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Montessori Teacher Retires with May Fête

Lila Carusillo spent 30 years at Aquinas Montessori.

If one asks Lila Carusillo to talk about her career, she talks about Montessori. It seems appropriate then, to begin a description of Carusillo’s career with her own description of the education method that defined it.

“My definition of Montessori would be … total respect for the child as a unique individual,” explained Carusillo, who is retiring after thirty years of teaching at Aquinas Montessori School, a preschool through elementary private school on Mount Vernon Highway. “Children have this inner urge to become adults. From the time they’re born they’re imitating adults. We have to trust the child.” Montessori education stresses that children teach themselves to be adults by interacting with their environment, not by the lessons that adults try to impose on them.

“We didn’t teach the child the language,” said Carusillo. “The child learned it from the environment.” She urged parents to keep the child’s environment “cultural, beautiful, and clean,” and not to fill their heads with fantasy from fiction books and movies. “We want young children to learn the facts. We don’t want a lot of fantasy … Otherwise they can’t distinguish between fact and fantasy … They need to know the language and they need to help in the home and share in the home … We teach the child to know how to take care of themselves” tying shoes, wiping nose, wiping table. She said Aquinas uses real glass, not plastic because the school wants children to know that when they grow up, things will break, and carelessness has consequences. “If everything was plastic and bounced, we wouldn’t be teaching them the reality of life.”

IN KEEPING WITH this focus on personal responsibility for learning, the school does not have traditional class periods. “We don’t have forty minutes of math, forty minutes of language, that sort of thing,” said Carusillo. Children are allowed to work on whatever project interests them, as long as they are working on something. Students also stay with one teacher for three years. Older children are encouraged to help their younger classmates.

The school also does not send home any written homework. Rather, students are assigned to participate in the work of the home, such as setting the table or weeding the garden, so that each child will become “a participating member of the community,” said Carusillo. “Children who do those things are much more balanced than children who don’t.”

When asked what she loved most about Montessori education, Carusillo replied, “I love the simplicity, but the ingenuity, in the materials that [Maria Montessori] developed. And I love the faces of the children when they are using the materials and they say. ‘I get it. I see.’”

“Montessori is hands-on,” Carusillo explained. “The axiom that attracts me most to it is, ‘Never give more to the eye than the hand can hold.’”

Carusillo message of simplicity is exemplified by the Montessori materials that she believes should be the only adornments to every classroom. She cites the “pink tower,” as one Montessori icon. It is a stack of ten cubes, ascending in size from one centimeter to 10 centimeters. Children stack them. Carusillo said that non-Montessori imitations of the pink tower are less effective. “Manufacturers make cubes of other colors. But Montessori made it very simply because what she was teaching the child was dimensions … The purpose of the pink tower is to sensorally introduce the child to dimensions … She isolated what was taught.”

“I’ve always found Lila Carusillo to be extremely knowledgeable about Montessori materials and how far she can take [her students] with it,” said Celeste Baucom, an upper elementary (ages nine through 12) teacher at Aquinas who receives many of Carusillo’s lower elementary (six to nine year-old) students. “I found that when Lila sends up her children from her class … they come up with an insatiable love for math, across the genders … They gain academic satisfaction out the work they produce. They’re not interested in trying to impress their teacher and their peers.”

“She’s a gifted math teacher. All the children coming from her class not only know their math, they love their math,” said director Kathleen Futrell, who founded Aquinas in 1965 and hired Carusillo eleven years later.

CARUSILLO first heard about Montessori when she attended an address for members of a college honors society. Margaret Stephenson, one of the founders of Montessori in America, was addressing the group. “I was so impressed with what she said that it just kind of tucked in the back of my mind,” explains Carusillo.

Years later, she helped to found Henson Valley Montessori School in Camp Springs, Maryland, which is still thriving. She became certified in Primary and Elementary Montessori by attending two one-year courses at the Washington Montessori Institute, which has become incorporated into Loyola College. She sent her children to Montessori schools, and first encountered Aquinas Montessori when she decided to enroll her daughter there. The school offered her a job and she took it.

Carusillo’s grandchildren are now in Montessori schools, and Carusillo says that she is seeing second generation students at Aquinas, which has about the same number of students now, 150, as when she began teaching 30 years ago.

The biggest change, she said, has been in technology. “We have a lot of telephone extensions, computers. We have copiers. We had to add a room to accommodate all the new machinery. We used to have a person in the office who handled the ditto machine and answered the phone, and now we have about six people.”

She said she has also seen a change in parents’ reasons for enrolling their children. “When I first got involved in Montessori, people sent their children to Montessori because they knew what Montessori was. There was much more awareness of Montessori philosophy … In recent years … some people are just looking for a pre-school or for child-care and they hear that maybe this is a little bit more than your average daycare … So we have to do more parent-education.”

She said parents must also apply Montessori principles in their homes. One of the most important is, “Do not do for the child what the child can do for himself.” She decried overindulgence and inactivity. “Let them know the names of everything in the environment rather than sitting in front of a t.v.”

In her retirement, Carusillo plans to continue consulting for other Montessori schools and testing students at Loyola College’s Montessori program. She also wants to visit China and Egypt, see her grandchildren more often, and read history on the beach.