Ch. 17: A Conversation with LWS Kindergarten Teacher Lilavati Aguilar

Although Lilavati now teaches kindergarten, she is intimately familiar with the needs of children throughout the Feeling Years, having taught first grade and yoga and Spanish at Living Wisdom School. Before coming to LWS, she taught for seventeen years at a public middle school.

Lilavati Aguilar

Q: Can you tell us about your background, perhaps going back as far as your childhood?

Lilavati: When our sixth-grade teacher asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember how I unhesitatingly raised my hand and said, “A teacher!”

I loved school, not so much for the school itself but for the learning, and I deeply wanted to be a teacher. I got sidetracked for a while working as a bookkeeper, but when I had kids of my own, I decided that I didn’t want to be a working mom, so I got a daycare license and started caring for a half-dozen kids in our home. When the kids reached preschool age, I started a preschool that ran for three and a half years, and I loved the experience so much that I returned to school for a teaching credential. And that’s how I came full circle back to my dream of being a teacher.

Q: Where did you start teaching?

Lilavati: I liked being with the little kids, so I taught kindergarten, then I spent several years as an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language). I eventually decided that I would prefer something a little more focused, because running around teaching kids from kindergarten through eighth grade was a bit hectic. For the next four years I taught seventh grade at Half Moon Bay, then I moved to Castro Valley, where I taught middle school for seventeen years.

When I heard of Education for Life, about five years ago, I was immediately intrigued. I took a wonderful workshop with Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom. And I remember thinking, “I believe this is how education should be. I wonder if I can apply these ideas with the thirty kids in my public school classroom.”

I realized that there were parts of Education for Life that you could apply very effectively in public school. For example, EFL is very direct and experiential—it’s not only about learning by reading a book. My classes became more hands-on, with activities that helped the kids experience how the concepts they were learning would apply in real life.

For example, if we were studying the archaeology of Early Man, we would make tools and bows and arrows, and we would bury them so that another class could come along and do an archaeological dig and excavate them.

It was very motivating for the students, and the learning became deeper and more memorable, because kids always learn more deeply if they can experience something directly, instead of just studying it in the abstract.

In Education for Life, we’re constantly focusing on the child’s highest potential, and figuring out how we can help children realize their best self. As teachers, we’re always asking, “What does this child’s best self look like? What is their
highest potential as a human being?”

Lilavati and kindergarten teaching aide Aram Magholi support a student while she gives her
Qualities speech during the LWS End-of-Year Ceremony.

I was teaching sixth grade, where the Feeling Years end and the Will Power Years begin, at around age 12. I could see that the kids were starting to make the major transition from being these idealistic little kids who loved stories and fantasy play and art, to kids who were becoming more interested in challenges to their will power. And, you know, that’s why middle school can be a rough ride, because they’re in that major transition. (laughs)

At any rate, even though I was teaching a big class in public school, I found that I could encourage the higher qualities of the kids, like kindness and even-mindedness and courage, that are essential features of a refined human being.

That’s a very strong part of the Education for Life curriculum, where you’re looking to foster and nurture and encourage those higher qualities. It’s a very powerful way to teach, because it makes the children feel that their needs are being met on every level, and that we aren’t just trying to fill their heads with facts. We’re bringing their hearts into the educational process, and it’s profoundly motivating for them.

The experience of bringing EFL principles into a public school classroom showed me how helpful it is for kids when you can give them the nondenominational spiritual tools of meditation and yoga. With the backing of the school administration, I started a middle school yoga club. We meditated in class, and it was immediately obvious how it was helping them. If you teach kids how they can take a deep breath and relax for as little as a minute, and get focused and calm before they take a test, they actually do better. The kids could feel the difference, and they loved it.

The parents were supportive, though there was some initial concern about whether it was “spiritual,” which you have to avoid in public school. But they were won over when they saw how it was helping the kids.

When I came to Living Wisdom School, I was a little worried about leaving the excellent yoga program we had put in place—they had started calling it Mindfulness in the Public Schools, and it was going really well. But they brought in somebody to carry it on, and I could see that they were doing a good job, so I was able to let it go.

I have to say that I’m much happier at Living Wisdom School, because everything just makes more sense. I don’t have to be so careful with the vocabulary, because meditation and yoga are embraced as an accepted part of the curriculum, and as useful tools for helping the kids.

At LWS the older and younger kids mix freely
and play together as friends.

Q: Can you tells us about your experience making the transition to teaching at LWS?

Lilavati: One thing that stands out for me is that there’s a great deal of collaboration among the teachers. As part of my preparation, I took the online Education for Life program, where you can talk with EFL teachers worldwide. You can try an aspect of EFL in the classroom, and you can talk about it and receive suggestions for improving it.

