Dharmaraj Iyer: An MIT Graduate Reflects on Teaching in the Living Wisdom Schools

MIT graduate Dharmaraj Iyer taught at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California.

Dharmaraj taught math and science for several years at the Living Wisdom Schools at Palo Alto, California and Ananda Village near Nevada City, California. This is his farewell talk to the students, teachers, and parents of Palo Alto LWS, where he taught for six years.


Thank you, children, thank you friends, thank you students, and thank you, Helen and everyone.

I want to start by saying that sun block is a wonderful invention. (laughter) I seem to rediscover it every year – but not right away. (laughter)

dharmarajToday marks six years to the day that I have been at the school. My first experience of Living Wisdom School was six years ago, at an end-of-year ceremony. And I want to say a little bit about the journey that got me to that place.

I was a graduate student at MIT in computer science, and I had been offered a summer job at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), not too far away. And my main interest in taking the job was so that I could live in the Ananda Community in Mountain View.

I had been a member of Ananda for three years, and I had always wanted to live in a community, but had never been able to until then.

So I moved here. I arrived at the community, and then soon after, in fact on the second day, having started my job, I talked to Asha Praver, who is one of the leaders of the community. And she said, “Have you ever had an interest in teaching children?”

I said, “Well…”

I mean, here I was doing research in Bayesian feedback algorithms for automatic text categorization. And along comes Asha and asks me, “Do you want to teach children?”

And I had to pause and take the question inside, because it was one of those moments when the mind just stops. And I said, “Yes – I would be interested in teaching children.” And it was a moment of inspiration that I acted on, because it felt right.

Later my mind kicked in, and I said, “Well, you know, I’m not as experienced in science as I am in math. I’ve only taken courses in biology and chemistry in high school, and I only did physics through college. So I’m not sure I could teach the science as well.”

And she said, “Well, yes, but you’d be talking to kindergartners about the weather.” (laughter)

And so it was a bit hard to beg out of that. Asha invited me to come to the end-of-year ceremony, which was on Friday. This was 1999. And I was amazed.

I didn’t know any of the children. I didn’t know any of the teachers. I had just arrived here. So I came to the school’s end-of-year ceremony, which we’re having again today.

And I couldn’t believe the teachers, their poise, and their obviously caring nature. But what impressed me even more was the students.

The children, from age five to fourteen, were talking about a special “quality” that the teachers had given them. And I thought it was very inspiring that each child received a certificate of appreciation for a special quality that the teachers saw in them, and that the student had tried hard to develop during the year.

The students’ presence on stage simply bowled me over. Their ability to talk with poise and to give a mature speech, and the feeling that they projected – I was moved to tears a few times, by the sincerity and clarity with which the children spoke. And I said to myself, “I don’t really know the philosophy of this school, but I know that it works.”

Because you can’t fake those qualities. And that’s what made me sign up to teach here.

Now came the process of asking the school if they were interested in hiring me. Asha introduced me to one of the other teachers after the ceremony. She said, “This is Dharmaraj, and he’s interested in teaching at the school.” And this experienced teacher, with appropriate caution, said, “Well, that’s nice.” (laughter) “Many people are interested in teaching at our school, and we don’t necessarily have a whole lot of openings right now, but we’ll keep you in mind. What is your area of expertise?”

I said, “Math, science, and computers.” Her head swiveled sharply, and she lasered-in on me and said, “Really…” (laughter)

And it turned out that both of the science teachers, Sandy and Sonya, would be spending just one more year at the school, before they moved on. So I came just in time.

I visited the school over the summer, during the Selfish Giant theater workshop, and I came into a classroom and saw these beautiful children concentrating on their fantastic artwork. Three of the regular teachers were there, and they were guiding the children, and the children were clearly very enthusiastic and inspired.

I saw a little boy named Max who was deeply focused on his drawing, and I thought, “What a perfect little saint. What would there be to teach these children?! They must certainly teach themselves.” And little Max was working away, until finally he completed his drawing, and then as he finished it, he held it up and gazed at it for a moment in wonder. And then he said, “CLARE I”LL SELL YOU THIS FOR A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!! A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!!” (laughter)

So I thought maybe there was something that we adults could share.

But that day began a long journey of discovery in teaching. My friends would sometimes ask me, “How do you like teaching?” And I would say, “It’s really fun, and it’s really hard.”

It was very hard to have all of these thoughts about math, science, and computer science as I understood them, and then struggle to find ways to make them crystal clear to someone else.

I tended to learn more abstractly, at least in my recent years. And my students didn’t necessarily take to abstraction. They might prefer visual or auditory or written ways of learning. They might like to write about their experience in math, linking their language and mathematical minds together.

Dharmaraj teaches a lively middle school math class.
Dharmaraj teaches a lively middle school math class.

While I was still learning how to become a good teacher, Swami Kriyananda told me, “You need to make the abstract concepts clear by concrete examples.” So whenever I would teach science, I would try to give the children a hands-on experience, and concrete examples in their own lives. Because otherwise it was just words and abstract concepts. And that’s very cold and impersonal, and not very interesting and easy to forget.

