Erica & Kristen are the founders and owners of Windrose Montessori in Magnolia, Seattle. Our son Cianan attended their pre-school for about 6 months before starting kindergarten and he was the happiest boy being at their school and still asks about them. Their story are truly inspiring, being so young and having the vision and tenacity to make their dream a reality. I find their journey and story inspirational. I hope you reading their story and what they have to say as much as I did.
So you both are still very young, please share with us how old you are and how did you two meet and decide that you would open a pre-school together? How did you know that you both would make great partners?
Erica: We opened the school when I was 28 years young, and Kristen was a little younger. We originally met as coworkers at a different school in 2014. Since turnover in preschools tends to be quite high, Kristen was wary of another new teacher—me. I won her over though! We were lucky enough to have the same break time, and it was pretty immediate that we became best friends. Our quick friendship meant that we were quick to share our hopes and dreams. Lucky for us, we had the exact same goals—opening a school. Over the past 5 years, she and I have worked at the same schools together and realized that not only were we great friends, but we had the same work ethic and passion. I had great respect for Kristen and she respected me. Through that great amount of respect, we were able to develop trust, and the rest is history!
Kristen: I am 25 years old. I was teaching at a Montessori school in Bellevue for almost half a year, and Erica was a new teacher at the Montessori school. I didn’t try to pursue a friendship with her because the turnover rate in childcare is pretty high. Our first conversation happened inside of the staff lounge, because she couldn’t draw a heart (to sign a fellow teachers birthday card). I made fun of her, taught her how to draw a heart, and followed it up with a conversation. Our conversation was extremely natural, we had this instant connection, and I was drawn to her energy. From then on we would hang out during lunch and I got to know Erica on a deeper level. --Her journey to Washington, hopes, dreams, fears, and ambitions. During our lunch break one day she mentioned her long term goal was to open a school and I said, “ME TOO!” and at that point I knew we were destined to be in each other’s lives.
After a couple of months into our friendship Erica saved me from an extremely unhealthy relationship. I called her hysterically with nowhere to go. All I had was a duffle bag of clothes and $2,000 to my name. Erica welcomed me into her home and into her life. She made me realize that I don’t need a guy, I’m an amazing individual, experiences come with age, and this would just be one of many. Erica called me a phoenix and her muse, because my life was so dark, yet she could still see this light in me. She saw something in me that I couldn’t. Her hope gave me hope. We called this phase in our life our “renaissance” phase because we were both renewed by each others energy and experiences.
Erica has been in my life for almost 6 years now. We’ve taught at three different Montessori schools together, we were roommates, she’s my best friend, someone I confide in, and she balances me out. We’re constantly learning from each other and adding value into each other's lives. She has seen me at my worst and my best. There’s no one else I’d rather change the world with. Her vision and hope to better the world inspires me everyday to be a better teacher, business partner, friend, and individual.
Please share with us about your preschool and how is Montessori method different than other schools?
Erica: In my journey as a preschool teacher, I have had the privilege of meeting many amazing people and observing many types of wonderful environments. Through another past co-teacher of mine, who is also someone I highly respect, I was introduced to the “wildflower school” method many years ago. That same year, I got to meet the original purveyor of the “wildflower school” method, Sep Kamvar, at the AMS conference in Dallas. His philosophy of holistic education creating schools that were like living systems really resonated with me. During my meeting with him, he recommended I read the book that led him to his interest in the micro-school format, “Reinventing Organizations” by Frédéric Laloux. The booked described methods in which organizations successfully evolved to not only run more efficiently but how to create an organization with a soulful purpose. Instead of business management being seen as a pyramid, it is encouraged to be seen as collaborative.
“The Teal paradigm refers to the next stage in the evolution of human consciousness. When applied to organizations, this paradigm views the organization as an independent force with its own purpose, and not merely as a vehicle for achieving management's objectives. Teal organizations are characterized by self-organization and self-management. The hierarchical "predict and control" pyramid of Orange is replaced with a decentralized structure consisting of small teams that take responsibility for their own governance and for how they interact with other parts of the organization. Assigned positions and job descriptions are replaced with a multiplicity of roles, often self-selected and fluid. People’s actions are guided not by orders from someone up the chain of command but by ‘listening’ to the organization’s purpose. Unlike the highly static nature of Amber, Orange and Green organizations, the organizational structure in Teal is characterized by rapid change and adaptation, as adjustments are continuously made to better serve the organization's purpose.” (http://www.reinventingorganizationswiki.com/Teal_Organizations)
After working in three different schools, I came to observe what had been true all along--I had been working in orange managed environments. Turnover was high, staff were competitive, and people were stretching themselves thin. I had concluded what Sep Kamvar had also concluded, we needed to approach schools differently. That’s when I knew Wind Rose had to be a living organism with a different management style. Although we may not officially be a “wildflower” organization, we still founded the school on the same principles they have put together:
1. An authentic Montessori Environment
2. A teacher-led school, where the teachers are also the administration. We are committed to remaining small, non-hierarchical and responsive to the needs of children.
