Montessori in Chile — interview with Bernardita Jensen

Entrepreneurship and Montessori Education

Berna 1Bernardita Jensen is founder and rectora of the Pucalán Montessori School in Colina, Chile. Before founding Pucalán Montessori, Jensen studied at the Houston Montessori Center and founded three other Montessori Schools in Chile. We met with Jensen to discuss her passion for education and the Montessori method.

Kaizen: Where in Chile were you born?

Jensen: In Santiago, but I lived in southern Chile in my childhood and adolescence in Temuco. It’s beautiful and similar to western Canada.

Kaizen: Chilean Patagonia.

Jensen: Yes, near Patagonia. As a young child, I lived on a farm in a beautiful place with trees, volcanoes, and lakes. It was marvelous.

Kaizen: What was your education like?

Jensen: My schooling was traditional. Nevertheless, for me the farm environment was very important, and my mother had a significant role in my education. She gave me more confidence. She was a very creative woman. In my childhood I played a lot, read a lot, imagined a lot, and dreamed a lot.

Kaizen: Was it a small town or big town?

Jensen: It was a small town.

Kaizen: And so your formal education was traditional Chilean schooling?

Jensen: Yes, it was a typical traditional education; with very little space for personal initiative. However, in high school I had a very fantastic teacher who was Japanese. His name is Josuke Kuramochi. My life changed with this teacher.

Kaizen: What did he teach?

Jensen: Spanish literature.

Kaizen: And you were reading a lot, so you were the right student for that class and that teacher?

Jensen: Exactly.

Kaizen: You say it was life-changing. In what way? When you were a girl, were you thinking that you would become a teacher or go to university?

Jensen: My life was changed because he was a teacher who truly knew me and helped me to develop a deep sensitivity. He helped me learn to love reading and also brought out in me leadership skills. I learned from him to love what I do. I also learned diversity from him, being the open and accepting person he is.

When I was a girl, I liked education and psychology. I’m not sure, but I think I studied education because of the influence that my teacher had on my life.

Kaizen: And what age were you when you took the course with him?

Jensen: I was seventeen.

Kaizen: In that time, were you thinking about becoming a teacher?

Jensen: Though I wasn’t sure I would be a teacher, I had by that point begun thinking about teaching. My passion was always to work with people, even better with children or adolescents.

Kaizen: Did you go to university immediately?

Jensen: Yes, in Santiago at the Catholic University. I studied psychology for two years and studied education for four years.

Kaizen: And you graduated with a diploma that enabled you to become a teacher?

Jensen: Yes.

Montessori-School (16)Kaizen: Did you at this point have any work experience other than on the farm?

Jensen: I had, as a young adult, some experience working as a volunteer in areas of social work.

Kaizen: Did you immediately become a teacher after finishing university in Santiago?

Jensen: Yes, and I also began to study Montessori education in Santiago and then in Mexico. I was simultaneously working and studying: both in the field of education.

Kaizen: How did you first hear about Montessori?

Jensen: At the university. In a methodology course, I had to study a current pedagogy and, by happenstance, the topic that chose me was Montessori education. I had been intuitively drawn to Montessori studies and had even found a book by Maria Montessori in the library and had resonated with it.

Kaizen: Completely independently?

Jensen: Yes. I found that book and read it—and then I read all Montessori books in the library every day.

Kaizen: Were the ideas in Montessori similar or different to your formal education for teaching?

Jensen: Completely different. Despite amazing and sincere professors, my university courses on pedagogy weren’t true for me but Montessori changed all that.

Kaizen: So you wanted to be a teacher, but you didn’t like what you were being taught and you were looking for other alternatives.

Jensen: Yes. I loved the kids but not the curriculum in university.

Kaizen: You said you got some formal Montessori training in Santiago. Where?

Jensen: Exactly, I studied in Centro de Estudios Montessori Chile with Mexican or North American teachers who came to Chile to teach us. This would have been in the early ‘90s.

Kaizen: And then you went to Mexico for further training?

Jensen: That’s right.

Kaizen: There is a formal certification process for Montessori?

Jensen: Yes. In the United States I studied for three years. I travelled during my vacations in the summer program to the Houston Montessori Center. I studied in the middle- and high-school program there.

