Leader of Polis' Museum Mile campus helps students prepare for world citizenship
Erika Somogyi is the embodiment of a world citizen.
Before taking on her latest role at Polis in New York City, she was already exceedingly familiar with the benefits of travel, cultural enrichment, and language immersion. The Polis School network’s emphasis on nurturing global citizenship and providing access to the abundant cultural offerings of an urban center was a major draw for Erika.
Prior to joining Higher Ground Education, Erika criss-crossed the globe pursuing her education, teaching positions, and educational leadership opportunities. In college, Erika studied at New Zealand’s University of Otago, majoring in Anthropology. She also holds two master’s degrees, one in Social Science from Linkoping University in Sweden and another in Private School Leadership from Columbia University. Early in her career, Erika taught English in Yemen, France, and China and became particularly intrigued by self-driven, inquiry-based learning.
In China, Erika was recognized with the Shanghai Foreign Teacher Award for her innovative curriculum development and child-centered approach, a thread that continued as she delved deeper into Montessori. She also lent her expertise to help shift toward more project-based learning as a teacher trainer for Chinese public school educators.
Introduction to Montessori
It was in China that Erika discovered Montessori. Her experiences inspired her to seek Children’s House (3-6) teacher training in Chennai, India, a region with a rich Montessori legacy. Chennai is where Maria Montessori lived during World War II and conducted many training courses. Many of the local teachers under which Erika interned had a close connection to Maria Montessori — either through an acquaintance who knew her or her son, Mario, or even had a teacher from childhood who had trained with Montessori directly.
Erika’s trainer had edited some of Montessori’s original manuscripts, and “the closeness with the place where Montessori based a lot of her work was kind of amazing,” Erika recalled. Following completion of her Association Montessori International diploma, Erika’s Montessori work took her to Boston and presently New York.
“I love traveling,” Erika shared. “I love learning languages. I feel like there is a code switching that goes on when you start to understand and see things from another person’s perspective. When you live in other countries and learn other languages, you start to realize there’s many ways to understand the same thing. Often you realize that normal, everyday instances can be seen in a different light.”
When Erika came aboard Higher Ground about a year ago, she was inspired by the “motivated group of educators who have this big–picture idea about how they want to change the face of education. This just seemed really exciting.”
Pioneering a professional development program
Erika recently assumed leadership of Polis at the Museum Mile campus, but initially she served as Head of School at Guidepost Montessori at Williamsburg. In that role, she was lauded for developing creative solutions to parent programming when access to the building was at first limited due to licensing delays beyond the control of the organization.
In her capacity at Williamsburg, Erika also pioneered Hindsight, a professional development program where Guides are videotaped. The teachers then review these tapes for continued learning. Part of the process is adopted from a Japanese practice called jugyokenkyu, translated roughly to “the study of teaching and learning.” The way it works is that a teacher, or guide, chooses an area she would like to improve in her classroom, such as a transition period that is perhaps not going as smoothly as she would like. Then, the guide later reviews the recording to observe herself and identify areas and strategies for improvement. This allows the guide to be active in her own learning.
“To see your practice and to be able to take a step back, even to have that time for reflection, and to discover solutions for yourself and your own practice, is just so rare in education,” Erika said. “It’s coming from the teachers themselves. They’re able to solve their own problems, which is how the best learning occurs.”
This is characteristic of Erika’s leadership style, which shares similarities to the Montessori approach. She views herself as a guide for her teachers and staff, allowing them to excel in their interests and develop themselves. “I ask a lot of questions. I then hope that my questions help the guides discover answers for themselves,” Erika said.
About Museum Mile
Polis’ Museum Mile campus serves ages 3 to 12 and offers Mandarin immersion. Bolstering a child’s Montessori education with foreign language immersion and local cultural enrichment opportunities amplifies the child’s experience of being a world citizen. It also enhances cultural appreciation, tolerance and is a “really important first step to empathy, to social learning, and to important communication skills,” Erika noted.
Montessori on its own is natural preparation for global citizenship. In Children’s House, many different cultural elements from around the world are included in the classroom environment. There are culture folders, which often include images of people and places from other countries, continent puzzle maps, and different types of work aimed at learning and understanding the flags of the world.
“That sets that baseline knowledge of, ‘Wow, there are a lot of different places with a lot of different people!’ ” Erika said.
In Elementary, children begin to see themselves as part of this global community. They are eager to explore, embrace difference, and are driven to pursue answers to big questions through independent research, Erika explained.
Polis schools are intentionally situated in major international urban settings to give students the ability to take regular excursions to places such as the Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art that provide invaluable, experiential education.
“They have the opportunity to really use the city as an extension of their learning. I was visiting Ellis Island the other weekend, and I thought this would be an amazing field trip,” Erika said, noting the many connections to the Montessori Elementary curriculum. There are multiple lessons that use visual charts to portray human migration throughout time and across civilizations.
Beyond the school setting, Erika has shared her passion for global education by leading a student training team at the World Federation of the United Nations (UN). She has also presented at a variety of conferences with an international focus, including the Harvard Global Education Conference. Erika is scheduled to present a workshop at Montessori Europe 2019 and the American Montessori Society’s 2020 annual conference. Her topic is how Montessori teacher practices are aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Not content with idleness, when Erika is not in her office, you may find her reading or going for a long run to clear her mind. “I love exploring the city with nothing but my own two feet,” she said. “It’s my way of meditating.” What’s next? A lifelong learner, Erika hopes to improve her languages by passing the most advanced French Language exam, which includes a structured interpretation of a piece of French literature or philosophy. She also looks forward to continuing to study Chinese.
“This idea of understanding cultures is obviously very close to my heart,” Erika said.