A debilitating illness cannot keep Ana-Maria Brezniceanu from her dream of improving the education system

Ana-Maria Brezniceanu was 24 when a curious foot pain sent her to the doctor. It took the physician just a few minutes to make the diagnosis. “You have rheumatoid arthritis. By 40 you’ll be in a wheelchair. And I am sorry, but children are out of the question.”

Eighteen years have passed since that diagnosis. Today, Ana-Maria is a mother, teacher and entrepreneur. In November 2015, she was recognized by the US Embassy as Entrepreneur of the Month for founding the Bucharest Montessori School which now enrolls 160 students.

Ana-Maria is a cheerful person with an overwhelming amount of energy. When she talks about children, her face lights up. Her story is a miracle.

Off to Canada

Ana-Maria was born and raised in Romania. In 1997, she graduated from the Foreign Languages Faculty in Bucharest. After University she was hired as an assistant professor in the Romanian-American University and taught in the Institute of Foreign Languages. She was married in July of 2000. In 2001, she earned a Masters in Canadian Studies at the Bucharest University.

In April 2002, she moved to Canada. Ana-Maria says:

“I did not want to leave Romania, but my husband insisted. He thought it would be a good learning experience. In a sense, he was right.

I landed a pretty good job. It’s hard, because no matter what you did in Romania – you had to start at the bottom. I was basically a data entry clerk keeping track of teacher attendance at 36 different schools. Since my Romanian degrees did not matter much, I decided to enroll in a PhD program.

I chose to focus my PhD on education, rather than language studies. I realized that I loved to teach, no matter what the subject. I am able to drop down to a child’s level as easy as I can put myself in an adult’s shoes.”

Her days were very long and the data entry work was painful for her arthritic fingers. She would leave her job at 1:00 PM completely exhausted and nap at the university library. Once her PhD courses began at 5:30 PM her exhaustion was replaced with enthusiasm for her coursework and discussions. At 8:30 PM she would float home with renewed energy.

She reminisces about a favorite moment in her PhD work when she first learned about alternative education.

“I first came across alternative education when I was observing a class led by a Montessori teacher. I instantly fell in love with the method. There were 5 year old children in the class who were working with polyhedrals and proudly using the word ‘parallelepiped’.

Two girls were working on a puzzle map of Europe and putting Poland, Denmark, and Germany in their proper places. These children had a better visual map of Europe than I did! I thought, “When I have my own children, I’ll bring them to this teacher”.

Soon, Ana-Maria gave birth to a daughter, Teodora. But life got complicated. Divorce and the harsh Canadian winters took their toll on Ana-Maria’s health. After three years in Canada, she returned to Romania, where she could lean on the support of family and friends.

A new vision

The PhD research Ana-Maria started in Canada opened her mind to all sorts of new ideas in education. In particular, she was fascinated with the “whole child” education approach pioneered by the Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori.

In 2006, Ana-Maria created a vision for a whole new approach to education in Romania. She labeled it as “Education for Life”. It began with a kindergarten that later expanded to include a grade school and high school. It included a farm, which is a fantastic way to teach math, science and responsibility to children of all ages. And finally, it included a teacher training center.

In 2007, she created the Montessori Association and borrowed the money to open a kindergarten in September. The first step of her vision had become a reality.

The other new reality

Shortly before opening the Kindergarten, Ana-Maria traveled to San Francisco for a Montessori conference. Her left knee was swollen to twice its normal size. While her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) always caused pain, this pain was much more severe.

“One month after the kindergarten opened, I was in so much pain that I could not walk. By November, I could not even get out of bed. My weight declined to 74 pounds. My parents moved to Bucharest to care for me and my Teodora. Everyday, my mother would wash me and my father would put me in a wheelchair to take me to the school. I would visit parents in my office and share the Montessori principles. After school, I returned to my bed.

When Teodora got home from school, she would take her dolls – she really liked Barbie dolls – and we would play in bed. I couldn’t turn around from one side to another by myself. I laid on my back while she played on my tummy.

