine and in public health. My early clinical training and health outreach occurred at free clinic portables set up at elementary schools and family shelters in high needs communities. During health outreach activities I lead with elementary-aged children, I reflected that education is potentially the single most powerful force in a child’s life and development. After my second year of medical school, I decided to explore this idea and take a leave of absence to join Teach for America. I thought that this experience would inform my community medicine and public health aspirations. It only turned out that the children I worked with as a public school teacher in the Bronx taught me that education is the great social, economic, and intellectual equalizer, as well as a channel for personal transformation and hope for global peace.
Thirteen years later, two things have happened. First, I’ve been teaching and leading schools – first as a 5th and 6th grade teacher and a founding team member of New Heights Academy in Washington Heights in New York City, then as a hybrid Teacher – Dean of Instruction for LEAD Public Schools in Nashville, Tennessee. Before taking a Montessori route, I was offered to lead a charter conversion in Nashville. This was indeed a crossroads. Throughout those years as an educator in conventional urban public schools, I have experienced first hand the triumphs and unintended consequences of current educational reform and policy. Specifically, on one hand we helped children make great gains in academic achievement, however, the emphasis on standardized testing and assessments throughout the year tended to drive the educational process, which I believed had become out of balance in the places I taught. This focus on academic achievement and meeting metrics often squeezed out any time I could have in addressing other facets of a child’s development, such as their social and emotional development, as a part of their education. I came to education motivated by social justice. Thirteen years post-TFA, I believe that I have only scratched the surface of teaching enough to know that I must transform as a person and educator if I am to develop the skills that enable me to best nurture the potential of children and their developing hearts and minds.
Second, as a young parent, I became curious about how my own children were developing through their primary years in a Montessori environment. My wife, also a TFA alum, researched every school in Nashville and chose a Montessori school. I agreed with much that she would explain about the philosophy and practice and I became increasingly bothered by what I thought all children deserve to have as an educational experience which I could not provide to my students in the conventional setting. I began to read up about the Montessori method. Since then, I have not been able to stop learning about this holistic approach to education.
If Montessori is a branch of education that is a deep and humanistic treatment of empowering young people to be able to think for themselves, to be active participants in their own future, to be able to control their own destiny in an informed and enlightened way, then I think that part of this reform must include that all children have access to diverse and excellent educational options such as Montessori.
In 2015, I had two very different choices. The first was to continue my career in school leadership and lead the charter conversion of a low-performing turnaround school in Nashville. The second option was to leave this track entirely, and train and found an elementary program as a guide for six to twelve year olds in a private Montessori school. The opportunity to become a Montessori teacher happened to come from a private Montessori school. If I was to make this transition, I thought, this is where I must begin as I meet and join folks who can make this an educational option for all children. Why did I choose Montessori? I believe the Montessori quote that moved me the most in taking this plunge is:
An educational method which is based on liberty must intervene in order to help the child regain it; that is to lessen as far as possible the social bonds which limit his activity…. that is why the first form of educational reform ought to have as its object the leading of the child along the path of independence. One cannot be free without being independent.
In the Montessori setting, I became beholden to the development and web of potentialities of the child, rather than to her test scores. What has been most inspiring to me as a first year Montessori teacher is that I have never felt more empowered to work to establish a community of learning where the child is supported in leading her own education from a place of purpose, joy, and fulfillment. It is also where I can help children establish a community of participation and care, rather than rule following through rewards and punishments. As an educator, Montessori represents an education for life and an answer to what I have always felt in my gut, which is that people learn best when they have the freedom of choice, movement, communication, to find and correct their own errors, and to explore and learn at their own pace as a pathway to purpose and peace. My quest now is to meet and partner with those who are doing this work both in the public and private sectors to best plan and establish a public Montessori option serving a high needs urban community within the next five to seven years. It is being done, yet there is so much work left to be done to demonstrate its viability in serving the most vulnerable in our current climate.