Tribute to Dr Nicola Chisnall (1955-2013)

21 April 2017 • Awards

Dr Nicola Chisnall died after a two-year battle with cancer. Her funeral was held in Auckland, New Zealand on September 24, 2013. Nicky and her family wanted her funeral service to highight the different parts of her life.  This tribute about her outstanding contribution to Montessori education was made by Ana Pickering, former executive officer of Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tena koutou katoa,

I am greatly honoured to have been asked by Nicky, Dave, Jenny and Alistair to describe the contribution that Nicky has made to Montessori early childhood education. This tribute is made on behalf of the Montessori community in New Zealand, many of whom are here today.

I believe there are few people worldwide who can articulate with any authority the relevance of Montessori education in the 21st century. Nicky Chisnall was one of these rare people – she combined her practical experiences as a teacher with academic rigour to reveal new understandings about a century-old educational philosophy and she posed ideas that challenge all educators who care about enhancing the status of children.

Nicky first heard about Montessori education in London in the 1970’s and on her return to home she met some young children who attended a Montessori preschool in Palmerston North. She was curious about the way these children were able to concentrate, so went to the library and found some books by Dr Montessori and in this way her own journey in the Montessori world began.

In 1982, she became involved as a parent in one of the first Montessori preschools in Wellington and she and Dave were both involved in the establishment of Wa Ora Montessori School in Lower Hutt which opened in 1988. Nicky was one of the first teachers at the school.

In 1995 she decided to open her own Montessori early childhood centre and her interest in the connection between Montessori education and peace was reflected in the name that she chose – Rangimarie Montessori Children’s House.

As Nicky learnt more about Montessori and became more experienced with children, she discovered that Dr Montessori’s ideas on peace, justice and community resonated deeply with her. Nicky’s first degree had been in social sciences and in her first job she had been involved in research for the NZ Council of Social Services.

In 1999, Nicky decided to enrol in a Masters of Education at Victoria University of Wellington and she was excited to get back into the world of research. Her Master’s thesis was completed in 2002 and reflected on the revival of Montessori education in New Zealand from the mid-1970’s. She interviewed founders of Montessori centres and observed children in classroom settings to discover how teachers in New Zealand interpreted Montessori philosophy in belief and practice. The challenge she posed in her Master’s thesis was whether Montessorians in New Zealand were ‘darning old cloth’ or engaging in the creative process of weaving a ‘new pattern in the Montessori whariki’ or mat.

In a career that already included many ‘firsts’, in 2002 Nicky was appointed to AUT University and began a Montessori specialty degree. Nicky was responsible for writing and delivering the degree and for creating a place for Montessori within the university.

When Nicky began her research for her PhD she travelled to Europe to find sources of archival information in Italy, Amsterdam and the British Library in London. Nicky used critical theory to contextualise the socio-historical background of the Montessori movement and to examine the currency of Dr Montessori’s vision of social justice for the child and subsequent world peace. Her research revealed women like the suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst who were inspired by Dr Montessori, women who were also passionate about social justice for children. Nicky has discovered, researched and written in-depth about aspects of Montessori history not yet well known by the international Montessori community.

Another aspect to Nicky’s doctorate was her focus on teacher formation and she conducted case studies of the experiences of newly qualified teachers from the degree programme. She found that teachers who had experienced a Montessori teacher preparation that focused on critical reflection were able to continue to craft and refine their practice, retain their spiritual engagement with the children and use their theoretical knowledge to continually think of ways to give children further autonomy and agency.

Nicky discussed in her doctoral thesis the concept of a ‘framework for peace and social justice’. She believed that the elements in this Montessori framework are unique in their combination but valuable for all people: the dignity and respect that Montessori educators accord children; the mixed social setting which offers all sorts of relational learning; the authentic learning opportunities which are real, natural and sustainable; the freedom that allows children to make individual and group discoveries; and the gift of time to aid concentration and support problem solving.

Despite beginning what she described as her cancer journey – Nicky completed her thesis in late 2011 and graduated in 2012. Her achievement was celebrated by friends, family and colleagues around the world. An important aspect of the contribution that Nicky has made to Montessori in New Zealand has been her involvement with our national association, Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand or MANZ. In the last decade she has been a keynote speaker at all our national conferences. She first became involved in the mid-1980’s and said

‘I have always been a committee person – probably because of the community work background – I like to try and help others to succeed. Originally, I was concerned to help with the professional development of Montessori teachers – and later, I could see that we had to engage with the rest of the education community if we were to be taken seriously.’

