Mission Makers Podcast | London | UK
LEONOR STJEPIC + SABEEN NANJI
EP 008 / 01.03.2022
SHAPING THE CHILDREN
OF OUR FUTURE
This week on Mission Makers we welcome Leonor Stjepic, a multi-award winning c-suite leader whose been hugely influential in global education, currently serving as the CEO of the Montessori Group. In this episode, Leonor opens up about the challenges of growing up as a refugee, her discovery of human activism and social enterprise, and the importance of preserving the Montessori philosophy for educating, as Leonor puts it, the Montessori mindset is what is critical for ‘the leaders of the next generation.’
But that’s not all. On this week’s episode, we also welcome back a very special guest from Season 1, Sabeen Nanji, a fellow Montessorian who is currently the Director of Step By Step Montessori in North London, and who many will know as our host’s sister.
We kick off this episode by talking about Leonor’s roots and journey in moving to the UK as a refugee from Spain at a very young age. She tells us of how she got to see the best and worst in people at a time when ‘Britain was not so welcoming of diversity’. Times have certainly changed since then, but we still have a long way to go when you consider that 45% of American workers experienced discrimination in the past year.
Next we move on to discuss Leonor’s incredible career trajectory -
at 18 she co-founded the Amnesty International Working Group for Children, an NGO organization that has now grown worldwide, campaigning for children who were victims of torture or justice.
If that wasn’t enough, she tells us about her journey to becoming the CEO of the Montessori Group.
Throughout the conversation, the guests mention the visionary Maria Montessori, the creator of the Montessori approach to education which started over 100 years ago to challenge the education system. The Montessori philosophy focuses on independence and active learning through natural interest rather than formal structured learning. Some key ideas about young education are that work is play, and children learn best through experience when developing their own independence. Although the approach is over a century old, the philosophy is timeless. As Sabeen puts it,
'Montessori isn't just a teaching method, ‘it’s a way of life.’
Leonor has nothing but praise for Montessori practitioners and claims that they are the most important educators since they essentially help mold young children into the type of person they will become. An incredibly important role when you consider that "90% of our brains form by the age of 5."
Sabeen agrees with Leonor, saying that a teacher can make or break a child’s future. That being said, Sabeen dives into the big question, how can the education sector ensure that less privileged children have access to quality education?
Unicef estimates that 8% of primary school children to not go to school, and of those who do,
around 617 million children and adolescents around the world are unable to master core subjects like reading and maths, even though two thirds of them are in school.
As we are in the biggest crises of education in our time with the Covid pandemic unsettling the sector like never before, and the skills of tomorrow changing drastically with a huge emphasis on soft skills, it is a critical time to evaluate how we can redesign the system and equip future generations with the skills that matter if they are to succeed in this rapidly changing world.
On that note, Leonor strongly affirms that without building a better structure for children’s education, we are failing our youngest and most hopeful generation of leaders and innovators.
Having worked with children in a variety of settings throughout her life, we asked her what lessons children had taught her. She highlights children’s lack of cynicism and natural curiosity and claims we have much to learn from them. As put it so well: ‘‘the ability to be curious about the world is what keeps us all young.”
The conversation then moves to Leonor and Farah touching upon their involvement in the UNESCO Kindness Matters Campaign as council members and the Montessori Group forming a partnership with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) to further catalyse a global wave of kindness as a mindset.
Finally we explore the future of the early years sector and the effects of implementing the Montessori way of life for any age. Leonor adamantly affirms that
‘if we do not give early years the importance that it has in child development, we are not going to have a society worth living in’.
We round off our interview talking to Leonor about leadership, specifically female leadership . Evocatively, she strips back the typical idea of leaders as dogmatic or harsh people who run businesses in suits, and instead opens our eyes to the many forms of leaders in our everyday. She says, 'you don’t need to be in a leadership role to be a leader’ and anyone who runs a nursery is a leader in their community.’
Leonor and Sabeen are powerful forces for changes in education; unafraid to break down the conventions of the sector no matter what generation they are. As we move at lightning speed into a new digital era in a very fragile world, it will be the forward-thinking leaders nurturing the future generations who have compassion and kindness in their value compass that our world needs the most.
Leonor and Sabeen’s episode can be found on the video below and on iTunes and Spotify.
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Lessons To Fuel Your Mission
Invest in children’s social and emotional education - they are the leaders of our future
Teachers and practitioners are vital in shaping the future of children
There is much to learn from children: curiosity, lack of cynicism and their social openness.
Leaders can be found in every industry at any level, the most important facet of a leader is authenticity and the ability to inspire a common goal.