May 2019 marked the end of Somchanh Baccam’s 39th year teaching at Cedar Valley Montessori School. The CVMS Board of Directors named Ms. Somchanh as the school's first Emeritus Faculty member.
Within the field of education, it is atypical that an educator would stay at one institution for 39 years to hone her craft and guide and prepare thousands of children for successful passions, careers, and lives. But Ms. Somchanh, as students, parents, and colleagues know her, is a one-of-a-kind teacher with a unique story.
“My mantra is to ‘go with the flow,’” says Ms. Somchanh, lead directress in the Bonsai Room. “I wouldn’t have lasted this long without it! Things are different every year but you focus on what you are doing, do the best you can, and be thankful for the children you teach.”
A refugee immigrant from Laos, Ms. Somchanh was awarded a scholarship to study at Coe College. She arrived in 1972 when she was 20 years old. One of 14 children in her family, she chose to “go her own way,” opting to study in the United States instead of France, where many of her older siblings had moved. She graduated from Coe College with degrees in English Literature and Education, with minors in Spanish and French. To this day, she is still fluent in at least six languages.
Early in her career, Ms. Somchanh worked with the Grant Wood Area Education Association as a Laotian translator. She enjoyed the work, but she found her home in 1979, when she began teaching at Cedar Valley Montessori School.
During her tenure at CVMS, she transitioned with the school as it grew and moved into several different facilities. CVMS began with space at Immaculate Conception Church, then Eisenhower Elementary School, followed by space in Marion, and then a move to downtown Cedar Rapids. CVMS was displaced from its downtown location by the 2008 floods, but moved back to its current location in 2010. “This is a beautiful school,” she says, gesturing to the open spaces, a bit of wonder in her eyes. “Everything is so inviting. The prepared environment for the child is most important.”
Following the flood of 2008, many people questioned whether CVMS could survive such disruption to its educational programs. Ms. Somchanh never wavered in her belief that CVMS would remain operational. “We still have the primary Montessori materials and we can teach,” she recalls telling administrators and fellow teachers.
It is this level of commitment to what Maria Montessori said, did, and wrote that forms the basis of Ms. Somchanh’s passion for Montessori education. As she transitioned to the CVMS classrooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she found a home in the philosophy. She encouraged the school to begin many of its signature programs, including the Toddler Program and the Summer Program. She served as the first teacher of the toddler programs, as well as led the inaugural summer program. Many former students also fondly remember Ms. Somchanh for her creation of the rainforest in the atrium and her penchant for crocheting many items – from blankets to hats to headbands – for her students. She’s also well known for her cuisine, from egg rolls to purple sticky rice.
“Ms. Somchanh was my first experience with Montessori in action,” says Head of School Stacy Cataldo. “I was observing an Asia unit in her classroom and the kids were completely mesmerized. She was able to retain the attention of each and every one of the 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds for 45 minutes. It was a true lesson in Montessori practice for me.” Ms. Cataldo would go on to teach alongside Ms. Somchanh and later become the head of school following the flood of 2008.
During her career, Ms. Somchanh excelled at introducing Montessori students to the five curriculum areas – practical life, sensorial, math, language, science, and cultural – with her trademark peaceful style and delivery, but she notes that “math and cultural are my favorite areas.” She also especially enjoys teaching reading. She recalls that she read so much as a child in her hometown of Luang Prabang amid poor lighting, that she now must rely on reading glasses.
Hala Azmeh, lead directress in the Lilac Room, has been a colleague of Ms. Somchanh’s for 12 years since she joined CVMS in 2006.
“Somchanh is phenomenal,” says Ms. Azmeh. “She is the one who attracted me to the Montessori philosophy on a deeper level.” Ms. Azmeh notes that she began substitute teaching at CVMS in 2005 and had the opportunity to sub in Ms. Somchanh’s classroom, offering her a first-hand glimpse into how Ms. Somchanh organizes her classroom and interacts with students. “She gives such a contentment to those around her. She gives off the vibe of being at peace – not only with herself but to those around her,” says Ms. Azmeh.
Ms. Somchanh’s bond with her fellow teachers and their respect for her was borne of her respect for them and their teaching abilities. “You learn from one another,” Ms. Somchanh says of her colleagues. “I would visit other classes and learn different approaches to Montessori. Every year I am in contact with new people and ideas.”
The respect that Ms. Somchanh – often called “Ms. Sunshine” – is accorded from her fellow teachers is evident. “She is irreplaceable,” says Ms. Azmeh. “The role model and mentor that she is for us as adults in this environment will be missed. Her wisdom, appreciation, demeanor and simplicity are astounding. She takes everything in stride.”
With a career that has spanned nearly four decades, Ms. Somchanh has had the “privilege” to teach multiple generations of one family.
For instance, Ms. Somchanh taught two of Ms. Cataldo’s children. The Head of School credits Ms. Somchanh with instilling in her kids the interest and ability to try new things, such as foods and ideas.
Emily (Johnson) Wilkinson was a student of Ms. Somchanh’s in the mid-1980s. Today, her son Jude is a student in Ms. Somchanh’s Bonsai Room.
“I loved school and loved to learn because Ms. Somchanh created such a nurturing environment,” says Ms. Wilkinson, who recalls that her favorite teacher also tutored her and a sibling in French one summer. They still have the language workbook that Ms. Somchanh created for their studies. “She inspired me to learn and made it fun. Her sweetness, gentle nature and calming personality are precisely why my introverted son connected with her – and I couldn’t love their bond more! She is the kind of dedicated teacher you hope every child has in their life, especially at a young and impressionable age.”
As she prepares to transition out of the classroom, Ms. Somchanh is fond of telling colleagues “what is mine is yours.” She plans to leave her meticulously cared for Montessori teaching materials in her classroom for use by future students and educators.
Ms. Somchanh has cultivated a legacy of kindness at CVMS, which she credits to her practice of Buddhism. “Be thankful for what we have,” she says. “Think good things and your mind will be pure.”
“Montessori is still the same in my heart.”