(1/30/18: This article has been updated.)
A Montessori teacher for 25 years, Mary Rockett, like many educators before her, had resigned herself to the fact that becoming an administrator was the only way to progress in her career. But five years into the “soul-crushing” administrator life, a chance meeting with a prospective parent changed everything.
Sep Kamvar, a former Google computer scientist who was running the Social Computing Lab at the MIT Media Lab at the time, met Mary during an admissions open house. Several months later, she received an email from Sep saying he wanted to open a Montessori school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and wondered if Mary would like to have coffee with him. Eager to help a fellow Montessori believer, she agreed.
Over coffee, Sep started telling Mary about his dreams for a network of Montessori Schools he called Wildflower. He told her about the kind of education that he wanted not only for his son, but for every child.
“He’s a very gentle, disarming, kind, thoughtful person, but in listening to him, I thought, ‘This guy is really grandiose; I hope he’s not out of his mind!’” Mary remembered. “He was talking about changing the world, changing the face of education. I was intrigued. Totally blown away.”
After that initial meeting, a few more coffees followed, and eventually Sep asked Mary to help create the school that would become the first of the Wildflower network. In January 2014, Mary and Katelyn Shore became the first teacher-leaders of Wildflower Montessori School.
Today, there are 7 Cambridge schools in the Wildflower network, and more north of Boston, as well as in Rhode Island, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. The original Wildflower school sits in a small shopfront with windows that look out onto a busy street, halfway between Harvard University and MIT. Mary’s co-teacher-leader, Erin McKay, a classically trained violinist, sometimes plays while the school’s 18 students, ages 2-years-and-9-months to 6 years old, are working. Fully showcasing the Wildflower principles of beauty and nature, the classroom has gentle ambient light from small table lamps, a gorgeous carpet and many small work rugs for the children, child-sized furniture, exposed brick, and natural wood shelving and tables.
“It has this huge structure made of tree branches on one wall, and the reading corner is built on a loft with tree branches. I think of our school as our little nest,” Mary said. “It just has this peaceful ebb and flow of movement and sound.”
Because she was the first teacher-leader introduced to the Wildflower vision, Mary thinks of herself as the institutional memory of the organization. It’s a responsibility she takes seriously along with the understanding that we are constantly evolving.
“I really want to hold on tight to the original vision and the original principles: authentic Montessori, accessible and free for everyone who wants it, a close partnership with families, blurring the lines between homeschooling and institutional schooling,” she said. “It’s the most amazing school I’ve ever been in.”
As much as she believes in Wildflower, Mary and her team also believe their youngest students should only spend half a day there, while spending the other half in a home environment. In order to prevent this requirement from making the school available only to families with a nanny or a stay-at-home parent, Wildflower is working to find creative solutions to families who need care. Families work closely together helping each other to make sure every child has somewhere to go in the afternoon, whether with a grandparent or a classmate’s parent. It makes for a tight-knit community where everyone takes care of each other.
While Mary loves Wildflower, she wants to see the program continue to evolve, to get better. She wants to see more students and teachers of color, for one thing.
“We’re in year four. We’re moving toward a more equitable and diverse population. We’re better off than where we started, but we’re not yet where we need to be.”