Upper School Blog: A Culture of Care

A Culture of Care: Grace and Courtesy and Practical Life Skills in the Elementary Years

At the end of the first day of my AMI Montessori Elementary training in 2013, I went home and wrote in my journal that I had finally found the work I was supposed to do. A bit of a dramatic diary entry to revisit, but my sentiment was true, and I know very clearly why I felt such a strong sense of belonging and purpose on that first day of the course. It had everything to do with the passion, respect, and modeling of a joyful sense of purpose by the trainer, in tandem with the profoundly intelligent content I was discovering about the Montessori method. 

When I arrived at the lecture room at Loyola University Maryland, I recall seeing a fresh bouquet of flowers on a table, set atop a beautiful doily, and being greeted with confidence and care by my trainer who looked vibrant and energized by her work. She greeted each new student with strong eye contact (I bet she could even recall the color of each set of irises!). When she spoke to us she would often include our names, pronounced properly, which helped spare others the embarrassment of forgetting names, or saying them incorrectly. She served as a benevolent guide as we became acquainted with each other and in this way, she cultivated a community of confident and competent adults and future Montessori teachers.

Today, I think of this experience and I try to apply the same grace and courtesy practices in my interactions with elementary children and the community at large at Aidan. I think about “walking the walk” in my daily interactions with children, and how our school community, with its strong Montessori principles, nurtures capacities for agency, responsibility, accountability, persistence, self-regulation, and peacefulness in addition to competencies in academics. Built into our Montessori pedagogy is the deliberate practice of the spiritual preparation of the adult. This is the intentional work that allows adults to be our best selves in the presence of children and to create developmentally appropriate environments for human connection and flourishing. Deep care is embedded into our work, and it is modeled, practiced, and lived every day. 

In some schools, SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) is a specific class with a set curriculum. In our Montessori school, social-emotional learning and practical life skills are organically woven into the fabric of every interaction and every lesson. This leads to a much more embodied and much less performative practice of the values and characteristics we want to nurture in our community. When we host a morning meeting in Sweet Gum, we often present a grace and courtesy topic to the children. This is a neutral moment, sometimes imbued with humor, for us to build awareness and skills in our social and emotional lives. Sometimes we offer children the phrasing they are looking for when they navigate a conflict in the classroom. Sometimes children will request to bring a grace and courtesy topic to the attention of the class and we discuss it together.

When we venture off campus (in non-pandemic times), we practice the practical life skills of planning a trip, making a phone call, writing a thank you note, asking directions, and traveling safely. And just this week, the Sweet Gum children hosted a Marriott Lawn trash pick up since we use the field every day for lunch, recess, and PE. In the classroom, we learn the practical skills of working with high quality materials when we cook, make art, garden, or construct projects such as elaborate electric circuits (see recent photos!). The feeling of pride and competence is palpable when we offer children real materials and we trust them to handle them responsibly. 

Fabian and Leo are preparing to fix some battery spring clip holder cases using a soldering iron.

Sweet Gum trash clean up at Marriott Lawn.

When the Sweet Gum children arrive in the morning, settle into their work choices, or attend lessons and meetings throughout the day, each of those moments is an opportunity to draw out the best in everyone, to show deep care for each other, and to walk the walk. Patience is the key, I think!

Here’s what Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, has to say about social-emotional learning in schools:

“At a very practical level, Home Ec and shop class were terrific places to learn some of the fending skills. And in many communities, those courses have gone the way of the dinosaur because we've gotten so enamored of what we think of as enrichment, which we think is only the hardcore academic stuff. So we've jettisoned the stuff of life out the window, and we shouldn't be surprised that we graduate people with high GPAs who cannot do much for themselves.” (10:17, New View EDU Podcast)

Fortunately, your children go to Aidan Montessori School, where the practical and courteous aspects of life (some call them “becoming skills”) are valued just as much as core academic subjects! It’s a place where we model the notion of responsibility for others, and taking care of each other. May we all walk the walk together and bring forth the best in each other, just as we strive to do in our school.


Julia Isaza

Lead Teacher, Sweet Gum Upper Elementary Community


More News at Aidan