Montessori for All

Sara CotnerSara Cotner
Teach for America 2000, South Louisiana
Founder & CEO of Montessori For All

As an American Studies major in college, I spent most of my time sitting around in a circle, talking about our nation’s problems. By the time graduation rolled around, I was eager to get out into the world and make a difference. I joined AmeriCorps and recruited and trained reading tutors for the public school system. It was the first time I truly understood that one’s zipcode could determine their destiny. At the same time, I saw the transformational impact that an individual teacher could have with a group of children, and I was inspired to become a teacher.

I joined Teach For America and was placed in rural Louisiana as a 3rd grade teacher. I had an amazing experience within such a beautiful, tight knit community. There were two pieces of the experience that deeply shaped my educational paradigm.

First, we were expected to teach everyone the same thing at the same time and in the same way. For example, we had a strict math pacing guide that dictated which objective we were supposed to teach each day. The higher-performing children would easily get bored, while the struggling children would get frustrated and tune out. I felt like I was teaching one child in the middle. I submitted a proposal to my principal to implement centers-based instruction where children could move through differentiated activities. I learned that when children work at their own level within their zone of proximal development, they make more efficient and effective progress.

The second aspect of my experience that shaped my thinking as an educator was corporal punishment. Our principal kept a paddle on the wall of her office, and she would use it on children who misbehaved. I tried to never send my children to the office and instead relied heavily on extrinsic motivation. I passed out raffle tickets to acknowledge children for their individual positive behavior. I gave out team points. I had a “Star Student of the Week” and a “Super Star Student of the Week.” I had a “Path to Success” where I acknowledged the whole class for their good choices.

The truth is, the extrinsic motivation worked like magic. The children were kind, motivated, and enthusiastic, and their achievement scores skyrocketed. But when my children graduated to 4th grade and moved into new classrooms with different teachers, their motivation seemed to dissipate. At first, I thought it was because I was a first-year teacher. So I stayed for my second year. And then the same thing happened. So I stayed for a third year.

Finally, I decided that I needed to work at a school that had consistently good teaching from year to year, so that we could truly have a transformational impact on children. That’s how I found my way to the original KIPP school in Houston to teach 6th grade reading and writing.

I learned an immense amount by working in the high-performing public charter sector. I learned the value of relentless pursuit—the importance of not giving up on a child for any reason. I worked alongside some of the smartest and hardest working people I have ever met.

But in that environment, I started to question what it truly takes to prepare children for a future we can only begin to imagine. At KIPP, we also used extrinsic motivation and in the short-term it worked like magic, but we saw that it didn’t have a lasting impact on behavior, as evidenced by the fact that our children struggled in high school (or on the bus when there wasn’t an adult watching them). I also started asking questions like: “What does it mean to be a white woman working in an educational system that prioritizes obedience and compliance from children of color?”

I started doing observations at elite private schools in Houston, looking for a better way—as Howard Fuller says—to not only prepare children for the 21st century but to prepare them to transform the 21st century.

I walked into School of the Woods, a private Montessori school, and within two minutes I knew my whole life had to change. It was an Upper Elementary classroom. I saw children working on the floor using hands-on materials. They weren’t chanting or memorizing math; they were truly internalizing it. Another child was meeting with her teacher to go over her goals for the week. There were vegetables and guacamole on the counter; when children were hungry, they could help themselves. In short, it was a mini-society. It looked more like a Google workplace than a factory.

I moved to Denver to get my AMS Montessori certification and do my internship at a public Montessori school. I then moved back to Houston and continued my teaching career in public district Montessori programs.

In that setting, I focused on how to fully implement Montessori while also ensuring stellar results on standardized tests. One hundred percent of my students passed the state assessment both years in a row. However, I grew tired of trying to implement Montessori in a system that didn’t truly understand or embrace it. For example, at one point, the district stepped in and said we needed to administer four assessments to every child every two weeks. In a multi-age classroom, that meant I was supposed to deliver 12 assessments in two weeks. There was no time left to teach!

We were ultimately successful in fighting off this requirement, but I felt like I was constantly spending my energy on fighting the system instead of serving children. That’s when the idea for Montessori For All was born. I started a non-profit organization and applied to the state for a charter to open two public schools in the last major Texas cities without public Montessori options: Austin and San Antonio. We opened our flagship campus, Magnolia Montessori For All, in Austin in 2014 with 300 children in PK3-3rd grade. We are growing to serve infants through 8th grade. We plan to open our San Antonio campus in 2017. We also aspire to open teacher training centers and then partner with school districts that want to implement public Montessori programs. We believe in Montessori for all as a way to create a more equitable and peaceful world.