preparation of the spirit

Race, Gender and Spiritual Preparation of the Teacher

Components of children’s development of identity includes gender and race. Nia House teachers and staff spent a Tuesday evening meeting unpacking the interplay of gender and race as a social construct and delving into the role we as educators play in children’s identity development.

We began by generating a list of stereotypes associated with gender, notions of what it means to be a “boy” or “girl”. The list looked as you might suspect- boys were classified as physical, math-minded, and tough while girls were emotional, meek, and care-takers. Together we reflected on what opportunities a child might miss out on if we subscribed solely to these social constructs. Next, we considered the roles implicit biases, or our automatic and unconscious motivators of how we treat people, play in the way we interact with and structure the school experiences of Nia House children.

Often, the opportunities, commentary, or praise offered to young children reinforces gender stereotypes. Girls are noticed for their clothing and boys are encouraged with sayings like “big boy” for doing physical tasks. When a child gets hurt, girls might be gently nurtured and boys supported for brushing it off. The list goes on and on. So, the Nia House staff asked the important question- What can we do (or do we do already) in our school community to ensure that each child has access to the full range of human characteristics?

Here is some of what the Nia House staff came up with:

·       Clothing for all. Children at Nia House can choose from clothing bins that are open for all children and whatever choice they make is accepted.

·       We refer to children as “friend” or “children” instead of as “boy” or “girl.”

·       Children sit with mixed ages and genders at lunch.

·       Bathrooms for all.

·       Works are open for all children: dolls, purse, baby washing, care of environment- folding, cleaning, gardening, building etc.

·       There are opportunities for leadership and care-taking for all children.

·       Objective observations are made for all the children.

o   Instead of saying, “What pretty red shoes.” We might say,“I see your red shoes, they look ready for running.”

o   Rather than say “What a big boy you are,” We will offer, “I see you are being very helpful by carrying that lunchbox.”

The truth is, offering children access to the full range of human characteristics seems to come very naturally to the Nia House teaching team. Yet, implicit bias is unavoidable. We are guided by the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori who tells us,

“The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self. The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character, it is a preparation of the spirit.” (The Absorbent Mind)

Montessori implored us to be spiritually prepared as educators. In the current contemporary educational climate we understand this preparation to include self-study on our implicit biases related to gender, class, race, and other identity markers.

At Nia House, we take Montessori to heart and find her teachings poignant in an educational climate where implicit bias is apparent and school success resolutely linked to gender and race. Yale University Child Study Center conducted a study in September of 2016 titled, Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? The answer to this question- yes.

“…boys in general, were endorsed as requiring the most attention by 76% of early education staff (52% more than expected by chance alone), consistent with research showing that boys (regardless of race) are at greater risk for classroom removal. Regardless of the nature of the underlying biases, the tendency to observe more closely classroom behaviors based on the sex and race of the child may contribute to greater levels of identification of challenging behaviors with Black preschoolers and especially Black boys, which perhaps contributes to the documented sex and race disparities in preschool expulsions and suspensions.”

Berkeley is not immune to this trend. In 2014-2015, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) looked squarely at the disproportionate rate of suspension, expulsion and special education placement of students based on race and gender. In that year, 477 students were suspended in Berkeley grades K-12. Of these 477 students, 323 were African American. Yet, African American students make up only 17% of the student population in BUSD. The Daily Californian reports that “Berkeley Unified School District and other organizations are working on programs that explore alternatives to suspending students, such as behavioral support and counseling.” Thankfully, the efforts of Berkeley Unified are working with suspensions on a rapid decline. Efforts including Restorative Justice, family engagement, self-esteem and healthy relationship development were all cited as efforts impacting the decline in suspensions. While Nia House supports these efforts whole-heartedly, we also take very seriously the work of self-study, acknowledging implicit bias of the teacher and educational institution.

Gender and race identity are forming in the lives of Nia House children. Also included in this staff meeting was a quick look at a fascinating CNN study which attempted to understand race relations from a child’s vantage. Though complex in analysis, this video highlights the grave nature of race identity and relations from children’s perspectives.

Though no one is immune to implicit bias, the Nia House teachers and staff are committed to an education of equity and this includes access to empowerment and expression within the full range of human characteristics. Children’s greatest obstacles towards the aim of empowerment and positive identity development just might come in the form of the teacher! Montessori writes, “The teacher’s happy task is…removing the obstacles, beginning first with those which she herself is likely to present (for the teacher can be the greatest obstacle of all).” (Discovery of the Child) The teachers and staff at Nia House exercise great humility, self-awareness, and commitment to Dr. Maria Montessori and to social justice for all the children in our care- indeed, we recognize this as our ongoing work of self-study and spiritual preparation.  

