CEO

Ray Girn

Bio

Ray Girn

Ray Girn received an BSc with honors from the University of Toronto, with a focus on philosophy and neuropsychology, as well an Association Montessori Internationale teaching diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego.

Prior to founding Higher Ground, Ray had a 13-year career with LePort Schools. Working at LePort’s K-8 lab school, Ray helped lead a team of educators in architecting LePort’s upper school curriculum and program. In 2010, he took over as CEO, expanded the team, and implemented an ambitious growth strategy. In 5 years, Ray and his team took the company from a small, local family business of 3 schools to the largest Montessori operator in the United States.

In March 2016, Ray founded Higher Ground Education with the vision of greatly accelerating the growth of Montessori education globally. Higher Ground aims to create a comprehensive international platform to drive high quality, high fidelity Montessori programming, as well as to conduct the research and development necessary to extend Montessori principles to new, innovative models of secondary education.

My Story

Learn more about Ray

  • Tell us a little about yourself.

    I was born and raised in a suburb of Toronto, Canada. My childhood consisted of a typical middle-class immigrant upbringing, with a fairly wide range of cultural and personal experiences.

    Less typical perhaps, I was from the beginning exploring outside my lane. From my tastes in music, to my attempts at poetry, to my choice of friends, to my willingness to question the philosophic status quo, I’ve always been a bit wayward. I grew up pushing against conventionalism by being reactionary, and only much later came to understand that those two are neither exhaustive nor even exclusive.

    I spent my formative adult years living in downtown Toronto and consuming all the wonders that great city has to offer. I took my time completing my university degree, working all sorts of odd jobs, taking the classes that called to me, and just trying things. I had a bias towards action. I undertook lots of hasty and sometimes silly plans that are embarrassing in retrospect, but that gave me the experiences to bring meaning to the intellectual content I consumed. (It is no surprise it took me six years to complete a four-year degree.)

    I’ve always been deeply fascinated by people and the motivations that drive human behavior. That’s manifested in an intense interest in literature, philosophy, and psychology. It led me to read a lot, watch a lot, debate a lot, and to drift one foot in and one foot out of many communities and subcultures, consuming all the great personalities I encountered. I like to think of myself as a student of human nature, and as someone that is daily moved by all that is good and beautiful in humanity. Let me live, in the words of an old poem, in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man.

  • What inspires you about education?

    I have a pretty old-school view of the fundamentality and centrality of knowledge in life. I think it is beyond debate that knowledge properly held is the driving force both of civilization and of the good life that civil society seeks to serve and celebrate.

    By knowledge I don’t mean bookish learning—although I do not denigrate such learning the way it is so popular to do today. I mean real, personally held, fundamental insights into nature and culture. I mean understanding that comes from a unity of study and experience, from experience informed by study, that renders into a grasp of the world and that serves as a guide to action.

    Reading was my ticket out of provincialism and writing the basis of my self-formation. And while my schooling was suboptimal, I thank my lucky stars for the opportunities I was afforded to self-educate. So when I think of the state of education today, and specifically the views of knowledge reflected in modern practice—by which I mean both the content children memorize to pass tests and the shallow “hands-on” activities they complete to check the box of project-based learning—I cannot think of any work more noble and more inspiring than devoting myself to bringing children a truly knowledge-centered alternative.

  • How did you discover Montessori?

    My original educational influences were people who emphasized the importance of deep learning. Sources like the works of Arthur Bestor, or Mortimer Adler’s Great Books program, or Marva Collin’s work in Chicago, or educator Lisa VanDamme, a pioneer whose work and passion has made a lasting impression on me. I was a fan of the St. John’s University program. All of these influences were in the background when I started teaching and developing curriculum at an elementary school.

    That school had two Montessori preschools as feeders, and as a result I was gradually but steadily, over a period of years, exposed to the ideas and practices of Montessori education. I also chanced upon some favorable mentions of Montessori in the works of Ayn Rand, whose ideas I was studying. At first, the Montessori ethos struck me as too incongruous, too similar to the progressive educators that I generally regarded negatively because of their de-coupling of knowledge and learning. But over time, I came to see the genius of Montessori as specifically in her ability to identify a “third way”. Montessori offers a discovery learning approach that respects fully the agency of the child and the life-sustaining importance of structured, systematic knowledge. Montessori is singular in her genius in how she did the undoable: she created a child-centered approach in which, as my colleague Dr. Matt Bateman puts it, it is knowledge that centers the child.

    From there, I studied thoroughly both the original works of Montessori and the many great secondary sources, as well as the historical context from antiquity onwards out of which Montessori arose. As a result of that journey, I came to see different aspects of Montessori. Montessori is a brand of sorts, and it’s also a set of specific practices, and it’s also a set of principles of human development. Each aspect is related to the others and each aspect has world-changing power and potential.

  • How does Montessori philosophy impact your daily life?

    I am a champion of Enlightenment values, and I see in Montessori the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Historically, Montessori arose a century after the Enlightenment ended. But in its principles Montessori is thoroughly a product of the Enlightenment. Montessori is a philosophy of universal values, of the sanctity of the individual life and of individual agency, of the human potential to create peace and beauty and joy through scientific and technological progress coupled with cultural elevation, authentic personal responsibility, and an integrated approach to spiritual and existential flourishing.

