Our Big Work: Reflections on being Anti-Racist Montessorians

Tiffany Jewell and Laura Kraby, both Montessori elementary teachers, write the first in a series of reflections teaching anti-bias anti-racist Montessori.

Tiffany: I grew up in one of the poorest cities in the country.  Our neighborhood of renters and elderly home-ownersTiffanyJewell was filled with friends of varying shades of light and dark brown skin.  My twin and I lived with our white mom.  Our Black dad lived in Georgia.  Our public magnet school was just a few blocks away and our mom walked us there every morning.  It was our neighborhood school; the ceiling in the gym was crumbling, the textbooks were the same ones used by students fifteen years ago, and there was always shattered glass on the playground.  Despite our underfunded schools, I fell in love with education.  I loved the books, the work, my classmates, and my teachers.  I believed everyone should be able to have access to obtaining knowledge and love doing so as much as I did so, I followed my cosmic task to teach and became a Montessori teacher.

Working with children is liberating and humbling, exciting and exhausting, and it is, I think, the best avenue to making positive change in the world. Some educators question whether racial bias exists in schools, particularly Montessori schools. This is a reflection, a summary, of how I, as a multiracial child and woman, have witnessed and experienced racism. I was first introduced to racism when I was in preschool and, as my schooling continued, received constant reminders and confirmation that racism exists and is embedded into our educational institutions.  

My first school friends and I all had varying shades of brown skin.  Our teachers did not.  I learned how to read, write, and solve equations.  I also learned the darker a person’s skin color, the harder they had to work.  I learned only white people can be teachers and that our white teachers, even when they spelled Asia with three “a’s” were still, always right.  And, I learned, as a third grader, that a white teacher could call a student a “Black African Ape” and come to school the next day without making an apology to her student, my friend.  I learned that Columbus was a hero and the Iroquois Nation was a thing of that past. I learned we were all a part of a “melting pot” and my teachers were praised for being “colorblind.”

My middle school friends and I had varying shades of light skin, like our teachers.  We were challenged, academically, in our Team One classes.  Despite there being a higher percentage of brown students at my school, in my tracked Team One classes, I was surrounded by the white ones.  We went on many field trips, my brown friends did not.  I learned how to speak Spanish, solve algebraic equations, and to feel trusted by a teacher.  I learned that all the white kids were smart and the brown kids were not… and that the few who were on Team One had to work extra hard to prove their capabilities.

Still, my sister and I had no teachers who looked like us in high school.  I learned how to dissect small animals and that a logarithm is an exponent. I learned it was okay for my English instructor to assign books written by white men (and only white men). I learned only white students and those of us with light skin took Advanced Placement classes.  My Black classmates needed to go through “mediation” more often than my white schoolmates.  I learned the school district and school board only saw us as labels (B-black, W-white, and O-other) and those of us with the “W” (and, sometimes, the “O”) label were placed in the highest track classes, headed to college.  Those of my peers with the “B” label were not often considered advanced or “gifted.”

I went to my first college where I was the only person like me within the campus of the small women’s liberal arts college, in a tiny town, in upstate New York.  I learned how to discuss Jane Austen and William Shakespeare among my peers, how to take photographs of cells under a microscope, and how to be that only one.  I learned that, in my “Failure and Success in America” seminar,  it was okay for my professor to substitute the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the movie, Thelma and Louise. I learned that my academic advisor was a racist because she told me so.  And, I learned there was a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in which the librarians’ husband was a member, maybe even the leader.  There, I could count the number of brown faces on one hand and I, with my light skin, curly hair, and many freckles stuck out like a sore thumb.  I didn’t walk anywhere alone; the campus was too quiet, the rural town was too sleepy and too homogeneous.  That year, I learned how, for the first time in my life, to walk with fear.  

As a student, I learned that teachers, no matter how well-intentioned, express harm through their words, actions, and inactions.  As an educator, I know that we can do better. I was drawn to the Montessori Method because it is the hope for doing better.  Because the curriculum was created based on scientific observations and knowledge, rather than a person’s theories on what society needs and, because there is a concerted effort to teach and encourage peace, Montessori appealed to me as the avenue for Social Justice Education. However, despite being child-centered, our classroom environments and lessons are prepared by the adults.

We bring our personal biases with us, into the classroom, every day.  What we’ve learned (and didn’t learn) about racism enters through our doors upon our backs.  We are gracious and kind. As we greet our students with a firm handshake and a smile every single morning, we make a silent promise to honor each student and see them for who they are… not for who we think they should be.  We made a promise, as Montessorians, to “Follow the child.”  However, do we really follow the child and honor them when our biases get in the way?  Can we effectively guide with respect, inclusivity, enthusiasm, and integrity when we are bound by systemic racism?  

