Ahead of the class

Makawao school gets new leader

The Maui News - - FRONT PAGE -

There’s that one teacher. The one who greeted you at the class­room door every morn­ing with a smile and a high-five. The one who in­spired you to work hard and dream big. The one you’ll never forget.

Eric Dust­man is one of those teach­ers.

“This ca­reer has af­forded me so much — it’s helped shape who I am,” he said. “But the best part is, I get to work with some re­ally ter­rific kids.” And as Montes­sori School of Maui’s new head of school, Dust­man is work­ing with a new group of ter­rific kids — and ter­rific teach­ers, staff mem­bers and par­ents, too.

“It’s a great school and a great com­mu­nity,” he said. “I’m very happy to be here and I’m hav­ing a lot of fun.”

The Montes­sori School of Maui, which was founded in 1978 and now serves more than 270 stu­dents ages 18 months through the 8th grade, is a non­de­nom­i­na­tional, 501(c)(3) non­profit li­censed by the Hawaii Coun­cil of Pri­vate Schools and the state Department of Hu­man Ser­vices.

Look­ing back on it now, Dust­man says his jour­ney to the front of the class­room — and even­tu­ally, the head of school’s of­fice — was some­what un­ex­pected. When the Ohio na­tive de­cided to pur­sue a bachelor’s de­gree in per­son­nel and in­dus­trial re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Cincin­nati, run­ning a class­room was the fur­thest thing from his mind. But af­ter a brief post-grad­u­ate stint at a pay­roll ser­vices com­pany, Dust­man says he re­al­ized his fu­ture lay else­where.

That’s when an ac­quain­tance — a teacher’s aide at a Montes­sori school — in­spired him to try his hand at teach­ing. Af­ter land­ing a job as a sub­sti­tute teach­ing as­sis­tant at a pub­lic Montes­sori school in Cincin­nati, Dust­man says he knew he’d found his true call­ing.

“Montes­sori creates re­ally good peo­ple who know them­selves to a greater ex­tent,” he said. “They learn to prac­tice self-care . . . and care about other peo­ple, too.”

Ac­cord­ing to the North Amer­i­can Montes­sori Teach­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, there are ap­prox­i­mately 4,500 Montes­sori schools in the U.S. and about 20,000 world­wide. The “Montes­sori Method,” a phi­los­o­phy de­vel­oped by Ital­ian physi­cian and ed­u­ca­tor Maria Montes­sori, takes a child-cen­tered ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion and is based on ob­ser­va­tion, peer learn­ing, tac­tile learn­ing ma­te­ri­als and in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion.

Not long af­ter he caught the teach­ing bug, Dust­man headed back to cam­pus to earn a mas­ter’s de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion with a Montes­sori fo­cus, and in the years that fol­lowed, worked his way up through the ranks — mak­ing the leap from teach­ing as­sis­tant to teacher, and then from as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal to prin­ci­pal. His job ti­tles changed, but one thing stayed the same: Dust­man made it a point to get to know each stu­dent per­son­ally (and re­mark­ably, he still re­mem­bers all of their names). “I would stand out­side every morn­ing and greet them,” he said. “I wanted them to know that I was a con­sis­tent per­son for them.”

In 2001, Dust­man be­came the head of school at The New School Montes­sori, a du­ally ac­cred­ited pri­vate Cincin­nati Montes­sori school for preschool and el­e­men­tary chil­dren through the 6th grade. Dur­ing his 14-year ten­ure there, he over­saw the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of the school, made im­prove­ments to the cam­pus, in­creased en­roll­ment and built re­la­tion­ships with stu­dents, teach­ers, staff mem­bers and par­ents. He also co­or­di­nated and chap­er­oned cul­tural ex­change trips to Ja­pan, taught classes in Costa Rica and earned his Ph.D. in ed­u­ca­tional stud­ies with a fo­cus on em­pa­thy in chil­dren ages 9 to 12.

Then, in 2014, a new op­por­tu­nity knocked. That year, Dust­man, who has served on sev­eral na­tional com­mit­tees, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Montes­sori Ac­cred­i­ta­tion Com­mis­sion, made an ac­cred­i­ta­tion site visit to Qing­dao Amera­sia In­ter­na­tional School (which of­fers Montes­sori ed­u­ca­tion to chil­dren in prekinder­garten through 12th grade) in Qing­dao, China. There, the school’s di­rec­tor pulled Dust­man aside and made him a tan­ta­liz­ing of­fer: a new ad­min­is­tra­tor was needed at the school.

Af­ter con­sult­ing his wife, Re­nee, and three chil­dren, Lucy, Amelia and Witt (who unan­i­mously agreed), Dust­man seized the op­por­tu­nity. Soon af­ter, he was set­tling in as the head of the lower school, and the fol­low­ing year be­came the school’s prin­ci­pal. “It was a re­ally great ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. Even so, af­ter two years abroad, Dust­man and his fam­ily were ready to re­turn to the U.S.

So, when he learned that the Montes­sori School of Maui was look­ing for a new head of school, he didn’t waste any time ap­ply­ing. Weeks later, af­ter a se­ries of in­ter­views, the mem­bers of the school’s search com­mit­tee (which had con­ducted a six-month na­tion­wide search for a new head of school) knew they’d found the right per­son for the job.

To say Dust­man is fit­ting in at his new school would be an un­der­state­ment. Since he ar­rived in July, he’s re­ceived a warm wel­come from stu­dents, par­ents, teach­ers and staff mem­bers. “It’s a great fit,” Dust­man said. “And so is Maui. I love the pace of life here and the em­pha­sis on fam­ily. It re­ally is par­adise.”

Sarah Rup­penthal is a Maui-based writer.

Do you have an in­ter­est­ing neigh­bor? Tell us about them at mis­s­rup­penthal@gmail.com. Neigh­bors and “The State of Aloha,” writ­ten by Ben Lowen­thal, al­ter­nate Fri­days.


As Montes­sori School of Maui’s new head of school, Eric Dust­man is help­ing chil­dren be­come in­de­pen­dent, con­fi­dent and in­quis­i­tive learn­ers.


Eric Dust­man

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