THE POST OAK SCHOOL:
A Model of Montessori Excellence
“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.” – Maria Montessori
The Post Oak School was founded in 1963 and makes Montessori education available to children from the age of 14 months through to high school. It is an educational leader among Houston’s top private schools as well as among the more than 5,000 Montessori schools across the United States. Not only is The Post Oak School one of the oldest Montessori schools in the country, it is the oldest in the Southwest.
Montessori education “is a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood,” according to the American Montessori Society (AMS) website. With the view that children are naturally eager for knowledge and able to initiate learning on their own in a supportive environment, Montessori method develops the whole child, including the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive aspects. Multi-age groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted periods of work time, and guided choice of work activity are hallmarks of the technique.
The Post Oak School offers five different levels of education, which include Young Children’s Community (YCC), Primary, Elementary, Middle School, and High School. For all these levels, the mission, “to prepare an outstanding Montessori environment that fosters collaboration, cooperation and peace, and to provide experiences that promote curiosity, inquiry and engagement,” remains the same.
In July of 2016, The Post Oak School faced the daunting task of selecting a new Head of School to replace John Long who was retiring from the position. The successful candidate was Maura Joyce, who had the support of the former Head of School from the beginning. It’s easy to see why. Not only does Joyce have a master’s degree in education from Loyola University and a bachelor’s degree from Boston College, she is a lifelong educator committed to Montessori education, and she held the same position at the Montessori in Redlands.
CKW Luxe had the honor, recently, of speaking with Maura Joyce about The Post Oak School, her dedication to Montessori education, the path that brought her to the school, her perception of the school’s impact on its students today, and her dreams for its future.
CKW Luxe: First of all, CKW Luxe would like to congratulate you on your new position. Our readers would be interested to know how you are adjusting to it, and what, if any, challenges you have faced over the past months.
Maura Joyce: Thank you! Houston has welcomed me with open arms and my family and I are really enjoying the city. The Post Oak School community created a wonderful atmosphere for my arrival. It has been a smooth landing into the job, but not without its share of excitement. In addition to a change in headship, Post Oak hired a new CFO this summer, finished up two construction projects at our two campus locations, and moved the Middle School program from our Bissonnet Campus to the Museum District Campus.
CKW: Please tell us about the path that brought you to The Post Oak School.
MJ: I met John Long, Post Oak’s former head of school for the past 21 years, a little over a decade ago as part of the national Montessori community. In 2005, I brought my entire administrative staff from Montessori in Redlands (my former school) to Post Oak to shadow John’s administrative team. After that, John became a mentor of mine and we stayed in close contact.
The second thread of this story is that my husband’s family lives in Houston. Whenever we came to town to visit his parents or his brother, I would take the time to visit Post Oak, or at least have lunch with John. When John announced his retirement and Post Oak announced the search, I threw my hat into the ring. I was thrilled to be offered the position, and it seemed like the right move, not only for my professional career, but for my family as well.
CKW: We’re sure our readers would be fascinated to learn when you became involved with Montessori education, what it was about its principles that drew you to it, and how you educated yourself in it.
MJ: After graduation from college in 1989, I was in Chicago teaching high school math when I ran into an old friend. She was working at a Montessori school and began to tell me about it. Our conversation did not make much sense to me then, but she encouraged me to go and talk to her boss, the head of school at a large school in the city. After 45 minutes talking to this amazing woman, I signed a training contract and left that office with 16 days to get to Washington D.C. for the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) Elementary training. It changed my life. The Montessori training really touched me on several levels.
First and foremost, it changed how I looked at children and how they learn. Montessori students learn how to learn it for themselves. I remember my department head at my previous job telling me to “never show them that you don’t know the answer,” which is opposite to saying, “I may not have that answer, but I know where we can find out.” That was my mantra when I first became a Montessori elementary teacher. From that point on, I immersed myself in additional workshops and training courses to become the best Montessori teacher I could be.
CKW: The Post Oak School is the oldest Montessori school in the Southwest. Can you tell us how it has adapted the delivery of its core principles with the passage of time to meet the changing needs of its students?
MJ: Luckily for Post Oak, Montessori core principles are based on fundamental human development, and the implementation of our programs at the YCC (14 to 36 months) and Primary (three to six years) levels really meets the needs of the developing child today, as it has for over a century. The rich, dynamic learning environment of the Montessori preschool classrooms provides opportunities to explore and discover and build all the fundamentals of learning.
At the Elementary level, the core Montessori curriculum is expansive and includes big picture lessons that provide context for the skill development in reading, writing, math, the sciences, geometry, history, and the arts. Also, at the Elementary level, the adaptation in delivery has been mostly related to the integration of technology and ways in which students can use it to enhance learning.
At the Middle School and High School level, Montessori principles allow for incredible creativity in curriculum delivery. For the adolescents, the dynamic learning environment includes studio spaces and open areas for students to engage with each other and work collaboratively. The science and tinkering labs allow for that exploration and discovery that is the basis of the work in Montessori. Seminar discussions allow students to learn from each other and engage in deep discussions on a topic.
