Purpose of This Blog

Devoted to Guiding Educators Towards a Centered and Intentional Montessori Practice.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Quaker Mysticism and Montessori Philosophy: Reflections on Education and the Teaching Life

     In my family’s spiritual tradition of Quakerism, queries are often used to help frame a particular session of corporate worship. In stillness and silence members wait for ministry from God relating to the questions at hand. Like the koans of Zen Buddhism, these queries are statements used to help focus one’s attention rather than questions to be answered. And so it is that I begin this discussion of Montessori pedagogy and the life of the teacher.

  • Are we aware of what it is that calls us to attend to the needs of the child?

  • Have we spent the time necessary to

        internalize the core of Montessori’s vision?

  • Have we examined our own spiritual practice so to encourage it in others? 

  • Are we mindful of our limits to affect change?

     I am drawn to this topic as I have wrestled with feeling unsettled in my teaching practice of late. We each chose this profession because the work resonated deeply within us.  For me, it has been a passion-filled existence, one of great creativity and learning. I have embraced Montessori’s philosophy and continually work to clarify what her original intensions were.  Recently, however, I have often have asked myself how long such dedication is sustainable. With competing priorities from multiple stakeholders pulling me in directions, at times, at odds to my understanding of child development and Montessori’s calling, how does one keep up with the internal and external demands of a teaching life?

Inward Bound

     Years distant from the potency of my own Montessori training, I sometimes struggle to find that spiritual center that was so present for me then, through my work. Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach (1998), offers a suggestion on how we might reconnect with the younger version of ourselves as teachers that first committed to a career in education. He says:

Remembering ourselves and our power can lead to revolution, but it requires more than recalling a few facts. Re-membering involves putting ourselves back together, recovering identity and integrity, reclaiming the wholeness of our lives (p. 20).

I am deeply moved by Palmer’s acknowledgment of the grief a teacher might feel as he sees his beliefs and his life’s work grow apart, and am likewise inspired by his call to action through caring for one’s soul. Our great work today is to listen deeply to the entirely of who we are now, without attachment or alarm.

      At present I feel my self divided, seeking an inner calm that will come from balancing my inner commitment to Montessori’s pedagogy and its outward, realized expression. It is the peace that comes through joining the many forces in one’s life to create one’s true identity (Ibid.).

      Walt Whitman, in his “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, points to this quest to find the connections that resolve in the formation of one’s spiritual self.

            A noiseless, patient spider,

            I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

            Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

            It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

            Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

            And you O my soul where you stand,

            Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,

            Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to con-

            nect them,

            Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,

            Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul. (Miller, J., p. 314).

This deep journey of self-understanding is what brings teachers closer to their work’s original mission. It is“[t]hrough maintaining awareness of our spiritual natures, we can facilitate the children’s expressions of their spiritual natures” (McFarland, p. 3). Allowing for our and the child’s spiritual self to be actualized is how we connect in deep meaningful ways. The “[o]ne thing that will forge true human unity is love” (Montessori, p. 22).

The Potential of Spirituality to Transform

     Because of the intimate nature of our work, teachers often tightly wrap our own identities into how our students perform: if the child does well, we do well; if the child struggles and falls down, we sink too. If not done mindfully, we can lose ourselves in our work – confusing the work for living fully. To deepen our teaching practices means to transcend educational pedagogy to a place beyond curriculum, assessment and instruction. This is an inward journey that can prepare us for our very outward lives. Living mindfully, we can then better connect with the children, families and colleagues with whom we work. Little will change in education until teachers face these inner conflicts and proceed with humility (Standing, p. 300).

Reframing the Essence of Montessori Education

     I contend that in placing major emphasis on the unique equipment present in Montessori classrooms we run the risk of creating the image that Montessori education is all about curricular content, rigor and mastery. In fact, it is the process by which concepts are learned in the Montessori environment that truly sets it apart. The specific tools that Montessori developed are, indeed, critical components: they provide sensorial pathways to learning, as well as control of error promoting independence. What is normalization if not living authentically as a supported spiritual being? Through honoring the developmental needs of each child, knowing when to support and when to extend, we realign each student with their spiritual centers. The materials are the mantras, the walking meditations that bring the child to peace.


     The crossover between the spiritual underpinnings of Montessori’s pedagogy and that of Quaker education is remarkable. Whereas Montessori spoke of the “spiritual embryo” (Montessori, 1995, p. 70), of a child’s unfolding potentialities, Quakers too believe that a “divine seed animates every human soul, and they understand their primary mission to be nourishing it so that all people may reach their intellectual, social, moral and spiritual potential” (Miller, R., 2002, p.4).  Quaker philosophy, as a religious practice, may serve as a potent backdrop to this discussion as we look to find again and articulate the spiritual underpinnings of Montessori’s movement.

A History

     The spiritual practice of Quakerism grew out of the religious autocracy of seventeenth century England. Faced with an imperious and dogmatic Church, Christians, led by George Fox, left to discover a more personal connection with the Divine. Quakers believed that there was that of God in everyone, and that it was that through listening in silence for this presence that an authentic communion might be formed. So moved were some of the early Quakers that they were seen to quake when receiving ministry from the Spirit, creating the name Quaker. Though initially a derogatory term, the followers of this practice later reclaimed the title as their own. Early followers of Fox referred to their growing religious organization as the Children of the Light, Friends of Truth, and later the Society of Friends. In modern parlance to be a Quaker is to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends. 