3. Shopfront setting: a neighborhood-nested school committed to working in partnership with the surrounding community to create an environment that is healthier for children
5. Seamless learning community, blurring the lines between school and home.
6. Equity: working to create diverse, inclusive learning environments that work for justice as the foundation of peace
7. Cultivate a deep beauty in all things – in the design, culture and artistic expression within our school environments, in our interactions with one another, and in our relationship with ourselves
8. A focus on nature, emphasizing the non-separation between nature and human nature
9. Network with other schools
As you can see, principle number one is to have an authentic Montessori environment. The Montessori method fundamentally believes each child has an inherent drive to be a natural learner, eager to participate in enriching, peaceful environments that allow the child to be guided in self-interest. Maria Montessori, through her observations, created a philosophy that respects the child in a far superior way, compared to common teacher-led environments.
Kristen: Wind Rose is a Montessori preschool. However we do incorporate Reggio and offer an outdoor curriculum. Our school is small and we love that it is. Since we are small we’re able to connect with our families one on one and we’re able to create this family outside of schools hours. We even have monthly Wind Rose gatherings to blend home and school.
Montessori classrooms allow children to learn at their own individual pace according to their own choice of activities (or works) for the day. Teachers work as guides around the classroom and create an environment in which children can choose what they want to do and be set up for success. Montessori offers discovery, sparks interest, fosters independence, concentration, motivation, leadership, and a love for learning. Montessori classrooms are mixed aged classrooms. Which cultivates a peer learning environment. Because, “when one teaches, two learn”.
Why a pre-school and not any other business? Was it a clear vision for the both of you? Like an Aha moment, this is it, a pre-school.
Erica: During my time gaining my AMS teaching certificate, having a preschool had always been the dream. After reading “Reinventing Organizations”, I felt the need to take part in the call to action—business with a more soulful approach. It was from then that I knew the school had to mature from a dream to a reality. I wanted to take part in this next-generation, social revolution.
“The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.”
Kristen: I’ve always been drawn to children. I believe that our purpose on this earth is to leave it better than we found it. By contributing what we’re passionate about and for me, it’s teaching. Children are our future.
What was the process and journey like from an idea to an actual physical school? What were the most challenging part for you both?
Erica: The process was a humbling one. It’s so easy to have all the right ideas, but when it comes time to make things come to fruition, sometimes you need to depend on a little luck. After exploring so many different properties to rent, most were quite lackluster. As mentioned before, the school imagined was shopfront, near nature, and offered beauty. When the space we are in now became available, it had everything we needed and the timing couldn’t have been better. It was incredible to think we had scooped up the exact spot that had been dreamt up.
The most challenging part for me was learning how to start/run a business for the first time, while also trying to maintain the same high standards as a teacher. Learning how to prioritize, organize, and set boundaries was also a little bit of a juggling act. Once I started noticing where I needed to set myself up for success and how to work smarter vs harder, everything came easier. I needed to learn how to “Montessori-fy” myself in a way.
Kristen: The process was almost surreal. Erica found the place and did all the hard work, I can’t take any credit for finding it. When we started shopping for the Montessori materials and furniture for the classroom it hit me that this is OUR school. We got to choose what goes inside, how our day goes, the name of the school, the design of the school. It was like a dream come true to be able to say, “This is ours, dreams really do come true”. The challenging part was marketing ourselves as a new preschool in Magnolia. By the time we finished renovations and filling the classroom with Montessori materials it was late October early November and most families were already enrolled at preschools for the school year. Also, most families who were interested in enrollment were interested in the upcoming school year (2018-2019). We didn’t catch momentum until January/February. After that there was a snowball effect and the word started to get out about Wind Rose.
When you were a little girl, was this what you had in mind? I’m going to be a teacher and start a preschool business?
Erica: My earliest interest in education sprouted around the time “No Child Left Behind” was created in 2001. I was around 13 years old when I decided to submit a political paper exposing the flaws in “No Child Left Behind” in place of a book report I had been assigned. I was lucky enough to have a teacher that understood I would accomplish the same point of the assignment by instead focusing on what I cared about. Later on, my teenage ambitions shifted more towards dental oriented pursuits. Right around the time I was preparing to take the DAT, I was working as a substitute within the public school district. Since I was finding myself, again, frustrated about the teach to the test mentality required in public schools, I went in search of other educational philosophies. After reading “The Secret of Childhood” by Maria Montessori, my world changed forever. I ditched the dental school dreams and instead decided to pursue my Montessori teaching certificate. Luckily, there was an incredible certification program in Las Vegas, my hometown. The program was so deeply inspiring that it was during my training I knew I had to one day pour my heart into a school of my own.
