Maria Montessori (1870 - 1952)

I was born in the town of Chiaravalle in the province of Ancona, Italy in the year 1870 in an era where it was not common to treat children with respect. The old adage applied – Children should be seen and not heart. My father, Alessandro Montessori, worked in an official capacity for the Italian government and was a respected member of the bourgeois civil service. My mother, Renide Stoppani, came from a wealthy, well-educated family known for their devotion to the liberation and unity of Italy.

It was my mother who encouraged me towards advanced education and convinced me to register at the Regia Scuola Tecnica Michaelangelo Buonarroti in engineering studies at the age of thirteen. I disliked it greatly and knew that this was not a model for an ideal school. I decided to drop out of my engineering program. My family, friends, and especially my father, all cheered the decision for they were shocked that I would choose such an unlady-like profession.

Much to their chagrin, I decided to go to the University of Rome and become a student of their medical program. I graduated with a score of 100 out of 105 in 1896, the first female doctor in Italy’s history.

A month after my graduation, I was chosen to represent Italy in a Women's International Congress in Berlin, Germany. When I returned to Rome, I was appointed as a surgical assistant at Santo Spirito, worked at the children’s hospital, and maintained a private practice.

By 1897 I came to the realization that the children I worked with could not be adequately treated in the hospitals and should instead be educated in schools. Towards this goal, I began to devote more and more of my time towards perfecting education. In 1912 I developed The Montessori Method – a method of learning that used nature to meet the real needs of children.

In 1900 I became a director of a small school for 'challenged' youth. My methods were hailed as experimental, but miraculous. I believed that children should be taught “how” prior to executing a task.

While working there, I had a love affair with a colleague, Dr. Montesano. In 1898, I gave birth to my only child, Mario Montessori. We vowed to keep our relationship and the identity of the father of my son a secret. We pledged that neither of us would ever marry another person. Montesano failed to live up to his end of the bargain, however, and fell in love with and married another woman while still working with me in daily contact. The pain of this betrayal caused me to leave the school. I sent my son to a wet nurse and later to a boarding school.

In 1907 I actively began to emphasize my theories and methods of pedagogy. I became the director for a group of daycare centers for children of the working class in one of the worst neighbourhoods in Rome. My pupils were labelled as “wild and unruly”. Yet, under my guidance and methods, they began to respond. I respected the children and always held them in the highest regard and insisted that the teachers I employed did the same.

The success of our work was amazing. Children younger than three and four years old began to read, write, and initiate self-respect. My method encouraged these underprivileged children to “absorb their culture”. But they absorbed much more than mere reading and writing – they soon progressed to botany, zoology, mathematics, geography, with great ease and spontaneous energy.

Critics complained my methods were too rigorous and harsh. But instead I argued, “I studied my children, and they taught me how to teach them." To hear such a statement today, would not turn heads. In my day, however, everyone was left agape and shocked. Because I believed that the learning environment was just as important as the learning itself, my school was the first to have child-sized tables and chairs made for the students. My schools were often peaceful, orderly places, where the children valued their space for concentration and the process of learning.

My methods completely contradicted traditional forms of educational. For example, adults often reprimand children about runny noses, but never take the time to teach them how to take care of it themselves. I decided to give the children a slightly humorous lesson on how to blow their noses. After I had shown them different ways to use a handkerchief, I ended by indicating how it could be done as unobtrusively as possible. I took out my handkerchief in such a way that they could hardly see it and blew my nose as softly as I could. The children watched me in rapt attention, but failed to laugh. I wondered why, but I had hardly finished my demonstration when they broke out into applause that resembled a long repressed ovation in a theater. When I was on the point of leaving the school, the children began to shout, 'Thank you, thank you for the lesson!'"

On one occasion, a teacher was late. The eager students actually crawled through the window and got right to work while they waited. I created the game of silence, a brief period of meditation that allowed the children to start the day with a sense of peace and focus.

In the latter years of my life, from around 1907 to the mid-1930's, I devoted all of my time and energy in founding schools that taught my method throughout Europe and North America. I also traveled to India and Sri Lanka, and until 1947, I trained thousands of teachers in the Montessori curriculum and methodology.

I lived until 1952 in the Netherlands after a lifetime devoted to the study of child development. I also worked for women’s rights and social reform. My success in Italy led to international recognition, and during my lifetime I traveled the world lecturing and training. ‘Educate for Peace’ was my guiding principle which influenced her every deed.

My work lives on through the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the organization I founded in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1929 to carry on my work.

I made numerous memorable quotations. Following is a collection of my most famous ones:

Who Am I?

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