I had so many friends and family members supporting me and encouraging me to not give up on the school. But I felt so weak and helpless. I’m from a family of teachers who had no belief in God. I didn’t believe in God either. But when you are completely helpless, you look for help beyond yourself. I began to read Agios Nektarios’s prayers and asked Jesus for healing.

In August 2008 I attended a maslu (healing ceremony with oils) at the Radu Vodă monastery. That evening I experienced horrible shaking in bed for three hours. I was covered with six blankets, but it was not enough to stop the tremors.

In the midst of this, though, I saw an image of myself dressed in white clothing and walking without pain. I took it as a sign that God was going to heal me.

I promised God that as soon as I could walk I would visit Saint Nektarios’ Monastery on Aegina Island.

One month later, my doctor called to say the Ministry of Health had a new IV therapy medicine for RA and asked if I wanted to be one of the ten recipients. Of course I said yes, and by January of 2009 I was experiencing less pain. As I continued the IV therapy, the pain slowly disappeared. I was able to give 100% to the school. In 2010, we repaid all the debt from opening the kindergarten and in 2011 we expanded to open the grade school.

One in million

In October 2012, Ana-Maria was receiving her regular IV therapy when she met another RA patient taking the same medicine. But after a year of IV therapy, this woman was still in horrible pain. It made Ana-Maria wonder if she had been healed by the medicine or by God.

A month later, she noticed a poster at church about a pilgrimage to Saint Nektarios’ Monastery. Ana-Maria remembered her forgotten promise that she had made to God four years earlier. In March 2013, while attending a RA conference in Spain, she heard a French doctor say that there was only a one in a million chance of RA patients becoming pain-free without medicine. In her spirit, she felt certain that God had healed her pain, not the medicine.

In April 2013, she told her physician that she was stopping the IV therapy. Her physician, (whom she describes as one of the most extraordinary people she has ever met) was not pleased but supported Ana-Maria’s decision. The doctor’s only condition was that if the pain returned, that Ana-Maria would go back on the medicine. Ana-Maria agreed and left for her long-overdue visit to Aegina Island and Saint Nektarios’ Monastery.

“There are no words to describe the experience on Aegina. It was too beautiful for words. The best word that I have is ‘gratitude’. Not just for my healing, but also for the little blessings that exist every day that I had taken for granted. I think every person, if they wanted to, could lie in their bed at night and find at least one little, unexpected blessing in the day to be grateful for.”

Back to the School

Ana-Maria remains medicine-free and pain-free. Her schools continue to grow, with 160 students enrolled and 70 families on the waiting list.

The classrooms look like spacious living rooms. Each subject has its own library with materials specific to the Montessori method: pizzas with colored slices that can be disassembled and used to demonstrate the principles of fractions, colored letters, puzzle maps, books, and students’ projects proudly displayed on the walls.

“We teach them to describe things in their own words, not to copy from a book. We teach them what plagiarism is from a young age,” she says, half joking.

Walking out of the school, we gathered around a quote by Maria Montessori written on the wall. We read it together:

“Welcome every child as if you believed, in the depths of your heart, that she is the one who can save the whole world.”

The Future

As we wrap up, Ana-Maria brings us back to her favorite subject – education.

“My dream is to build a teacher training center. Being a teacher is one of the most important occupations in the world. It is also one of the most difficult, because each child learns differently. There are so many ways to learn multiplication. What works for Mary, might not work for Tom.

Good teaching ignites a passion for exploration and paves the way for lifelong learning. Good teaching is individualized and requires lots of training in classroom management. Good teaching means managing parent relationships. We need to help our teachers succeed.

There is another issue, a more sensitive issue. The social, emotional and moral development of children is only possible with teachers who have maturity in those three points of view. Communism left a unique legacy of emotional wounds on all of us. Each teacher inherited life experiences that influenced their own attitude towards children’s emotions (anger, sadness) and difficult life situations children have at home (divorce, neglect, aggression, spoiling etc.). Even with the most fascinating lessons, a teacher cannot reach a child if the former, or the latter, has an important emotional wound.

Teaching is a such noble vocation, and my greatest ambition is to encourage, support and develop teachers. Our future is in their hands.”