Our professional community owes Nicky a huge debt for the respect with which Montessori education is viewed by the wider early childhood sector in New Zealand. Nicky’s research, her commitment to tertiary students, her quiet intellect, her diplomatic and respectful approach to all, have opened many minds and doors to Montessori education.

Her contribution is highlighted by Helen May, Professor of Education at Otago University, who was Nicky’s Masters supervisor and an examiner for her PhD.

‘Your contributions to the early childhood sector in this country are enormous: as a scholar and writer, researcher, teacher, teacher educator and political advocate. Working across all fronts has been necessary for the flourishing of ‘Montessori’ as something pertinent and relevant and unique to this country. You have contributed so much to the Montessori weaving of the early childhood whariki in Aotearoa- New Zealand’.

When I last saw Nicky, on August 28 she said to me ‘INNOVATE!’… and this has been her message to our professional community for many years. Her ideas have provided quiet guidance; Nicky’s approach has never been to ‘tell’ or to ‘direct’, but as a true Montessori educator, to led with courage and conviction, gently guide and to allow the discoveries to be our own. Two initiatives currently being undertaken by our national association can be linked directly to Nicky’s work.

She noted in her PhD that critical reflection on Montessori pedagogy will be enhanced by what she described as “a similar orientation in peers as they challenge and support each other in their reflections on practice” and she was also clear that Dr Montessori urged teachers to see our pedagogy as an ‘on-going work of observation and research’. This is the approach being taken in the current Montessori Journey to Excellence Pilot Programme, funded by MANZ and facilitated by Massey University. Nicky hoped that reflections shared between teachers would lead to a new vitality in the Montessori professional community and this is beginning to happen as pilot participants model a learning community, engaged in critical inquiry, supported and challenged by their peers.

What did Nicky want for the future of Montessori education? Last year she said:

‘Mostly I hope to see Montessori made available to all children from birth to adolescence – not because it provides a ‘quality education’ and a ‘profitable business’ but because we want to see the realisation of a better and more just society in Aotearoa New Zealand’.

It is this focus of her research that has provided the impetus for the second initiative by Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand – to focus on the social justice aspect of Montessori education. At a meeting in Auckland just last Saturday; a meeting that Nicky had helped to plan and had been looking forward to attending, a small group of Montessori teachers and educators began a focus on Montessori for Social Change.

I know that Nicky was very interested in both these initiatives and we regret so much that she is no longer here to guide us in this work.

Dave has asked our national association to work with him to set up an ongoing legacy – perhaps a scholarship for post-graduate research in Montessori education, which was such a passion for Nicky and we plan to start this work with him in November.

You may not have known Nicky in her many professional roles or understood the significance of the work she has achieved in her professional life. But I know that everyone here today understands love.

At our national conference in April, we honoured Nicky with the presentation of a book of tributes collected from friends, colleagues and students. At this presentation, I explained how I remembered that years ago Nicky highlighted the significance of the number of times the word ‘love’ appeared in Dr Montessori’s writings. Nicky had reminded teachers that ‘this is the task…to look at your school or centre and see how you have set it up to receive and use the energy of love’.

Whether you knew Nicky as a parent, a friend, a sibling, a cousin, a colleague, a teacher, a lecturer, a researcher, a supervisor, a patient or in whatever way you knew Nicky; I am sure you would agree that she exemplified how to use the energy of love … she took this key part of Montessori philosophy and embodied love in her daily life.

Nicky was a quiet person who provided us all with inspiration; not just by what she achieved but more importantly by who she was and how she lived her life. We all felt her love and it is for this reason that we have all come here today to remember and honour her.

Nicky – we will miss you in all the important roles you have played in our lives.

I would like to end with a karakia. In this blessing we thank Dr Montessori and all the people who have sustained Montessori in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Nicky – you have been one of these people and we will always think of you when we say this karakia together in the decades to come.

Kei konei tātau hei poipoi i ngā tamariki, rangatahi me ngā whānau
Kei te mihi ki a tākuta Montessori me ngā tāngata katoa i tautoko i Montessori i Aotearoa
Ka āwhina tātau i ngā kaiako ka tohu i ngā tamariki Ka ārahi i tēnei whenua rangimarie.

Nicky – Haere ra.

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