Kristen: I didn’t always know what I wanted to do but I knew the type of woman I wanted to be. I’ve always wanted to leave a legacy and make a difference. I originally went to school to be a pediatrician because I wanted to help children.
When you had the business up and running, was it hard to market your school or did you find the demand is quite high in Seattle? How did you go about in reaching your clientele?
Erica: Getting attention towards the school was definitely slow to start. Before opening the school, I had been working in administration at a school downtown. A large part of my job involved waitlist management and tour scheduling. Through that position, I noticed the demand for childcare was quite high, and at first, it was disheartening when we weren’t getting any enrollments, despite the demand that I knew was there. We didn’t enroll our first student until 3 months into having the space ready. We had done some small marketing in the area by handing out business cards or actively working on our social media presence, but still nothing. It wasn’t until the first parent enrolled that other enrollments started to follow. It was almost like everyone was afraid to be the first family, but once the first enrolled family had got the snowball rolling demand became an avalanche.
Kristen: I found it hard because we weren’t established and there were already preschools in the area. I feel like the demand for childcare is high but getting our name out there was challenging. I marketed our school on the Seattle nanny parent connection page, I joined the Ballard/Magnolia/Queen Anne page, I created an Instagram account, Yelp account, Google account, Nextdoor account, and had previous parents write reviews about Erica and I on our social media platforms. From my understanding word of mouth has been the most effective form of marketing.
What is your daily routine like running a preschool?
Erica: Daily routine can be quite variable, but that’s how I like it. School hours are always peaceful in mornings with work cycle, and active as we walk the trails in Discovery Park with the children in the afternoon. When the school closes, Kristen and I clean and prepare the school for the next day. After school hours could include classroom tours, administrative work, curriculum planning, or property maintenance. Because daily routine can be so variable, I am quite attached to my weekly planner.
Kristen: Every day and month varies. Erica and I switch off who is teaching for the month and in charge of curriculum. Whoever doesn’t teach that month is more in charge of the business side. Since we are a half day school (8:30-12:30) I do offer an after school program with just a couple of students until 5pm each day. I’m more in charge of our waitlist, phone calls, marketing, gatherings, social events, and social media. Which I do at home starting around 6pm. Also, we share our email account meaning we discuss every little thing together before making a definite decision.
Where did you go to college? Do you think college life or going to college helped a lot in what you do today or do you find it’s real life experience is what got you to where you are?
Erica: I went to the University of Arkansas, the same university my father had attended. Looking back, attending college was valuable to me, but I don’t think it’s important for everyone, especially when higher education is often such a large expense. I have always been an eager learner and loved all of the academic challenges that were thrown at me during my years at the university. University also helped me learn a lot of important life lessons and taught me a lot about my strengths, weakness, ambitions, and passions. Majoring in Biology led me to appreciate data and the importance of observation which provided the foundations that helped me to become an amazing Montessori teacher. Maria herself was a scientist more than an educator, and it is through her abilities of trial and error as well as observation that she was able to discover the natural learner that exists in every child. If I were to do it all again knowing that I would become a business owner/preschool teacher, I wouldn’t find value in majoring in education, unless it was Montessori centered. Perhaps I would take a class or two about business, but I think my time at University played out well.
Kristen: I went to Washington state for two years and realized that college isn’t for me. Personally, I feel that real life experiences have shaped me into who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am without the adversity I’ve had to face and college doesn’t offer you that. Time and experiences are the best teachers.
What are the challenges you find in your line of work? And how do you handle stressful situations when caring after so many young children, as a mother I feel it takes a ton of patience. What is the secret in staying zen throughout the whole day?
Erica: Honestly, the biggest challenge would be parent interactions. Because I spend my days with their most precious possessions, it makes sense that parents want plenty of communication. But it’s not that that is challenging, it’s building trust. It’s hard to build relationships with parents when the only time you see them is pick up and drop off. What I love about the concept of micro-schools is that it makes it easier to build relationships. At larger schools, a parent may interact with 10 different teachers at a time. With a smaller school, you can expect to interact with a tight group of a few teachers who not only provide your child’s education but who also handle other concerns. This full-circle service given to the parent’s when at a micro-school really helps build the best relationships with great foundations in trust.
While childcare does indeed require tons of patience, we as educators are very privileged to have an extremely prepared environment that really limits the number of unpleasant interactions with the children. As a teacher, I know the relationship and behaviors your child and I have will be different from that at home. We understand it isn’t as simple to make your house into a stress-free environment like a small classroom, but my advice: anything a parent can do that allows their children to do it themselves will lead to more moments of zen!
