In Memoriam: Betsy Coe

Elisabeth (Betsy) Coe at Desk

Elisabeth (Betsy) Johnston Coe, PhD, passed away on August 15, 2023 in Houston, TX, surrounded by her husband and two daughters, after a year and a half battle with cancer. Though she was placed on hospice care only a few days before her passing, there was time allowed for her to receive treasured messages from friends, former students, and adult learners as well as a few cherished in-person visits from those living close by. Betsy wanted to make a positive difference in the world and inspire others. Those who had the wonder and pleasure of knowing her believe she accomplished both.

Betsy was born in El Paso, TX on November 12, 1946. She met her husband, Raymond Harrison Coe, Jr. during college and on July 6, 1968 they were married. Betsy began her work in Montessori Education in 1972. She was first trained by Margaret Homfray and Phoebe Child, sending her lessons off to London on onion skin paper, and then spending multiple weeks with Margaret and Phoebe in person. Betsy’s first AMS Early Childhood credential simply says “Montessori teacher” because in the early years, there was no distinction of levels. She was later Elementary trained by Sr. Anne McCarrick and Alice Harkins who were students of Grazzini in one of the first Elementary courses in the U.S. held at the Houston Montessori Center. Ultimately, Betsy held AMS credentials for Early Childhood, Elementary I – II, Secondary I – II, and Administration, and completed the classroom portion for Infant & Toddler, thus having had the instruction for all levels.

Betsy created a legacy that will long be honored throughout and beyond the AMS community. One longtime friend and colleague said:

“She was a genius. Her brain was like a computer. If there was a project of importance to be accomplished, she knew exactly what resources and people she would need to bring to the task, how to get all of that on paper in record time, delegate, and keep track of everything as people worked the plan. And, when needed, she would just make a plan herself and hand it out to everyone, of which I was most grateful. And because we all were in such awe of her, we would drop our plans to make hers a priority. That is how she accomplished so much in her professional life. When I saw the television show, The Queen’s Gambit, that featured a girl who could see chess moves in three dimensions in her imagination, that’s how I imagine Betsy breaking down complex problems and figuring out how to solve them. She could put detailed plans in place almost instantaneously to accomplish whatever goals were set.”

Betsy’s years of teaching Early Childhood and Elementary gave her the background to start a Montessori middle school in 1982 and high school in 1999, both at School of the Woods in Houston. In 1992, Betsy created the Houston Montessori Center AMS Secondary I course and added the AMS Secondary II course to create Secondary I – II in 2004. She served as principal of the Secondary program at School of the Woods until the time of her death.

Betsy served on the American Montessori Society board for many years and was president of the board from 1991 – 1994. She has held various leadership positions within AMS and served as the chair of the Teacher Education Commission (now Teacher Education Section) then on the Teacher Education Action Commission. Betsy was active in the formation of the Peace and Social Justice committee and cherished her role with Sonnie McFarland and Patti Yonka conducting peace retreats. Participants in those retreats continue to laud the meaningfulness and inspiration they found in those workshops. Betsy is the author of numerous articles and book chapters and is an international consultant and speaker, often traveling on a weekly basis to Montessori schools throughout the United States and world.

Prague Conference 2017
Betsy and former AMS board of directors in 2017 in Prague

Her Montessori travels took her to Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Panama, Puerto Rico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. She also is a well-known speaker at Montessori conferences, the United Nations, The Hague Appeal for Peace, Montessori Model United Nations, and other worldwide events with a focus on world peace and adolescents. She was honored as the AMS 2008 Living Legacy and received the MACTE 2016 Wisdom of the Elders award. Betsy was revered by the adult learners she guided. As one wrote to her in her final days:

“You may not fully realize the extent of your influence, but it has been nothing short of transformative. From the moment our paths crossed, you brought a radiant light into my world, illuminating the possibilities ahead. Your wisdom, kindness, and unwavering support and knowledge have shaped me into who I am today. You have imparted knowledge and nurtured curiosity, instilled confidence, and fostered a love for learning that will continue to shape our futures. Your commitment to our growth and well-being has forever changed our lives…Your influence has been profound, and the positive ripple effect of your actions will continue to spread, inspiring others to be kind, compassionate, resilient, and truly help change the world. I am eternally grateful for the love, wisdom, and friendship you have shared.”

Betsy with the Secondary cohort of adult learners in 2021

Betsy and friends at the International Montessori Congress in Prague in 2017

Another friend of Betsy’s wrote:

“Each day I hear her laugh in my head and her “ahummmmm” and that strong Texas inflection in her voice. What a gem and how blessed we all are that she was part of our lives.”

Her two daughters, Debra Loewenstein and Stephanie Romero, are Montessori Secondary teachers; Debra at a Montessori public school and Stephanie at School of the Woods. Both daughters are Secondary instructors at Houston Montessori Center. Betsy has seven grandchildren who have all benefited from a Montessori Education across all planes of development. One of those grandchildren, Daniel Romero, is currently a guide in School of the Woods middle school, and will complete his credential work shortly.

Betsy believed that becoming a Montessori educator is a life-long journey. She held that it was an evolving process to fully understand the intricacies of Montessori philosophy and implement those principles in a classroom. Maria Montessori’s legacy, she believed, is much more than a method for educating children. Betsy believed Montessori becomes a way of life that includes how we see the value of children and adolescents, of respecting all beings, and of constantly striving to perform purposeful work.

Betsy Coe Presenting at The Montessori Event

Betsy presenting at The Montessori Event 2022 in Nashville, TN

Betsy’s goal for summer 2023 was to provide the entire 4 week instruction for the incoming Montessori Secondary cohort. With much joy and gratitude—for Betsy and the adult learners—she met that goal. Betsy and her husband had planned to take a river cruise in Europe once the summer program ended to celebrate their 55 years of marriage and Ray’s 80th birthday. In the early weeks of July, they realized the cruise would need to be postponed. For their closing day of this summer I course, the Secondary cohort elected to create (on the sly, their last week) a virtual cruise experience for Betsy, including a full Zoom with former adult learners, to wish her well. It was a selfless and moving tribute to her 30 years of work with the Secondary training program.

A GoFundMe has been created by her daughters to establish a scholarship for high school students at Woods High School and a scholarship for HMC adult learners.

A friend whose life Betsy touched reflected:

“People always say how lucky we are to be alive in this time with all the technology and scientific advantages. I bring that idea in closer, as we do in the classroom, focusing on our planet, moving in increments down to the place where we leave footprints on the Earth. Having found my bliss in Montessori, I am glad to be alive in this time and place because I had Dr. Betsy Coe to walk with, leading me, teaching me, inspiring me, befriending me.”

Contributors to this Article

This article was supported by many people who love Betsy: Amy Henderson, Ann Sutton, Beth Bonnette, Bridget Tomlinson, Chad Rentz, Darla Miller, Debra Loewenstein, Judi Bauerlein, Lynne Aiken, Marge Ellison, Patti Yonka, Paula Katz, Penny Cichucki, Sandi Brock, Stephanie Romero, and Susie Shelton-Dodge.

Interested in writing a guest post for our blog? Let us know!

The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.

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