Ahead of the class

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Eric Dustman

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.

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

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.