Kaizen: Your interest as a teacher was at the high-school level primarily?

Jensen: Somewhat. I did study the Montessori Method for elementary and middle school as well as high school students. My interest, more than a specific age, was to see the complete development of the child. I understood from this that Montessori is not just a method but an educational philosophy.

Kaizen: So you were working in Santiago and self-studying Montessori and then going for formal training as well. How many years altogether did this take from

university to the time you finished your training in Houston?

Jensen: I studied at university from 1984 to 1990. From 1990 to 1995 I worked and studied Montessori. I studied in Houston from 1999 to 2003.

Kaizen: That’s a long time. During all of that time when you were working were you teaching in a high school in Santiago?

Jensen: No, first I taught upper elementary, ages nine to twelve. And then I studied the adolescent program and worked with adolescents. Before the current Puculan School, I co-established three other Montessori schools in Santiago.

Kaizen: When did you start your first Montessori school?

Jensen: In 1991.

Kaizen: Soon after finishing university. Who were your partners?

Jensen: Elena Young. She had a solid background in Montessori for young children, after having studied in the United States. She was an important woman in Chile promoting Montessori education. Elena and I formed one of the first Montessori school in Santiago: Huelquen Montessori School.

Kaizen: Were other people involved?

Jensen: Yes, there were three other teachers. It was very small. There were only twenty students in a little house with no back yard for play, so we would go to the town square for recess and the children would climb the trees, play hide-and-seek and other games.

Kaizen: You said you founded three schools. Did the first one fail?

Jensen: No, it’s still operating. I took time off because I had my first child. And then I formed the other schools with other people: the second was formed in conjunction with the Boy Scouts. Are you familiar with Boy Scouts? Montessori and Boy Scouts—they have ideas that work quite well together.

Kaizen: Starting chapters and different troops?

21Jensen: Yes, with the Chilean Association of Boy Scouts.

Kaizen: So you started one in Santiago, and that was successful. Then you had your child and took a year off before starting your second one.

Jensen: Yes, exactly. I was also always studying and deepening my understanding of Montessori education.

Kaizen: Who were your partners for your second one?

Jensen: I started the second school with Paola Bianchi. She was another Montessori teacher, who had studied Montessori for elementary age children with the AMI in the United States.

Kaizen: Was this school similar to the first with just a few teachers?

Jensen: Yes, it was the same.

Kaizen: And how long before you started the third one?

Jensen: Three years.

Kaizen: Same story? The second school was also successful so you started a third one?

Jensen: Yes, pretty much. I moved from Santiago to a more rural area outside of the city. And there the parents knew me and asked me to start a new Montessori school there.

Kaizen: Did you have any special challenges with attracting students?

Jensen: Not really. Young families found Montessori attractive: connection with nature, an interest in healthy lifestyles, etc. Apart from this, most of these young families in this small rural area knew each other and were interested in keeping their community tightly knit.

Kaizen: Yet you were starting the first Montessori schools in Chile—what did they know about Montessori?

Jensen: Montessori is new in Chile. However, traditional education has been in crisis for some time and it has been a great moment to encourage and speak about the benefits of Montessori. Families are interested in holistic development, individual development, emotional development, in diversity and respect toward the environment: the fundamentals of Montessori, even if the name “Montessori” is new. The parents listened to me speaking passionately about this new model of education and, as they were also looking for something new, the response was overwhelming.

Kaizen: So you are a credible person and you are passionate about it and you speak about it well.

Parents also look at the expense. Traditional schooling is “free” because it is covered by tax money, and at your school they pay tuition?

Jensen: Yes, and it is not cheap. However, the system in Chile is such that, even traditional schools are not free. The public schools are the only ones covered by tax money and they are considered very low-level.

Kaizen: For young families starting out, it likely looks expensive. So you attract parents who are very committed to their children’s education, and if they think it’s good they will find a way to pay for it.

Jensen: Yes. We have even seen some families that choose the school and then decide to move here due to it being the right choice for their children.

Kaizen: So you now have started two schools in Santiago and one in Colina?

Jensen: I have actually started two schools in Colina. The name of the first school in Colina is Rayen Mahuida. I started this school with the other people for profit. It’s a beautiful school which we designed with an architect.

