Spotlight Suzanne Grennell
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your background, your interests, your dreams?
I was born in Ireland into a large, loving family that included my parents and four brothers. My early childhood memories conjure images of chasing my brothers through sprawling fields of fern, making tree huts and saving hedgehogs, the smell of my mother’s baking, my father’s singing, our collective laughter.
In 1978, when I was eight years old, my father decided to pursue an unusual architectural job opportunity and thus moved our family to the Emirate of Sharjah in the Middle East. While initially it was a tug to leave our lovely home in Ireland, that quickly dissipated when a whole new exciting adventure in our family life unfolded. Sharjah was a beautiful little coastal town peacefully perched on the Persian Gulf.
“I think what stood out most for me was the peaceful rhythm in the room.”
We traded green fields for the seashore and rather than climb trees we savoured the shade that a palm tree brought. Sharjah’s small expatriate community co-existed harmoniously with the local Arab population and so we learned and embraced the ways of Emirati culture. It was a diverse little community and very quickly my brothers and I began to form friendships with children from places we had never even heard of! Many of those friendships have remained throughout our lives to the present day.
My parents remained in Sharjah for almost twenty years. After completing our primary education respectively in Sharjah, my brothers and I attended boarding school in Ireland for our secondary education but home was always defined by the place where our parents lived. During my university years my parents returned to Ireland and ‘home’ was re-established in Ireland.
When I was 16 years old, I fell in love with Montessori education. It happened whilst on a school work experience placement in a 3-6 classroom. I think what stood out most for me was the peaceful rhythm in the room. At first, I struggled to find the teacher! Eventually I spotted her hunkered down on a mat with a young child introducing him to beautifully illustrated cards. Coming from a traditional background, I was amazed at how self-directed and how content all these little beings were. I was hooked and I was determined to know more.
Montessori education remained a source of great interest to me but it wasn’t until 1999 after some unfulfilling years in the corporate world that I decided to quit my job and begin my training for the 3-6 age group at the AMI College of Ireland.
Whilst my studies were at times intense and rigorous, I still look back on that year as being one of the richest, most fulfilling periods of my life. I remember dashing home with child-like enthusiasm to my parents to share my new learnings. Little did I know just how much Montessori education was to change the direction of my life and the way I live life.
In 2000 after graduating with my AMI diploma, I moved to Seattle, WA and joined a wonderful AMI-accredited school where I had the opportunity to co-teach with a Master Montessorian my first year. I learnt so much that year, beyond what my albums offered and that enabled me to take flight and manage my own room for three more very rewarding years.
“Looking back, I feel immense gratitude for the opportunities I have had to explore different cultures as a Montessori educator.”
It was at this time I realized that I hadn’t quite emptied the sand from my shoes and I moved to Dubai to help establish a new Montessori Preschool. Four years later I moved to the tropical island of Bali where I taught in one of the most authentic Montessori settings of my career. The beautiful climate and rich vegetation offered an ideal opportunity to open our classroom daily to the outdoors.
Looking back, I feel immense gratitude for the opportunities I have had to explore different cultures as a Montessori educator. I guess my formative experiences growing up in an international community ignited within me a passion for travel. It has been fascinating to discover that the essence of childhood is universal, regardless of the culture, religion or socio-economic environment a child is born into.
Bali had one other treasure in store for me as it was here I met my husband, who is also an educator. In 2015 we moved to Southern China for adventures new. Our new home was a short distance from Hong Kong which enabled me to travel back and forth by ferry to a Montessori school where I ran ad-hoc parent education courses.
In August of this year we relocated to Dubai where I am about to fulfil my dream of rolling out a parent education program called ‘Peaceful Parenting.’ It is aimed at helping parents of toddlers and preschoolers to bring Montessori values into the home. I am also hoping to create a blog with which to share nuggets of my teaching experiences in diverse cultures.
Q: Now that the hardest question is out of the way: What’s your favorite color?
My favourite colour is green! The colour of nature, of Spring and rebirth. I find it calming. Perhaps I also associate green with my Irish identity, with home.
Q: Do you have a favorite book? How about a film?
Gosh I have many! One of my favourite books is ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran. It is rich, poetic and bursting with wisdom. I have read it countless times and every time I read it I discover new truths.
My favourite film is without doubt ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ It speaks to me about the fragility of being human and that the epicenter of love and stability lies in family. I still cry every time I watch it, happy tears!
Q: When you close your eyes late at night, and imagine waking up and starting a new adventure: what is that adventure?
I imagine having the means to start my own nature-based school. I see it nestled in woodland where the only sounds are that of a running brook, birds chirping and the children going about their great work. The fertile ground would provide opportunities to grow vegetables for food preparation, flora & fauna for flower arranging and exploring life cycles. I can almost smell the air – thick with the heady scent of eucalyptus! Immersed in nature, the child would find their natural, unique rhythm and a place of calm. A place where their mind and heart would work in harmony.
