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Teaching the teachers

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By Katy Korkos

Ponderosa Montessori School is now the only school in New Mexico certified to train teachers in the Montessori method under the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE). Ponderosa director Joan Ellard has worked in the field of Montessori education and teacher training since 1984, and has owned the school, formerly Sage Montessori, since 2002.

When Ellard first sent her young son to Sage Montessori in the late ‘70s, she knew nothing about the methodology of education developed by Maria Montessori. “I pour beans!” her son told her. “I thought it was silly spending money for him to pour beans as I had plenty of beans at home, so I went to a parent meeting to find out what was going on.”

She said that after the evening’s presentation, she instantly fell in love with the program, and when former school owner Connie Hayden-Rezac offered a teacher training course, she was first on the list to sign up. She considers Hayden-Rezac her mentor, and one of her best friends, because of their shared passion.

Dr. Maria Montessori, for whom the program is named, never franchised her methodology for educating children, so the Montessori name can be used by any child facility. The system allows children to discover and learn at their own pace, guided by the teachers who make materials available and who are trained to evaluate when the child is ready to move to the next level.

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed,” Montessori said.

Ponderosa Montessori School is also a member of the American Montessori Society (AMS), and Ellard will be a presenter at the national conference in California this fall.

The children must be respectful of their fellow students and respectful of the learning materials as they are guided.

“We model to them calmness, quietness and acceptance,” Ellard said. “Our children are able to categorize and put things in the right place. The children are free to make choices in a controlled environment, which creates calmness.”

Montessori education is acknowledged, accepted and well-established in Los Alamos County and is available at the pre-school level from at least five different childcare providers. “This is a town of many Montessori schools,” Ellard said.  “Almost all of the schools have at least one person who has come through my program.”

The teacher training course is a lengthy one, taking about a year of weekend work for prospective teachers. It includes independent study, materials workshops and a nine-month student internship during which time the prospective teacher is evaluated.

To be certified, the teacher must complete a year-long project, undergo a final evaluation and pass oral exams. A bachelor’s degree is not required to begin the program for a certificate, but if the teacher does not have the bachelor’s degree he or she will be awarded an associates certificate upon completion.

Ellard grew up in Los Alamos, attending Mountain Elementary School, Pueblo Junior High and Los Alamos High School, and then left for a time to attend New Mexico State, where she majored in math.

Montessori won her over with its emphasis on allowing a child to create “the man (or woman) he would become.” She said that her greatest feeling of accomplishment comes when former students come back for a visit or enroll their children in the school.