Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist Work Is The Spiritual Preparation Of The Montessori Guide
Updated: Jul 26
By Koren Clark July 1, 2020
"The first essential is that the teacher should go through an inner, spiritual preparation.” (Standing, 1998, p. 298).
As much as I aim to spiritually prepare myself as a Black Montessori guide and as a mother of over 20 years, my work is never done. While it pleases me to witness the children I’ve nurtured take the lessons I’ve taught them and walk out into the world as adults. It pains me to usher them into a changed world wrought with biological viral and racial societal toxins.
At this point in history, we see clearly the results of our human errors and we know that we are all wrought with biases and prejudices. As humans, we all have implicit biases (1). Even Maria Montessori herself was not free from her own racism and cultural biases. However, she held fast to the principle that we need to engage in what she calls “the spiritual preparation of self,” to mitigate against these biases and prejudices. Maria says, “knowing what we must do is neither fundamental nor difficult but to comprehend which presumptions and vain prejudices we must rid ourselves of in order to be able to educate our children is most difficult.”
The Montessori philosophy calls for the spiritual preparation of the adult. The requirement Maria Montessori sets for guides implores us to take a deeper look at ourselves and do the transformation needed to reach the hearts and souls of the youth. In doing that work, we engage in a process of overcoming our own biases and prejudices and thereby help meet the needs of our students. Within the Montessori philosophy is the framework for the anti-bias, anti-racist (ABAR) work that we must illuminate and set foot on as we journey towards the self-transformation and spiritual preparation needed for our changed world.
Many of us may have found ourselves on this heartfelt solo journey for years and are anxious to encourage others to join us. Others are dedicated to the journey and simply want to know where and how to begin. Jamila Lyiscott developed The Five Paradigm Principles (2), which include Awareness, Agency and Access, Actualization, Alteration and Action to aid us in our journey. The Five Paradigm Principles not only illustrate where we might find ourselves along our anti-bias, anti-racist journey, it also illustrates the steps we need to take to get there.
AWARENESS We should study our own social identity and cultural context. We must know who we are in order to support children in who they are. We can use the Identity Wheel (3) to help us recognize some of our identifiers and their intersection with privilege and power.
Being aware of the biases that are embedded in our culture and in our subconscious is no easy task. Yet, once we identify and examine our own biases we can take responsibility for them. Actively seeking out tools and books that aid us in the recognition of our biases is extremely important. Read This Book is Antiracist by my dear friend, Montessori educator, and anti-racist activist Tiffany Jewel. It provides a concrete analysis of how racism works in our country. Check out Knowthyself Inc.’s Montessori materials that are designed to help children understand who they are and gain an understanding of race as a social construct.
Stepping out of our own cultural perspective to gain awareness of our biases is like a fish jumping out of water. It is challenging and painful. It requires a paradigm shift in our consciousness. This paradigm shift is the backbone of the spiritual preparation and transformation of the adult that Maria Montessori talks about. The book Shining Through by Sonnie MacFarland explains what happens when the Montessori guides go through a process of spiritual transformation.
“We consciously change our thought patterns and paradigms which free us from our own limited thinking. We increase our ability to remember and consciously clear out the unwanted and unhealthy memory stored in the subconscious.” (Shining Through pg. 10)
Being aware of the murky waters that lie beneath the surface of our minds and reek of the fallacy of white supremacy is an important part of our social-emotional hygiene, a necessary step on the road to social justice.
We should ask ourselves: Who am I in this space and in this world? What power do I have and why? How do I show up? Who am I representing and who am I silencing? What religions, races, cultures, and genders are represented in my classroom via my materials and books? Which of these identifiers is represented in my friend's circle and my professional circle?
AGENCY and ACCESS Taking note of how we have been advantaged or disadvantaged by the stereotypes and prejudices absorbed about ourselves and others is a very important part of our ABAR journey and is essential to our spiritual preparation of self. This is the step that requires us to move beyond our comfort zone and recognize the ways in which the substance of our lives, that which gives us peace and comfort, causes others harm and discomfort to others. It empowers those of us who sit in discomfort because we have to suppress certain aspects of our identity to make others feel more comfortable to embrace the spaces on the margin of the dominant paradigm to have our voices heard. This stretches the margins and organically challenges and pushes against the dominant narrative.
We should ask ourselves: In what social situations can I practice agency? Where might I have access? How can I use my access to help those who don’t have it?