Kaizen: You designed it from the ground up? So you are not starting in a house now?

Jensen: That’s right. This was the first school where we bought the land, and worked with a team to design and build it. It was a fabulous project: the school was specifically designed for Montessori education. For three years I worked with these people, but then I broke away from this group because my vision was different from theirs. For me, education should be non-profit, and the school was for profit and, due to this, our relationship was broken.

Kaizen: Was the divide was solely about mission and money issues?

Jensen: Yes, exactly. I broke away from this organization, and the parents told me to start a new school again.

Kaizen: How would you describe the business organization of the new one? Is it a cooperative or a non-profit trust or foundation?

Jensen: Yes, that’s how Pucalan was founded; it is a private non-profit foundation. The board is made up of parents, and my work is with the parents, and sometimes it’s not easy.

Kaizen: As the rectora?

Jensen: That’s correct.

Montessori-School (13)Kaizen: The new school is called Pucalán and is north of Santiago. What year did you start it?

Jensen: Yes, it started in 2000 in a lovely building we rented in the area which had been a horse stable that we remodeled and used for 12 years.

Kaizen: You still have expenses to pay and a new facility. Is everything paid for out of tuition or did you have to do financing with banks?

Jensen: The operation of the school is financed by tuition. Three years ago, we bought a new space and built a new building, which was financed by a bank but is thankfully no longer a rented space.

Kaizen: How many students?

Jensen: 550.

Kaizen: How many teachers?

Jensen: 95.

Kaizen: About one teacher per every five students. How many administrative staff?

Jensen: 12.

Kaizen: You are the rectora, and your board is made up of parents??

Jensen: Yes, mostly parents.

Kaizen: Do you have other people on the board of other expertise?

Jensen: Different expertises but not in education. We have architects, lawyers, psychologists, and so on.

Kaizen: What is the cost of tuition for parents?

Jensen: 300,000 Chilean pesos per month, which is about $430.00 US Dollars.

Kaizen: And a school year is how many months?

Jensen: Ten.

Kaizen: So the cost for a year would be 3,600,000 Chilean pesos. What is the current exchange rate for U.S. dollars?

Jensen: Right now, the exchange rate is about 690 pesos per dollar. The annual tuition in dollars would be about $5,200.00 per year.

Kaizen: Did you have any problems with regulations starting a private school?

Jensen: Yes, especially in the beginning. The national curriculum is required for any new school. It’s a very strict and linear curriculum based on cognitive skills based on memorizing information, which is quite different from Montessori. Montessori is a holistic structure which is more concerned about learning processes rather than just information. The emphasis is not only cognitive in the Montessori model, but also social and emotional integration of the child. Breaking away from a very traditional system, we have had a great deal of success and have, over time, gained more respect from the community. In fact, many Schools of Education have requested to come and observe our school, as this new system is becoming more attractive.

Kaizen: You’ve done this several times. Did it get easier each time?

Jensen: No, it didn’t get easier. Of course, I had more experience but the conditions were still such that it was, each time, quite challenging. I learned to develop more confidence each time and understand the system better but the system hasn’t radically changed.

Kaizen: What challenges stand out aside from the amount of paperwork?

Jensen: One of the most interesting challenges of Montessori is that it is not only an educational system; Montessori requires a certain ethic, community involvement, a radically different paradigm than the individualistic society we’re used to. This can be difficult to sustain over time, as each member must commit fully to this paradigm in order for the project to work. Overall, this is the greatest challenge and beauty of Montessori: it is a way of life.

Kaizen: So when you are applying for the permits, it doesn’t translate well to what the education establishment is looking for. How do you get past the hurdles?

Jensen: To a certain degree, we haven’t fully overcome all the hurdles. We submit to the most essential regulations imposed by the educational establishment, but these regulations don’t necessarily impede our work as Montessori educators. In a way, we are still running risks by doing what we do, yet ultimately, the results speak for themselves.

Kaizen: So after you’ve done the Montessori schools and you have a track record and can show that it is working, then it becomes easier. But at the beginning you would have to be convincing government officials.

Jensen: Yes. The results we’ve had have been very positive. This is primarily because many of our students that we have by the time they are in high school have strong leadership skills, a critical awareness of their environment, and many of our graduates have gone on to entrepreneurial pursuits in the areas of their interest.

