Former head of UWRF Montessori program receives top honor

Posted February 8, 2017

The former director of the graduate level Montessori Teacher Education Program at UW-River Falls has been awarded a top honor in her field of teaching.

Gay Ward, professor emerita, in December received the Dennis Schapiro Award for Innovation in Montessori Teacher Education. The award was presented by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education.

Ward said it meant a great deal to her, but she views the accolade as a group award.

“I see it as an award to the whole program. All of us put in hours and hours and hours,” Ward said, describing her faculty and administrator’s work ethic.

In 2012, Ward created the Montessori teacher education program at UWRF. Ward said it was the right time to start the program.

“We had the support of the university,” said Ward. “Timing is just so critical. We had teachers looking for other avenues in graduate (studies), and we have have incredible need for trained Montessori teachers in this whole area.”

The program’s popularity has steadily increased each year. The program has more than 30 students and continues to see growth. However, if Ward would alter something, she said she would add an undergraduate program to go along with the graduate program.

Not only did Ward create the program at UWRF, she also helped to start the River Falls Public Montessori Elementary. Once again, the timing was right.

“We had a lot of parents who really wanted a public school option. We had a private school in River Falls, but a lot of the parents couldn’t afford to keep their children in the private (school),” said Ward.

In the public school’s creation, Ward named Melina Papadimitriou the coordinator and only teacher of the school in its first year. Papadimitriou is now the program coordinator of the UWRF Montessori Teacher Education program. Ward and Papadimitriou have been working and innovating together since 2001. Papadimitriou said there have been many long nights working and emailing each other at 2 in the morning.

“She’s behind anything Montessori in River Falls,” said Papadimitriou. “This was her vision and she worked tremendous hours of day and nights. She’s not only an innovator, but she’s a person that inspires others to innovate and practice Montessori.”

River Falls Public Montessori Elementary Coordinator Nate Wells, who has worked with Ward quite a bit, said he sees the passion she exhibits with Montessori education.

“She has a good understanding of what a child is and what they are capable of,” Wells said. “The Montessori was focused on some academic things, but she was more about the whole child, and it was at a time when education was very industrialized. The model was almost a factory model. And I think Gay has a passion for that.”