March is a month to celebrate change and growth, and it is in that spirit that we shine our spotlight on Eric Heil, one of our 2014 graduates. His Montessori journey started early, planting roots that never quite left him.
Give us a little background on yourself. Where did you grow up? When did you decide to become a Montessori teacher?
I grew up in the Napa Valley in northern California. Grape growing and Montessori were integral to my childhood. I was born in Sacramento while my father was studying viticulture at UC Davis, and we moved to Napa shortly thereafter for him to pursue a career in the wine business. It was there, in my hometown of St. Helena, that my mother and her sister founded St. Helena Montessori School in 1981. I was a member of one of the first classes to graduate – I think we were three students. My love for the Montessori approach goes as far back as I can remember. It was so fun to be at school and to learn about things that were fascinating to us as children. We were very independent and extremely interested in the world around us. I attended St. Helena Montessori School from pre-k through 6th grade and then attended public schools through high school. Upon transitioning to traditional public school, I recall being shocked when I found my peers didn’t enjoy school.
After college, I decided to join Teach For America, and that is what launched my career as a teacher. I saw the opportunity to teach in some of our nation’s neediest schools as something I didn’t want to miss. Part of the reason I chose to teach was because I had been inspired by two tremendous teachers as an undergrad – Warren Pulich and Joe Mueller. Warren taught me about birds, and Joe taught me about mammals. Both men were experts at what they did and even as mature adult men, they were still thrilled to share their wonder for the natural world – oftentimes with a zany flair. I taught math and science for two years in the Bronx, New York, but all the while I was in traditional schools, I knew Montessori was a model I preferred.
Several years (and schools) later, having moved to Washington DC, I decided to finally take the plunge and do the Montessori Elementary Training. It was like coming home. I was encouraged by my aunt, who had originally trained as a Montessori teacher in Bergamo, Italy, and by my mother who still runs the school they started. Having personally taught in several types of traditional schools, both public and private, I realized oftentimes traditional schools can work against the child and actually thwart his development. Montessori had been such a key part of my upbringing (and is such a beautiful and organic approach to begin with) that taking the training was almost something I couldn’t avoid.
What were some of the factors in your decision to study at WMI, specifically?
I decided to study at WMI primarily because it is an AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) training institute. AMI was founded by Maria Montessori and is the institution she designed to train teachers, accredit schools, and perpetuate the insights of her method in their entirety. In addition to this, WMI is located in the DC metropolitan area, where I reside. Finally, the reputation of the teacher trainers at WMI was very strong. Dr. Kay Baker was at WMI when I first grew interested, and my aunt strongly encouraged me to take the elementary training from her. It was an added bonus that Janet McDonnell was teaching Primary there, as she had taught my cousins in southern California. I attended an open house at WMI and it was a terrific experience. I met the trainers, saw the pristine and inviting classroom environments, and even met Trevis, one of my future fellow trainees. WMI is the oldest AMI training institute in the country and had a terrific reputation – I found it exceeded my expectations.
Tell us about your experience (highlights/challenges) in Baltimore at Loyola over the summer. Was it difficult to complete the capstone in such a short amount of time?
There were definitely pros and cons to the summer program. For me personally, living in DC all summer and going to Baltimore for classes was a bit of a challenge, but the commute was also a time to decompress, and catch up on the news. Most of my classmates lived on or near campus, and that seemed to go well for them. Having the all-Montessori cohort in our classes was a definite highlight. We met Montessorians from across the country and had courses which were more or less tailored to the Montessori approach. This greatly enhanced the benefit of the general education coursework.
It was an intense time of study and research, but I was more interested in being immersed in the content and finishing in a short period of time rather than prolonging the process with a part-time program. The capstone paper we wrote was a very rewarding undertaking. I was able to conduct a thorough literature review on a topic that interested me (Nature Deficit Disorder), and then synthesize my findings in a scholarly paper. The research class and capstone paper helped us to think beyond the soundbites and headlines involving issues in education and gave us the ability to think for ourselves and undergird our understanding with evidence from the scientific literature. Overall, the capstone program was arduous, but I found the level of difficulty to be appropriate and not overwhelming.
Where are you now? Are you facing any challenges in your career?
I am currently teaching at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland. I love the school and find working there to be very fulfilling. Of course there are challenges – teaching is inherently challenging. I have had experience working with children in Mill Valley, California and in Monterrey, Mexico. I was a homeroom teacher in a public middle school in the Bronx, New York and have worked with inner-city youth in Washington DC for about 10 years. I teach in an all-boys independent school and no matter where I have taught, I find that children have the same basic needs. They all seek to understand the world around them and want to know how they can play a meaningful role in society. Teaching can be exhausting, humiliating, and hidden. We spend a lot of time preparing our classrooms, thinking about the children and what each one needs, and then giving lessons throughout the day, and we handle a fair amount of abuse. It takes a toll.
It is poetic justice that I have to deal with a rowdy group of nine to twelve year olds each day because I wasn’t exactly a model student myself. I probably caused several teachers headaches back in my day, so now I get to be on the receiving end. However, as you mature as a teacher, you realize that the goal is to have your students become active themselves and progress on their own. Montessori would say that the teacher can be inspired by the thoughts of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is how we have to approach our students: this isn’t about me, it’s about the child.
Do you have any advice for current students in our program?
Enjoy your days of training! I know it can be overwhelming, but I encourage you to pour your heart and soul into preparing yourself as a teacher. The AMI training is rigorous, but it is a thing of beauty. I spent numerous all-nighters (and none due to procrastination), but I don’t regret a single moment of all the work. I recall so many moments: painting charts (preferably with friends); doing illustrations; redoing illustrations; soaking up the lectures; and endless hours of write-ups—it was all so worthwhile. I would do it again. If you are feeling down and need some inspiration, call up some fellow trainees and go out and unwind. Better yet, if you have time, go observe in a Montessori classroom. You are getting a top notch preparation for a simply sublime line of work. Finally, I would encourage you to join the new group we have founded – WMI Alumni & Friends. Graduates of AMI and other teachers in the area are here to support and assist you. We look forward to meeting you and are happy to share our experiences.
What’s one thing that not many people know about you?
I studied the nutrition of the southern sea otter while working at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. This was a dream of a job – collecting prey specimens along the central coast of my native California, and then conducting analysis in the Nutrition Lab of the National Zoo. I probably dreamt of working in a zoo from the time I was in Montessori primary, and the dream came true. The one regret I have is that I turned down a subsequent job offer to study Weddell seals in Antarctica. I was back in the classroom by then, and it seemed a bit too out there to spend several months on the fast ice for “perhaps a small stipend.” Maybe one of my students will end up in McMurdo Station and he can tell me all about it.
Our favorite insight: The research class and capstone paper helped us to think beyond the soundbites and headlines involving issues in education and gave us the ability to think for ourselves and undergird our understanding with evidence from the scientific literature. -Eric Heil
Loyola University Maryland ~ “Strong Truths Well Lived”