2023 Annual Global Meeting Presidential Welcome

Thursday 11th May 2023

Alain Tschudin, AMI President, gave the following speech at the annual AMI Annual Global Meeting on 15 April 2023 on the theme: Sowing Seeds.

A good book states the following, “For whatsoever a person soweth, that shall they also reap” (Galatians 6:7). 

Recently, I was horrified when Lynne [Lawrence] and I had sight of a video that had gone viral of young children being very obviously indoctrinated into the reification of war, under the regime of the same man (and a woman accomplice) charged by the International Criminal Court just down the road, at the Hague, for the war crime of illegally deporting children from a war zone. 

Come on, Alain, is this how you’re going to start out your presidential welcoming address? Well, yes, clearly it is. As unfortunate as the case may be, we cannot dodge or ignore, or run away from the simple reality that whatever you sow, so you reap. Live by the sword, die by the sword. A horrific harvest for humanity. 

Elsewhere in so-called ‘civilisation’ and outside of war and conflict zones, in some countries the conditions of daily life appear to be no better. Consider day-to-day violence: The Washington Post reports 46 gun attacks on schools in 2022, and already in the first three months of 2023, 18 attacks. According to their gun violence monitor, more than 349,000 learners have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine, with 377 school shootings recorded from 1999 to date. 

Now, have a look at this image – where do you think it might be? An area affected by a natural disaster, perhaps, or maybe an area wracked by war or violent conflict? Actually, neither. This is extreme poverty and inequality. 

I am ashamed to state that this is the inner city of my home town, Durban, South Africa and the view is not very appealing – shot from the boundary fence of a creche for 2-6-year-olds, it shows filth, human excrement, drug users’ needles, broken bottles, open sewage and other hazards. This space, and the clinic alongside represent a noble attempt by an NGO to take action and provide ECD and medical care via a clinic to the most deprived residents of a slum, the erstwhile Dalton Beer Hall, now home to 3,000+ informal residents, with one toilet facility. 

Where is the humanity dignity in this?  

If humanity sows war, violence, depravation, neglect, what is the crop we expect to yield? This is not a new problem. The self-same issues that confront us now in 2023 presented themselves to Maria Montessori 125 years ago in the squalor of San Lorenzo and beyond that, for the rest of her life, through both World Wars and the aftermath of those. Many of those children were written off by the authorities and by society, stigmatised and labelled as future delinquents and criminals. The good doctor applied her skills and critical creativity to ameliorate a situation that was as dire and troublesome as any of the situations I have touched on above. Montessori is profoundly anti-war and against violence of all kinds.  

Positively stated, this is why Montessori is so critical in a world fractured by hatred, division, selfishness, inequality and various forms of brutality. Montessori stands for peace, for inclusive education, for the integrity of society and for the well-being of all, including the environment. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, If you want Peace, prepare the Child, but in order to prepare children, there is a pre-condition; we need prepared Adults. AMI fulfils these dual functions, serving to form and train adults, sometimes helping them to unlearn and re-train appropriately with uncompromising standards of excellence.

AMI-accredited schools promote the quality and values that one would expect from such a brand-recognised Montessori school. This is not easy in the world described above, whether you are private or public schools, and we salute you for sowing seeds of integrity and wholesomeness. 

Beyond this, however, in addition to being ethical and quality assured in its offering, Montessori education needs to be universal. In order for this to happen, we need to promote access and affordability across the lifespan, to promote learning and leadership from the first years through to the last. In order for us to fulfil our mission based on our vision, the following are just some of the seeds that our Association strives to sow. As I hope to show you, we are beginning to reap the benefits of our commitment to transformative change in a turbulent world. Making an impact is not easy and sustaining it is even more difficult. This is why, in our 94th year of existence as AMI, we need to ask our ourselves: what seeds are we sowing and what is it that we seek to grow, to nurture and harvest? Let’s have a look at three examples: 

Seeds 1: Dalton to Davenport

Engaging poverty and Transforming Inequality. Here is an example where we are literally sowing seeds. Starting in October, 2022, I was invited to attend a meeting in Durban regarding a vacant park that had become a hotbed of vice: drug-dealing, sex work, murder, assault and criminal activity. People were reportedly living in holes in the ground. We were invited to contribute to a plan to transform the space. First, in terms of transforming the barren land, a decision was reached to grow a sustainable, permaculture food garden, employing some people from the inner city slum that I showed earlier. Within weeks, topsoil and compost were provided, swales created and the land prepared for planting. Now just a few months on, and the seeds have grown into vegetable plants, saplings, fruit-trees. 

During this process, mentioned was made of children at risk down the road, and after a site visit, I wrote a child protection risk report that was shared with key stakeholders. 

