Inly Welcomes New Athletics Director: Coach Cathy

By E.S.S., Inly Parent

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Cathy Harder-Bernier figured out she was a Montessori parent the day she and her first-born son Dan, then age two, spent five minutes at the base of a steep flight of stairs.

“We were outside a store,” Cathy said, “and I knew most people would have just picked him and carried him in, but to me it just seemed right to let him try.”

A woman came by and told Cathy, “’You know, that’s how you’re supposed to do it,’” Cathy recalls. “You’re supposed to let them figure it out themselves.’ And that’s how I wanted to do it, and it’s how I’ve raised my kids. To be self-led.”


It was an “a-ha” moment that occurred 13 years before Cathy found her way here to Inly, where she is the new Phys-Ed specialist in charge of Inly’s growing athletics program.

“I can’t believe how seamlessly I fit here,” Cathy says, describing her arrival in her first Montessori environment. She comes to us from the South Shore YMCA where she worked for 10 years in the health and well-being department. Cathy holds a BA from University of Vermont and a Master’s in Education from Indiana University.

With its emphasis on self-determination and self-knowledge, Inly is, she says, everything she thought education should be—and the right environment for her particular brand of athletics training.

“It comes down to self-directed learning and individual responsibility,” Cathy says. “And that’s how I’m raising my kids, and that’s how I teach the kids here.”

Recently, this translated as a campus-wide game of Capture the Flag for the Middle Schoolers.  They were split into teams and given the run of Inly’s external space to compete.

“I stayed out of it,” she said. “I didn’t tell them to organize into offense and defense. But when they tried something and it didn’t work, I suggested they get together and have a meeting and see what kind of strategy they could come up with.” The result was an epic battle for two flags that was fun, energetic, and employed everyone’s skills appropriately.

Every child is different, Cathy says, and every community of learners is different. “Even if I have all three of the Lower Elementary classes and even if the planned activities are all the same, the classes end up being very different,” she says. Different groups of students have different skills, and different classes work together differently. “I have to stay creative to meet the kids where they’re at,” Cathy says.

How do you balance the children’s skills? I ask. How do you make sure that everyone gets something out of it?

“That’s just good teaching,” Cathy says. “It’s about meeting kids where they’re at and finding the extension for them. It requires time and patience and I’m a big one for differentiated instruction. I apply those principals to what I do in a phys. ed. class room.”

How do you help a kid who maybe, say, is more of the actress/ballerina/diva mindset—just for random example—learn to live with not being the class pro at soccer?

“I tell them the same thing I tell my own kids: just try it. Take a risk. And know that even if you’re not an expert, you’re going to have fun. You’re eventually going to have to compete, and there are some things you can take from athletics and competition that will serve you well all your life.”

The goal, Cathy says, isn’t to be great at every sport. It’s to develop lifelong skills regardless of innate athletic ability.

“For me it’s about being a lifelong active person. So I am trying to incorporate sports that you can play when you’re fifty—like softball. I think confidence is such a big part of it. I think kids are willing to take risks and try new things, but somewhere along the line with some kids, that stops because they realize that they’re not necessarily the best at it, it’s not their thing. But I want to encourage or nurture that willingness to take a risk, regardless of ability.”

And what does that mean for the growing Inly athletics program?

“Any specialist has a challenge, I think, to be a self-directed learning proponent within a forty-five minute bock of time,” Cathy responds. She is meeting that challenge, first, by assessing the children and determining their skill level and their group dynamics to generate lesson plans and long-term curriculum.

“The physical education program is almost a blank slate. Which is exciting at one turn, but then at the next turn it is also a big challenge. I think for me athletics and physical education and fitness can be and should be at least a part of everyone’s life in terms of the lifelong learning and fitness.  You’ve got one body; you’ve got to take care of it. And to have the confidence and the skills to pull off anything you want to do physically is a wonderful thing.”

[This post originally appeared in Rhythm & News, the Inly School newsletter, on April 9, 2010.]

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