     What set Quakerism apart from the prominent religious practices of the time was its placement of the individual in direct contact with the Divine.  Ministers and other intermediaries were not necessary. Quakers believed that because we were of God, we had God within us. They called this the Inner Light. As such, everyone had the ability to communicate directly with the Divine. This empowerment is what gave Quakerism is particular mystical quality, that through significant “contemplation and self-surrender”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005) spiritual enlightenment could be attained. “Progress in this mystic quest is indicated as time and space and matter recede and then disappear. In the void, God may have a chance to speak” (Sibley, 1985, p. 5).

     Quaker practice wasn’t then, nor is it today, a solitary one. That is, it is not an ascetic meditation that one does alone. Quakers meet to worship together in silence. Fox believed that Quakerism was a “religion of experience”(Ibid., p. 7), that it was the Divine communication itself that legitimized the practice, not just a reliance of Christian scripture. Where “the genius of Quakerism…is to be found [is] in the notion that authority arises out of the Light Within reflected in the religious consciousness of each individual soul in the Meeting of Souls”(Ibid., p. 10). It is through “the promotion of the personal experience of God within the individual as he/she interacts with and within the group”(Thorne, 2006, p. 16) that the mystical dimension of Quakerism can be realized.

Social Activism: Education as a Spiritual Practice

     The history of Quakerism is one intimately linked to service in the care of others. Friends believe that “the sacred is always within us as potentiality, waiting to be addressed, answered, called into fuller being” (Lacey, 1998, p. 3).

When this inner light is found, recognized, and kindled it not only shines forth, but it is reflected in the people and communities in which we live. It is “the bond linking all human beings”(Miller, R., 2002a, p. 3). When you care for others, Quakers believe, you are identifying with the Light, that of God, in them.

Friends Schools

     When Quakers speak of education it is necessarily “spiritually rooted…concerned with the creative evolution of new consciousness” (Miller, R., 2000, p. 6) and not simply driven towards individual academic success. Much like the mystical relationship an individual in Quaker worship can have with God, Friends schools are designed with great deference to the will and desires of the learner. “[T] hey maintain that first-hand, experiential knowledge, refined by the exercise of judgment and reason, enables people to discern deeper truths”(Ibid., p. 5). Ones’ education is not, however, accomplished in a vacuum; rather, “it is an encounter between an active, aspiring, evolving being and the larger world with which we are co-evolving” (Ibid., p. 9). So is it that Quaker education embraces the fellowship of scholarship. The deep knowledge attained in such an educational practice comes not from the mere transmission of information flowing from the teacher to the child; instead, profound learning occurs because the student is first trusted and nourished as a spiritual being, and then is led towards truth.

Montessori Schools

     Montessori, too, believed that “we are created in order to evolve the cosmos” (Montessori, 2007, p. 22). In fact, “she was a tireless crusader for the spiritual renewal of humanity, which she believed could only occur by nourishing the divine creative power within the children of the world” (Miller, R., 2002b, p. 3). In worship, Quakers speak of centering down to find that place of deep attention and receptivity. In a similar way “Montessori sought, above all, to cultivate [such] inner discipline through purposeful activity [after which] the  child becomes ‘normalized’ – capable of acting responsibly, independently – through concentration” (Miller, R., 2002b, p. 11). The role of the Montessori teacher is to guide the child to aspects of the prepared environment to allow for said immersion.

Reverent Work: How Schools Can Help

     It is time to radicalize Montessori education, to return to its spiritual core (Wolf, 1996). I believe that an unhurried corporate practice of philosophical and spiritual searching can bring profound transformation to both teachers as individuals and to a school’s staff. This is of paramount importance. Paul Lacey (1993) speaks to the spiritual role of the teacher:

We have natural aptitudes for the spiritual life, just as we have for walking and talking, but in each case the natural aptitudes and longings can only be fully realized with the caring support of others. That process of encouragement and nurture is the teaching-learning process, educationOur work, as educators, as parents, as humans, is to help nourish the     spiritual life in ourselves and in others (p. 2).



     The psychotherapist Erik Erikson “divided lifelong psychosocial development into eight stages, each characterized by a psychosocial crisis that represents a conflict between the individual and society” (D. F. Webb, Jr., personal communication, February 2010). Erikson’s last two stages, specifically the aspects of generativity and integrity, touch on the two key aspects of this discussion: our role in aiding the spiritual development of children, and the alignment of our core pedagogical values and their outer manifestation. Parker Palmer describes generativity in the following way:

            On the one hand, it suggests creativity, the ongoing possibility that no matter our age, we can help co-create the world. On the other hand, it suggests the endless emergence of generations, with its implied imperative that the elders look back toward the young and help them find a future that the elders will not see. Put these two images together, and             generativity becomes “creativity in the service of the young” – a way in which the elders serve not only the young but also their own well-being (p. 49).

