For five decades, Maria Montessori’s words have echoed in the back of Margaret Whitley’s mind.
“Within the child lies the fate of the future.”
Montessori, founder of the Montessori child-centred educational approach, inspired Whitley, BA’85, to devote her life’s work to fostering a brighter future for the school’s children.
“We have responsibilities as human beings to do whatever we can, with the choices we make, to ensure the next couple of minutes, or tomorrow, or next year is better than it was today,” said Whitley, executive director of the Montessori Academy of London. “I think if more people were aware of not just the academic preparation involved, but the real potential Montessori offers children, I think we could bring about some positive change.”
Set to retire this summer after 13 years at the helm of the Montessori Academy of London (which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year), more than ever, Whitley is reflecting on the impact of Montessori on her life and on the lives of the students who’ve graduated from the school.
“I say to the kids when they graduate, they will always be part of us. They’ve left their own legacy here. And we will always be part of them,” she said. “Many go off to do really interesting things – in all different directions. Montessori supports a very innovative, creative spirit, although within very defined parameters. I think that serves kids well today. They have a love of learning. They persevere. Most kids have developed ‘grit’ coming through Montessori because there’s a lot of autonomy and independence given in the program.”
The Montessori method, adapted from Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who opened a childcare centre for poverty-stricken youth in Rome in the early 1900s, is aimed at promoting the development of social skills, emotional growth and physical coordination, as well as cognitive preparation for future academics. Montessori observed the ways in which children learned best, and developed a curriculum, a specific learning environment and hands-on materials to support that learning.
Currently, there are more than 22,000 Montessori schools worldwide, and program offerings range from pre-school to middle school. Some Montessori schools are publicly funded, although in Ontario, they are not.
Whitley’s family opened the school in London, formerly known as Montessori House of Children, in 1968, and her mother ran the organization until 2004, when Whitley, who attended the school until age 7, took over as executive director.
Spending a career at the school may have seemed inevitable for Whitley. At the outset, however, she planned to do something entirely different. When she first came to Western in the early 1980s, Whitley enrolled in Science with the ultimate goal of becoming a pediatric doctor. She quickly came to realize the style of learning didn’t feel right and took time off to get her bearings.
“I was always influenced by my Montessori experience and thought there was a better way to learn,” Whitley noted.
During a year-and-a-half stint working as an Au Pair and living in Ireland, she experienced a renewed love of history and returned to Western, re-invigorated. She entered a new program, with a History major and English minor.
“I had one English professor who drove me crazy because he would say, ‘I’m not going to give you a high mark because I know you can do better.’ But, it was a motivator. I had a personal connection and he was really interested in helping me pursue what I was truly passionate about,” said Whitley.
After graduation, Whitley took Montessori teacher training abroad and began working at a Montessori school in Oakville. She was called by the principal of the Montessori Academy of London in 1988 to establish the first adolescent program in Canada. At the time, there were only a handful of adolescent programs in the United States, and none in Canada.
“I made a million mistakes,” she said, “but there was an increased demand from parents to keep kids going. It was a journey, and there were a couple years with only three to six kids per year. Now, we are pretty much at capacity every year.”
In making the difficult decision to step down as executive director of the school, Whitley believes she can now have more of an impact globally in spreading the word about Montessori. In August, she will begin a two-year Master of Fine Arts program at University of King’s College at Dalhousie in creative non-fiction writing. Her ultimate goal is to write a book about her life experiences.
“I look back and now that I’ve had the opportunity to be a Montessori student, teacher, parent and administrator, I’d like to share those experiences and hopefully inspire more people to be interested in it,” she said. “I feel we’ve touched the lives of probably 10,000 children over the years and others beyond because of those children. But, I still feel like there’s more work to be done globally within the Montessori community. And also, so much more learning for me to do.
“I think everything we do in life is a legacy. This is just the next step of that legacy. For me, it’s not about the glory or the accomplishments; it’s just about making the world a better place when I leave.”