Q: What first appealed to you about Montessori?
The sense of peace that existed within the children. My subsequent research and studies helped me to understand the root of this peace, this harmony. An educational approach that nurtures distinct developmental needs and enables the natural course of development to unfold is one that touches the child’s spirit.
“My biggest learning over the course of my Montessori career is that the child is our greatest teacher.”
Q: What advice do you have for new Montessori adults?
My biggest learning over the course of my Montessori career is that the child is our greatest teacher. Our albums and continued work with the materials help us to become increasingly versed in providing the child with keys to his environment. But it is what the child does when provided with those keys that provides our opportunity for growth. That for me is the point at which the magic unfolds. Equipped with this knowledge, I feel I now truly understand Montessori’s advice to “follow the child.”
Q: Did you have a “Montessori Moment?”
I have so many but there is one that sticks out in my mind, it happened about six months into my first year of teaching. It provided a profound, real-life example of the core message in Montessori’s book ‘The Secret of Childhood.’ We had a little girl of almost four years of age in our class with heaps of great energy but who struggled to regulate her emotions and was prone to meltdowns. She had received lots of lessons in Practical Life and her focus was still developing.
Then one day she showed interest in table washing. I questioned whether she was truly ready for it yet it felt more important not to quell her interest. I gave the lesson and then it was her turn to find a table in need of cleaning. To my delight she completed the task with a great sense of purpose but I had no idea what was to follow. She then went and found another table to clean and another and another. She scrubbed tables clean for an hour and a half and with every circular scrubbing movement, she became more joyful, more purposeful. It came from within, it was quite miraculous. It gave such meaning to that wonderful quote by Montessori “The child is a truly miraculous being, and this should be felt deeply by the educator.”
Q: What’s your favorite Montessori quote?
I love the quote just shared but one that has resonated deeply within me for a long time is “There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving.” (From Childhood to Adolescence.)
Q: What advice do you have for new parents trying to incorporate Montessori at home?
I would encourage new parents to consider how much independence each room in the house offers their child. Think about a step ladder in the kitchen and child-sized utensils to enable your child to partake in food preparation. In the dining room and lounge, ask yourself if the furniture enables your child to feel a part of the family unit whether eating or relaxing. Is there a place in the home for your child to ‘just be,’ somewhere that encourages relaxation, a place to process and make sense of their world. A small sofa chair placed beside a shelf of books in a light-filled area of the home would provide such a space.
Equally does the home environment offer your child ample, safe space to practice crawling/ walking or other gross motor movement relative to their developmental stage? As your child gains more independence, they satisfy inner needs and this in turn builds will and self-esteem. Take as many opportunities as possible every day to pause and observe your child with an open heart. The more you observe, the more you will notice what interests your child and what new milestones have been reached. Then you can adjust opportunities for independence accordingly.
Q: What do you think is the best introduction to Montessori?
There is a lot of good information on the web with which to gain a basic understanding. I would then recommend reading Angeline Stoll Lillard’s book, “The Science Behind the Genius.” Then definitely follow this with a visit to recognized Montessori school to experience a real community functioning. You will be blown away! Ideally, I would recommend beginning with a toddler environment, then a 3-6 followed by lower and upper elementary environments.
Q: What continues to inspire you about Montessori?
That it supports, protects and nurtures the development of character – something which can only truly blossom through an approach that respects we all have our own unique timeline. Control of error! That mistakes are regarded as wonderful learning opportunities! I love that Montessori environments offer young children an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to a community. That learning to be a kind and empathetic human being is an important part of being in that community. That learning occurs through experiences and thus the emphasis is on the journey and not the destination. That my training taught me to be wholly present with the child and in turn, with myself.
Q: In what ways do you envision the future of education?
There seems to be a growing emphasis in national curricula frameworks on terms like – holistic, child-centred education, building skills of resilience, initiative taking, problem solving ability, promoting well-being and I can only hope that this in turn will lead to less emphasis on tests and grades. Research supports that young children are experiencing greater levels of anxiety and stress than ever before as a result of having to sit tests and hit certain grades with a startling degree of frequency. I am hopeful that policy makers take stock of this research and consider other means of recognizing student progress. Like the one that has been successful for over 100 years!
Q: Where do you see Montessori in the next 100 years?
I see Montessori continuing to broaden its global reach, particularly throughout South East Asia where it has been experiencing considerable growth in the last few decades. I would hope to see it go full circle and reach more into disadvantaged communities and to children with developmental challenges – where it all began in San Lorenzo in 1907.
Written by:Charlotte Wood