Local Montessori teaching career began in 1974

Since 1974 Sylvia Rajakaruna has been a staple at St. Mary Elementary School, teaching the Montessori approach in her preschool classroom.

Coming from Sri Lanka to teach in a parish school was a short trip she made by herself, despite being married.

“It was my ambition to come and get experience in the U.S.,” said Rajakaruna.

Though it took nearly three years, her husband followed her to Ohio.

It is her hard work and dedication to the Montessori program, spanning 40 years, that has earned her a nomination as the next Gem of the Valley.

“Sylvia is Montessori trained and certified,” said Rita Angel, St. Mary’s principal. “They work on fine motor skills, letters, sounds and numbers.”

Rajakaruna said the philosophy gives children freedom to learn.

“The Montessori is a philosophy that gives freedom to teach children with guidance,” she said.

Most days, children are allowed to do activities like sorting shapes in order from largest to smallest and by color. As the year progresses there are also lessons with letters, phonics, numbers, geography, botany and geology.

Loretta Closser, 78, of Harrison City, Pa., was Rajakaruna’s aide starting in the mid-1980s, and her children went through the Montessori program.

“My oldest daughter was in (Rajakaruna’s) second class when she came here,” said Closser. “I knew Sylvia and knew how she did things. I was always so pleased with what she taught and the way she taught.”

Closser said that to this day, she remains close with Rajakaruna, as do her two daughters.

“We’ve been friends (for a long time),” she said. “I saw her Sunday…My children love Sylvia…They still call her Mrs. Sylvia. They were anxious to see her. Even my grandchildren who never had her say, ‘Can we stop and see Mrs. Sylvia?'”

Rajakaruna said her work with the children is to guide them, but let them learn on their own.

“Montessori is individualized education,” she said. “If you have 15 students, (the class) will be in 15 standards. It’s an individualized approach.”

She said there are few challenges in her classroom.

“Sometimes there are difficult days when (a child will) cry,” she said. “I try to pacify them…Sometimes I do have challenges in parent/teacher conferences discussing and explaining if a child is having problems, how to help that child.”

Angel said Rajakaruna doesn’t treat her job like it’s work.

“She’s very dedicated, devoted and committed to teaching Montessori,” she said. “I know from my interactions with her, it’s not just a job. This has been her life’s work…(and) she just has a rich tradition…with the school.”

Closser said that the class was always a great thing to help Sylvia with.

“The class was always so calm,” Closser recalled. “I think the Montessori is a great way to teach a young child…I didn’t work for (Sylvia) I worked with her. She’s a gem, she really is.”

Overall, Rajakaruna said her work is worthwhile.

“The best part is when I see them learn,” she said. “When I see them doing things right, learning and developing knowledge…It’s very rewarding to me.”

Though Rajakaruna is very good with children, she said she’s not out for accolades.

“I’m simple and humble and proud of what I’m doing…but I’m not expecting any big publicity,” she said. “I just try to do my best and I’m happy with it.”