Saigon’s growing Montessori International School of Vietnam is taking a different approach to educating both local and expat students. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photo by Vinh Dao.

Even though it’s been years since she took a test, Ann Beloeuvre still has nightmares about failing her exams. Now a teacher herself, the founder of Saigon’s Montessori International School of Vietnam recalls the immense pressure she and her peers received from both teachers and parents.

“Throughout my schooling, from the very beginning to university, I was an excellent student,” she recalls. “But it was always so hard.” Naturally studious, Beloeuvre received encouragement and respect from her teachers, however she also felt the stress of parental expectations and student rivalry weighing down on her. “Growing up with pressure from exams all my life, I just realised there should be some other way to educate kids.”

Between teachers who are overworked and underpaid, classes packed wall-to-wall with students and the strict rote learning methods used in public schools, it’s no secret that Vietnam’s education system could use a makeover. But while traditional Western-style international schools and early education centres have afforded both expat and local parents alike an alternative to public schools, Beloeuvre’s Montessori centre is turning both students and parents onto the benefits of non-traditional education.

Conceived by turn-of-the-century Italian physician and educator Dr Maria Montessori, the Montessori method takes a different approach to early childhood education, focusing on the interests of the child rather than a teacher-centric curriculum. First introduced in Rome in 1907, Montessori’s educational philosophies have since spawned a global network of schools in which teachers “follow the child,” allowing each individual student to learn at his or her own pace.

“As long as they’re focusing on what they’re doing, we follow their interests,” explains Quynh Nguyen, one of Montessori Vietnam’s teachers-in-training. Though she’s only been with the school for a few months, Quynh, who worked for years in Western-style preschools and language centres, has come around to the Montessori method, though she was apprehensive at first.

“My first impression when I walked in the classroom was ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to be in here,’” she recalls. “It just looks wooden.” The materials in a Montessori classroom are not what you’d expect, particularly coming from what Quynh calls a play-based school, or more traditional Western-style centre. Each object has a very specific purpose, from the coloured beads used for math to the sandpaper letters mounted on wooden tiles, which children use to learn the alphabet.

Though some parents regard non-traditional methods like these with skepticism, ample evidence of Dr Montessori’s influence remain today. For instance, the child-sized furniture you might find in a typical Western preschool was first introduced by Montessori herself. Though many schools are based in North America and Europe, their popularity continues to grow around the world, not only in Asia but also Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, too. Beloeuvre’s Montessori centre in Vietnam opened in 2007 and is the only one in Saigon affiliated with the American Montessori Society, one of Montessori’s two accreditation bodies.

For Beloeuvre, opening a school in Vietnam had long been a dream of hers. After university, she worked in a series of education jobs, first as an English teacher at a local high school and then as an instructor at a language centre, however neither seemed to suit her.

“Because of the disagreement with the way education, especially education content and education approach, were applied in Vietnam, I could never teach long in public schools,” Beloeuvre says. Eventually, she left the teaching world for advertising, met her husband and had a daughter. Though she still wished to stay in teaching, her frustrations with the country’s education system made her feel as though she was fighting an uphill battle.

And then one day, while living in Beijing, a friend mentioned that a Montessori campus would be built in their neighbourhood. With her daughter nearing school age, Beloeuvre decided to learn more. After researching on her own, Beloeuvre saw a Montessori classroom for the first time – clean, neat, a little unorthodox but intriguing – and her first thought was, “This is what I’m going to do.”

Over the coming years, she volunteered at the school, where Beloeuvre managed to enroll her daughter, and eventually completed her own Montessori qualifications. Upon returning to Vietnam, Beloeuvre finally earned their approval in 2007 and the Montessori International School of Vietnam opened its doors to a small number of students, most of whom had parents already familiar with the Montessori method. The following year, word-of-mouth spread and more children enrolled, and so the process has continued over the years.

“Now, half [of the parents] know [about Montessori] before they come, half don’t,” explains Beloeuvre. Her students are primarily expat kids, though a few Vietnamese parents have expressed interest. Generally speaking, Beloeuvre says, local parents who come to the school tend to be more informed on the principles of Montessori than some of the curious foreign parents, as they have spent time researching online and reading up on the method. Still, however, the Vietnamese parents are often skeptical.

Despite this fact, Quynh believes that Montessori education has the potential to make both local parents and students happy. “[Montessori] would fit really well into Vietnamese parents’ expectations,” she says. For instance, Vietnamese children are often placed in extra study courses, sometimes even before Grade 1, as parents fear that their child will fall behind his or her peers in class. However Montessori students are often known for their exceptional math and writing skills and, in fact, tend to be more advanced than many of their classmates.

Due to the size of Beloeuvre’s school, classes remain geared toward younger learners, ranging from six months to six years old, however next year is set to be an important one as the school opens its first year of Lower Elementary courses for students aged six to nine. Typically, Montessori’s six-year-old students must leave the centre at the end of the school year and transition to another school, generally an international facility, which is much bigger, louder and different from what they are used to. Though the new level wasn’t originally part of the plan, Beloeuvre chose to incorporate it at the request of several parents whose kids were about to head off to international school.

Beloeuvre acknowledges that this can be a difficult time for a student as he or she slips from the quiet classrooms of Montessori to much louder and more social groups in school, however she is pleased to see her older students staying on and hopes to expand the program even further as the years progress.

“Most parents have this ‘face the world’ attitude,” she says. “But [the children] have to feel secure. They have to feel happy as long as possible. Why take that away?”