Kaizen: Are there any other kinds of regulatory challenges that you face?

Jensen: No, because the standard is higher in Montessori schools. Furthermore, we have generally had great results on the standardized tests that dictate the regulatory requirements, which is typically all that the government officials look at.

Montessori-School (8)Kaizen: When you are talking to parents, what do you tell them about why you believe Montessori is right for their child?

Jensen: I talk about freedom and educating the whole person—emotional, personality, spirituality, and the social aspect—not only cognition. This is an important point for parents. Education involves thought process and emotion, as well as spirituality, and our spirituality program is very significant in the school; not a religion program exclusively but a spirituality program. I also speak to them about the parallels between the Montessori Method and today’s scientific discoveries about how we learn as humans.

Kaizen: So you emphasize the freedom element—the uniqueness of each child—and being well-rounded. You grew up on a farm, and Montessori herself liked agricultural education. Do you incorporate that into your schooling?

Jensen: Yes, there is a lot of hands-on experience. We have a tree nursery which the children look after and will then plant those same trees around the school. We also have gardens cared for by the children which were designed by a permaculture team. Do you know permaculture?

Kaizen: Yes, that you can do anywhere. That must have been a challenge in Santiago, a large urban area, earlier.

The other issues about responsibility—learning household things, cleaning up after yourself, and these kinds of things—how do you teach that in your school?

Jensen: It is very important to teach responsibility for their actions. The students clean the school and put the materials in order. This is the first step to responsibility. And this idea is also very important to the parents. This is a revolutionary idea in the school because it seems a waste of time to let the child labor over cleaning up their space, but lost time is not lost time. They can learn a lot. When the children learn these skills and responsibilities, they feel more involved in the community – they feel a stronger sense of belonging. In fact, some of our high school students, in a community service program, will build a playground on our school grounds for use by the younger students.

Kaizen: I visited your new campus for Pucalán school in Colina last year. It was built in 2013?

Jensen: Yes.

Kaizen: It is huge and impressive. When did you decide to build the new campus?

Jensen: In 2008 I started thinking about it, because the rented campus was old and very expensive. I had the experience of seeing many beautiful Montessori schools in the United States, Mexico, Italy, Spain, and New Zealand which inspired me to consider designing our own school here.

Kaizen: So you chose the best of everything that you liked?

Jensen: Yes, I was inspired by the best parts of all that I saw and we then had to adapt to our reality. We chose a spiral form, relating to the cyclical development of the individual. This is comprised of 8 large modules. Each module is a space for each stage of development as described by Montessori as well as an additional module for Music and Art.

Kaizen: And with a successful school running and a supportive board you were able to build your ideal school?

Jensen: Yes, but it was not easy.

Kaizen: So you had more financing to do and an architect to work with?

Jensen: Yes, I worked with an architect from Sweden. The design of the school was very important. The students and the parents and teachers had input in the design of the school. It was a community project, really.

Kaizen: How did you choose this architect from Sweden?

Jensen: He is a Swedish architect but he has lived in Chile for some time. He is well-versed in indoor and outdoor space design as well as sustainable design. This was what we found most attractive about working with him.

Kaizen: The school’s land has several acres.

Jensen: Yes, five hectares, which is 50,000m². This translates, I believe, to just over 10 acres.

Kaizen: That’s substantial, and you have about eight pod-like buildings built in a nautilus-like spiral shape. It is very organic and flowing, and with a large central courtyard area.

Jensen: Yes, it is a peace garden, still under construction.

Kaizen: And then in the outlying areas you have a gymnasium and play fields.

Jensen: That’s right.

Kaizen: You had the idea in 2008. When did you start building?

Jensen: 2011, and the construction lasted two years.

Kaizen: When I saw it in September of 2014, everything was operational but you still had some landscaping to do. And you said over 500 students?

Jensen: Yes, well, 550.

Kaizen: You are still young, so what do you have planned for the future?

Jensen: I want to start a school of education to prepare Montessori teachers in Chile. If there is no preparation for Montessori teachers here, the whole Montessori system will be very vulnerable.

Kaizen: Will that be in Colina?

