The Braille Monitor _______ December 1997
The Owner-Executive Running the Montessori School
by Carla McQuillan
From the Editor: On the afternoon of Friday, July 4, 1997, a group of Federationists told convention delegates about their jobs and the ways in which their Federation philosophy has influenced their work. Following are the remarks of four of them. The first is Carla McQuillan, President of the NFB of Oregon. this is what she said:
I am the owner and director of a Montessori school. We currently serve seventy students ranging in age from two-and-half to eight years. We offer a preschool program, an early elementary program, and child care for those working parents who have children enrolled in our school. Our facility is 3,752 square feet. We have three classrooms. It sits on about an acre of land. I supervise nine staff members, three of whom are here at convention this year. I have Mary and Margaret, who are working in NFB Camp, and we also have Gary Jeffries, who is the blind cook at my school, serving lunches and snacks to our children every single day. I think, if you asked the children, Gary is the most popular staff member we have.
The responsibilities of a director are many and varied. It's kind of like a compact disk player that's been set on a random song-selection. You never really know what tune is going to pop up next. So sometimes I'm a janitor; sometimes I'm a cook or an accountant, a nurse, a stern principal, a receptionist, a supervisor, a cop (that's my personal favorite), a therapist, a friend, and always a juggler. There are a lot of exciting events that happen around our school. In fact, one of the most recent happened just on Monday. I got an emergency phone call from the school. It seems that one of the popcorn poppers set off the fire alarm; and, while all of the fire engines were screeching into the parking lot, none of the staff there had the code to turn off and reset the alarm. They are laughing about it now, I hope.
Some of my responsibilities are just short of heart-wrenching. As a child care professional I am required to report any suspected child abuse. This last year a five-year-old boy came to me and disclosed that his father was sexually abusing him.
I have some unnerving responsibilities. I fired a teacher in March for throwing a pair of adult scissors across the room with a group of children assembled and then had the honor of replacing her in the classroom for the last three months of the year, just in time for NFB Camp registration to start up.
I'd like to tell you a little bit about how I got to where I am today in my business. Some of you may ask why I chose to get to where I am. When I was a young teenager and knew nothing about the Federation, I believed that working with young children was something that a blind person could do. When I was a senior in high school, I acquired a job as a preschool teacher at June Bug Preschool and was pretty much a glorified baby sitter. There wasn't a lot of teaching going on. My freshman year in college I taught music in a Montessori school and was just amazed at the difference in the behavior of the children. The Montessori children were attentive. They were well-mannered. They were well behaved, and they were extremely bright, curious, and inquisitive. I enrolled in a Montessori teacher-training program figuring I didn't know what it was those teachers were using, but whatever it was, I wanted to have some of it.
Montessori for those of you who don't know is a very self-paced, individualized type of instruction, and it's the use of the Montessori materials as they are manipulated that helps to teach the child different concepts. In fact, Montessori said that the more senses you incorporate into any learning experience, the higher the retention level and the more effective the learning. This also makes this method of education much more accessible for blind children, which I'll talk about later. The overall philosophy of the Montessori method is that of teaching personal responsibility, respect, independence--all of which develops self confidence in the children. Montessori children, by and large, are self-starters. They have a natural thirst for knowledge and information, which is of course extremely delightful for the teachers who work with them.
In 1988 I was the recipient of a National Federation of the Blind of Illinois scholarship, and at that point I came to learn some very strange and wonderful things about myself, my peers, and my philosophy on human development. As I came to work more and more with the Federation, I came to believe in myself and to believe that I didn't need to work for somebody else, but maybe it would be okay for me to work for myself and that I could be successful in the endeavor. So I ran a home-based Montessori program for three years until my son was old enough to participate, and then he decided that I was Mom and not a teacher, and he wasn't having any part of it. So the next step was to go in search of a facility for us to start our own school. In that pursuit we found a building for lease with a capacity of forty-five students. I applied for an Oregon Economic Development Loan that was designed specifically for disabled people wishing to start their own businesses. And guess what? Oregon didn't think that I could make this business fly. Oregon denied the loan, but I found out that the National Federation of the Blind did believe that I could be successful, and I secured a small business loan from this organization.
