AMS Staff Travels to Orlando for Working Retreat
The membership department at the American Montessori Society
In summer 2023, the American Montessori Society staff came together for an annual staff working retreat. Outside of The Montessori Event in March, this week-long gathering is the only time in the year where the entire all-remote team is able to be in the same physical space as one another.
The theme for the retreat was synergy. Munir Shivji, AMS executive director, reflects, “Synergy is the combined power of a group of things or people working together to produce something greater than each could achieve alone. Synergy is everywhere, throughout humanity and nature. When individuals come together, their unique perspectives merge, novel dynamics form, and the team becomes an entity of its own, with a stronger and more powerful perspective on approaching the task at hand.”
The theme for the staff retreat was “synergy”
AMS staff began to arrive Sunday night and were treated to a casual outing to recognize staff and enjoy some well-earned downtime together. The next morning, we attended school tours at Lakeland Montessori School, Maitland Montessori School, Montessori Academy of Celebration, Montessori World School, and Orlando Montessori Bilingual. Nikki Dipaola, AMS staff accountant, said, “This was my first ever tour of a Montessori school. It was AMAZING! After seeing all the ways the children learn, I wish I could have grown up in Montessori! The classrooms are so inviting and I love the independence.”
On the flip side, veteran Montessori educator and AMS senior director of community and events, Marie Conti, reflected, ”Although I spent most of my four decades in Montessori education working as a teacher or administrator in Montessori schools, I never tire of visiting Montessori schools. Each time I visit one, I learn something new and that was the case on this tour. To visit Montessori prepared environments and to witness Montessori education in action was such a valuable learning experience for our staff, especially for those who may not have a Montessori education background.”
Xiaoping Mei, AMS accounting manager, said, “This was my first time visiting a Montessori school. I appreciated the opportunity to see how the Montessori classrooms were set up in person.”
After the school tours, we invited AMS members, both school teachers and administrators, to sit on a panel and share their experiences with Montessori education with our team. Katherine Nguyen, AMS accreditation services coordinator, said, “I absolutely loved the member Q&A panel as it was informative to hear the local members sharing their insights. I felt meeting the local members beautifully completed the experience after coming back from school tours.”
Local AMS members share their experiences in Montessori Education
Prior to arriving in Florida, our staff participated in a book study with the newest AMS special publication, Equity Examined: How to Design Schools and Teacher Education Programs Where Everyone Thrives. Each group read a collection of essays and presented an assigned essay. Carey Jones, editor of Montessori Life, reflected, “Our group reflection on the Equity Examined essays was thought-provoking; it was interesting to hear how some staff members had perspectives on the essays that were different than mine, or pointed out things I hadn't noticed. It reminded me of the value of hearing all viewpoints when it comes to equity work, and how this work is not a "one and done" exercise, but something we must return to again and again.”
AMS staff discuss how our values influence our work as a team
The next day was filled with group work and engagement. AMS marketing manager of retention and engagement, Karina Sumano, shared, “I loved seeing how each department approached the small group presentations. It’s always fun to see all the unique and creative ways people present their work. Plus, it’s helpful to know what each team has been working on.”
We had the opportunity to reflect not just on our individual or departmental goals, but also on the goals of the organization for the year ahead. Our goals and priorities are led by our professional and cultural dispositions. In January 2022, staff came together to identify four professional and four cultural dispositions that define how AMS operates. These dispositions are positive, empathetic, respectful, open minded, flexible, communicative, collaborative, and growth mindset oriented. As part of our work in Orlando, we defined additional qualities that a colleague might have if they were leaning into each of these ideals.
AMS senior director of marketing, Jason Roth, explains, “Meeting in-person with the entire AMS organization isn’t a luxury. It’s an essential opportunity for staff to create and develop relationships, and to get clarity with one another about what we’re trying to achieve and how. Whenever I spend time with my AMS colleagues, I’m reminded of the sincere passion they have for AMS’s overall purpose: to improve education, to foster children’s growth and happiness, and, ultimately, to positively influence society.”
The following day, with the support of Kelsey O’Hara, AMS events manager and former staff member at the onePulse Foundation, we traveled to the Pulse Memorial and received a guided tour.
