Montessori has been in our hearts and embodied our spirits before we even knew what it was. Now, after a combined 80 years of classroom and school leadership experience, we are delighted to be bringing Montessori into your home. We are Roberta and Jim Cummesky, known to our students as Mrs. Cummesky and Mr. C. I (Roberta) always knew I wanted to be a teacher but not in a traditional classroom and Jim, a successful business manager, never imagined he would find his passion and career in education. Our introduction to Montessori happened during my last year of college, where I assisted in a Montessori Primary classroom for three to six-year-old children. I had no previous experience with “Montessori”, but my sister was working at a Montessori school in their toddler program and she encouraged me to join the staff. During that year I was captivated by the children's natural love of learning, their enthusiastic arrivals, and the joy they had each morning as they came in smiling and ready to engage with the materials and their classmates. By mid-year, I knew this was the environment I was called to teach in, one that fostered a joy of learning and integrated movement with education.
A Year in Perugia, Italy
At the end of that first school year, in 1979, Jim and I, set out for Perugia, Italy to take the Montessori teacher training for 3 to 7 year-olds. Keep in mind this was before the internet, and all correspondence was through the mail service with a typical three to four week transit time! Jim, knowing that we would soon have children of our own, felt the Montessori training would help him as a parent, but he had planned to return to retail management upon completing the training course and returning home. We had a dream but very little money to realize our dream. Our church community wanted to help support our dream and put on an Italian themed “rent party” to help defray our living expenses.
In the heat and humidity of August, we arrived at the Perugia train station completely unprepared. We naively assumed we could find English speakers anywhere in the world! We stepped off the train onto the platform and only knew, “Dove' il Centro?” (Where is the Center?)
Signorina Paolini (center) welcoming visiting Japanese Montessori teachers in 1979
Centro Internazionale Montessori
Eventually, we found our way to the city center, at the top of the hill, and wandered the streets looking for the youth hostel and Centro Internazionale Montessori, the training center where we would spend the next year. The following morning we knocked on the door of the training center and waited until we heard a sound above our head. We looked up and there, radiantly gazing down at us, was a lovely elderly woman. In a very uncultured way, we nervously stated in English, “We are looking for ‘Paolini’.” She smiled and introduced herself as, “Signorina Maria Antonietta Paolini”. We immediately realized our lack of proper etiquette at this first meeting, and I think she recognized that she had her work cut out for her!
Signorina Maria Antonietta Paolini
Signorina Paolini had been Dr. Maria Montessori’s associate and assistant for many years. From 1952 to 1994, Ms. Paolini directed 33 courses attended by 2,589 Italian students and 1,087 foreign students. We had the great fortune to be two of these foreign students. We spent the year attending practicum courses in the morning to learn about the Montessori materials and how to present them to the children. Her presentations were precise, thorough, and often laced with humorous stories of children and Dr. Montessori. Each afternoon we attended her lectures on Montessori theory at the University for Foreign Students in the same hall where Dr. Montessori had lectured. In the late afternoons, nights, and weekends we labored on our handwritten and hand-illustrated “albums”, our syllabus of all the Montessori Early Childhood curriculum.
Maria Antonietta Paolini greeting Dr. Montessori in Perugia, 1936
Pay it Forward
A few months into our studies, after re-viewing our finances, we realized that we did not have the funds to finish the training course. We had budgeted our rent of a room in a shared flat as per room, not per person, so consequently, our rent was twice what we had planned. We wrote a letter home to let our family know about our dilemma. Our sister and brother-in-law wrote back to share with us that two years previously they had been gifted $2000.00 by a member of our church community to help them with a shortfall of the funds they needed to purchase their first home. He requested that, instead of paying him back, they pass it on to someone in need when they were in the position to do so. We were the recipient of this incredible “pay it forward” gift! We now had the funds to complete the course and return back to the States!
That year was transformational! We had arrived naïve, uncultured, and questioning why the Italians do things the way they do. Within two months we had not only adapted into this new way of life but found ourselves preferring it.
By the end of the course, we held within us a “golden nugget” and Dr. Montessori’s pledge, “To Help Life” was planted in our hearts. Like our mentor and teacher trainer, Signorina Paolini, we had both found our vocation. We were hope-filled with Dr. Montessori’s vision of peace through education and invigorated with a deep respect for “the child” as a citizen of the world. Jim knew that his planned career and job waiting for him in California (paying three times his initial teacher salary) were no longer part of our future.