In recognition of this shocking state of affairs, the city has proposed ceding the park on a long-term lease to the University, and supported that the pre-fab creche building in the slum, supported by a local catholic charity, be moved to the Park. We have also been given the use of a derelict building, which we are hoping to transform into a child and youth centre through the use of some innovative Montessori architecture, providing Montessori services from zero to 12. We have AMI-accredited guides in the area who are willing to cover these phases and we may be able to equip some of the current caregivers with CORE. Children from the most wicked circumstances can hereby be given a safe and secure environment in which not only care but education is provided. They can play in a green space, learn under a grand old Fig tree, help to grow and enjoy nutritious food from the garden and have a temporary respite from their harsh reality.

Seeds 2: Montessori in Prisons 

Education for Peace. AMI was involved with a prison-based Montessori programme in London called Born Inside. Recently, during our visit to North America, Lynne and I visited El Castillo in Mazatlan, Mexico with our friend, colleague and fellow dancer, Eder Cuevas and colleagues from Origami and Montessori Mexico. Whereas in the UK, children are allowed to remain “inside” with their mothers for 18 months, in Mexico they can do so until 3 years of age. We observed a Montessori environment, staffed by an inmate and a Montessori worker, with 5 children from 5 months to 3.5 years of age. After an appeal, the oldest child had been allowed to stay beyond 3 years due to a number of developmental challenges. It was fascinating to see the children at work, engaging the materials with the two Montessorians shuffling calmly between crying infants and highly energetic youngsters.

Our group session with the mothers afterwards was informative. Inside for a range of crimes from fraud to kidnapping and culpable homicide, with varying sentences from a few years to a couple of decades, they all shared the very human emotion of being parents, mothers. When we asked about their biggest concern, it was for the well-being of their children. Obvious, perhaps, but imagine the reality of being separated from your child, in some instances, the only person you have in the world. They struggled, initially to trust in other women to look after their babies and resist the instinct of responding when the little ones cried, or looking in on them all the time. But the biggest blessing that they shared with us was the visible transformation Montessori had made in the lives of their children. The ideas of independence and self-sufficiency were central to their desire for their children’s future and the possibility of giving them an alternative path in life. 

And imagine for one minute, that in our group sat a mother and her mother, a grandmother, who was also the mother of an 8-month old in the Montessori environment and therefore the uncle of his 3.5 year-old classmate. Montessori can help to break intergenerational poverty, inequality and violence. These seeds seem critical for us to sow.        

Seeds 3: Child Protection Alliance

Montessori in Emergencies. In a 2022 paper, Bernadette Philips and colleagues recently suggested that, “Montessori’s pedagogical approach was deeply influenced by her involvement with trauma-affected children, to the point that in later life, she began to see mental health and well-being as fundamental to education.” The idea was to support children who were impacted by trauma. We as AMI have a lot to contribute to this work, since we have prepared adults who know how to prepare environments that enable and optimise the development of children. 

To this end, and in the presence of my two predecessors, both UNICEF directors, I am delighted to share that AMI has been invited to apply for membership of the global Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. The Alliance is a global network of operational agencies, academic institutions, policymakers, donors and practitioners that facilitates inter-agency technical collaboration on child protection in all humanitarian contexts. It sets standards and produces technical guidance for use by the various stakeholders. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) currently co-leads the Alliance with World Vision. We have been in negotiations as to how AMI can contribute our knowledge of prepared environments to revisit the notion of “Child Friendly Spaces” which can have a monumental impact on children displaced by war, conflict, natural disasters or other emergencies. 

Whether it is the pioneering work of Dinny from Denmark to create an environment for refugee children in a cloakroom or Kannekar and colleagues intervening post-school shooting in Thailand, the value of Montessori in making a solid contribution to emergency coordination for children is undisputed. We have a very clear value add to contribute: whether you think of it as Maria Montessori’s envisaged White Cross, or reimagine this as a Pink Cube, sowing seeds of education, care and nonviolence in terrific situations of war and disaster represents another way of reaping a more adaptive, empathetic and humane humanity. Now to one final example of what we are endeavouring to sow:   

Seeds 4: Strategic Plan

Equal for Impact – that is our commitment. I hope that a simple sharing of three examples of sowing seeds in fertile ground for change shows what we as an Association, the Association Montessori Internationale, are capable of doing. For our work to be sustainable, we rely on you our members to promote our core values upon which rest the three pillars of our work: capacity, outreach, legacy. In turn, our mission is the lintel that rests on our work pillars while our vision is the roof that covers us.  

In speaking of the war against war, and the promotion of peace, the Mahatma Gandhi put it best at the Montessori Training College in London, 28 October 1931 when he said to Maria Montessori: “You have very truly remarked that if we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children and if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have the struggle, we won’t have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering.” 

If we are to reap real peace in this world, we shall have to begin sowing seeds with children. You, friends, our own prepared adults, are the sowers of these seeds and we thank you for your dedicated service and contagious energy. 

Alain Tschudin, AMI President, speaking at the 2023 AGM