At Fields of Green Montessori, kids mingle and learn alongside a menagerie of classroom pets: a white spotted bunny named Cow, chirping birds and Fiona, a pseudo-therapy dog and fan-favorite among students. In its 26th year, the school has become an extension of founder Deb Smorto. It’s hard to remember it wasn’t the original plan. Interview by Molly Colgan
How did you get started teaching? I started out as a naturalist teaching environmental education at High Point State Park, and I kept getting laid off. As a single mom, it’s really hard. They just kept cutting the budget in New Jersey. My kids were going to a Montessori school up where I live in Sullivan County, NY. So they offered me to start working for them, subbing. And then they asked if I wanted to get certified to be a Montessori teacher, so I did. Eventually I just kind of knew that I was going to have my own school one day. I even had the name and everything. I taught for a number of years, and then one day someone from here said, “Oh, I’m getting rid of my Montessori school, would you like to take it over?” That was 26 years ago.
So the name you had picked out – was it always Fields of Green? First it was Fledglings Montessori. That’s what just came to me one day when I was teaching up at the other Montessori school. That was that for a while, until we moved to this location and all I could see were fields of green.
Were you always an animal activist? Between first and fourth grade, we lived on an Air Force base, and I used to help the frogs. I’d keep them from being in the window wells at peoples’ homes – I’d rescue them out of there. And I advocated for them – because the [neighborhood] boys would smush them... I learned to fight the boys for smushing the frogs. And I used to teach my little brother in our basement, so I was also a school teacher back when I was a kid. Then when I got older, I just combined them both.
Introduce us to your animals. We have a myriad of rabbits and birds and guinea pigs. I have five dogs and they come to work. I have 10 cats at home, most of which came from the barn here when we took over. They were feral. I have an animal caretaker for weekends, and my older elementary kids help feed them during the day. Then I have two pigs at home from Vernon Valley Farm because they asked me, as a wildlife rehabilitator, to help fix their pigs, so they ended up being mine: two 1,000-pound pigs. And I have goats at home; chickens.
What do your weekends look like? I work literally seven days a week. I make lots of lists – I’m a lister. Besides the cleaning, I have all the farm work at home. I do all of my bookkeeping for the school and planning for the next week. Now that I have a great-grandson, I try to spend at least part of the day visiting him. He’s almost one.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job? Enabling kids to be just kids in this world that we live in. I really try and keep the stress from them. Because it’s just so hard for them nowadays in this world, and they’re so full of stress. This is like a little oasis. And of course, seeing the connection between the kids and the animals, and letting them share that joy.