We returned home, promising Signorina Paolini that we would replace all the plastic we found in American Montessori classrooms with ceramic and glass, so the children would have “control of error” as they worked with the breakable and more “beautiful” replacements. In July 1980 we accepted a teaching position with my previous employer, to be the guides of their single Primary classroom of 36, 3-6 ½-year-old children, at Montessori de Terra Linda.
That summer we painted the entire classroom to beautify it for the arrival of the children and so that it truly embodied the Maria Montessori's vision and incredible methods. We removed all the plastic materials and replaced them with beautiful materials of ceramic, glass, and wood. The children arrived and went right to work! A few months later we were asked if we would like to purchase the school. The owners had several schools in the area and they were ready to retire. One by one, they were selling each of their schools. Initially, my response was “no” because I was impassioned to teach, not run a school! Jim, having run two businesses prior to taking the teacher training, was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of directing the program ourselves. They continued to pursue us, and, before the end of our first year, we eventually agreed. In the next seven years, we expanded the school beyond the original Toddler and single Primary class to a complete AMI accredited program with a Toddler class, three Primary (3-6 ½) classes, and two Elementary classes. In 1995, after 15 years of private ownership, we transitioned the school to a non-profit organization.
Further School Growth and Study
After three years of directing a primary class, Jim became increasingly concerned about successfully meeting the different learning styles and abilities of the children in the school. He enrolled at the Montessori Special Education Institute and graduated in 1985 with an AMI Special Education diploma. He was fortunate to train under the guidance of Dr. Jon Osterkorn, a renowned scholar of Dr. Montessori’s work. This training fortified Jim’s commitment to meet the varied abilities of the children in the school.
During these years I was in and out of the primary classroom as our family grew. Not only were we adding new students to the school, but we were also adding new children to our home. By 1986 we had two young daughters and an infant son. The school was growing and Jim left the classroom to direct the school full time, although he never gave up joining the students to play guitar, sing, or lead sports activities. In 1992 he directed a small adolescent program of seven students, guiding them in all subjects and over 100 miles of backpacking in the California wilderness.
In 1995, as the school was transitioning to a non-profit and had hired a full-time Head of School, Jim returned to a primary classroom for three years full-time and spent his summers attending the AMI elementary three-summer course in Kansas City. In 1998, after receiving his Elementary Diploma, he moved on to the elementary class, eventually guiding six students who began as 3 years-olds in his primary class through 9 years of Montessori education as well as many others afterward.
A Farm School In the Napa Valley
Jim’s desire to again work with adolescents lead him to take the NAMTA Orientation to Adolescents in 2007. In 2008 we moved to the Napa Valley to join St. Helena Montessori School’s staff to help develop a Montessori Program for adolescents on a farm+school environment. That same year I started a second Primary class in the quickly growing school. I helped make the transition from classrooms in trailers to the most beautiful Montessori classrooms, and again working in a true Montessori “Casa Dei Bambini” of 36 three to seven-year-old children. Over the past twelve years, Jim helped develop the farm-based adolescent program, taught in the elementary classrooms, directed music and plays, and developed the woodshop for the adolescent students.
Adolescent students in Jim's woodworking class at St. Helena Montessori lifting a timber frame wall of a chicken coop into position. The coop now houses 40 hens and contributes to the micro-economy of the students.
Jim and Roberta outside the AMI Maria Antonietta Paolini Teacher Training Center in Perugia, Italy after completing a self-guided 120 mile St. Francis pilgrimage to Assisi. 2017
A New Way to Teach
Now, due to COVID-19 home stay orders, we have been given the unique opportunity to adapt our passion for teaching the Montessori approach from within our home environment. We recognize that during this pandemic, you as parents are also being called to take on the role of teaching your children in your home.
“Our dream” and our desire to serve children is stronger than ever and continues as we explore this new adaptation with you. We plan to use our combined 80 years of experience to provide supplementary Montessori lessons to support you and your children. We will present Montessori lessons through short videos that you, in turn, can use either as you present the material to your young children or have your elementary age children view with you or on their own. Viewing together will educate both child and adult of the magic of Montessori, which up until now has been primarily within the walls of the classroom. It has become our “Great Work” to record for you the wonderful lessons we have had the privilege of presenting to children over the past forty years.