by Letty Rising
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Peter Piché is MACTE-credentialed (Primary, Elementary I–II,) Montessori educator who founded and designed the Secondary I Montessori program at Montessori Community School in Durham, North Carolina, after attending Great Work’s Orientation to Montessori Adolescent program. In addition to getting his professional leadership coaching certification from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching in New Jersey, he holds a Masters in Education. Formerly he served as a consultant to the American Montessori Society for their Pathway of Continuous School Improvement program. Recently he’s worked with Montessori leadership professionals to help them with assertive communication and mapping their leadership style to Montessori principles. Learn more about Peter at Montessori Leadership Mastery.
Letty: The reason I asked you to be a guest on this podcast has to do with your role in leadership. I was thinking a lot recently about how the elementary environment does a lot to prepare children for leadership, not only in the classroom but later in life. How does the elementary environment prepare for leadership for now, and later on? What are your thoughts?
Peter: Leadership is such a broad topic, isn’t it? What I would say broadly, what I notice about Montessori as a lens for leadership, is that leaders are not born, they are grown. Anyone you can think of when you consider being the epitome of leadership, and you think of them as an effortless leader, I can tell you for certain that their formative experiences and the ways they were shaped and influenced by others were exactly what allows that to look effortless now. Leaders in my mind are always grown.
The Montessori environment is one of the perfect places for leaders to be grown specifically because it’s a structure, it’s an environment that encourages the kind of accountability and responsibility-taking that you see inherent in all leaders. When you take in the broad level, you see that it starts as much in early childhood as much as it is enhanced in elementary, and the basic tenet that I would point to is the idea of multi-age classrooms. Everyone comes into a Montessori environment as a novice, so you get that experience of what it means to follow, and we know that all good leaders have had their turn at following to know what that feels like. So being a novice at the beginning of a 3-year cycle, having to orient to what it means to try new things and be unafraid to dive in and try new things in a mistake-friendly environment. And then having the support of others in the classroom, those who have had second-year experience or even those at the “expert” level who have been there for 3 years (or more) and get to bring you along and show you the ropes, show you “this is what we do here.” For me, that is the broad level 40,000 foot view of what makes Montessori settings, and particularly in the Montessori elementary setting, that multi-age grouping is the first organizational element that encourages leadership almost without trying.
What qualities and characteristics do Montessori elementary classrooms cultivate in students that they might not get in another Montessori setting that supports them in becoming leaders in the classrooms?
Peter: I have one major thought about that, and it is very particular to the stage of mind of the Montessori elementary child, which is the reasoning mind. Those of us who follow Montessori pedagogical principles know that the first stage from birth to 6 is the absorbent mind. Though there is the incremental development of the reasoning mind, it comes to full bloom from age 6-12, and the opportunity is for the guide in the classroom to be able to have a child become self-reflective in a way that they weren’t able to prior because of the type of mind they had.
How that is executed well in Montessori elementary is that I see coaching style feedback that happens when Montessori elementary is done well, which means this: once weekly or bi-weekly, the mentor/guide has one-to-one individual time with a student who has done some work to prioritize what is important to them in terms of their approach to work in the classroom, has recorded how they have approached their work in the classroom, has maybe pursued some places where they feel very talented, and sometimes maybe not as often pursued areas of a challenge but have worked on it a little bit, they account for their time where it was spent, confer with the guide mentor, then have a fulcrum on which they can make plans to improve or do something different.
I think at its heart this is a real fundamental way that leaders are different than managers. When you are a really good leader, you don’t look at yourself as the person who holds others accountable, but you are a person who encourages self-accountability, and I think self-accountability is at the core of when a person is encouraging leadership in general. Leadership, to me, is “How can I help this person become the best version of themselves?”
Letty: Developing a capacity to self-reflect in the elementary child, I feel like the guide does a lot in terms of supporting that. Giving them time to plan, and have agency over their lives.
Another thing you brought up is that we support them in doing things they might not do in a traditional environment. They are negotiating, discussing, and collaborating. It has been my experience that Montessori elementary teachers make pretty decent leaders, as they are accustomed to having community meetings, brainstorming solutions, negotiating, and collaborating. They have already had practice doing that and just need to translate it to the adult level, whereas a primary teacher or infant/toddler teacher hasn’t exercised these skills in the same way because the children are in a different place.
Peter: I think what is true is that elementary guides are fantastic at creating mistake-friendly environments. We really want to focus on process over product. When we focus on the quality of our process, a good product is simply an outcome of focusing on the quality of our process. There is this element of the development of courage in the Montessori elementary environment that the guide facilitates when children are regularly encouraged to be in their discomfort zone. That becomes commonplace and normal, rather than feeling afraid to be wrong, and that being wrong is a place you don’t want to be very often, and let’s exit as quickly as possible, rather than the idea that some days you feel like you’re winning, and other days you feel like you’re learning.
Letty: You talk a lot about the mistake-friendly environment as being a pretty important aspect of supporting their leadership skills. Another piece that is so important is turning over the classroom to the children to the extent that they can handle the responsibility…and it’s the balance of freedom and responsibility where leadership comes in. If you’re too rigid or focused on the responsibility factor, they don’t get a chance to practice their leadership, and if it’s too open-ended, they don’t have a structure or boundary to operate within. You might want to create opportunities for community meetings, and there is a process for that, and within that process, there is a lot of freedom, but if there isn’t a process to run community meetings, have classroom jobs, or set up times for them to do presentations in the classroom, find their passions and share in front of an audience…this is something leaders need to cultivate as well.
