The Secret Club

For the last 5 years, I taught in a Montessori school with someone who always spoke about how much she loves her job. She would do it for free, if she had to. She feels like it is her “true calling”… blah blah blah. I wanted to hate her… or feel sorry for her since she was clearly delusional.  When I first read Dr. Montessori’s writing almost two decades ago, I thought I’d found that “calling”. When she wrote about the wisdom of trusting children’s innate desire to learn, I drank the Kool-Aid. But, then I got my first job.

In many Montessori schools, the application of Dr. Montessori’s philosophies are, shall we say, lacking in authenticity. I had all but given up on the prospect of an alternative to traditional school that matched the picture in my head. I had decided I would rather be a Walmart greeter than continue to spend my life herding cats in the classroom.

As I was reaching this conclusion, my daughter was struggling her way through school. She was filled with the anxiety and depression that often accompany feeling like a square peg in a round hole. I slipped down a rabbit hole in search of something that would make her life better. I stumbled on Northstar: Self-Directed Learning for Teens. I read.  I interviewed. I visited. For the second time in my professional life, I drank the Kool-Aid.

Fast forward to today. In September, I launched Embark Center for Self-Directed Education. Now, I hear myself telling people I love my work. I would do it for free (actually, at the moment, I am, but that’s another story). I feel like it is my “true calling”. Apparently,  I’ve joined the ranks of the delusional. The secret club. And I’m not alone. Our members feel the same way. Read on to hear Grace speak of her experiences at Embark Center.

Grace and DaveHey, it’s Grace. I am a member of Embark and I’m going to give you a little bit of a view. I went to public school up until ninth grade and then switched to a private school for a bit.  So I got a view on private and public school. Public school was never a great fit for me and private school could have worked, but I didn’t love it… actually I was kinda miserable.

Up until recently I didn’t even know that learning could be fun because it was always a set curriculum that you HAD to do. Now that I’m at Embark I have realized that learning can be different. Recently, my advisor asked me if I had learned anything, and if so, what. I started thinking, and I said yes. But I didn’t have any facts to pull out as proof. I had been taught learning was reciting facts.

I realize now that learning can be sitting in a class, joining a discussion and appreciating everyone’s opinions. Learning can also be observing or just having an experience.

I think I am still in “deschooling” mode. It is taking me some time to adjust to how different it is to have the freedom to do what I want to do.  Right now I am doing the music for a local show, so I need to practice a lot.  I talked with my advisor about whether that was “school” or not, and we decided that it was important to me, and that I have the freedom to choose what I want to work on.   I have freedom, but it’s still directed – directed by my interests.

I feel like I am in a secret club. We are a community not many people know about. We are all doing something important.

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Andrea Cubelo-McKay

About The Author

Andrea Cubelo-McKay is the Founder and Executive Director of Embark Center for Self-Directed Education. She holds a Master of Social Work Degree from the University of Denver and a Montessori Elementary Teacher credential from the Institute of Advanced Montessori Studies. Andrea started Embark Center after spending 10 years in Montessori classrooms feeling like there must be a “better way” to help children discover their innate potential. She is passionate about helping children to free themselves from being unwilling victims of our culture and create meaningful lives. Andrea and her husband, David, have three children; Brandon, age 21, Cate, age 18, and Kaia, age 15. Contact Andrea at

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