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Maria Montessori: What You May Not Know

Welcomed by European royal families, entertained in the White House, and introduced to Mahatma Gandhi, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Erik Ericson, and the world as the “great educator,” Maria Montessori transformed the education of young children. She developed her theories while working as a doctor in a hospital for special-needs children, and opened her first school for normal children in Rome in 1907. Her approach, teaching materials, and observations were groundbreaking and innovative, and have made a lasting impact on our educational systems.

You might be surprised by the following information about this remarkable woman. Montessori’s dedication to her research and to the development of the whole child was far from simple or easy:

• Before she graduated from medical school in 1896, Montessori considered quitting due to the prejudice she faced as a woman in a man’s world. She found it difficult being alone in the dimly-lit laboratory at night dissecting her cadaver since it was considered improper for a woman to be exposed to naked bodies in mixed company. But, she persevered, and before long won the respect of many of her classmates, though her father maintained his objection to her non-traditional ways despite her eventual success.

• Representing Italy at the International Women’s Conference in Berlin just two months after graduation, Dr. Montessori lectured on the rights of working women and proposed equal pay for equal work. In the late 1890’s, she represented the National League for the Education of Retarded Children, and spoke throughout Europe about the ability of all children to learn.

• With a private practice as a pediatrician and as director of the State Orthophrenic School for the retarded, Montessori continued her research and created the first learning materials for “deficient” children. She studied the philosophy of education and was appointed as a lecturer at the women’s teacher-training college. In 1899 she began a second degree in anthropology, experimental psychology, and education at the University of Rome. She became a lecturer of science and medicine at the University of Rome in 1904.

• Montessori had a love affair with a medical colleague, Dr. Montesano, in the late 1890s and became pregnant. Knowing this would end her career, they agreed to keep their son’s birth secret from all but close family and a few friends. Her son Mario was raised in a foster home, with infrequent visits from his mother who identified herself as his aunt. When he came to live with her around the age of 13, he was identified as her nephew, but with his name now Montessori rather than Montesano. Official public acknowledgement that he was indeed her son came after her death when her will was read.

• By 1911, the Montessori system had spread around the world. The first American Montessori school opened in Tarrytown, New York that year.

• Montessori traveled to the United States in 1913 after the popular magazine McClure’s ran a lengthy article featuring her new method of education. Supported by many influential people including Alexander Graham Bell and President Wilson’s daughter Margaret, she gave lectures in many large cities.

• San Francisco, CA 1915A gifted speaker who never used notes, Montessori was described by the New York Tribune during her first visit to the United States in 1913 as “a woman who revolutionized the educational system of the world.” In 1915, she returned to oversee her “glass classroom” exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco where attendees could watch the children at work. She also gave training courses for teachers.

• In spite of some prominent educator’s criticisms of her theory, her enthusiastic followers were ready to help her continue her research and spread the Montessori system of education throughout the United States. With a strong belief in her methods, which she feared would be exploited and misinterpreted, Montessori decided she was the only person qualified to train teachers. She chose to continue to develop her methods by herself outside the educational community. Unfortunately, this led to the failure of the American expansion of her schools.

• Rome, Italy, 1930Throughout the 1920s, Montessori gave training courses and set up model schools throughout the world. In 1926 she was invited to address the League of Nations in Geneva, where she talked about “Peace and Education.” With the support of Mussolini and his fascist government, Montessori schools became official state schools in her homeland. Perhaps for economic reasons and believing that she could expand her influence, she allowed this governmental sponsorship of her schools, with Mussolini serving as the director of the Montessori Association in Italy. The fifteenth international Montessori training course was held under official governmental auspices in 1930.

• In 1933, denying any political affiliation, but as the sole authority over her schools, Montessori refused to have children and teachers in her schools take the oath of loyalty to fascism. She left Italy, settling first in Spain and later in The Netherlands. Montessori schools in Germany, Italy, Austria, and other European countries were closed as the war spread. Her education of teachers continued in India.

• London, England, 1951Montessori successfully turned her educational activities into a self-supporting venture with her son Mario as her partner. They founded the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) in 1929. After her death in 1952, Mario carried on his mother’s vision. This organization, with headquarters in Amsterdam, continues to train teachers and accredit schools worldwide to this day.

• Until 1960, there were few Montessori schools remaining in the U.S. In 1958, after taking a Montessori teacher-training course in London, Nancy McCormick Rambusch opened the Whitby School in Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1962, her book Learning How to Learn, An American Approach to Montessori, was published. Although Mario Montessori protested the Americanization of the Montessori approach, Ms. Rambusch formed the American Montessori Society (AMS). As more schools opened around the world, a dispute arose between the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and the American Montessori Society (AMS) over the use of the Montessori name. In the United States, the Patent and Trademark Office refused to grant exclusive use of the term “Montessori” to any one single organization, saying that the term “Montessori” has a generic or descriptive meaning.

• Today both AMI and AMS cooperate to promote the value of Montessori education, provide education programs for teachers, and support schools with accreditation and continued learning opportunities.

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