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Inspiring the Next Generation through Consultancy and Organizational Management

How a Montessori educator makes an impact across the globe

By Ankie Yip

Name: Margaret Whitley Consultancy: Educating Human Potential Titles: Speaker, Consultant, Writer Years active in the field: 35 years Locations: Oakville, Ontario, London, Ontario (Canada), while working in schools and across Canada and the USA as a speaker, board member, consultant, and author of international education publications Website: www.MargaretWhitley.com

In this feature of The Education Executive, it was my pleasure and honour to have connected with a leading Montessori professional, Margaret Whitley, owner of Educating Human Potential, as our publication continues to explore the overarching themes of resilience and education entrepreneurship in the private sector.

Margaret holds an honours bachelor degree in history, an Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) Elementary Teacher Training program credential (June 1986, Bergamo, Italy), and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction Writing from the University of Kings College, Halifax, Nova Scotia (May 2019). She is also a certified CRR Global Styles of Change facilitator and has completed Heroic Public Speaking (HPS) Grad, an intense year-long speaker training program.

After many titles in her lifetime of achievements since 1986, today, Margaret is actively contributing to the field of Montessori education as a speaker, consultant, Montessori elementary teacher trainer, and writer. Describing her day-to-day levels of involvement, Margaret is actively engaged as an independent contractor for Higher Ground's teacher training program and has focused on leadership consultant work for Center for Guided Montessori Studies mentoring school leaders. She has worked with leaders to assist them with succession planning and managing change within organizations and schools. She encourages all leaders to embrace the principles of Montessori in their leadership.

In the past year, Margaret has offered webinars on leadership to the global Montessori community, serving in the spread of global Montessori dialogue through Montessori Everywhere. She is a prominent advocate for the Montessori model, relaying this message to constituents including several school communities, as educators are continuously tasked with preparing students for the 21st century.

“Critical thinking and problem solving along with creativity, collaboration, motivation and compassion… all essential skills more easily obtained through Montessori.”

At this stage in her career, her major clients include a broad group including teachers, school leaders, parents and community members through her extensive governance and leadership work. Margaret is currently writing an educational memoir, A World of Difference, which documents her own unique journey through education. Additionally, her portfolio supports Montessori-aligned activities to do at home specifically with children during the pandemic.

Margaret serves as Board Chair for Growing Chefs Ontario, a not-for-profit charity whose mandate is to increase food literacy for students in the London/Middlesex region and now across Ontario. Also, she is working on a new, not-for-profit in Saugeen Shoes which hopes to incorporate food literacy programs while offering a retail outlet for local products.

Q&A with Margaret Whitley, Owner, Educating Human Potential

The Ed Exec: Thank you, Margaret, for taking the time to discuss your influential journey and professional achievements spanning approximately 35 years in the field of education. As former Executive Director of Montessori Academy of London earlier in your career, what did your experience entail?

Margaret Whitley: As head of a large Montessori school, about 350 students-toddler to the end of grade eight and over 50 full-time staff and faculty, I was supported by an amazing team of educators, academic leaders, and other staff in finance, communication, admissions, and development. In my last eight years, I had a Board of Governors that I reported to regularly. So much of my day was engaging with all of these people along with parents and students.

Any single day, I could be working on messages for newsletters or annual reports, reviewing the monthly financial statement, preparing for an upcoming board meeting, observing in classrooms, meeting with parents and hosting monthly information sessions with them called Coffee with Margaret. Each day I tried to set aside 30 minutes to have tea with my students. I regularly presented at Western University and Kings College on Montessori education and was an active board member of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators (CCMA). For four years, I was their Director of Accreditation, and regularly attended and presented at conferences and for administrators and parents at other schools on Montessori, particularly Montessori for adolescents.

During my time at the school, I supported teacher training in Toronto, Ontario as time permitted and based on the training centres’ needs, as well as worked on a number of other school accreditation teams for organizations like the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) and Waldorf.

TEE: What were some successes or challenges that your school experienced, and how did you overcome those challenges?

MW: When I assumed the position of head of school, it was not a planned succession although maybe assumed someday I would take it on. The year I stepped into the role, our academic principal announced her retirement. At the moment, it was expected I would take on her role. But our owner and business leader, my mother, shortly after became ill and never actively returned to school leadership. This situation resulted in a complete re-examination of school leadership and it was at this point that the leadership was broadened, but also created a single executive director role. This all happened in 2003 and 2004.

Pictured above: Former days

There were financial challenges related to enrolment, the size of staff, managing and maintaining six properties. This resulted in establishing the first business committees in the school, and over time, evolved into the school moving from a sole proprietorship enterprise to a not-for-profit, board-run charity. Making this transition was a two-year endeavour. This was done to preserve the almost 50-year legacy of the school and to ensure in the absence of the founding family it continued its mission and vision of providing exceptional Montessori education. During my tenure as leader, we rebranded the school and changed its name to better reflect who we are, from Montessori House of Children to Montessori Academy of London. I was and continue to this day to be available for consultation, as a sounding board, and most importantly a friend of the school.

Pictured above: Tina Sartori, current Executive Director of Montessori Academy of London,

with Margaret

TEE: What was your experience with school licensing in Ontario like, notably during its transitional phase to the CCEYA in 2014, and how did this process impact the operations of your school?