    So, in short, I see in Montessori principles much more than an approach to education. I see an approach to the whole of life. One specific way in which Montessori impacts my daily life is that I make it a point to translate what Maria Montessori conveys about the child—the optimism, the sense of endless potential, the love and reverence of an animating human goodness—to the world of adults. Adults as much as children are capable, efficacious, and brimming with possibility and potential. It is not always easy in today’s world, but I try to adopt and extend that Montessori sense of optimism and trust to adults in the same way as Montessorians offer it to children.

    And finally, the Montessori pedagogy is an all-consuming force in the way I am raising my own children. It’s the basis of my conviction that their lives are theirs to live and make the most of, and that while I am a custodian of their needs, a guide, and a spectator, it is in service to becoming a passenger rather than the driver of the future that awaits them.

  • Do you have a favorite Montessori book or quote?

    My favorite Montessori quote speaks to the issue of the reward of a life well lived, to the transcendent power of inner satisfaction and serenity, of the joy and pleasure of work well done—specifically how token rewards and recognition can undermine such authentic experiences. Here it is:

    “Sometimes there is given to us a moment when we fancy ourselves to be among the great ones of the world. These are moments of happiness given to man that he may continue his existence in peace. It may be through love attained or because of the gift of a son, through a glorious discovery or the publication of a book; in some such moment we feel that there exists no man who is above us. If, in such a moment, someone vested with authority comes forward to offer us a medal or a prize, he is the important destroyer of our real reward. ‘And who are you?’ our vanished illusion shall cry, ‘Who are you that recalls me to the fact that I am not the first among men? Who stands so far above me that he may give me a prize?’ The prize of such a man in such a moment can only be Divine.” –Montessori, The Montessori Method, Chapter 1

  • When was the moment you decided to make Montessori your career?

    I was already trending towards a career devoted to figuring out how to get education right prior to encountering Montessori, and then my discovery of Montessori was a gradual process, so it is hard to pin down a date. I’d guess somewhere around 2007 is when I probably first realized that Montessori is more than a method of education, but a set of principles that represents the fundamental framework through which to drive educational reform.

    If I had to pick a period when it really clicked for me, I’d say it was when I took my AMI training in 2012. My trainer, Dr. Silvia Dubovoy, was instrumental in helping me recognize the extent to which Montessori is an integrated philosophy of development, not just a set of classroom practices.

  • Why did you start Higher Ground Education?

    Having had the opportunity and honor to work as a teacher, as a Head of School, and as the CEO of a large network of schools, I felt a restlessness to take more of a systems perspective on Montessori (and on education generally).

    We as a team saw the power of the Montessori pedagogy—and also the sheer number of talented educators in the global Montessori movement. We were awed by it, but were also realists about the fact that far too few children were impacted. The total seemed less than the sum of its parts. We wanted to figure out why, to understand the structural issues preventing the wholesale adoption of Montessori.

    We wanted to figure out why—and to understand the structural issues preventing the wholesale adoption of Montessori. We saw an opportunity to address the challenges facing Montessorians at the level of underlying infrastructure, and thought it might be possible to create a “prepared environment” for Montessori entrepreneurs that would unleash their talent and passion and allow them to bring their vision to a far greater number of children. Higher Ground Education was borne out of that impulse, in the context of various practical factors that allowed the stars to align.

  • What have you learned from your time working at Higher Ground Education thus far?

    I have learned that most of the opposition that people attribute to conviction is in fact just inertia, and that it takes a different sort of energy to battle inertia. I’ve come to appreciate the way in which we’re running a marathon not a sprint, and I think have gotten better at managing to that.

    I’ve always loved the people I work with, but every day see even more clearly how fortunate I am to have them as colleagues and as friends. We have so much fun doing what we do, and there is such trust in each other and in our mission, that we’re able to meet each day head on in a way I don’t think would otherwise be possible.

  • What do you enjoy most about working with your team?

    Where do I start? I think if I had to pick one thing, I would say the trust we have that each of us is all-in with respect to the mission and vision. Everything else—the willingness to engage in debate and discussion, to criticize each other, to enjoy the doing and be silly occasionally, to be supportive when something else in life needs to take precedence over the work—it all flows from the fact that we trust that each person has independent conviction in the importance of what we’re trying to achieve.

    The other thing I’d note is that the people at HGE bring such a great diversity of life experience, and have each led rich, meaningful lives. I’m always amazed at the depth of the zest for life that is embodied in the team, and I think it’s important. That attitude—that life is to be lived, fully and completely—is exactly the spark that within our students that we’re serving and nourishing.

  • What are your passions, interests and hobbies?

    A lot of my time outside of work these days is directed towards my kids. I absolutely love parenthood, and as an educator it is particularly rewarding to watch my own kids grow up. My wife and I also try to make a point of spending time together outside of our two profound shared values—our work and our kids.

    Other than that, pretty mundane stuff. I like playing board games, working on my house, things like that. I do make time to read a lot, especially biographies and business books but also increasingly I am returning to classic literature, history and philosophy. I’ve long been an admirer of Ayn Rand and would like to explore her ideas more than I’ve had time to do the last few years. I’ve also been meaning to do a deep dive into the life of Frederick Douglas for a while and expect to finally do so this year. I enjoy being a silent observer of US and international politics, mostly on Twitter. So much of politics is horrible but I still find value in trying to understand why the world is in the state it is in, and what would be a path to a better tomorrow. I travel a ton for work but look forward to a day where I travel more for leisure.

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