Call her the “Child Whisperer”

Charmaine Johannes looks at a button sewn on a patch of cloth by four-year-old student Moses Rabieh. Johannes teaches children ages two to six at Fidalgo Bay Montessori in Anacortes. Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald

ANACORTES — People call her the “Child Whisperer.”

Parents say Charmaine Johannes, who runs Fidalgo Bay Montessori in Anacortes, has a special way with kids, akin to the prowess the famed horse whisperer has with equines. Though the moniker makes the modest Johannes a little self-conscious, the nickname has stuck among many who bring their children to her Montessori preschool, set up in a small, 100-year-old house off Commercial Avenue.

“They’re always amazed that it’s always so quiet in here,” Johannes said of the peaceful, harmonious atmosphere inside the preschool, which sometimes calls for some whispering, if the students are working.

She doesn’t magically do this, she said, it’s just a product of the work the children do during their school day, which is interesting to them and continues changing and challenging them as they grow.

The preschool is made up of rooms decorated in miniature, with different stations and no digital devices in sight.

In step with the Montessori philosophy of freedom within set boundaries, teachers present the children with activities, and the children choose which activity they are interested in, essentially learning while doing. The kids then prepare the task for the next person, giving them a feeling of responsibility.

There’s a small counter with snacks, which the kids serve themselves. A tiny blue enamel washbasin, with a pitcher, is the perfect size for washing faces. At another station, students peel carrots and core apples, offering them to others.

These tasks are stepping stones to the basics of education — reading, writing and arithmetic — by building the students’ fine motor skills and familiarity with the building blocks of those subjects. But they also learn practical life skills and social skills too.

Outside the classroom are raised beds for gardening, a small greenhouse and a sandbox, plus a large hole that two of the boys have been digging to gather earthworms for the class turtle, and simply for the joy of digging a hole. Besides playing outside, the children gather seeds to plant during the next season.

“I tend to gush about Charmaine when I describe her to new families,” said her assistant, Martha Harper, who has also had children at the school. “She’s very present in every moment, and every station is an opportunity to teach through example.”

Johannes wasn’t always a Montessori teacher. She got her college degree in journalism and communications and worked at a Seattle-area newspaper. She then heard about the Montessori philosophy and fell in love.

“I just loved working with children,” she said. “It was just something I loved to do.”

After a few years of training and a master’s degree, she started teaching at a Montessori school in Seattle, eventually opening the school in Anacortes.

There was a time, about two years ago, when Johannes had to close the school. She had been diagnosed with leukemia. She advised parents to tell the kids that she was sick and needed to stay home to get better.

“Everything from that moment changes,” she said of her diagnosis. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready for the big fight.”

Just as she had put so many kids first when she taught, they and their parents responded in kind.

Local schools took on many of her students, families brought meals to her and her husband, and the children got together and sewed her a quilt. One of the squares has a pocket with a felt heart inside, while another is a hand-stitched picture of the class turtle, and others are photographs of the children with messages of love. She’d wrap herself in the quilt, and their affection, during the three-day chemotherapy sessions each month.

“I’ve been in this community for a long time,” she said. “…But I just had no idea there was so much love and support.”

She’s been free of the cancer for almost two years. The day she reopened the school in September 2011, all of her children came back, along with a few new families. She sat in her teacher chair, near the front entrance, and said hello, shaking their hands as she always did each morning before school.

“This is the best job there is,” she said. “Everything changes every day…it’s always challenging and rewarding. I just see myself continuing to do this for as long as I can.”

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