Kristen: Patience is my biggest challenge as well. A lot of coffee helps! I take deep breaths or I walk away and have a mental talk with myself. Looking at the children play and reminiscing on their growth and happiness brings me zen. I also have a gratitude journal I do every morning to center me for the day and to put out into the universe good energy.
What’s your philosophy in life? Do you have rules or ideologies you live by?
Erica: My personality definitely leans on the optimistic side. It is my hope that when you give good in the world, good comes back to you. As each day progresses, I always hope to continue practicing the mindset to remain in the present moment, be without unhealthy attachments, offer compassion, and remain authentic and truthful. I live by the maintenance of mind, body, and soul. I also think everyone should find their “ikigai”--the thing that you live for, your purpose. The Montessori method is wonderful for that exact reason; it encourages children to find their ikigai, and there is nothing more beautiful than to see a child with purpose. Everyone needs purpose.
Kristen: My philosophy is to find and follow your passion.
You can’t go through life worried about what everyone else is going to think.
Making a living isn’t the same thing as making a life.
You’re in charge of your own happiness.
You aren’t defined by your circumstances you’re defined by how you come out of them.
How you treat others who can do nothing for you shows a lot about who you truly are.
You are the company you keep.
One of my favorite quotes to live by is:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world” -Ghandi
Apart from work, what do you do to Zen out and for fun?
Erica: I’d like to consider myself a Renaissance woman. One may say I have too many hobbies, but I like dabbling with many different topics because of all the wonderful things I always learn and the people I meet through doing those new hobbies. My go-to zen would be rock climbing/bouldering. Although physical exercise is a nice benefit from climbing, climbing for me is mostly about mental training. One must conquer the mind to motivate, to climb without fear, and take risk assessment into deliberate action. These are all mental challenges I face running a business and living my day to day life. I’m finding the more I learn to master my mind and live with intention, the happier I am.
Kristen: I enjoy cooking, hiking, kayaking, sewing, crafting, board games, and reading.
Who inspires you in life and what other life goals you’d like to achieve?
Erica: For me, it’s less about who inspires me, and more about what inspires me. I’m most driven by my eagerness to make deeper and more permanent change within my corner of society. Each day I see people trying to create solutions to solve behaviors when really, we should be creating solutions to solving the causes of the behaviors. The Montessori method follows this exact reasoning with children, and I think we could apply these principles to our broader adult society. For longer-term goals, I would like to find ways to apply the Montessori method to larger societal problems that currently feel intractable.
Kristen: Gandhi and children inspire me.
Life goals- Travel to 30 countries, start a non-profit, write a book, open multiple schools, get married and have a beautiful family.
What do you think is the world’s biggest problem or struggle? How could we solve it or heal our planet and people in your opinion?
Erica: Although there are many topics that need addressing (climate change, for-profit prisons, political corruption, income inequality, overpriced healthcare), these can’t be addressed until something fundamentally changes within the people. This goes back to solving the cause of the problem and not just the behaviors. All of this to say our biggest problem or struggle is the lack of compassion being found in society. With the way things look, the majority of people have chosen to act in a way that only affects them, without thinking of how their actions or laws affect others. We already have incredible ideas for how to address climate change; we already see what income inequality leads to; we already see what happens when we don’t care for our sick, but the change doesn’t start with addressing any one particular subject—it starts with the individual. This mentality that “I am just one person and my choices can’t impact the big picture”, is what leads to such selfish actions in the first place, i.e. laziness in caring of the environment or passing laws that put great wealth ahead of society's well being. History has already shown us what can happen when we let societies act selfishly, but what hasn’t changed in society is the people. Until we all have more compassion for one another and our planet, no great idea will be successful in solving the problems we need to solve most.
Kristen: I can’t choose just one. My top 3 would be global warming, poverty, and world peace. We should be educating children on how to care for our earth because we only have one. We can reduce our carbon footprint by reducing, reusing, and recycling. I could write pages about what we can do to reduce poverty and world peace. To sum it up if we had a better education system we could have a better planet. All comes down to children.
What advice or words of wisdom could you share with anyone out there whom would love to do what you do and live the life that you do? Especially for the younger generation.
Erica: Find your ikigai! Life is short, and it’s important to pursue your passions with the time you have. Finally, I’d say to always pursue your endless curiosities:
“Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren’t you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind — to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity.”- Albert Einstein
Kristen: Take that leap of faith and believe in yourself. Surround yourself with a positive group of people who you can learn from and vice versa. Nothing lasts forever so make all the mistakes that you possibly can when you’re young. Everything in life is either a lesson learned or blessing in disguise.
Thank you so much for sharing your life with us all!