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40 Years of Montessori Services: An Interview with Founder Jane Campbell

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Montessori Services, and we are pleased to share an interview with founder and owner, Jane Mills Campbell. Jane shares her memories about the history of the company, which is part of the fascinating story of the Montessori movement in America.

(Irene Baker) How did you discover Montessori education?

(Jane Campbell) After graduating from college, I was living in the Philadelphia area, and I didn’t know what to do next. Then I took a class at a local community college, an overview of Montessori education. Afterwards I learned that there was an AMI Montessori training program in Philadelphia, and I signed up. It was run by Mother Isabel Eugenie from England who had trained with Maria Montessori. Mother Isabel lectured once or twice a week on the philosophy and was very inspiring.

(IB) What drew you to the Montessori philosophy?

(JC) It just seemed to be a more enlightened way to learn things. For instance, when we were doing the decimal system with the golden beads, a little light bulb went on. I realized, “Aha! This is how a child’s mind works. Children need something concrete to manipulate in order to comprehend and remember, rather than just being told to memorize everything.” To understand it at that level was quite exciting. The whole idea of learning at your own pace and respecting the child and the child’s learning style was also very important to me.

(IB) Were there other memorable moments in your training?

(JC) Mario Montessori was present at our graduation in 1972, where we celebrated Mother Isabel’s 80th birthday and 50th year in Montessori education. She and Mario were good friends, so he and his wife came over to Philadelphia. He thought it would be fun to pay a visit during our oral exams. So, there he was, sitting with Mother Isabel when I presented the Fabric Squares to the examiner! Because he was a representative of AMI, he signed all of our diplomas. He was a charming, grandfatherly type, very warm and caring.

(IB) Where did you begin teaching?

(JC) After I graduated, I was lucky enough to get a job at the school affiliated with the training center in Philadelphia, which gave me a lot of mentors – which I needed! I was totally inexperienced. We were well-trained in the curriculum, but with only three weeks of student teaching, I did not have much experience with children. It was a little bit like being thrown to the wolves, at least for me. All first-year teachers go through this. It’s a roller coaster ride because you doubt yourself all the time.

But I survived and my confidence improved. In my second year, I remember a three-and-a-half year-old boy came up to me and said, “Mrs. Campbell, you have better things than Santa Claus.” It was the materials speaking to him.

(IB) Why did you start Montessori Services?

(JC) I had been a Montessori teacher for four years, then became pregnant and decided not to go back to the classroom. I thought that maybe I could do something from home to keep my hand in the Montessori world. As a teacher I had spent much of my free time looking for materials, especially for preparing the environment and practical life, so I decided to help provide teachers with those materials.

(IB) What were the first products you offered?

(JC) One of the first items was a box for the Folding Cloths. When I was teaching, I had not been able to find one, so my husband and I went to a cardboard box manufacturer in Philadelphia and found a box the right size and only one-half inch deep – the perfect Folding Cloth box! We knew we were in business because we had to buy 144 of the boxes! (Now we sell a custom-made hardwood tray for the Folding Cloths.) We also went to restaurant supply stores and found some products that we still sell, like the glass creamers. We discovered a housewares store and a basket importer. I also made materials, mostly language matching cards and three-part cards. It took teachers hours and hours to make those. They weren’t available ready-made.

(IB) I imagine teachers were very grateful for your products.

(JC) Elisabeth Caspari (who was trained by Maria Montessori in India) once told my son Joe, “Before there was Montessori Services, I would wear out four pairs of shoes looking for practical life materials.” That was what motivated me – that there was this need. I had felt it and lived through it as a teacher. I still can’t go out to eat without inspecting everything on restaurant tables and wondering, “Can this be used in the classroom?”

(IB) Tell more about the early days.

(JC) I didn’t have any idea what was involved in starting a business. In Pennsylvania we had a very small house and a baby. We packed packages on the kitchen table which was command central. Initially I worked with two other teachers. My first partner had the idea for making blindfolds, aprons, and mystery bags.

(IB) How did teachers hear about you?

(JC) At first it was mostly word-of-mouth. Occasionally there were Saturday workshops for teachers, where we would set up a display and sell a bit.

(IB) When did you start going to conferences?

(JC) Our first major conference was the 1977 AMS National Conference in Philadelphia. Conferences became another way we got our name out there.

(IB) What were conferences like?

(JC) When we started out, we often took both our young children with us. I wouldn’t want to live through that part again. All conferences, to this day, are very hectic. First we prepare the products and ship them to the conference; then we travel there. Depending on the conference, it takes 3-6 hours to set-up. Once we start selling, teachers often seem like they’re in a feeding frenzy; they’re so excited to touch and see the materials. Very hectic.

(IB) And you’re still going to conferences?

(JC) Oh, yes. It is very gratifying, especially seeing all the teachers and vendors I have known for 30 or 40 years. We always have some good stories and a few laughs.