But it's the skills that I have learned through the work of the Federation that have really gone far beyond the seed money in the way of helping me to become successful. Children's Choice Montessori School is unique in its philosophy even from other Montessori schools: philosophy that is developed by and large through participation on my part with this organization. When I take prospective parents through the school to decide whether or not our facility is appropriate for their children, of course I go around and show them the classroom and make sure that they understand that it's a safe and comfortable and warm and loving environment. But I also emphasize to the parents two goals that we have at our school for each of those children.
1) The children will learn to work and play well with others. Even if they don't want to go out and play on the playground with all of their classmates, we require that they be respectful and coexist peacefully while they are in the classroom. How many times have we seen Dr. Jernigan, Mr. Maurer, and other leaders of this organization faced with the task of dealing with individuals who are perhaps not our favorite people, who don't see things exactly the way we do? In fact, at one point Diane McGeorge said to me, after having spoken to a state agency director, "You get done talking to him, and you just feel like you want to take a shower." But throughout the course of her conversation, not an inkling of that sentiment came through. She was respectful. She was courteous, and that's exactly what we are trying to teach the children at our school.
2) We teach the children to be responsible for their actions. This entails recognizing that there are consequences for their actions and for their inactions. We also believe that this perspective will ensure that the children will never grow to believe that they are victims of their circumstances. Dr. Jernigan was talking the other night to this scholarship class and saying how we are in a society and a generation (both sighted and blind) who are looking for someone else to blame for the position they are in today. We need to resist that temptation. It is my firm belief that this philosophy needs to be instilled at a very early age and brought all the way through life, and that's exactly what we are trying to do.
At Children's Choice we are teaching life skills. This is not something that most of the other programs are doing. They are looking to resolve today's problems without any look towards where those children will be in the future. I believe our decision has contributed greatly to the success of the school.
One of the other things I have learned that has been invaluable to me is that there are insufficient hours in the day to do everything that we would like to do. I do not waste a lot of time and energy on those things that I cannot affect. I try to spend my time resolving and solving all the problems I can do something about. This is particularly helpful when I take on added responsibilities such as NFB Camp, which by the way I love doing.
Last year I applied for and received a Small Business Administration loan so that we could purchase the land and construct the building in which we now operate our school. There was a bit of discussion between the builders and me about the Americans with Disabilities Act, particularly with regard to the size of the handicapped-accessible bathrooms. Using the skills that I have learned through the Federation, I researched the regulations, and I challenged the builders at their interpretation of those regulations. After I threatened to fire them, they finally agreed to reduce the size of each handicapped bathroom by eighteen square feet, freeing up enough classroom space to add two students more than their plan allowed, and now I understand that they're circulating our blueprints to other people who are thinking of building schools as a model school environment. By the way, the obligatory handicap-accessible bathroom sign that needed Braille--we have that. I have the technology to produce that myself without any additional cost, and the Braille on that sign reads, "Deposits only, no withdrawals." The city inspector came by, ran his fingers over that Braille, and we all sat and smiled.
But I believe probably the most exciting part of what we are doing at the school happens when the Federation work and the Children's Choice work merge to form a more perfect union. This summer the Oregon Commission for the Blind has placed a high school student, through its summer work-experience program, to be employed at Children's Choice Montessori. Clarissa is learning a lot about how to work with children when you are a blind person, and she is learning a lot about the National Federation of the Blind. In the fall we will have a three-year-old blind child starting in Mary's classroom. Instead of being threatened and upset, Mary is delighted because she has worked at NFB Camp for the last two years. I am also told that there is a nine-month-old blind child in the community whose mother has already told case workers that her son will be at our school when he comes of age.
Every day the compact disk sets on random song-selection; and we walk in, prepared for the dance; and through the waltzes and the jigs and the dirges and the ballads, occasionally we are uplifted by "Glory, Glory, Federation." Thank you.