There’s a ton of online conferencing, and it’s a great way to connect. When I came here, Helen, our director, told me she was looking for someone to co-teach first grade with Danielle, so that’s how I started. I’m now teaching kindergarten full-time, but my first year was a bit of this-and-that. I taught Spanish and yoga to all the kids in the school, from kindergarten through eighth grade. I introduced some yoga sequences into our annual school play, on the life of Paramhansa Yogananda.

The variety made for an interesting start, but I love teaching more than ever since I’ve been here. I like the kids, and I have a lot of energy for what I’m doing. And even though the first year was a bit of a scramble, I had lots of support, and it was fun to get to know all seventy-plus students and their teachers.

Q: Having taught in public school and at LWS, you’re familiar with what it’s like for the kids in each system.

Lilavati: One thing that struck me right away when I came here is that all of the kids, especially those who had been with the program from kindergarten, but also the kids who’d come more recently, were kinder. Also, they were more focused. But it was the kindness and openness that really struck me about the kids.

In public school, everyone’s a little bit guarded, and the students have to hold their energy back. You hear about cliques, and the kids will have their safe groups, but at LWS you can see that their hearts are open, and that they know how to get along together regardless of the differences in age. The middle schoolers really do take care of the younger ones, and the little ones feel that they can go to the older kids for help or support or fun.

During the year that I taught Spanish to all of the kids in the school, it struck me that they really knew how to be focused, and that they could pay attention, and that they were more centered. I think it’s partly due to meditation, because the kids have time every day to settle down and get centered.

Q: I’ve noticed the quality of kindness in the kids, how they cooperate, and how there’s an absence of putting people down. I’ll see them working together in pairs, and it’s remarkable how focused they are. Teachers with big classes in public schools will often have to spend a lot of time on behavioral issues, but the learning here seems to go more smoothly and efficiently.

LWS Science Fair

Lilavati: Yes, because each child gets to go at his or her own pace. If they’re advanced, they don’t have to wait for the whole class to catch up, so they aren’t spending long periods sitting there getting bored. And if they’re struggling and need attention, there’s a teacher or a teaching aide or another student who’s more than happy to help. But if a student has the ability to race ahead in math, they won’t be held back, because there’s support for them to learn at their level.

We had some amazing children when I co‑taught first grade with Danielle. One little girl was starting fourth-grade math, and one of the boys was doing third-grade math. He was into inventions and figuring out how things work, and we were able to give him time to explore on his own or with the other students, with plenty of support from the teachers.

Q: How do you make connections with the kids so that you can start to help them individually?

Lilavati: You start making connections from the very first day. Eye contact is very important—making sure that when they come into the classroom they’re acknowledged. It might be with a hug, a handshake, or something else that says, “You’re here. I see you. You see me. We’re connected. Let’s have fun today.” It happens at the start of every school day.

As teachers, we’re given the time and freedom here to observe each child and see what sparks their interest. And when you see that twinkle in their eye, you have the freedom to notice it and encourage it.

Q: Can you describe a typical day at the school?

Lilavati: Kindergarten is quite a bit different from the other grades, because the kindergarteners haven’t really entered the Feeling Years. They’re still in the Foundation Years from birth to age 6, when they’re working on their gross motor skills, gaining their balance by playing on the jungle gym, and so on. So they require a lot more play time. At this age, they learn by playing in the sand, building things with blocks, digging in the dirt, and running around.

When I co-taught first grade, we would start with a fun activity to raise the energy and get the children focused. They could decide if they wanted to play with Legos or draw, so we gave them some choice, but with an underlying structure. Then we would have Circle Time and sing a few songs and chants, and we’d meditate a little and do a little yoga and stretching. It was a time for everybody to get centered and connected at the
start of the school day.

Recess.

After Circle Time we would go for a walk to get some fresh air and oxygen into their brains before we settled down to do math. All of the grades do math first thing in the morning, and you can feel the math energy running through the school. (laughs) Then it’s time for snacks. And, again, everybody’s on the playground together—the kindergarteners are right there with the eighth graders. And yes, they really do play together. It’s fun to see a giant eighth grader and a tiny kindergartener playing basketball, and to see how the eighth graders are supporting them. We’ve had some really good basketball players among the little guys, and it’s amazing to watch them. (laughs)

After snacks, we usually have language arts. In kindergarten we emphasize reading and phonics, but we also do Writer’s Workshop, where the kids can write about something that interests them. They write some amazing poetry and stories, and their best work is published in the school literary magazine at the end of the year. So they get to experience what it’s like to be a published author!

In the afternoon, they’ll have electives like Spanish and singing, and core subjects like science, social studies, and art.

Q: We haven’t talked about the Feeling Years specifically. What are your thoughts on teaching kids at that stage of their lives?