Our reality check: Our Montessori programs are not inherently unbiased.  The biggest reason why is because of us, the teachers, the administrators, the parents.  We carefully prepare our environments for our children and attempt to promote safe, inclusive schools and classrooms. We encourage no prejudice without actively practicing anti-bias education.  We have pictures on the walls that reflect “diversity” and books about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but nothing more.  We want multiculturalism without embracing an anti-racist mission.  Education is liberatory; teachers are agents of change.  As Montessorians, we can do more; we can do better.

What does it look like when we start to do more?

Our goals are these (from Louise Derman-Sparks’s Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children):dermansparks

  1. Nurture each child’s construction of a knowledgeable, confident self-concept and group identity;
  2. Promote each child’s comfortable, empathic interaction with people from diverse backgrounds;
  3. Foster each child’s critical thinking about bias; and
  4. Cultivate each child’s ability to stand up for themselves and for others in the face of bias.

“Anti-Bias, anti-racist (ABAR) education supports all children’s full development in our multiracial, multilingual, multicultural world and gives them the tools to stand-up to prejudice, stereotyping, bias, and eventually to institutional “-isms/” (An excerpt from Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves , Louise Derman- Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards).  

What does it look like when we start to actively practice having an anti-bias/ anti-racist Montessori classroom community?  

Throughout my three years of Montessori teacher training I met many well-intentioned teachers.  I’ve kept in touch with some and have been able to observe in the classrooms of a few.  Laura is one teacher I wish I had when I was in elementary school.  She graciously accepts and understands her privilege as a white teacher and truly sees all of her students.  She continually practices anti-bias/anti-racist education and recognizes there is, still, much work to be done.  Laura’s classroom shows us what it looks like when we start to actively practice having an anti-bias/anti-racist Montessori classroom community. Here is a sneak peek into what happens every day in her classroom:

Laura: Over the 6 years that I have been a Montessori teacher, my mission has continuously evolved. I have worked in a laurakrabyfew different Montessori schools and classrooms with varying degrees of diversity, both culturally and socioeconomically, and in all instances, one common purpose bursts forth naturally each year, informing my classroom agenda: guide the children toward a tolerant, inclusive, peaceful, and socially conscious experience as they grow. I tend to tell parents when the topic comes up that the children might not leave my classroom expert mathematicians or perfect spellers, but they will be consciously practicing kindness, acceptance, and awareness of the ways they can contribute to social justice.

I have taken this mission seriously as I have seen abundant evidence that anti-racist/anti-bias conversations are not happening in many other classrooms or schools. I have heard white parents express concern that the children are too young to learn about topics such as slavery and civil rights. I have also had many families of various religious and ethnic backgrounds thank me for the work I do to heighten the children’s awareness. I have explained to my head of school when questioned about the work I do that I am not in the business of protecting the bubble of white privilege. It is never too early to awaken a child’s mind. In the early elementary years children are particularly concerned with justice and especially compassionate. Bringing anti-bias/anti-racist topics to their level of understanding opens natural pathways and ignites natural passions that will become important parts of their character as they grow.

Every day I see evidence of the positive effect of our classroom’s anti-bias work. One particular moment from last spring stands out as I reflect on the body of anti-bias work we did. It was late April in our Lower Elementary Montessori class. A new student had just joined our classroom community as a first grader, with only 6 weeks left of school. The 26 children – only four of which identify as white – were all sitting in circle while another child shared her personal timeline – a story told through photographs and descriptions of important events from each year of her life. As she walked around showing one photo of her family on a camping trip, the new girl, who recently moved from her native Puerto Rico, said, “your babysitter was brown?!” and started giggling, looking to her classmates to join in. Nobody did, and in fact, two different children chimed in with comments like, “what’s wrong with that?” and “that’s not funny”. The child stopped laughing and gave her attention back to the presenter, a third-grade, seasoned student of anti-bias work, who wasn’t phased by the exchange.

I looked to my co-teacher and said, “and that’s why we do this work.” This particular child had not experienced the previous 8 months of anti-bias work we had done together and was expressing her prejudice to what she may have felt would be a like-minded group of peers. Instead she was introduced to the classroom culture and climate by her peers rather than her teachers. These children are the future of ABAR work in and out of the classroom. Their job, should they choose to take it on, will be easier than that of an individual like myself finally awakening to the great need for this work to be done as an adult. They are already doing it. They are already confident allies. They recognize inequality and express their emotions about the historical and current examples they are challenged with the task of thinking about in class.

It was a proud moment to hear a couple of the youngest children in the classroom taking an active stance against racism in the classroom completely independently and exemplified the need for this type of goal to be present in more Montessori classrooms. This is why I do what I do. As my colleague and friend Tiffany stated recently, and I am always trying to find a succinct way to say, “teaching is my activism.”

So, to all the amazing Montessori folks… WE CAN DO MORE!

Tiffany Jewell and Laura Kraby completed their Montessori Training together at the Center for Montessori Teacher Education, New York  and have been Lower Elementary Montessori guides for 10 and 6 years respectively. They share a passion for social justice and are embarking on a journey of Anti-Bias/Anti-Racist education in their Massachusetts classrooms.