All students participate in field work in the form of community service or internships, as an application of what is learned in the classroom, and which connects them to their Houston community. Although many might call this innovative, it is a timeless idea similar to an apprenticeship, which has been around for centuries.
CKW: The Post Oak School is considered one of the best and most influential Montessori schools in the country. Can you tell us what elements you believe set it apart from other Montessori schools?
MJ: Many Montessori schools in the country look to Post Oak for leadership. I think there are three things that set it apart from the rest. The first is that Post Oak’s commitment to the highest quality Montessori practice also sets it apart from other Montessori schools. The school’s Montessori foundation is the AMI teacher training certificate, a requirement for Post Oak faculty.
Secondly, Post Oak is a stable structure as a private, independent school. The school’s engagement with local and national independent school organizations ensures its sustainability as an organization. Working with professional organizations keeps the administration of the school, the quality of the programs, governance, advancement, and admissions processes stable and in line with Post Oak’s private independent peer schools.
Finally, I think that the commitment of the Post Oak parent community is by far the most impressive I have ever experienced. This group of families is so involved, and all of them give so generously of their time and money. But it is much more than volunteerism and giving. Post Oak families treat the school as their children’s second home.
CKW: For those of us who don’t have an in-depth knowledge of Montessori education, can you briefly describe the main precepts that differentiate it from traditional education?
MJ: It starts with the environment: make the right space, provide the right tools, and give them the right amount of freedom and time to work. It is the opposite of the “sage on the stage” model, where most of the in-class time is devoted to lecture and assignments are homework. Most of the time in the class is work time, discovery, and exploration with the right materials and guidance from the teacher. Children and young adults work at their own pace towards mastery of each concept.
The other major focus of Montessori education is the sense of community and collaboration. Students are grouped in multi-age classes, and this mirrors society—a collection of different ages, talents, and experience levels—all working together collaboratively. Social development of the students is paramount and integrated into the learning atmosphere.
CKW: Can you elaborate on how children learn from their peers in multi-age classrooms and what role the teacher plays?
MJ: In a multi-aged classroom, students get to play the role of novice, experienced peer, and leader in a three-year cycle. Many times, a teacher can assess a student’s mastery of a concept based on their ability to teach it to someone else. New, younger students to the class have mentors who help them manage the day-to-day routines: arriving, getting to work, snack, lunch, recess, and dismissal.
Each teacher is trained to cover three to six years’ worth of curriculum and gives lessons to the students in a sequence. Having them for multiple years means that the teacher can simply pick up where they left off each year. It also means that teachers have the time to learn each child’s particular learning style, and they know how to capitalize on their strengths and focus on their areas of growth.
CKW: Educating the whole child is integral to Montessori education. Can you tell us what part sports and extracurricular activities play at The Post Oak School?
MJ: Post Oak has a rich athletics and extracurricular program. During the school day, all the children get to experience art, music, Spanish, and physical fitness. The After School Enrichment Program (ASEP) has really grown at Post Oak the past several years. This fall we are offering students classes in the arts, foreign language, engineering, chess, Montessori Model United Nations (MMUN), sewing, and knitting.
Our Bearkats athletic program has also expanded, especially at the High School level where our growing enrollment provides for a larger variety of sports teams and opportunities for league play. Post Oak is proud to have cross country, track, flag football, volleyball, basketball, and soccer at both the Middle School and High School level.
CKW: The Post Oak School seems to be a close-knit community. Please elaborate for us the parents’ role at the school.
MJ: Parents keep this place moving. They are involved in the classrooms, volunteer in the library, plan and execute events and activities, raise funds, and participate in Parent Education workshops to learn more about integrating school and home. Post Oak prides itself on its Partnership Agreement with parents, which is a clear description of what parents can expect from the school and what the school expects from parents. From the start, both the school and the parents know this is teamwork. The Post Oak Parents Association (POPA) is incredibly active during the year with many events that support the school and the parent community.
CKW: Finally, can you tell us what changes, developments, and commitments are in the school’s future and how they are designed to enrich the lives of your students?
MJ: Post Oak has several exciting things on the horizon. As we integrate the Middle School program onto the Museum District Campus, we want to take advantage of opportunities that location offers the students. Community service, a core part of the Middle School curriculum, will extend its reach to collaborate with organizations in that area of Houston. The High School internship and field work experience is committed to building more relationships with the institutions in and beyond the Museum District to increase the variety and diversity of options for the students. The new building on the campus gives us the room to grow enrollment in the High School and Middle School, and Post Oak is committed to future options for athletic facilities on that campus.
Our renovations at the Bissonnet Campus included both the addition of a Parenting Center and a new music studio and performance space. We have only scratched the surface with the possibilities we can offer families on their parenting journey, and we are working on a broader vision for the Parenting Center. With the new music studio and performance space, we look forward to expanding the music program for the students and providing more opportunities for student performances.
There is a lot going on, and I picked an exciting time to be at Post Oak!
Students at The Post Oak School are part of a community of parents and educators who believe in the development and life opportunities a Montessori education can give them. As such, they are also the recipients of excellence in education only a vibrant institution with strong roots in the community can offer. As the new Head of School, Maura Joyce is dedicated to her young charges, and to the principles that form the school’s foundation and shape its future.