Peter: What you are speaking to reminds me of the thing I struggled with most as a Montessori elementary guide. My pre-set is the big picture and creative thinking, and I realized as I worked in that environment that what I needed to do to become the mentor or model of what is possible with children, is that I needed to tighten up my attention to detail. Our job is to set up the container in which growth can happen, but the container needs to be a quality container. We will have paid enough attention to details so that the children see the result of what happens when we do pay attention to detail. And at the same time doing the dance of not becoming too rigid.
It’s the irony of caring about the details and wanting the detail to be primary, and at the same time letting go of the idea that it must be perfect. That’s a really difficult nuance to travel in any classroom situation, and in any leadership situation. If you become overbearing, the people you are leading will stop listening and will stop working at their best for you. There’s only so far you can get by being an oppressive style of leadership, what I call hierarchical leadership which is more about command and control rather than facilitating/leading people to become the best versions of themselves.
Letty: Part of the guide’s responsibility is to help those emerging leaders be at the very least benevolent dictators, and at the very most collaborative workers, and do not become the kind of leader who creates divisions in the classroom or creates a hierarchical structure where other children are feeling oppressed themselves. You are creating a little mini-community in the classroom where you have the loud and proud leaders, the strong and silent leaders, and others who aren’t necessarily loud or quiet, but modeling doing the right thing in the classroom. Not everyone is going to grow up being a leader, and it doesn’t always look bold from the outside vantage point.
Peter: I just had a discussion with a client having self-doubt. This client identifies very much as an introvert, and we haven’t lost the societal idea that extroverts make the best leaders, and I’ll say out loud, that is bs. There are so many ways to lead. One can be strong, silent, and confident at the same time in what one knows. Core elements for leading that Montessori elementary instills really well when it is executed:
- Demonstrate something, some skill.
- Have some form of partnership so they can get experience.
- As soon as you see them develop competence, have the ability to back away so that the child can try on their own.
- Once that child is able to be in that sweet spot around a certain level of competence, encourage them to show someone else.
What I witnessed a lot and a mistake I made was thinking I was more needed than I was. Children seemed to learn better from each other than they did from me.
Letty: As a teacher, you can be an introvert as well and be an amazing leader. Some teachers feel overwhelmed by the large classroom, thinking they need to be a humongous presence, but being a silent presence is great, and even if we know that the elementary child has a social/group instinct, introverted children kind of pair off with just one person a lot of times, and so I liked your idea of them showing someone else.
Some people become quiet leaders, showing people one-on-one how to do things. I have seen students who floated around the classroom and supported people as needed. Everyone knew that was the person they could go to. Were they the most popular person in the classroom who was pegged as the leader? Maybe not, but if you could ask others if they could count on this person to help solve a dilemma on the playground, get some feedback, or whatnot, they would say, yes, this person. I have a few children coming to mind from my past teaching experiences.
Have you seen some examples of children from your past, who have taken their leadership from their Montessori childhood years and applied it to an adult setting as they have grown?
Peter: I have been privileged to be able to teach students at a young age, and then again as adolescents, and I saw them throughout that time, and now follow them on social media. The example that comes to mind is recently a young woman I had the privilege to teach who, somewhere along the way, contracted childhood diabetes, had written about how she had recently gone to a camp as an adult that was about working on this particular obstacle that she had acquired in life. Her rhetoric was about having found again what her potential was and moving beyond her potential. Wherever she thought she was limited. She had done a certain amount of biking that week she didn’t believe was possible given her diagnosis. To be able to read and see that she had extended way beyond her potential/what she thought was her potential was really heartening.
I think my cautionary tale is that I have noticed in myself the mistake we sometimes make, that we eventually decide, “Oh, that’s who this child is and this is what their potential is.” A key tenet about leadership in general and all leaders in the world, and certainly that we want to transmute to children is the idea that we must believe in the unlimited potential in people. When we believe in their unlimited potential we never come from the place of judgment of “No, these are your limits.” And that’s how a true leader needs to be.
I heard recently that true leaders are either humble or about to be humbled. What it means is that you do have the orientation as a learner still, and you do realize at the heart of leadership if you haven’t experienced your own self-doubt or a little bit of imposter syndrome, or an on purpose, cultivated adversity, then it’s likely you aren’t trying hard enough.
Letty: This reminds me of having a growth mindset, and not putting a ceiling on their potential.
A lot of elementary teachers are listening to this podcast. What are some things you would recommend they would do to support their students in becoming leaders in the classroom?
Peter: Some core habits to engage in: always resetting each day. The child that comes to you is evolving each day. Resist the idea that they are the same child they were yesterday. If that child is always evolving and we keep in mind that they have unlimited potential, then we are always going to be open to the idea that they can surprise us, show us something new, provide an opportunity for us to help them be better versions of themselves by giving them some essential piece that will move them along their own path.
Another thing is to orient children towards action. What I loved about being a Montessori elementary teacher is that we give lessons and encourage follow-up. One of my favorite things to do was to inspire children by saying “What is the small step you can take now to put this in motion?” Never leave the site of learning or goal without taking some action. This is a really great element of people…they not just thinking, they are active. They are doing.
One of my favorite quotes is a Martin Luther King Jr. quote about the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy. Over the last several years we’ve had plenty of moments of challenge and controversy that have helped shape us all whether we know it or not, that have helped shaped us into people who are more ready for leadership, whether it is the children with whom you work or yourself. I encourage all who have been able to come through the past few years to take your right hand and put it over your left shoulder, pat yourself on the back, and say “You’ve built your character, and you’re more ready than you think for all of the challenges that are ahead.”
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.