(IB) When did you first put out a catalog?

(JC) In about 1978. It was just a few sheets of paper stapled together with black-and-white sketches of the products. A friend printed them at her church. Our mailing list was all on index cards.

(IB) How did you get from the kitchen table to now?

(JC) We ran the business from our kitchen for a few years, then expanded into our basement. In those early days, we really knew nothing about running a mail order business. We usually had to order the goods after receiving an order, so, obviously, there were delays. Teachers were generally patient. The joke was that we tried not to give them any hope (ha ha!). Every day was a long day when you have children and customers. They are both unrelenting, and they are both wonderful.

In 1982 we moved (in a school bus) to California and set up the business in our garage. We used to sort language objects in our living room. My parents would come up from San Francisco and sit around our dining room table sticking labels on catalogs. When we outgrew the garage, around 1988, we moved to a small storefront. We kept outgrowing our facilities. Now we’re in our fourth commercial location: a 15,000 square-foot building including a warehouse, showroom, and offices. We have 16 regular employees – five have been with us for 15-20 years or more.

(IB) How do you find new products?

(JC) We’re always looking for ideas from teachers. I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful Montessorians, and we’ve carried many of their products – furniture, materials for language, geography, science, parent education, elementary – to name a few. We also go to trade shows, and we have a dedicated staff member who is our “merchant.” She seeks out all kinds of things. Our two staff Montessori teachers review hundreds of products every year.

(IB) What has been your biggest challenge?

(JC) About 12 years ago, we were growing fast and basically weren’t coping well. We had just begun the For Small Hands catalog for families. Everybody was feeling overwhelmed and there was no shortage of tears. We were taking orders on the phone by hand because we were too afraid of typing directly into the computer! We knew there must be a better way. Fortunately we found a consultant who brought us into the 21st century and helped us hire a wonderful general manager. That was a big turning point for us.

(IB) Three years ago Parent Child Press became part of Montessori Services. How did that come about?

(JC) I was very honored and humbled, actually, when Aline Wolf asked me if I’d be interested in taking over. We have known each other for many years because she lived in Pennsylvania also. We were exhibitors at those early conferences together. Aline was ready to retire and called me. I was immediately excited about the prospect. We were already distributing most of the Parent Child Press books.

One interesting thing that has happened since we became owners of Parent Child Press is that people have contacted us about translating some of Aline Wolf’s books into their language. It is exciting to help disseminate her work. A Parents’ Guide to the Montessori Classroom was already available in Spanish and Korean and will be out soon in French.

(IB) Did your children attend Montessori schools?

(JC) Yes. Fortunately both of my sons were able to attend Montessori schools. When we moved to California, one of my prerequisites was that we be near a Montessori elementary school. That’s one of the reasons we settled in Santa Rosa.

While my son Joe was in high school, he worked for his former Montessori school doing odd jobs. One day he was moving a pile of gravel to the playground, and had no problem enlisting the help of the three- to five-year-olds to fill his wheelbarrow with their small shovels. A very Montessori activity!

My seven-year-old granddaughter is in an elementary program at a Montessori charter school. A couple of times she has brought up subjects that astound me. Once recently we were talking about really, really, really big numbers. She said, “Grandma, how many universes are there? A friend at school is sure there are hundreds of thousands of universes.” It’s exciting to see her getting those big picture impressions.

(IB) It’s been forty years and you’re still so energized.

(JC) I have a standing joke with another vendor at Montessori conferences. At the end, as we are packing up and the exhaustion hits us, she will look at me and say, “So, Jane, why do we do this?” And then together we reply (and smile), “Oh, yes. It’s for the children!”

The Montessori philosophy has guided us, and I try to be conscious of it in every decision, including how we present and describe materials in our catalogs. I love the people I work with both here at the company and in the Montessori community. Both my sons have roles in the business now – it’s wonderful working with them.

I love knowing that I am contributing to something bigger than myself and, hopefully, that we are having an impact, however small, on this very messy world we live in.

It is interesting how idealistic I was when I took the Montessori training in 1971. There were anti-Vietnam war and civil rights protests, the women’s movement was starting, and a back-to the-Earth movement was happening. I thought that by the time I’d be this old the world would be a different, better place. I thought Montessori education would really revolutionize everything. We’d do away with guns and bombs and so forth. We all know that hasn’t happened, yet I still hold out that Montessori is the best way to educate children and our best hope for the future. I don’t find myself discouraged or depressed about it. I am still optimistic.

One of my favorite Montessori quotes is, “Give the child a vision of the Universe… for all things are connected with each other to form one whole unity.” There is only one Universe, right? According to my grandaughter’s friend, there are hundreds of thousands of universes out there! We must start with the children, giving them a bigger, more inclusive perspective. That’s what Montessori education is all about and what gives me hope.

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2016

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