One of the things that Wilmington Montessori School staff, families and students have commented upon over and over is that the community feels like a family in many ways. The warmth, the familiarity and the sense of being known and cared about unconditionally - despite our warts and our imperfections - these are the hallmarks of family.
As a staff, we also hold professionalism as a core value. Merging these two things - being as warm as family members but also rational, knowledgeable, skilled and prudent professionals - is not something that comes easily or automatically to most of us. It is learned. We learn it through our professional development courses, and we learn it through mentoring by more experienced staff members and leaders.
Fifteen years ago, parents of several of our oldest campers beseeched me to find a way for their young teens to remain connected to the WMS and Camp Montessori community: "Can't they become counselors?" In response, we created a Counselor In Training Program. One of the graduates of that program is now my assistant camp director.
In its current incarnation, the C.I.T. program is a course that runs every two to three years. This course covers child development, Montessori philosophy, classroom management, leadership skills and self-management. Always led by a male and a female lead, the course aims to help young people to make that transition from campers to staff. This is a gradual transition, of course; some make it faster than others, but when they come into the classrooms, each one of these young people brings an enthusiasm that is infectious.
In the years after they've completed the course, they are considered junior counselors. They are assigned carefully, placed in groups for which they've indicated both a preference and demonstrated suitability in their communication style, energy level, general demeanor and understanding of the needs of the given age group.
Watching these young people at work is a wonderful thing. The children gravitate to them, sensing the difference in someone closer to childhood, someone to whom their every success and new step is new and exciting. The junior counselors thrive in this environment, supervised and guided by the adult staff, energized and admired by the children. The adults help the young people to see their own strengths and challenges, and the young people help the adults by running errands, cleaning, reading to the children, playing games with the children and taking a small hand in theirs on walks in the woods.
Junior counselors who are WMS graduates - as most of them are - have even more advantages, knowing the language and the tones in which we speak to children, and knowing how to approach conflict resolution. I can't count the number of times I have seen a teenager sitting with a child who has experienced a problem or setback, asking gentle questions to lead the child through the process of turning that problem into new knowledge and understanding.
When I asked Alexis Szkotak, WMS graduate and second-year counselor, what was special about working in camp, she said that she loved helping children problem-solve in a peaceful, Montessori way. "During the last few weeks of school, all I could think about was getting to camp to be with the kids, even during final exams!"
One of the values of a Montessori education is multi-age interaction: children of varied ages teaching one another the lessons of life in a peaceful, collaborative, joy-filled environment. Our Counselor Development program is the bridge between childhood and adulthood, celebrating both.