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Montessori educator talks passion, challenges & upsides of profession

Why I Teach: James Emperor

Grand Rapids — When James Emperor is confronted with a challenge from one of his students, the Grand Rapids Montessori Academy teacher meets it with compassion and commitment.

That much is clear from the way he talks about one particular encounter from a while back — an obstacle that ultimately begat a career highlight.

“I had a fourth-year student, new to my class, approach me to talk in the hall on a personal matter. This student told me they could not read,” Emperor said. “I was shocked, but also honored that they felt comfortable enough to tell me this.

“I told them that I would do everything I could to help them read. I said it would not be easy, but I felt that by the end of the year, they would achieve their goal with hard work.”

Together, Emperor and the student put in the time and effort. Progress came quickly. By January of that academic year the student was reading “fluently,” and was soon reading at grade level.

“Witnessing something like this would inspire anyone, and this is why I teach,” said Emperor, who received his teaching certification in 2002 and has been with GRPS for about nine years.

The anecdote is emblematic of Emperor’s approach to education, which hinges on quality personal connections. He sees his students as part of his extended family, and he endeavors to treat them as such.

Sixth-graders marvel at the April eclipse (courtesy)
From left, sixth-grader Olivia Sonefeld, teacher James Emperor, and sixth-graders Sincere Taylor, Jeanne Uwase and Juliana Estrada-Hernandez marvel at the April eclipse (courtesy)

“My teaching philosophy is built on the premise of building relationships with students and their families,” Emperor explained. “Children learn best in a peaceful and loving environment — one in which they are understood and know they are accepted for who they are.”

He added: “I believe in differentiated instruction as well. I respect and acknowledge the varied learning styles in my class. I also strive to encourage lifelong learning.”

Emperor’s beliefs and his devotion to students make him a perfect fit for Montessori, where teaches all subjects to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.

What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and excited about teaching? “Many things get me up in the morning and excited to teach. The days can be long, and the work can be difficult, but my classroom is filled with students who are inspired and excited to learn.”

What are some of the biggest challenges and how do you strive to meet them? “One challenge to overcome is that teachers can always use more support. Coming from a Montessori perspective and teaching three grade levels at one time, setting goals helps our classroom community achieve what we set out to do. This can also have a positive effect on building a wonderful learning fellowship, because the older students take on leadership roles to assist the younger students.”

Grand Rapids Montessori Academy teacher James Emperor (courtesy)

What are some of the biggest differences in teaching pre- and post-pandemic? “Pre-pandemic, the students were able to regulate their time spent on classroom work better than immediately after the ‘return to learn.’ 

“When we returned, it took over a year to get close to pre-pandemic levels, and it is still a work in progress. Social-emotional learning is essential because students need to interact in person with one another.”

What’s the most amazing thing about teaching upper-level elementary students? “The most amazing thing for me as an E2 Montessori teacher is to witness the progress my scholars make academically and emotionally throughout the three-year cycle.” 

Emperor explained that in the Montessori system, E2 refers to upper elementary, which includes fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. The job can be challenging, especially since teachers like Emperor cover all subjects, but he said it’s rewarding as well. 

“Montessori educators are trained to use specialized, hands-on materials that make learning exciting for the scholars,” he said. “I love the fact that I can use my extensive knowledge in all subjects to engage my students. We are taught to follow the child. This idea goes well with how I teach because there is no ‘one size fits all’ in my classroom.” 

What would you say to someone considering teaching as a profession? “I would tell them to strap themselves in! Although it will be challenging, the rewards in the field of education are sterling!”

What do you like about teaching your subject? “I chose to be a Montessori upper-elementary teacher because I get to teach all subject areas and I can use my diverse academic background. This unique teaching opportunity helps me direct students to their varied interests.”

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Sophomore exhibits shine light on human rights
Montessori students sound out the basics of bluegrass

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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