Josh Whitman, head of Montessori School at Hampstead, has an interesting and rather unexpected Montessori Story.
My Montessori story starts like the stories of so many others…with a child.
My wife and I both worked full time and agreed our children would be enrolled in child care outside our home when they turned one. As our first child neared his first birthday, my wife began investigating various child care options. She landed on a local Montessori school that served children from age one through kindergarten. I was slightly curious about Montessori but was generally comfortable with my wife’s search. We were excited to find a place that offered broad educational offerings in addition to all-day care. We were glad to find a school that would teach and care for our son until he was old enough to, hopefully, to qualify for a seat in a local magnet school.
Over the years, we watched our oldest grow and thrive in his new school. The teachers loved him and he loved going to school. His engagement and learning was wonderful to see and as he progressed, I remember recognizing that a Montessori school was significantly different from the education I received as a young child. My wife made similar observations and we found ourselves increasingly curious about the underpinnings of Montessori. Initially I was not nearly as curious as my wife who began reading books and journal articles discussing various education methods and philosophies. As time went on, we began having long discussions about our core hopes for our children, how the education we might select could best reflect those goals, and what skills we saw as key to success and happiness.
As our oldest continued to develop in his Montessori school, there was never a question that we would enroll our second child in the same Montessori school. He too thrived and developed, in spite of being a completely different “type” of boy. We saw that he interacted with his teachers and lessons differently but, somehow, he learned similar characteristics.
We saw both of our boys learning compassion and empathy. We saw them learning to take responsibility for themselves, their environment, and each other. Their ability to communicate and articulate their emotions was astounding. Our children would naturally engage in conversations with people, asking questions that showed their curiosity and passion for learning. My wife and I felt like this method of education was giving us something beyond what we had received and beyond what we realized was available. In other words, it significantly expanded our perception of education and we found ourselves being increasingly curious and passionate about Montessori and alternative views of education.
During this same time, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the work and life I was living professionally. The work I had done and loved for so many years was no longer satisfying. All told, I spent more than 20 years in the world of politics and business growing businesses, traveling, and solving complex problems. But, something felt off in my heart. I began longing for more than the routines and successes I’d had over my career. I felt like I was entering the proverbial midlife crisis.
I began dedicating significant time trying to hear my heart. I began developing and articulating my personal theology. I read major authors on world religions, personal development, and spiritual texts. I began reconnecting with who I was as a child. I began feeling more comfortable as I learned more about who I was and who I wanted to be. I was learning to perceive my place in the world. As I was finding my footing, I continued to ponder the kinds of things that helped me along my path and how I might, as a parent, help my children avoid losing themselves in the machinery of the world. I wanted them to know themselves so they could more fully enjoy life and contribute to the betterment of the world. And, I wanted their education to focus on that in addition to core academics.
We saw both of our boys learning compassion and empathy. We saw them learning to take responsibility for themselves, their environment, and each other.
I began to perceive how the education system can squelch a child’s inner voice and curiosity when it becomes a more mechanized, assembly line approach to conveying a targeted set of skills. I found that unsettling and wanted something different for my boys. My minor “midlife crisis,” along with my growing awareness of who I was and some of the issues I saw with the education system began to drive my wife and I to question the value of some traditional education goals. We began asking ourselves what we wanted for our children, as they began their journey through years of future education. What goals, values, lessons, and experiences did we want our boys to have when they migrated away from home to follow their paths in life?
During the beginning, our discussions tended to focus on higher education and the various paths that lead there. My wife and I both have terminal degrees. She is a lawyer and I have my PhD. We both feel that these degrees or higher education are not necessary to achieve the goals, values, objectives, and experiences we want our boys to have. We found ourselves increasingly focusing on nebulous values such as self-worth, happiness, wholehearted living, kindness, empathy, creativity, and leadership. We felt that these values took priority over what their ACT scores would be, what their class ranking was, how great a football player they would become, how much money they would make, what university they would attend, or even if they would decide to attend a university. In other words, we began the process of deeply questioning our goals as parents and how our goals were different and similar to the goals that society prioritized.
These discussions grew deeper as our oldest son neared kindergarten. We went through the process of applying to various magnet and private schools in our area. During that process we became more and more secure with the idea that the traditional path wasn’t what we wanted for our children.
