2018-09-01 / Up Close

Foundations of Learning

Montessori teacher gives her professional career to young students
Laura Coyne Steel

House slippers were the first things I noticed when I entered the Park Forest Montessori School classroom. All the kids, teachers and assistants were wearing them. They looked comfy. A great idea, I thought — but a bit unusual. I wondered, “How did this come to be?” When founder, director and lead teacher of the school Rose Park worked with another teacher who was from Turkey, her assistant always brought along house slippers to wear so that the floors stayed clean. Park decided to adopt this custom — just one unique aspect of her educational philosophy. 

The preschool and kindergarten, which is housed in the Park Forest United Methodist Church, has been offering the self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play central to the Montessori method for 41 years. 

Park graduated from Shippensburg University with an education degree that included a math major and a physics minor. She also holds a master’s in counseling. At the start of her career, she worked at a few different schools before settling into Montessori. 

“I worked at a camp for the blind, taught elementary special-education students, and taught seventh and eighth grade slow-learner math students,” she says. “All of this experience and exposure left me feeling like I wanted to be a teacher, but I also knew that I wanted to ‘start from scratch.’” 

Park fell in love, specifically, with the Montessori math materials, which involve sensory activities and pattern recognition. “I soon realized that kids need more than multiplication and addition tables.” She also knew that she wanted to “be in charge.” She sought training at the St. Nicholas Training Centre (now called Montessori Centre International) in London where she studied with two teachers who had been trained by Dr. Maria Montessori, the Italian physician and educator who developed the eponymous research-based educational philosophy in the early 20th century. 

In Park’s classroom, which last year had about 35 enrolled students between morning and afternoon sessions, structure is expected, and there are classroom ground rules. For instance, children are expected to walk slowly and speak in a soft voice as quiet voices are more effective than loud demands. In addition, the class size is small, providing extra attention for each student to grasp each teaching concept. Preschoolers and kindergarteners share one classroom, though each has separate spaces for their learning materials, creating a mixed-age group with individualized teaching as in most Montessori schools. “We teach life skills as well,” Park says, whose program includes an extra touch of culture. A music teacher and a French teacher both come in weekly to work with the students. 

The classroom exudes acceptance and multiculturalism. There are Arabic and Russian alphabets posted on the wall. On the floor is a colorful, oval rug that features different countries of the world and a variety of nationalities and ethnicities — African-American, Asian, Eskimo and Indian. A Native American tribe map adorns the wall.

“All these things come from parents,” says Park, pointing to the walls. “They ask what I want, and I say, ‘Bring back something from your culture.’”

Cindy Neidigh has been assisting Park in the classroom since 2006 and works with the preschool children. “Working with Rose has been an amazing and transforming experience. She uses gentle instruction to teach the kids — and adults. She sees the potential in each student and uses quiet encouragement and guidance to help them blossom,” she says. “Her love and enthusiasm for her work results in her students having a lifelong love and thirst for learning. She is like drops of water that ripple outward, spreading love as they go. Rose has made me a better parent, teacher and person.”

Centre County resident Michelle Simonetti attended the school more than 25 years ago. She now brings her two children, Anthony and Bella, there. “I benefited so much here that I knew I wanted my kids to attend and have Rose be their teacher,” she says.

But all this is soon coming to a close: The upcoming school year will be Park’s last. Park and her husband, Phil, live in State College and have two adult children and six grandchildren. She has worked full-time until very recently when she decided to hire another Montessori teacher who could lend a hand and share in the duties. She plans to retire in June 2019 and, at this point, the future of the school is unknown. 

What will she miss most about teaching when she retires? “Seeing the light bulb come on when my students understand something,” Park says, “and watching them eventually blossom into adults.” •SCM

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