We have before focused on the idea of integrity - that intimate and deliberate coupling of our inner and outer lives such that dissonance is diminished, or at least less frequent. Perhaps the “way of renewal” (Ibid.) lies in having the ability to view our work as part of a greater story – that of building and reshaping humanity.


1. Lacey, P. (1993). Running on empty. Philadelphia, PA: Friends Council on Education.

2. Lacey, P. (1998). Growing into goodness: Essays on Quaker education. Wallingford,            PA: Pendle Hill.

3. McFarland, S. (2009). Shining through: A teacher’s handbook of transformation.             Buena Vista: Shining Mountain Press.

4. Miller, Jr., J. (Ed.). (1959). Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman.             Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

5. Miller, R. (2000). Education and evolution of the cosmos. In R. Miller Caring for  new life: Essays on holistic education. Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.

6. Miller, R. (2002a). “That of God in everyone”: The spiritual basis of Quaker education. In J. Miller and Y. Nakagawa (Eds.), Nurturing our wholeness: Perspectives on spirituality in education. Brandon, VT: Foundation for  Educational Renewal.

7. Miller, R. (2002b). Nourishing the spiritual embryo: The educational vision of Maria Montessori. In J. Miller and Y. Nakagawa (Eds.), Nurturing our wholeness: Perspectives on spirituality in education. Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.

8. Montessori, M. (1992). Education and Peace. Oxford, England: Clio Press.

9. Montessori, M. (1995). The absorbent mind. New York, New York: Henry Holt.

10. Montessori, M. (2007). Education for a new world. Amsterdam, The Netherlands:             Montessori-Pierson.

11. Oxford american dictionaries. (2005). Dictionary [computer software}. Apple             Computer, Inc.

12. Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s      life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

13. Sibley, M. Q. (2005). What canst thou say? Quakerism and religious authority.             Retrieved March 6, 2010. From http://www.universalistfriends.org./printable/quf1998a_printable.html

14. Standing, E.M. (1998). Maria Montessori: Her life and work. New York: Plume.

15. Thorne, A. (2006). Rufus Jones (1863-1948): Quaker mystic and social activist.             Retrieved March 6, 2010. From www.la.edu/PDFfiles/humanities/rufus_jones.pdf

16. Wolf, A. (1996) Nurturing the spirit in non-sectarian classrooms. Holidaysburg, PA: Parent Child Press.



  1. This is terrific, Seth! Not exactly about pumpkins and Halloween.... I was delighted to see that you're on the Quaker LinkedIn Network. Hope your life is going well—from this, and the LinkedIn photo, I think it must be. Hugs from Baltimore!

  2. Thanks Alice. Great to hear from you. Yes, this profession does lead one to delve deeply into our own stuff. With so much riding on it, how can we not? Blessings.

  3. Glad I found a few moments to read this, Seth. It is very cogently written, explaining well the similarities between the Quaker way and Montessori education. I especially like the queries you propose, and hope that you will somehow get them published for Montessori teachers to read them.

    While not a Montessori teacher, I spent a couple of years working in a public Montessori school as an instructional assistant in a large urban district. I was eager to work in one of the Montessori schools, hoping I would more likely be assigned to a teacher who would value my background as a school-based peace educator and social-emotional learning specialist (as well as my sensitivities as a Quaker singer/songwriter who had visited many Quaker schools sharing songs on these themes.) Unfortunately, I had to deal with major disappointments. As you suggest, the pressure on Montessori teachers in the public schools to meet the state standards and teach to the test was very high, so that many of the ideals of Montessori education, like having three grade levels in one class, only meant much more work for each teacher. Also, so many of the children had such difficulties staying calm and focused, that a positive learning environment was very hard to maintain. As the person in charge of keeping children on task while the teacher gave lessons with one small group at a time, I often felt like I was a foreman in a factory. This feeling was amplified by the constant use of the term "work" in Montessori language. Everything the children did was considered "work," so I had to direct them back to their work all the time. :) I can't help but think that your queries would have helped these teachers and could serve as reminders for them to "sink down to the seed" in themselves, but also to teach children how to center.

    A lot of these children were dealing with fears and unshed grief over family losses and insecurities in their young urban lives. If I'd been allowed to give them some attention around their feelings, if they'd been allowed to cry when they needed to, if there had been more time to talk with them about emotions and stress in their bodies, I think things could have gone a lot better. I ended up leaving the Montessori school and moved on to an arts school, where the job is less stressful, but where I have yet to be assigned to a teacher who desires or who understands how to establish a classroom atmosphere where each child can express and grow into his/her unique self. I find the arts allows some of this to happen for children. And yet, the hurried atmosphere of the school gets in the way there as well!

    Didn't mean to write so much, but your comments triggered a strong response. Thanks, Seth!

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Paulette. I too long for that deeper understanding -
    not just of the content being studied, or skills being practiced. Rather, a profound and richly grounded sense of self. Perhaps that is too much to expect within our current educational model, and suite of predominant parental druthers and concerns. I still say, however, that teaching is like parenting: guiding children to find their own true Light.