I want to make it clear that we are strong proponents of education as an essential part of being human and as a right. We believe that education serves society and the child. We believe in the teachers that work thankless, endless hours to educate our children in traditional schools. But, once we realized our personal values diverged from the values and priorities of the overall system, we knew we would have to find an alternative path for our children.
As we investigated alternative elementary educational opportunities in our area, only one school popped up… Montessori School at Hampstead. We moved our children to that school and decided to “take a chance” on Montessori for our children’s elementary education. My family became deeply involved in the school and the community. Our children continued to blossom and grow. We love seeing the self-confidence our boys have in themselves. We love seeing their inner lights continue to shine. We love seeing their interests encouraged and leveraged to their educational benefit. We felt our boys were on the right path for their early education.
Not too long after our oldest child was completing first full year in the lower elementary program, we learned that the school was in a financial crisis. The school was closed for the Christmas break and did not have enough money to make the payroll for the month of December. My wife and I agonized about what to do. The school faculty and teachers were not aware of the impending closure that loomed during the holiday break. We knew that the families of the 130 enrolled students would be traumatized to return from break only to learn they had to find another place for the children to attend school. My wife and I decided to lend the school the money necessary to help keep the school open. We did it for the teachers, the students, and the parents, but most of all we did it because we knew there wasn’t another local option that would provide the education we wanted for our children.
My travel schedule for work continued to become more demanding and intense. My connection to the family declined from my being on the road all the time. My returning from travel would be a disruption in the routines of life that my wife built while I was away. My boys would ask me to “fire myself” and “break things” so that I wouldn’t have to travel anymore. Clearly, my absence was affecting them and it was also deepening my midlife crisis. Finally, the day came that I decided to take a six month sabbatical. I wanted to spend more time with my family and more time contemplating my life. I wanted to spend time expanding my awareness and connection with my own inner voice. I wanted to more fully appreciate who I was. I began my sabbatical.
Within a month of starting my time, the underlying financial issue at MSH cropped back up. My wife and I again experience the anxiety that comes with considering the possibility of having to move to provide the kind of school experience we want for our boys. So, we decided that I would spend much of my sabbatical time helping MSH address some of the fundamental business issues that can make or break a business and that had been neglected in a way that the school was again at risk of closing. I spent months working with the MSH team to create or clean-up the historical bookkeeping and billing systems. We worked together to set up new bookkeeping and billing systems. We rebuilt the school’s webpage and substantially increased the school’s social media presence.
I found my time helping the school to be invigorating and rewarding. They needed my help, but I also needed theirs. I loved being around my boys throughout the day. I loved taking them to and from school. I began connecting with the school in deeper ways and I was enjoying it. As I spent more time at the school I also became more aware of other issues I was suited to help address and that needed to be addressed for the long term viability of the school.
My wife has spent years building her own successful law practice and the thought of having to move to obtain the schooling we desired for our children coupled with my desire to make a career change met and we decided I would continue to volunteer for the school as a way to try to stabilize the school. When the Head of School decided it was her time to pursue other career interests, the Board made me HOS.
That was a year ago, last summer. I now have a year under my belt as HOS. My insights and understanding of the educational space and the business have grown, but I have much left to learn. I enjoy learning and am grateful for being around my children. I can report that the school has made several course corrections as we work toward establishing a viable school that will someday provide educational opportunities through the 12th grade. For the 2016-2017 school year we will have about 100 students from age 12 months to 6th grade. We will work hard to rebuild our Middle School with hopes of relaunching that when our financial footing has become more secure.
Today, I deeply want all children to experience the love, compassion, creativity, learning, empathy, community, independence, and well-being that a Montessori school, and specifically our Montessori school, promotes. I want our school to become stable, so my family won’t have to consider moving to support our children’s educational journey. I want our school to serve as a beacon and valuable resource in our community.
While the issues we face are very tangible, I can’t help but also take a step back and be thankful for the events that have led me, and more importantly my family, to Montessori education. It all began with a child, and we’ll continue to ‘follow the child’, wherever that may lead.
About Josh Whitman
Dr. Josh, as his students call him, is the Head of School Montessori at Hampstead in Montgomery, AL. Prior to finding a passion in supporting Montessori philosophies he spent two decades in the world of business and entrepreneurship. He’s now focused on building a sustained Montessori school for his two boys. Josh is also passionate about the outdoors, photography, and loves spending time with his family. You can follow his journey on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You can learn more about Montessori at Hampstead on their webpage or Facebook page.