ACTUALIZATION For many the process of self-actualization involves the true expression of one's humanity, a humanity that is often put into question by oppressive forces. This within itself is an act of liberation. Moving to a process of actualization by examining our ideas and experiences with social justice activism is essential. Social justice activism and social change are ignited by the inner spiritual transformation and preparation each individual makes. The spiritual preparation of the guide calls for this type of transformation. However, it is often not a peaceful endeavor and the Montessori pedagogy is based on a philosophy of peace that requires justice. We can’t arrive at peace if justice isn't served. Many Montessori educators are comfortable with notions of peace but are not engaged with the real work of social justice. Montessori says, “The real moral scourge that stems in every person on earth is marked by one wave after... of injustice, as long as such profound misunderstanding continues to exist, peace will definitely fail to fall within the range of human possibilities.” (Montessori, 1949/2007, p. 6-7) She, like Dr. Martin Luther King, believed that “Peace is not merely the absence of war, it is but the presence of justice of law, of order.” In their article Moving Beyond Peace Education to Social Justice, Montessori guides Daisy Han and Trisha Moquino talk about the importance of social justice in Montessori education:
“We need skills such as cultural competence, humility, critical consciousness, creativity, and robust racial and ethnic identity development. As Montessorians, we believe the path to peace and social change is through children; the idea that we pass on to them better values than we live ourselves. If we want our children to lead the way in peace, we need them to understand the truth of systemic oppression and injustice, and we need to build in them the skills they will need to be peacemakers.” (Daisy Han and Trisha Moquino, Moving Beyond Peace Education, AMS Journal 2018)
We must ask ourselves: How am I working toward liberation for all? How am I disrupting traditional notions of value, power, and history? How am I thinking about the most marginalized people within my own community?
ACHIEVEMENT As educators it is very important that we define our notion of achievement clearly for ourselves and our students as we move along this journey. We have to remember the mysteries of the innate potential within ourselves and the children we serve. We must not let the dominant paradigms of social deficit that are often placed on marginalized people of color impede our movement towards change. Just as Maria Montessori says, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” We need to recognize the innate limitless potential for every child we nurture and recognize that the unleashing of this potential will challenge and reshape our traditional notions of achievement. We also need to access our personal measures and the measures of the institutions we are a part of as the move towards diversity and equity. We must hold ourselves and our students accountable for living in the highest standard of moral humanity and empathy and move forward with the understanding that we are all a part of one big living organism.
We should ask ourselves: How am nourishing my own innate inner potential? How am I holding space for the passion and innate potential of my students? How am I living into my cosmic task and achieving my purpose? How am I helping my students and those around me do the same?
AlTERATION AND ACTION It is important for us to take action and alter the systemic injustices that we face in any way we can: by dialoguing, collaborating, disrupting, and conspiring. Everyone is at a different place of self-reflection and transformation on their anti-bias anti-racist journey. However, it is clear that more people all over the world have been engaged in this discussion. Many more people are no longer afraid to talk about racism, bias, anti-blackness and its effect on our planet. This is evident by the marches, protests and the overall movement of liberation that is happening around the world. People are taking action! Sincere, honest dialogue is the medicine that transforms and opens hearts. Liberation activist Assata Shakur says, “We need a r/evolution of the spirit. the power of the people is stronger than any weapon. A people’s r/evolution can’t be stopped. We need to be weapons of mass construction. Weapons of mass love. It’s not enough just to change the system. We need to change ourselves.”
Difficult discussions with family, racist people and those who don't share our heritage is the first step towards collaborating and planning for change. We must disrupt racist practices and systemic structures wherever we see them. This allows us to alter what we traditionally do and see done so that we can make spaces for those on the margins. That means holding ourselves and others accountable and being willing to call folks out- and be called out. This is often easier when we have an accountability partner to support us on the journey. True action takes place when each one of those folks moves from being a friend in the struggle to being a person who puts themself on the frontline and sacrifices for the movement towards liberation.
Ask yourself: What is my commitment to shifting and reimagining myself and the paradigms I live in? What is my commitment to shifting and reimagining the systems I create? How does this commitment show up in my Montessori classroom or school environment? What measures have I taken within my organizations to address the issues of the social toxicity that was always present in the form of racism? Now that we have a viral toxin that affects everyone and impacts those Black and Brown folks at alarming rates, what will I do? How am I advocating for the most vulnerable in my community and in society? Am I moving as an ally or as a co-conspirator (3)?
Maria Montessori implores us to be spiritually prepared by becoming saints, scientists, and servants. As saints, we need to go through the aforementioned process of self-transformation. We need to actively stay engaged in anti-bias work so that we can re-imagine a world that is free from the toxic murk of social injustice. We need to hold the mirror to a child’s imagination so that they can create a future free of limitations and biases. As scientists, we have to take careful record of how we as Montessorians have been interacting with society and how this impacts children. As servants, we have no choice but to serve what Montessori calls the ‘living humanity,’ within each child. When we serve that aspect of the child we are in service of change, we are in service of the child’s imagination. The child’s imagination is our hope for a new world. I may not be able to make amends for the world I have ushered by children and my students into but I can at least model how to spiritually prepare for it. This is what is required for our changed world.
Koren Clark, M.Ed is a (6-9) Montessori trained guide and certified Montessori coach who has taught for over 20 years. She is also a licensed yoga instructor and Reiki master. Clark is an AMS Montessori certified, California state credentialed teacher and holds an administrative credential. She is the co-founder of Knowthyselfinc and a partner for Wildflower Schools where she helps teachers develop liberated teacher-led Montessori micro-schools!