After 50 years in the classroom, Montessori Center School (MCS) teacher Margaret McCleery-Cota knows a thing or two about how to inspire a lifelong love of learning, which is the essence of the Montessori education philosophy. And just because she’s hitting her golden anniversary doesn’t mean she’s slowing down.
“I love my work with the children, and my coworkers are young and stimulating and fun to be with,” said McCleery-Cota, who first started at the Goleta campus in 1969. She has worked mostly with 18-month- to 3-year-olds during her tenure, and even had the joy of teaching her own two children when they were young. “As long as I am healthy and able to keep up with the children, I see no reason to stop,” she said. “The children are fun and capable of learning so much every day; it is my greatest privilege to be a part of their lives.”
Serving toddlers to 6th graders since 1965, Montessori follows a philosophy that emphasizes independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development. The approach recently attracted a $2 billion donation from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who wants to infuse impoverished communities with free Montessori preschools.
That’s music to McCleery-Cota’s ears.
“In Montessori, each child is respected as a unique, valuable, and beautiful person,” she said. “Children are allowed to learn at their own pace in a hands-on classroom environment. They are allowed to make their own decisions from day one with guidance from the teacher. Children, their parents, and their teachers are partners in the Montessori educational process. It is a child-centered philosophy rather than teacher centered.”
When asked what has changed in her role as an educator over five decades, McCleery-Cota said, “Every year, our youngest students have more knowledge when they begin school: 2-year-olds are learning what 4-year-olds were learning when I began teaching. And fathers are much more involved in their children’s lives than they used to be.”
And what has stayed the same? “The commitment of parent volunteers who always are at the heart of MCS with their continued support of the classrooms, teachers, and programs,” she said. “As Montessori teachers, our role has changed very little. Our primary job has always been to observe the children as unique individuals and guide them on their journey toward a lifetime of creative learning.”
Her daughter, Elizabeth Cota, witnessed this passion both at home and in the classroom, as she was her mother’s student when young. “Fifty years in any one job is a testament to how much someone loves their job,” said Cota. “For my mom, her love of educating the youngest kids through a Montessori approach sets them up for a life where they love to learn, are self-sufficient and driven learners, and, perhaps most importantly, have an understanding of how to help others learn. As my mom now has her first grandkid — my daughter, Naima — I am able to utilize my mom as maybe the ultimate resource in creating an environment where Naima can drive her own learning.”