Lilavati: I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this. At around age 6, sometime between kindergarten and first grade, the children are transitioning from the Foundation Years to the Feeling Years. As I mentioned, kindergarten needs to be very playful and physical and hands-on, but in first grade they’re starting to awaken to their social world. At the start of kindergarten and earlier, there’s a lot of what I call “parallel play,” where they’re playing together, but they’re really just sitting side by side and playing.

But also in kindergarten they start to interact a little more, and you can see how the social-emotional component begins to come in, and how they’re playing together in a more meaningful way. I spend lots of time thinking about how to get the kids to connect in positive ways, and how to encourage that.

One of the key things we do at LWS to encourage cooperation, kindness, and helpfulness is to notice it and point it out to the children. If a child is doing something that expresses a higher feeling, showing kindness or being helpful, we’ll point it out so it doesn’t go unnoticed, and they’ll learn
how these positive attitudes work and how they feel.

Kindergartners read before a Theater Magic dress rehearsal.

I might say, “You put away the blocks after you were done! That was so helpful!” During our summer camp I watched two little boys who wanted to use the drinking fountain. It was a great big concrete thing with a water spout on top, and one of the boys climbed up so he could reach the water, but then he couldn’t push the button to make the water go. When the other boy pushed the button for him so he could get a drink, I walked up and said, “Wow! You pushed the button so he could get a drink! That was so helpful!” They both smiled real wide, and then the little boy got down and gave the other boy a great big hug and said, “You’re a good friend!” It was so adorable—you could feel the warm fuzzies all around. (laughs)

When they help each other, if you point it out they will notice how they’re feeling and learn that it makes them feel happy. Or you can ask them, “How did that feel?” so they can articulate it themselves.

If they grab a toy and the other child starts crying, they might be surprised. “Why are you crying? All I did was grab the toy!” You can ask them to stop and think about it. “How did that feel? That didn’t feel so good, huh? Well, how can we go back and make it better?”

Just as you have to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic, you have to teach them how kindness works. How it feels when you’re kind, and how it feels when you’re not kind. So there’s a lot of teaching that needs to happen, beyond the academics.

Q: Does it create a better learning environment, when you’re addressing issues of feeling that could otherwise become a distraction in the classroom—if they’re arguing, getting angry, or just wanting to act out, and they don’t know how to manage their energy in a positive way?

Lilavati: Yes, that’s exactly why you need a school like this, where everyone feels safe and connected. Because it frees their brains so they can use what we call their “executive skills” in the prefrontal lobe. If children feel safe, connected, and loved, they’re much more free to learn.

Q: Do these behavioral things weave together with what you’re trying to accomplish with the kids in math and science and language arts?

Lilavati: They do. It’s something I’ve definitely noticed here. We’re always devoting a great deal of attention to helping the kids get back to a place where everyone is feeling positive. If there’s some kind of kerfuffle between the kids, an altercation of some kind, you make sure to address it right away, and you make sure it’s a learning experience, not a punitive experience, so they can see what doesn’t work and how it feels. Then you can help them correct it and understand how that feels.

You might say, “Let’s rewind the situation. What could you have said? You wanted the block. Okay, instead of grabbing, what could you say?” And if you do it every time something comes up, you end up with a safe, connected environment, so that when math comes around the kids feel completely free to concentrate.

Q: How does learning take place at Living Wisdom School? In math, for example, what is the instruction like? How is it different from what would happen in a classroom with thirty kids?

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney tutors sixth-grader Vinca.

Lilavati: In math class, again, there’s constant individualized learning. Also, we make it very experiential, so it’s not just all workbooks and lecturing. You have to make it more than a brain exercise; you have to make it a positive experience that engages them fully.

When I taught first grade and the kids were learning about money, we had them make art that they could sell. We invited the kindergarteners to come in and buy the items, and we gave them real money. The first graders had to tell the customer how much it cost, and accept the money and make change. So they were learning about money, but they were also learning math. It was an experience that was fun and real for them, and they learned a tremendous amount because it was very hands-on. There are lots of activities that we do to make the learning a real-life experience.

Q: Mahita, the former LWS kindergarten teacher, described how the kids were using fourth-grade math concepts in kindergarten.

Lilavati: Yes, because it’s allowed. At Living Wisdom School they can go as far as they want to, and they don’t have to wait for the other kids.

Q: What are your connections like with the kids?

Lilavati: When I taught Spanish to the whole school, it was a wonderful way to make connections, because I met every one of the kids, and now they all know me.

I was impressed by how open the students were toward me, even at the beginning. They are so open to people. “Oh, here’s a new person. I wonder what they’re like.” Rather than, “Oh, here’s a new person—better watch out until I know what’s going on with them.” Which is what you’ll often get in public school.

Q: Is there a different feeling between public school and Living Wisdom School, in terms of not having the state looking over your shoulder and expecting you to meet a set of prescribed standards? Obviously the kids need to be achieving at a certain level in academics, but how does it compare with the pressures of teaching a state-mandated curriculum?

