Let’s talk allyship

Barbara Isaacs & Wendelien Bellinger share their thoughts on what being an ally means to them.

Image: Interconnected by Stephanie Jennifer

Writing this blog post in the midst of the US election as well as a global pandemic, we cannot help but remember Dr. Montessori’s words:

“Social life today is extremely complex, fraught with errors and incomprehensible contradictions. These are days of gloom, a time of spiritual darkness.”

(Montessori, 2007a: 81)

It is interesting to consider that Dr. Montessori spoke these words at a lecture in December 1937! Almost a century on, the year 2020 is definitely complex and fraught with errors and contradictions, and it sure has shone a bright spotlight on what is broken in our society. It seems we still have a long way to go to eradicate acts that “hinder the establishment of a genuine community of all humankind” (Montessori, 2007a: xiii). The impact of COVID-19, for example, is deeply unequal as it has, and continues to, hit members of many marginalised communities the hardest. We know we can and must do better and protests in 2020 have abounded, demanding justice and equality.

We often grab hold of that popular and very poignant Montessori quote: “We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity” (Montessori, 2007c: Chpt 1, 10%). But do we really walk that walk or do we just talk the talk? Do you consider yourself to be an ally to marginalised groups? Allyship is a term that is used a lot these days; google “allyship” and hundreds of pages come up addressing, promoting and also denouncing the term. Even Good Housekeeping has a view but this particular description of what allyship is might be useful:

Allyship is a proactive, ongoing, and incredibly difficult practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.

(Rochester Racial Justice Toolkit, 2016)

In that same 1937 lecture, Dr. Montessori suggests that humans can change but to achieve that:

“the world of adults must change. We must unite; we must reach out to the child, have faith in them, construct the proper climate for them and change our very selves” 1

(Montessori, 2007a: 83).

“The world of adults must change”

Never before has the spiritual preparation of the adult been more relevant. E.M. Standing reminds us that the adult must “acquire a deeper sense of the dignity of the child as a human being” (1998:298).

Being an ally isn’t easy, it is not an ‘identity’ or a badge of honour we can simply (pro)claim. It is a constant quest to listen to, learn about and amplify the voices of those who are marginalised. We must persistently observe and reflect on our practice and that of our partners and colleagues, supporting each other to feel competent and comfortable talking about the inclusion of marginalised groups. We must engage with a diverse community of individuals and ask difficult questions, of ourselves and each other, recognising that we all have personal biases, challenging our attitudes and normalising conversations about marginalisation.

Allyship is not a noun… It is a verb!

“…construct the proper climate for them”

“Adults admire their environment…but the child absorbs it…they form part of their soul” (Montessori, 2007:56). As we work to construct a climate or environment for the child which celebrates and allows them to be who they are, we must ensure they can engage in experiences and with activities that reflect their and other types of families and communities. Children must be able to see not only themselves but also the world in the environment, reflecting to them their own, but also sharing with them the perspective of others. This inclusive classroom is important because “…they are the ones who not only enjoys the environment, but is the most active of agents who are destined to modify and perfect it” (Montessori, 2008:108).

If we really believe in the child as an agent of change, we must create an environment where equity and care are experienced and absorbed, and where the child is championed by the adults. The environment must foster a sense of belonging and create a lived-in experience which demonstrates the value of each child and adult present. As adults we must be worthy of the children in our care.

“We must reach out to the child, have faith in them”

“The child has their own laws of growth, and if we want to help them grow, we must follow them instead of imposing ourselves on them” (Montessori, 2019:63). We cannot and must not impose our own beliefs, values, and biases on the child. Instead, just as Montessori described herself, we must set ourselves up as the child’s interpreter (Montessori, 2019:10) and we must carefully observe each child, recognising their individual strengths, celebrating and amplifying their unique voices and accepting them for who they are rather than whom we would like them to be.  

Working closely with families and the community we can develop an understanding of and respect for different family and home backgrounds, cultures and values, celebrating similarities as well as differences. Only then can we ensure our work with the children validates their identity and establishes in them a positive sense of self.

“We must unite”

In a lecture delivered in India in 1946 Montessori calls for a union in which “every person is dependent on other people and each must contribute to the existence of all” (2008:112). She advocates that a new form of education must arise which values that “… mutual help among people is the most direct form of universal defence” encouraging that “human society must reach a level of average welfare where the necessities of life can be satisfied for all people” (2008:113). For the young children in our care this necessity of life begins by being accepted for who they are. For us adults working with young children, it means we need to recognise and accept the intricacies and complexities of human existence and continue to search for the spirit of each child as we navigate the challenges of today and together work at being allies. It is not an easy and clearly mapped out journey – but one worth taking for the future of humanity.

“This is education, understood as a help to life; an education from birth, which feeds a peaceful revolution and unites all in a common aim, attracting them as to a single centre. Mothers, fathers, politicians: all must combine in their respect and help for this delicate work of formation, which the little child carries on in the depth of a profound psychological mystery, under the tutelage of an inner guide. This is the bright new hope for mankind” (Montessori, 2007b:15). Being an ally is not something you need to do or even can do on your own, although you can certainly make a difference. To build a new and better normal, “We must unite”. And with the world turned upside down, it’s a damned good moment to do so!


Barbara Isaacs is the president of Montessori Europe, who has contributed immensely to the UK as well as global Montessori community for over 35 years as an educator, teacher trainer, and ambassador. Prior to her role in Montessori Europe, she served as the academic director and global ambassador for Montessori Centre International, where she led a team of knowledgeable and dedicated Montessori colleagues in developing new courses, publishing the Montessori International magazine, organising conferences, as well as representing Montessori at government and international level. She has published extensively and is the author of two books Bringing the Montessori Approach to Your Early Years Practice and Understanding the Montessori Approach: Early Years Education in Practice and the co-author of the forthcoming book Observation in the Early Years: Perspectives and Case Studies. Barbara alongside Wendelien runs the Montessori Musings platform where they seek to critically engage with Montessori theory and practice. More recently Barbara has launched her personal blog where she shares fresh perspectives from her role as a Montessori Granny.

Wendelien Bellinger is a Montessori early years educator and has worked as a Deputy Head and Special Educational Needs Coordinator in a London-based Montessori setting, prior to working as an Academic Lecturer at Montessori Centre International. Wendelien is currently on the Montessori Europe Board, and is the co-founder of the Montessori Musings platform along with Barbara, where they aim to inspire and support Montessorians, through webinars that seek to challenge our practice, book clubs, working group focused on play as well as supporting Montessori early years setting leaders and managers to navigate through the various challenges of leading practice.


Note:

1 Please note that Dr. Maria Montessori’s original quotes have been modified to reflect a more gender-inclusive language. For this, we use the singular third-person pronoun ‘they/them/their’, which is endorsed by the APA style.

References

Montessori, M. (2007a) Education and Peace Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Montessori, M. (2007b) The Absorbent Mind Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Montessori, M. (2007c) To Educate the Human Potential Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company. e-Book, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Educate-Human-Potential-Book-ebook/dp/B07XRV91VW/ref=sr_1_1?crid=FET63XAQZSE8&dchild=1&keywords=to+educate+the+human+potential&qid=1604488591&sprefix=to+educate+th%2Caps%2C144&sr=8-1, (downloaded April 2020)

Montessori, M. (2008) The Child, Society and the World Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Montessori, M. (2019) Education for a New World Delhi: Aakar Books

Rochester Racial Justice Toolkit (2016) What is Allyship? Available at: https://thetoolkit.wixsite.com/toolkit/beyond-allyship (downloaded October 2020)

Standing, E.M. (1998) Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work New York: Plume Books