The Three Year Cycle: Not Just for the Children

Featuring Dany Amodio, Omar Lopez, and Amy Price

It is my pleasure to share with you this conversation among teachers in one of our 3-6 classrooms. We asked Amy, Dany, and Omar to share about their lived experience as the adults within a prepared environment on our first floor. This interview plays a part in that continued work among our community. Participating in this work moved me to tears. This school is a special place, with teachers and staff willing to engage curiosity, evaluate, and grow. As I thought back on what I heard, I noticed a mirror – the children’s three-year cycle reflected by these three classroom teachers who, as Omar admits, are not perfect but are working together to be available for each other and for the students entrusted to their guidance and modeling. —Brian Corley, Head of School

Talk about the ideal role of a lead teacher, intern, and assistant teacher in a Near North Montessori classroom:

Amy: I don’t know if it’s ideal. What we’re told in training is that the lead teacher gives the lessons and the assistants protect the lessons.

Omar: It was facilitating a problem, essentially, where the presence of the assistant in the classroom is to support and make the life of the head teacher a little bit easier. I remember that in my introduction to Montessori when I first got hired – one of the analogies was “protecting your quarterback.” So, if you see them working on a specific lesson, your job was to intercept whenever possible, and try to keep everyone focused on something specific. And obviously not giving anyone lessons because we’re not trained for that.

Dany: And to clean.

Amy: So much cleaning. 

So what about your 3-6 classroom, and life in that classroom?

Omar: Not at all what I was thinking it would be when I first got hired. Because my responsibilities as I was trained for them were laid out for me — clean, intercept, and that was basically it. And then when I arrived, pretty quickly once you start forming a relationship with those students, which takes a while when they don’t know you, that got expanded to encompass a much broader range of things — mostly because Amy and Dany didn’t treat me the way I expected I would be treated.

Really quickly they started asking “What do you observe? What do you think is working, what isn’t? Do you want to learn about how these materials work?” — one of the things that really got my attention right away. I’ve seen Montessori classrooms in the past, and I never understood how those materials work. Knowing how they work right away made everything click so much easier. Because you start to see why this child is interested, why they are able to focus on this, instead of just leaving it and moving on to something else, because everything has such a clear purpose.

That had the effect of making me buy into a classroom, in a way that I didn’t expect to. I think that working in this classroom has made me extremely comfortable, has made me more ambitious, and made me feel much more involved in the broader community here. I feel like if a head teacher [Amy] and an intern [Dany], who is already preparing to become a head teacher, were able to accept me and respect me enough to value my opinion so early, then I feel like this place looks at people and what they can offer in a different way. It was a lot more than I bargained for, and I’m glad that’s the case.

Amy: I was an assistant teacher for four years, and I was really bad at that — the interception, “defending the quarterback.” So maybe that’s why I started questioning that role more once I became a head teacher. It’s really hard to know when to step in for that other teacher, to read the head teacher’s mind. That whole ideal didn’t seem like it was working. When I became a head teacher, I realized it was on me. If a child was interrupting my lesson, it was because I hadn’t taught that child how to ask for help appropriately — how to ask another child, or know the signs of what being available looks like. So I saw that this shouldn’t be the assistant’s role.

I’ve talked to Brian about this too — seeing problematic things. There’s a lot of white women who are in the lead position role and people of the global majority who are in assisting roles. So there’s a not-okay-ness of these roles and maintaining these roles.

Dany: When I started in 2020, the same thing Omar said. In the training they tell you that you need to assist the lead teacher, and also respect the children. Being Black in the community here, my first shock was what you said, many of the leads were white and the assistants were people of color. Also it was my first time to be in the classroom with children like that — a lot of children, and really, really working, not like — how do you say — working for free, because I used to do that in Africa.

One day a child did not respect me, and I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. You [Amy] came and you stopped it right away. That day was like, “Wow,” I’m not only an assistant, I’m not only here for cleaning. My voice matters. Because it was only two of us. You always asked me about my thoughts, what I think, and my advice. It’s helped me to be more comfortable because I have so much complex — complex, like you say, inferiority. And skin color doesn’t help. Not because I don’t like it — I love it! More than anything. But having you, [Amy] as a lead — in our classroom, we don’t have a hierarchy: lead, assistant, we don’t have that. I don’t feel it at all. We feel like we are a team and we are deciding as a team. And we are for each other, right? Supporting each other. Seriously, like my second family. I always say, I spend more time with you guys than my whole family.

Amy: And like that example of that child not treating you with respect, if the children do see a hierarchy, and race is in play in that, what are we teaching the children if we are upholding this?

Omar: My first introduction here, it didn’t seem unnatural for me to notice that a lot of the teachers were white people. I’ve been in different work environments since I was 14, and that was always the case, it was always white women or white men, and I was always in assistant roles or doing menial jobs. So that didn’t mean anything to me.

But when I landed in this classroom – I was exposed to people, obviously one who is Black one who is white, who didn’t adhere to a structure where I felt othered, or biased against, or anything. Like Dany said, Amy always made it a point to help the children see me as part of their classroom, and someone to respect. And that was a huge deal for me, because that just became my norm. I understood the school through the lens of this classroom. So I understand what everyone wants this school to be striving for. We’re clearly not perfect, we’re figuring things out constantly, but there’s obviously something here that works. Certainly the way that we respect each other, each of our differing opinions and backgrounds, and what we have to offer, despite the differences in our titles, is a massive contributing factor.

Amy: Clearly not perfect, because I’m still the lead teacher, and all that goes with that, but hopefully that changes.

Dany: We’re changing it! I’m getting trained because you support me.

Amy: And I’ll be your assistant then!

How do you work together to show up for the children in your class?

Amy: Maybe it is in the little ways. So-and-so student will ask me a question, and I’ll say, “What does Dany think?” It’s very team oriented. It is about communication, isn’t it? Like a parenting partnership, you have to be on the same page. Even if it’s like, you had something in mind but Omar said this – then it’s this. You’re all on the same page. It has to be a lot of communicating.

Dany: If you asked Omar already and Omar said no, you don’t have to ask me anymore. Because it will be no!

Amy: And at the beginning, that was common. It would be, “Can I have a snack now?” Then I say no. Then they go up to Dany and say, “Can I have a snack now?” And you say, “No.” And then to Omar, “Can I have a snack now?” and Omar says, “Yes.” Then we learn: “Wait, you said no?” Then it’s having those discussions with the children.

Omar: This one points to what matters more than hierarchy: it’s experience. In my case, I felt like I learned a lot in the time that I’ve been here, even though it hasn’t been long, and it’s because I lean on two people who have a ton of experience. And it doesn’t feel like they gatekeep it, which is the more significant part.

If I would have come in here, adhering to that strict hierarchy, it feels like the response would have been: “This is what you need to know, if there’s a question you don’t know that isn’t specifically within your responsibilities, you defer to me, and I’ll just handle it,” right? But with this kind of communication that we have, the day flows a lot smoother. And the children are able to benefit from that. Because there isn’t a lot of in-between time where they’re without an answer, where they lose interest in something that they like, or where they feel like they’re being ignored – like they don’t have someone they can turn to.

In the classroom it feels like and looks like they are excited to be there and they are able to explore the things that are genuinely bubbling up inside of them.

Dany: Love and respect, right? I think we respect each other so much and I like saying that we love each other so much. So we take care of each other. And it’s going to the children; they see that modeling. I hope they know we love them so much.