Our team hard at work:

Baby Moss leads our staff meeting:

New Year's Intentions: Children & Challenging Work

As we begin a new year, many of us have set intentions we hope to attain. Often, these intentions are aimed at making our minds grow in a new way, test the limits of our bodies, and involve some degree of discipline. Perhaps we aim to learn a new instrument or run a 10k. You know that feeling when you learn your first song or cross the finish line of your first race?! This is a feeling the children of Nia House have the opportunity to experience just about daily.  

Challenges and setting goals are a part of the daily life of the older children at Nia House.  Each day, children are emboldened to begin works that offer a challenge. I recently asked some of the older children- “What do challenges feel like?” Sophia replied, “Challenges are really tricky and sometimes it feels like I can’t finish.” Talula chimed in, “Challenges, like reading books, are hard.”

I followed up with the inquiry, “What makes a work a challenge?” Etienne said, “The pieces of the work.” Sophia added that “a challenging work sometimes will take many days.”

“Why,” I probed, “do we do challenging work?” Jun emphatically answered, “Because we like to learn about stuff.” Daphne agreed, “We need to learn.” Matiz shared, “We like them because they are hard. I like to do hard things because then I can learn them.” Etienne embellished on this idea, “They are good for your body and good for your heart.” Talula concluded, “Challenges help your brain think.”

Finally, I asked, “How do you feel when you finish a challenge?” Jun said, “I feel like I can do the whole thing.” Sophia crowed, “I feel proud.” Matiz echoed this sentiment, “It feels good. I am glad when I am done.” Etienne reflected, “You work on a challenge everyday until you finish. But you can have breaks. When you are done, you feel happy and good.” In The Discovery of the Child, Dr. Maria Montessori noticed this in children’s work, “A child who has become master of his acts through long and repeated exercises, and who has been encouraged by the pleasant and interesting activities in which he has been engaged, is a child filled with health and joy and remarkable for his calmness and discipline." (92)

In this reflection, children named that challenging work can be daunting, tricky, and hard. The work is relentless and requires breaks. Whether it is tracing and labeling each country of Africa or completing a book of subtraction, there is a knowing that even when it feels hard, challenges carry the benefits of learning and nurturing your being. Through work, comes a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and mastery. "The satisfaction which they find in their work has given them a grace and ease like that which comes from music." (Discovery 87)   

Though not necessarily with the same cognizance nor with the same identifiable aim, the youngest of children too are engaged in achieving goals, repeating, practicing and mastering important life skill sets- walking, climbing, cutting, or talking. The way some of the younger children go about their challenges and goals often looks a little different and can be perplexing to an adult. Montessori reflects,

The child of this age sets out to do a certain task, perhaps an absurd one to adult reasoning, but this matters not at all; he must carry out the activity to its conclusion.  There is a vital urge to completeness of action, and if the cycle of this urge is broken, it shows in deviations from normality and lack of purpose.  Much importance attaches now to this cycle of activity, which is an indirect preparation for future life.  All through life men prepare for the future indirectly, and it is remarked of those who have done something great that there has been a previous period of something worked for, not necessarily on the same line as the final work, but along some line there has been an intense effort which has given the necessary preparation of the spirit, and such effort must be fully expanded - the cycle must be completed.  Adults therefore should not interfere to stop any childish activity however absurd, so long as it is not too dangerous to life and limb! The child must carry out his cycle of activity. (Education of a New World, 45)

Montessori and the elder children of Nia House name the fruitfulness of completing their challenge. Though we may not always understand the nature of the aim, task, or challenge that the youngest of our children are undertaking, we can trust that their urge is one that will aide toward indirect preparation for life and that the sensation of completion, as Etienne poignantly described, makes one feel “happy and good”, it is a “preparation of the spirit.”  

As we support the children in realizing their challenges, aide them in setting goals, and honor their achievements, we wish everyone all the best at, in the words of Dr. Maria Montessori, finding a challenge in which “such work is fascinating, irresistible, and it raises [us] above deviations and inner conflicts… gifted with such an extraordinary power as to enable [us] to rediscover the instinct of their species in the patterns of their own individuality.” (The Secret of Childhood, 196)




Montessori, Maria. Discovery of the Child. Fides Publishers, 1967.

Montessori, Maria. Education of the New World. Schocken Books, 1964.

Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood. Ballantine Books, 1972.