But the real challenge, as every teacher knows, is not even the content, when you’re first starting out as a teacher. It is what we call “classroom management.” (laughter)

Classroom management, in the beginning, means, as a young teacher, trying not to cry. (laughter)

Then, as you progress, it evolves into trying not to yell. (laughter)

And then finally you get to the point of being able to try to inspire the children through calm, quiet words. For example, I would be doing my job as a teacher and thinking that it was completely impossible, and then I would see the example of one or another of the great teachers we have here. And one of them would just say at the end of an active playtime, very quietly, “Children.” (laughter) And all of the heads, all of the desks, all of the chairs, and all of the pencils in the room would move and point to her. (laughter)

And so I knew it was possible to learn this skill.

During my first year, Helen was my supervising teacher. She trained me throughout the first year I taught in the fifth through seventh grade classrooms.

She was immensely valuable, first of all in her example, of the way she was with the children, and the way she spoke to them. And also she was able to give me feedback, as I would stand up in front of the firing squad and deliver a few things before I went down in flames. And she would give me feedback about what went wrong, and why. She made all it very clear. And she tolerated my many woes.

There was a time, about halfway into the first year, when I said, “Does it get easier?” And she said, “Well, the first three years are awful, but then…” But I couldn’t get past that. “The first three years!!??” Because I was just trying to make it through next week. (laughter)

But of course, it was with a certain relish that I reached the third year and found out she was right.

But what made teaching hard, of course, was not the students. It was me having to face my own self, as we all do. When you ask seven students to do something, and they don’t, what are you going to do? Are you going to cry, yell, or calmly inspire?

That, again, is what makes teaching hard for every one of us. And when it comes to leading anyone, the hardest thing is the way you have to face yourself – and change.

Before I came to LWS, I wasn’t convinced that it was possible to teach in the right way. I didn’t know what the right way was. I knew that some of my own teachers had done it as I grew up, and some of them had not.

And, again, I wasn’t sure how to explain what the right way was. You would always have a gifted person here and there. But I didn’t really know if it was a skill that could be learned, on the whole.

But then I met the wonderful teachers here and watched them through the years. I met Helen and saw the way she taught. I saw all of the teachers, all of them teaching in the right way. And again, I wasn’t even sure what it was, but I knew it was right, because I saw that it worked beautifully, and it felt right. And the children showed it.

Then Gary came, and Ghislaine, and Megan, and I saw that they all taught in the right way, too. And so I began to wonder, “What is it that’s so special about our experience here?” Because it wasn’t only the gifted teachers, and the wonderful students, and the dedicated parents.

I realized that part of the power of our school, and what made it all work, was the Education for Life philosophy. The power of small classroom sizes. The power of circle time. The power of meditation and prayer and chanting. The spiritual lives of the teachers, and the students, and their families. And the plays, through which the children are able to live the life of a great saint, by acting out that life, and experiencing it, and trying to understand it. Because they’re the ones who are going to have to tell the story. And, of course, it is the active blessings of Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, who are the founders of our educational philosophy.

And these, of course, are all things that some might say, and some do say, “Do these interfere with the students becoming really good at academics?”

And, in fact, as we’ve all come to see, they not only do not interfere, but they support and enhance the academics. First of all, the proof is self-evident in the top-level high schools and universities where our graduates go, and where they thrive. Those who wish get into extremely competitive high schools in this area and outside of the Bay Area.

Our students who can go extremely fast with the academic curriculum are allowed to do so. They take it as fast as we can give it, and we give it as fast as they can take it.

There are students who go into high school placing out of algebra, having completed the entrance exams. They do very well on the standardized tests. This year, Rose placed out of first-year science, and she’s moving right into sophomore biology. They’ve had their poetry published. There are so many outward accomplishments that support the claim that the academics are only enhanced by all of these cross-curricular enrichment programs.

But what of the students who take the curriculum more slowly, at their own pace? I’ve always been glad to say that I have always felt, and I think it’s always true, that the students who need more time are not left behind at LWS. In fact, Keith Devlin, a famous mathematician at Stanford University, visited our school last year, and afterward he said to me, “This is a wonderful school. Do all of your students excel in math?”

I said, “Well, all of the students in the school, through the efforts of the teachers, all of the teachers, may not excel in math, but they all like math.” And he was very impressed, and I was very proud to be able to say it.

Now, Samantha and Sarah are looking at each other. (laughter) But I said it because I felt it was very true. And that was something I could be proud of, and we can all be proud of.

Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer
Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer

It’s six years later now, and just as I felt the call to move here and start teaching, Dharmini and I feel the call to move on. We have wanted to move to Ananda Village for a number of years, and now finally the time has felt right. She will be working at the Expanding Light guest retreat center, with the guests there, and possibly also working with some students in music. I’ll be teaching in the fourth through sixth grade classroom there, and I’ll help with high school math and computers.

Good-bys are always hard. There’s no shortcut around the sorrow of parting. But this not really a funeral, I’m not dying. In fact, we’re not even moving until July. So we’re going to be here for quite some time, and I’m already planning my first return visit in the fall.

Also, Therese Ducharme, who is taking over the math and science teacher position, was my first choice. And I’m so glad and relieved to pass the torch on to her. I know she’s going to do a magnificent job.

So here we are, at the end of six years, and I’ll just say that I’m very grateful for my time in service to you all here. The teachers are my friends. And my dear students, and all you dear, dedicated parents and friends, it has truly been a tremendous blessing in my life. Thank you.