Part 4: The Conference – Exhibitor Perspective
For most of the conference I was eagerly absorbing the inspiring information of the presenters…but when break time arrived it was my chance to switch name tags and go from ‘Jessica Langford the participant’ to ‘Jessica Langford the exhibitor’. We had a cute little table wrapped around an understated corner. It was the perfect positioning for us as it provided a sense of cosy comfort, which protected us in the first moments of Saturday morning when we still had butterflies in the tummy! This was, after all, our first official appearance as the new owners of Montessori Child – and we have big shoes to fill after the impression that Cath Gribben and Amy Johnson have made on the Montessori world! So there were a couple of nerves hidden within our excitement initially. It didn’t last long though; it’s impossible to feel nervous when so many friendly, smiling and appreciative individuals are in front of you! It was such an honour to interact with the remarkable professionals of the Australian Montessori community. We were touched by the positive feedback that we received from people who had purchased online and were eager to meet us in person. We were also extremely flattered by the beautiful comments that we overheard from people who were browsing the little selection of items that we displayed. I loved observing the adults becoming inspired, engaged and delighted by our resources!
Our “Walking the Ball” Conference Competition became a very interesting social experiment. It reminded me of the slight hypocrisy that many teachers unintentionally hold; we expect children to tackle new tasks and show resilience in the face of a challenge but yet we often baulk when we are asked to do the same. I watched many, many people stop and look at the Walking the Ball exercise and most of them had a little, casual play. Just a fingertip or two lifting the sticks in a way that seemed to imply “Nothing to see here, I’m not really trying, no reason to watch as this isn’t even a real turn I’m just nonchalantly moving things around for no reason”. It reminded me a little of how teenagers often appear; awkwardly stuck between curiosity and self-consciousness. I can’t judge anyone for this. After all, I mastered the skill at home without any watchful eyes upon me before I attempted it in the classroom or in public. I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to try it for the first time in a conference context (although I’d like to hope I would and in future I’ll make a conscious effort to try to take measured risks like this).
I am so proud of the few people who were brave enough to invest their attention into a proper, official attempt. Most who tried it made it across. Some needed only one or two restarts and made it in half a minute. Others needed a bit longer to acquire this skill. Naomi Stuckey – a Montessori 0-3 trainer –enjoyed the experience so much that she removed the activity from the table and set herself up on the floor to keep repeating until she reached mastery! It was delightful to watch her becoming so engaged in this way. It seemed to have the exact effect that I had intended; it provided a striking reminder of how children feel each time they encounter a new tool, skill or task. Naomi was flooded with pride when she mastered the activity and she walked away with two sets of ‘Walking the Ball’, which she intends to use in her future training workshops. She indicated that it would be the ideal resource to show her workshop participants how important it is to present careful, considered and meticulous demonstrations to children. After all, everything from pouring water from a jug to unbuckling a belt is as potentially overwhelming to a child as “walking the ball” is to an adult! Every day a child will come across countless experiences that will either be frustratingly difficult or enjoyably challenging –the difference between the two outcomes is often in the way that the adult contributes.
On Sunday I was delighted to discover Kylie “How-We-Montessori” D’Alton standing in front of our table. Kylie has become something of a celebrity in the Montessori world because of her extremely accessible, inspiring and unbelievably beautifully presented blog. Kylie’s coming had been foretold; on the Saturday I’d overheard a few people mentioning that she was planning to come and I had one or two people ask me if I’d seen her there. Like many people I feel as though I know Kylie well, because so she generously allows us into her life through How We Montessori, but I’d never previously met her in person. When I did I was struck by the irony that such a sense of celebrity surrounds an individual who is so humble! Kylie certainly wasn’t loudly announcing herself or trying to demand attention (though she had a chaperone eagerly trying to introduce her to every Montessorian in the room!). She was simply there to connect with the community and to learn. Kylie spoke of her joy at being able to attend but she was also a little apprehensive about being away from her children all day. My heart melted at the absolute honesty of her admission. This is a mum who is absolutely, truly connected and committed to the little people in her life. Kylie is parenting intentionally and authentically. If you haven’t yet read her blog I highly recommend that you head over there (right now if you want! Go on, do it, I won’t be offended!)
On the topic of meeting inspiring people, it was so wonderful to get to know the other exhibitors who were set up in the same area as Montessori Child. It was a pleasure to meet the team of A2Z Montessori – another family-operated company. A2Z truly represents the values of the Montessori method; the business was originally operated by the adolescents at the Sydney Montessori School as a ‘Practical Life’ experience for the subject of Economy Studies. What an amazing experience that must have been! Most schools are content with getting their economics students to engage in simulations and theory; A2Z provided a group of students with a chance to actually engage in the real and meaningful experience of operating a business. Unfortunately, due to factors outside of A2Z’s control, this is no longer the arrangement but kudos to A2Z Montessori for “walking the walk” in terms of applying Montessori principles to their business operation not just their product choices!
Another ‘exhibitor highlight’ for me was the chance to catch up with David Knibbe of Think Education supplies. I have known David for many years and he has visited Jescott many times to display his beautiful, high-quality Gonzagarredi resources. I’m sure that half my classroom must have come from David! David’s a bit of a role model to us as Montessori-inspired suppliers; he is just so incredibly knowledgeable about his materials and conveys an undeniable (and contagious!) sense of enthusiasm for everything he offers. David manages to be incredibly distinguished and yet almost child-like in his openhearted sense of wonder. I know I share some of that ‘childlike’ aspect (only last week a little girl at Pre-school told me “You’re not a lady yet, you’re just a lady-girl”) but I tried to balance this out by putting on my very best “I’m-a-real-grown-up” face as David and I chatted about business and our impressions of the conference.
I was delighted (but not surprised!) to discover a truly authentic sense of camaraderie and support between the exhibitors. There are sometimes whispers in the world of Montessori of politics between factions or “competitors”. People suggest that there might be a hidden world of school against school, training institute against training institute or supplier against supplier. I have always been fortunate enough to experience primarily positive relations during my time as a teacher in the Montessori-world; I have collaborated with colleagues and have never felt in contest with so-called ‘competitors’! I can now also honestly attest to the fact that in the behind-the-scenes world of us “Montessori-exhibitors” the interactions are not about “supplier vs. supplier”, it is simply about “person to person”…and we are all people with shared goals and values! We chatted, bonded, admired each other’s products (and, in some cases, purchased each other’s products!), shared advice and ideas and planned future collaborations and catch-ups! We were the infants amongst this mixed-age range of exhibitors (David Knibbe, for example, has been in the industry for 40 years!) but we felt incredibly welcomed and supported.
To those of you who I chatted to over the top of the Montessori Child table, thank you! It was a joy to reconnect with familiar friends, to meet new ones and to put ‘faces to names’ of people who I’ve corresponded with online! To those of you who I didn’t get the chance to meet, I look forward to seeing you next year!
We are also pleased to announce that we will be the sole sponsors of the upcoming MAF Montessori Centenary Parent Workshops. The conference gave us the chance to connect with professionals and we are delighted that now the workshops will let us introduce Montessori Child to some more parents! Details of the events are available from the Montessori Centenary website.