In January 2016 Cornelia Tosch and Bilal Ojjeh took over the Montessori school with just 11 students enrolled. Today Deux Mille Feuilles have 72 students! Read all about their story in the interview below.
Thank you to Bilal and Conny for their time and insight into the 2Mille Feuilles Montessori school of La Rippe.
LIN: Could you tell me a little more about how you decided to take on the adventure of running the school together?
BO: Both Conny and I had our children at the previous school in La Rippe and we were really happy with the school and the education they were receiving. To our surprise we learnt at the end of 2015 that the school was due to close as it was going bankrupt. After some discussions and quick decision making, we decided to join forces and take over the school in order to keep it running. In a record time of four weeks we managed to get our business approved, communicate with the parents and get the school ready to open again. We had 11 children enrolled when we opened, three of which were our own!
CT: It really was a leap of faith, we didn’t know each other that well before deciding to work together but I can’t imagine a better partner. We’re very complementary in our way of thinking. We both combine the human side with the professional side and through different thinking processes, come up with the same solutions.
LIN: A great match to bring the project to life in such a short time! What made you want to take on the running of a Montessori school, beyond liking the education your children were receiving?
CT: I was already working at the old school on a voluntary basis. I knew a lot of the parents and how things were being done. I was quite involved in the running of it and enjoyed it a lot. The idea of expanding on it made sense to me and it felt like the perfect opportunity.
BO: I have always wanted to be involved with something in this space. It has to do with my professional background as a career coach. I saw the opportunity in working with children for it to be done right from the start.
LIN: Soon after re-opening, 11 students became 36 within the space of a few months! Most parents visiting the school, were signing up their children. According to you, what allowed for this success?
BO: We are so passionate about the school and the concept. Parents simply feel that. When they take the decision to leave their young children somewhere, it’s about WHO will be in charge of their children and do they trust those people? Seeing us on one hand, with such a strong belief and passion in the education system we have, and on the other hand, having our own children in the school, gave them the trust they were looking for.
We also take a very holistic approach to learning. For example, it’s not just in the classroom, but we pay careful attention to the meals and the food we use. We have also an electric bus to transport the children.
LIN: The Montessori approach is something we covered in an earlier article. Could you tell me a little more about what it means to you specifically?
BO: Children are born with a natural curiosity, with creativity and love. That’s not something we have to teach them. Our role is to nurture that and to help them preserve their self-love. It’s like writing a poem. You have to learn the Alphabet. You’re not going to invent new letters, you have to use the letters that already exist. But within that context, you are free to create any type of poem you want. That’s how we approach learning here.
CT: Children get to be very independent here because everything is set up for them to be as autonomous as possible. Our teachers act as guides that are present, in a prepared environment, to support the children. Our objective is that in their early years, the 3-6 age group, they learn to “do it themselves”. Then later in the elementary class, the 6-12 age group, they learn to “think for themselves” – find their own solutions and build synthesis, etc.
LIN: So there is a lot of freedom in the teaching style.
BO: Yes there is. But sometimes the Montessori approach can be seen as having no rules. That is not the case at all, we have some strict rules, but they are there with specific psychology behind them.
For example, we have a lot of different sensory materials for the children to play with. But we only have one of each. If a child wants to play with one that is already being used, they have to wait their turn until the other child is finished with it. This teaches them respect and self-control.
The notion of work is also very important to us. To create something, develop it and then take pride in the result. And not to be scared of failing or trying something different.
Children have to be free to question, but for them to feel comfortable doing that they first have to have a strong foundation of self-belief and self-love. If not the questioning process is destabilising.
LIN: Could you give an example of how this teaching impacts a child’s life – beyond school?
BO: Yes! I have a great example from my own son who is in the 6-12 age group. That’s really where you see how big a difference it makes in their lives. It’s when they start to capitalise, more consciously, on their learnings.
My son was frustrated at something that had happened with a friend of his and felt uncomfortable about it. After a while, he told his mother, “I need 10 minutes alone to think”. He sat on the balcony, meditated, and came back 10 minutes later, calm. He had managed to transform his own mindset very quickly and independently….. I wish I could do that!
LIN: So this takes us back to the beginning, whereby they acquire tools as a child that will serve them as adults. The same ones we spend a lot of time teaching ourselves as adults later on in life!
BO: Exactly. Montessori is well known for the 3-6 ages, but I believe very strongly in the 6-12 age groups because they take the learnings to a much higher level.
We have a very strong academic program, especially maths and languages. But the huge difference is in their general understanding of life and people. Everything is learnt through stories and put within the context of each other. Topics aren’t isolated and taught in silos. They see therefore how learning about the subject relates to them and their own lives, which is one of the issues with traditional teaching where the children don’t understand why they need to be learning about history for example.
LIN: Thank you so much Conny and Bilal for the interview!