Lilavati: We have very high expectations around academics. We look at the Common Core standards, to make sure the kids are keeping up. But so many of our kids are going way beyond Common Core because of the individual instruction. We make assessments, but not with a nervous feeling of “Oh, gosh, how are they going to do on the test?” Because most of them will be going so far beyond the test standards. The focus here is on “How high can they go?” As opposed to “Are they going to meet the standard?”

Paula and Milan.

We’re constantly looking at their highest potential, and finding ways to encourage them to push their limits. How high can they go and still maintain a certain comfort level? Again, rather than “Oh my God, we have all these tests we have to give them.”

Q: If a child is working at the upper level of their comfort zone, how would you work with that child?

Lilavati: Again, it’s completely individual. I’m thinking of a little girl who’s in first grade, but doing third-grade math. She was working with measurements and pushing her edges, because she’s very interested and loves math, but she wasn’t comfortable with measurements. She had to measure her classmates to see how tall they were and then make a little graph. And because she wasn’t sure how to use a yardstick or a tape measure, it was pushing her limits. But she really wanted to go there, and because we had two teachers in the class, I had the freedom to spend a whole period explaining tape measures and yardsticks.

Socially, she was fine with going up to the other kids and saying, “Can you come over here so I can measure you?” The kids thought it was great fun. But she was at the edge of her learning when it came to converting inches to feet, and dealing with the tools that had metric measurements on one side and inches and feet on the other.

At Living Wisdom School the children push their limits, not because we’re pushing them but because they want to learn, because it’s so rewarding for them when they’re able to go at their own pace. And as teachers, it’s a matter of helping them. That’s true for Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies—we’re constantly challenging them, but it’s completely individual, so they’re eager to learn because we’re helping them at their own level and it’s very rewarding for them.

Q: Are you saying that your role is to help the kids have success experiences?

Lilavati: Yes, that’s my job! (laughs) Really, that’s what I think a teacher is supposed to do.

In many schools you’re restrained from doing that, if you’re with thirty kids, or you’re in middle school and seeing ninety to a hundred and twenty kids every day. You do your best, but you can’t possibly give your complete focus to each child in that kind of situation.

Appearances can deceive! These children are not just having fun putting on the annual all-school play. They are deeply engaged with lessons in history, geography, language arts, communication skills, presentation, self-control, concentration, diction, public speaking, acting, singing, memorization, and not infrequently, math and science.

As a teacher you have time, in our school, to get to know each child and make a connection, and realize what brings their energy up, what they’re interested in, what their passion is, and what their talents are. And then you can help them build on their talents and their inclinations and help them overcome their particular challenges.

I remember a little girl in first grade who was very much into princesses. She was a fantastic artist and she made beautiful drawings—but math? Not so much. But you could say to her, “The princess had six shoes, and she bought four more shoes. How many shoes does she have?” You could bring her interests into the part of the curriculum that was challenging for her.

The Feeling Years are a very open time for learning, especially about higher values. We’re very careful when it comes to the books we choose for them to read—we’re always picking books that are going to be uplifting and support their positive feelings. The Theater Magic program very powerfully fulfills that need for them, because it’s about an inspiring person or a saint whose life story uplifts the children.

In my first year, we produced a play about Paramhansa Yogananda. It was so much fun, and of course the kids are amazing. Every child in the school plays a role in the play, and their maturity really shines. Even the littlest ones are so professional about what they’re doing—they want to know their lines and their cues, and they’re very serious, because they want to get it just right. Their enthusiasm for it comes from deep inside them. It’s not something we have to press on them.

With the kindergarteners, it’s a little different. At that age, it really is more like herding cats because they’re still focused on learning to deal with their bodies and senses. But with the first graders it’s a little easier, because they’re entering the Feeling Years. They can be more focused on their interactions and the inspiration of the play. And by the time they get to middle school they’re completely focused and very receptive to the learning that comes from such a big experience.

I just want to add that I feel immensely blessed to have found Education for Life, and to be able to work at Living Wisdom School. I go to work every day knowing that all of the teachers are not only trying to help the students be their best selves, but that they are bringing their own highest self to their role as teachers, and into every part of their life.

It helps that every teacher, no matter what their background, has a spiritual practice of some kind, where they’re learning to center themselves so they can teach from a deep calmness.

LWS is a safe environment for the teachers as well as the children. We can seek help if a lesson plan doesn’t work, or if an encounter with a student needs more attention. We can go to one another and know that we’ll be supported and connected. Because, just like the kids, we also need to feel safe and loved so all of our creativity and wisdom flows into our teaching. We are very fortunate to have this jewel of a school in our area, and I hope that more and more families will find us and recognize what an exceptional place for learning and growth it is.

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