Retired UW-River Falls professor honored for her Montessori work

Gay Ward's dedication has impact at university, around the world

May 8, 2023 - After educating more students and teachers than she can count in locations across the United States and around the world, retired University of Wisconsin-River Falls educator Gay Ward is receiving recognition for her tireless efforts to help others learn through the Montessori method, one person at a time. 

Ward, a teacher education professor at UWRF from 2001-15 and the founder and director of the university’s Montessori program in 2012, recently received the American Montessori Society (AMS) Living Legacy Award, given for a lifetime of dedication and service to the society and to advocating for Montessori in education.Gay Ward

On May 6, Ward was honored at UWRF with a reception celebrating her achievements and the graduation of students from UWRF’s Montessori program. Ward said she was “stunned” to receive the award and said it represents the UWRF Montessori and education programs as well as others she has worked with around the world. 

“This award is for us. It’s for our whole program,” Ward said. “None of this happens without the collaboration of a lot of people.”

Ward’s list of Montessori-related honors and achievements is seemingly never ending. Through the years, she has been part of and led numerous AMS committees. She has played key roles in numerous Montessori research efforts nationally. She has presented at and taught in AMS programs in South Korea, Taiwan and throughout the U.S. and played a leadership role in Montessori organizations in Australia.

She has won numerous awards, including the UWRF Lifetime Achievement Award for Scholarly and Creative Activity, the Dennis Shapiro Innovation and Montessori Teacher Education Award, and received the Education Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Montessori Association.  

“She is nationally known. She has made such a significant difference for me and for students and educators here at UWRF, and for others all around the world,” said Kateri Carver, director of UWRF’s Montessori programs.  

As she described her journey from young education major to Montessori devotee, the soft-spoken Ward, 75, recalled numerous individual students and teachers who she taught and learned from. They range from children she taught in the U.S. and Australia to educators she worked and studied with, including Jean Piaget, the noted Swiss psychologist known for his systematic study of cognitive development.

“There are all of these amazing people I have been able to work with, and all of these amazing places that I have been,” Ward said. “Being able to work with individuals and see these (Montessori) ideas come to fruition feels really good. It is gratifying.”

Montessori movement

As Ward earned her teaching degree and taught in the U.S. and then Australia, she became increasingly interested in and a believer of the Montessori education method. The method is named for Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori and focuses on hands-on learning, developing problem-solving skills, critical thinking and both independent and collaborative learning. 

“I was very interested in learning more about active learning and differentiated curriculum,” Ward said. “Montessori is about teaching the whole child, not breaking up learning into separate parts. Children learn that way, learning about topics in multiple ways.”

In addition to teaching creative yet practical approaches, Montessori also educates students to value individuals and to retain a sense of wonder about the world around them, Ward said. She saw her students become more enthused about learning as she taught them using the Montessori method. 

“My students didn’t want to leave the classroom,” Ward said with a smile. “They were enjoying being there and learning.”

Ward took her commitment and enthusiasm for Montessori from Australia to UWRF. The university didn’t have a Montessori program, but Ward believed she could “have a Montessori influence” on student educators. Eventually Ward began a Montessori program in the River Falls School District, and in 2012 started a Montessori program at UWRF. 

Ward subsequently worked to establish a pre-K Montessori effort at UWRF and last year, the university became the first in the nation to offer a Montessori education doctoral program. The Ed.D. program provides coursework in hybrid and on-campus formats and serves students from across the country. 

Stephanie Van Fleet, a Montessori teacher and administrator in Lafayette, Colo., enrolled in the doctoral program last year and praised Ward for getting the program up and running. 

“She was the key player in getting this off the ground and allowing me to pursue my educational dreams,” Van Fleet said. 

Carver praised Ward for her mentorship, saying Ward’s ongoing work teaching UWRF students is key to helping the program evolve. Ward’s dedication and energy propel the program and its students and teachers to succeed, Carver said. 

“I can’t say enough how much she has helped this program and the Montessori movement across the world,” Carver said. 

Ward is humbled by those words. She said she continues to advocate for Montessori in any way she can because she believes in it wholeheartedly. She said she will continue to work to integrate the Montessori approach into as many schools as possible. 

“I get such a thrill out of doing this work,” Ward said, her face breaking into a smile. “This work excites me, and I will do this until I die. There is nothing else I would rather do.”

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