Tribute wall at the onePulse Foundation memorial
Matt Tatum, AMS digital marketing manager, shared, “As someone who has experienced the untimely tragedy of a loved one and the immense evil that this world has the capability of throwing at us all, visiting the memorial lifted my heart and centered my thoughts about my own experiences. Listening to the stories of heroism that night and the outpouring of support from the Orlando community in the aftermath showed me that good can and will triumph over evil.”
“We were able to see what the onePulse Foundation has created and how the community has transformed a tragic event into love and support. It was evident that Orlando's community has a sense of caring for all. It also showed us the big and challenging work we have ahead of us,” reflected Cynthia Barraza.
Natalie Sanchez, AMS growth marketing manager, grew up in Orlando. “The Pulse Memorial Tour was a really impactful experience and stands apart from the time we spent together at the retreat. To learn about the work of the onePulse Foundation and the continued support from the local community meant a lot to me, personally. As we reflected on this experience as a team, I was grateful to be in a room with people that are willing to connect on a deeper level, acknowledge areas of personal growth, and align with our organization’s mission.”
Overall, the retreat was a successful balance of work, reflection, and camaraderie. Dot Ewing, AMS membership development manager reflected, “The word connection in a modern sense is about phone calls, emails, and video meetings. ‘When is a good time for us to connect?’ But for AMS staff members, the word takes on more than just a superficial meaning. At the retreat we connected with one another like two ends of an extension cord. We were energized by coming together. We shared experiences with one another, further learned about who we are as people, and found all of the other large and small ways in which we connect and relate. It’s this connection that powers our organization. That crackle of electricity when we’re together sparks innovative thinking, strengthens our emotional connection, and powers our drive to support the Montessori community around the world. I’m proud to be a part of this dynamic group of individuals that strive to do more than just ‘touch base.’ AMS staff is connected.”
This concept of togetherness and of our many unique experiences and journeys coming together to form one cohesive AMSHQ really came to life with our final activity—vision boards. Staff were invited to create and share an art representation of themselves and their values and dreams. Nikki Dipaola said, “I LOVED the vision board. It was like I was a kid again; I would scrapbook all the time as a kid. I loved taking pictures from magazines or family pictures and designing them on a poster board. It was awesome to see what inspired everyone and how different all the boards looked!”
Local Montessori educators and administrators gathered to discuss The Montessori Event 2024
The retreat concluded with one more opportunity to gather with local members at an AMS-hosted luncheon. There, we spoke with Montessori educators and administrators from Florida-based schools and teacher education programs. We are excited to engage these members more as we prepare for The Montessori Event 2024.
Maribeth Slagle, AMS member services specialist, shared, “The synergy we bring as a collective voice is an opportunity to show the world how Montessori education is achieving greatness together, no matter where we live, no matter what stage of life we are in, no matter what is going on within the world. Our daily preparation motivates our practices when following the children, when creating the stories we write each day, and it is what guides us towards the work of stabilizing and establishing peace within our environments. I hope as we prepare to connect in the Orlando community, we can think about opportunities to foster meaningful connection with our presence.”
About the Venue
The Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center offers water activities for all
The retreat was held at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee, FL, the same location where The Montessori Event 2024 will be held March 7 – 10. Cynthia Barraza, AMS school quality manager, loved the location. “The Gaylord is a great resort. If any of our members are looking to make the upcoming conference a fun professional development and family trip, the pools are just awesome for all ages. You also have everything on site, and it is a short distance to popular attractions in Orlando.”
James Timmerman, AMS videographer, agreed that the pools are perfect for all ages. “The average high temperature in March will be between 70 – 79°F (21 – 26°C). A dip in the Crystal River Rapids—and it is rapid, wear the life vest so you float like a leaf—may not be possible after your last workshop, however gathering with new and old friends to dangle your feet in the South Beach Pool should be on your list.”
If you’re looking for a more lowkey way to spend your after hours at the conference, James recommends the spa options—some of which are complimentary. “Let’s face it,” James says, “you’re gonna get your steps in at The Montessori Event 2024. The Gaylord has lots of options for you to decompress either after your day or before it gets started.”
About the Author
Elizabeth Buechele (she/her) is the senior manager of communication and development at the American Montessori Society. She is passionate about equitable education, youth leadership, and storytelling. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.