MW: After more than 40 years of being exempt from the Ontario childcare licensing requirements which often conflicted with our model and principles of Montessori, in 2014, we were required to apply for licensing for six early childhood (Casa) and three toddler classes. The licensing required significant renovations of three of our facilities, the reduction of capacity, extensive staff retraining along with many other changes within eighteen months.

Pictured above: A young student with Margaret

TEE: What were some of your favourite aspects of running a school?

MW: The children. Doing my part to support the staff and parents to in turn help children find and exceed their potential was so fulfilling. To this day, I remain in contact with many former students and staff. The second best part was working with amazing people. I worked hard to help others find their potential. Every day, not only did I learn from the children, but I learned from everyone I interacted with regularly. Sometimes the learning was difficult and painful, sometimes it was eye-opening, and other times simply eureka moments of joy.

“Doing my part to support the staff and parents to in turn help children find and exceed their potential was so fulfilling.”

TEE: How has the pandemic, in your opinion, impacted teacher training programs?

MW: Teacher training programs, many entrenched in how they have done things for years, have had to adapt or wither. I have seen some amazing adaptations with some programs, the ones that already have online or have moved to online elements, have thrived better. The creative solutions some have developed are remarkable. Like professional development, this has resulted in a deep analysis of what the critical elements to maintain are in teacher training, what other ways there are to preserve those elements, and how accessibility is considered, both financially and geographically.

Pictured above: Margaret on a service trip with students in the Amazon jungle helping to build a shelter for the women in the community to run their business

TEE: Can you tell us about the SCARF model?

MW: SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Understanding that most people look for these to adapt to change more easily can assist leaders in maneuvering through the maze of change. In Montessori, when we are trying to follow the child, we resist responding to their demands or needs until we ideally sit back, observe, and ask ourselves what the cause of a behaviour or activity is, to then assist and guide their true needs. This is the same for our larger community of parents and teachers. We need to constantly move between intensely connecting to a situation and then taking the 10,000-foot view.

TEE: What are some shifts or trends that you see occurring in the field today?

MW: There is a greater shift than ever toward online in all realms such as teacher training, meetings, student learning, ideally only for older students. It is not working really for students under ten and students who need additional one on one support. But none of this replaces the important in-person contact. I also see a significant shift for more people to possibly work from home, but this does not work well for many teachers and students. So, if they have their own children, they need to ensure they have access to in-person learning.

The Montessori Everywhere initiative which started in August 2020 on Dr. Maria Montessori's 150th birthday continues to provide opportunities for connection and learning across the globe. In August, the organizers believed over 7,000 people from around the world participated in important dialogue on how to be Montessori today.

TEE: What do you believe are the advantages of obtaining Montessori education?

MW: I believe strongly that an authentic Montessori approach at all levels is one of the best ways to prepare students for the 21st century. Students who attend Montessori are generally more adaptable, system thinkers. They have the opportunity to develop skills in creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, compassion, and are generally intrinsically motivated. Employers and futurists predict students today need to develop critical thinking and complex problem-solving skills which is an indirect outcome of quality Montessori.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business in a recent survey stated that the most important priority they are looking for in new employees is motivation and collaboration. Many of these skills are not easily obtained when a conventional education approach is pursued. Most employers state they can train for industry-specific knowledge but cannot easily train essential skills such as soft skills and emotional intelligence.

“The Canadian Federation of Independent Business in a recent survey stated that the most important priority they are looking for in new employees is motivation and collaboration."

TEE: As an advocate for Montessori education across the globe, how has traveling shaped your career?

MW: I have had the privilege to visit schools around the world, travel with students on service trips, and support student presentations at the UN. This continually broadens my own view of my work and the world. In my present role as a teacher trainer and leadership mentor, travel will continue with school site visits for both leaders and teachers in training. Once this is possible, it will likely take me to locations throughout the USA and Canada.

Pictured above: At a public speaking presentation

I will also travel if needed for important speaking engagements, but increasingly I can do some of these virtually. Presently I speak to groups of parents, but I would like to branch out to more corporate audiences as organizations recognize what happens in education impacts them significantly and directly. Many of their employees are parents and are searching for solutions that will better meet the needs of children and our society.

“Presently I speak to groups of parents, but I would like to branch out to more corporate audiences as organizations recognize what happens in education impacts them significantly and directly.”

TEE: Schools are currently dealing with a highly unique scenario due to the pandemic. What are some techniques you have noticed that schools have had to implement to cope with this situation today?

MW: Certainly, COVID has been a test of how to implement Montessori without access to the material and being in person with students. It has required all school leaders and teachers to be much more open to partnerships with families and for everyone to empathize with the challenges associated with homeschooling, creating pods, new procedures, online programs, et cetera. However, if school leaders reach out to each other there have been amazing initiatives that have been created in the Montessori community to support Montessori at home. Many of the conferences, professional development and general support that exist for Montessorians are more accessible since they are now online. I hope COVID has actually helped Montessorians to see the strength in global and local Montessori communities, and recognize the value of collaboration.

TEE: Thank you, Margaret, and all the best!