Jensen: Right, the idea is to be centered in Colina, as it’s absolutely necessary to teach by doing; to use Pucalan as a “living laboratory” of education. To be centered in Colina doesn’t necessarily mean disconnected from the rest of the world—we also want to link with other schools for Montessori teachers around the world.

Kaizen: Will this require new buildings and a new location?

Jensen: Not necessarily. This could possibly be an addition on the same school grounds.

Kaizen: You will bring them to your campus for on-site training?

Jensen: That’s exactly the idea. It is fundamental for teachers to experiment in different environments. They need to be trained by experience and not only theory.

Kaizen: Do you have relationships with the formal Montessori organizations internationally?

22Jensen: Yes, with the American Montessori Society. This is because my training was in the United States in a Montessori school for teachers founded by the AMS. Our school is not accredited by the AMS, yet we do have the connection to them due to my background.

Kaizen: I understand there is a split between different camps of Montessori.

Jensen: Yes, there is AMS and AMI. AMI is European, while the AMS is American. There are some differences between the two but I see these differences more in execution than principle.

Kaizen: You have been a serial entrepreneur, as we say, in the field of education. What has been the most rewarding thing to you about being an entrepreneur in education?

Jensen: I love creating jobs for other people—and significant jobs. It is very important. The people respond very well when working with big ideas. I love creating work for other people, not just for me. I also love creating a community, as I believe wholeheartedly in community work. Ultimately, though, the reward is watching children grow into confident, compassionate and peace-making adults.

Kaizen: Over the years what has been the most frustrating thing for you?

Jensen: It is not easy to work with the parents. Working with the children is very easy. The problem with the adults is because they are focused on results and not the process. Also, as I stated earlier, Montessori requires a lot of commitment. There are occasions where some teachers don’t want to spend the time doing inner work that will make them good Montessori guides. The commitment in doing this inner work is not a very popular idea in our culture and there can be conflicts on account of this.

Kaizen: So that is many conversations?

Jensen: Of course, there is much conflict-resolution every day, but it is vital. It is part of the community building. This involves the teachers and the parents, really the whole community, and it is important to sustain these conversations with everyone.

Kaizen: When people talk about entrepreneurship, there is often difficulty even if you are passionate about what you do. There are frustrating problems, you have to be able to visualize new things and have good communication skills to make your vision real to others. Also, you have to persevere. What character traits seem to you to be the most important to become a successful entrepreneur?

Jensen: There is not just one. There are many characteristics, but perseverance with confidence and balance. You have to believe in the idea and have courage and love. Finally, self-discipline is also very important.

Kaizen: When you say love, is that the same as passion?

Jensen: Yes, I use them synonymously and this requires an inner burning energy.

Kaizen: You have to master yourself.

Jensen: Yes. I must learn before I can begin to teach anyone else. I practice meditation and sometimes fight with my ego.

Kaizen: To return to your own education: In many cases, traditional education is rote-learning and uniform, and the students are disengaged. That doesn’t help them become entrepreneurs, so what made you different? Is there anything that helped you become entrepreneurial when you were a girl?

Jensen: Well, not everything can be explained in a completely rational way. But, things like autonomy are very important and believing in your personal characteristics and making dreams. My family always encouraged a high level of autonomy alongside taking good care of each other. I had a great deal of space to dream, as well. Dreams are not always logical and they are very mysterious. Nevertheless, the most important characteristics I was able to develop were autonomy, confidence, self-discipline and having room for mistakes.

Kaizen: Suppose you were to give advice to other teachers who are young and perhaps dissatisfied with their teacher training. Or perhaps they are working at schools and don’t find it fulfilling, and they are thinking of starting their own schools. What advice would you give to them?

Jensen: Create a community. Don’t work alone, work together. Develop empathy and listen. Again, most importantly, create community. It is not possible alone.

Kaizen: If you’re a teacher, does create community mean having relationships with people who have financing or parents or other teachers and people who will form a network and will help you start the school of your dreams?

Jensen: Right, any project like this, needs to be founded in community. Everyone is learning by growing together and working together. This must be interdependent work—everyone is contributing to the original dream.

Kaizen: Thank you, what a good story your career is.

Jensen: Thank you.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.

Read more Kaizen interviews with leading entrepreneurs.

© 2015 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.

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