A Conversation with Kindergarten Teacher Mahita Matulich
Q: How did you become a teacher at Living Wisdom School?
Mahita: I first heard of the school about six years ago. I was living in San Ramon, in my spiritual teacher’s ashram, and my roommate invited me to the school’s annual theater production.
I was completely blown away – I could not believe the quality of the performances, and the energy and poise of the children.
Over the next several years I saw the plays on Krishna, Hafiz, and the Dalai Lama. I would watch the plays and leave feeling so moved afterward. I had been studying early childhood education, and then my roommate introduced me to Helen and Gary, and I came on as an intern.
Q: What has it been like to teach kindergarten here?
Mahita: I love teaching here – it’s been a great blessing. But I was surprised by how much energy it took. During my first year, my greatest challenge was to adjust my energy to the needs of the children. The energy that’s required of our teachers is tremendous, especially when you’re working with young children.
I have to be very mindful of my actions, my words, and my interactions with each child. With children of four, five, and six, even the smallest interaction can be very significant for them, especially when it’s coming from their teacher, and it requires that I be very aware.
Q: Have you always wanted to teach? Kabir MacDow, our first-grade teacher, knew practically from the day he was born that he would be a teacher.
Mahita: I’d never really thought about teaching, but I had some very strong ideas about education, based on my own early experiences. My mother is a professor and my grandmother was a teacher, so there was always lots of encouragement in our family to be lifelong learners. But I had no idea that teaching was what God had in store for me.
As a child, I had an incredible kindergarten teacher, and I have vivid memories of my experiences with her. In fact, my first three teachers touched my life profoundly, because they inspired our creativity and joy in learning. As a result I grew up knowing what a tremendous difference it makes for children to have strong teachers in their earliest years.
Q: You mentioned creativity and learning in the same breath. That’s a strong theme in this school, isn’t it, to tie those together?
Mahita: Oh, it’s huge. Last year, a woman said to me during an open house, “How do you get the children to do things?” And I just had to laugh aloud, because it’s so naturally a part of what we’re doing, and I’ve never had to consider how I could motivate the children.
The way the children’s classroom experience is set up, they’re given a tremendous number of opportunities to exercise their creativity, and it really engages them in what they’re doing.
With a math activity, I’ll say, “What kind of math story do you want to write?” Or, “What kind of math story do you want to tell? Do you want to tell it with stuffed animals, or do you want to tell it using math cubes? Or do you want to tell your math story by drawing a picture?”
The emphasis on creativity that is such a major part of our school culture inspires the children to want to participate. They aren’t as likely to resist learning when they’re in a space that welcomes their ideas and their creative energy.
Q: Is it bringing their hearts into the equation, instead of just drilling facts?
Mahita: Yes, it’s bringing the heart, the enthusiasm, and honoring each child by letting them know, “You’re important, and what you value, and your experiences, are important to me.” It’s telling the child that it matters a great deal to me as their teacher how they want to pour their creativity into a project, and how they want to approach their math and other subjects.
Q: Do you interact with the other teachers? Do you feel that you’re part of a team?
Mahita: I do. It’s a little different because I’m working with the youngest children – I have mostly five-year-olds in my classroom, with a few four-years-olds and six-year-olds.
But I’m very inspired by the other teachers. I look up to them, and I know that I can count on them when I need their help. The feeling isn’t so much of a team; it’s more that I know they’re solid, and that they’ll be there. They’re like old trees that I can go sit under and get shade or relief or wisdom, and we can talk about any kind of situation that might arise with a child. If I’m trying to figure out how to help a child have more energy, or if a child is feeling sad, I can ask the teachers what they’ve done in similar situations. It’s a very solid support system.
Q: Did your early education influence the kind of teacher you want to be?
Mahita: As I mentioned, I was lucky to have amazing teachers in kindergarten and first and second grade. And then, after second grade, I became bored and disinterested with public school. I was a very smart child, and I wanted to learn – I wanted to feel engaged, and it wasn’t happening. So when I was in fifth grade my dad took me out of public school and home-schooled me. We were living in Santa Cruz, where there are beautiful redwood forests and beaches, and I spent two years with my father, learning about nature and reading and doing math outdoors. And that early experience has profoundly influenced the way I teach.
After being home-schooled, I skipped sixth grade, then I skipped eighth grade and most of high school, and I finished high school when I was fifteen. I went to a community college, and after getting my degree I spent some time traveling with my spiritual teacher. Then I became very interested in finding a career that would be in alignment with my goal of helping create a more peaceful world.
The experience of being home-schooled by my father showed me how powerful it is when you challenge children in meaningful ways. I feel it’s very important that the children in my classroom are challenged, and that they don’t become disinterested. If I sense that the children are sleepy, or there’s some grumpiness in the room, I’ll change the curriculum and take them outdoors for a nature walk. Seeing the colors of the flowers, and being outside under the sun and sky transforms their day, and they come back indoors with their energy renewed.
I try to incorporate nature into their daily experience, and I try to make sure they have some outside time together, to be among the trees and plants.
Q: You said that you challenge them. Can you talk about that?
Mahita: A very unique feature of this school is that we have an individualized curriculum, so that each child will be learning at his or her own level. It makes a lot of sense, because whether we’re doing math, reading, or writing, every child will be learning somewhat differently.
I feel that my job as an educator is to challenge the children in many ways, and not just academically. I do challenge them academically, of course. And if I see a child who’s accomplishing their math tasks easily, I’ll make sure they’ve really mastered those math skills, and then I’ll need to quickly think of how I can keep challenging them.
In our school, we recognize the importance of creating a relationship of trust with each child, so that the children will feel safe when they’re being challenged to go to the next level with our help. If they think they can’t do it, you’re there to tell them, “I know you can.” And they’ll trust you enough to try, because they know you, and they know you aren’t going to judge them.
I also challenge the children to be their best selves. I have very high standards for them – I expect them to treat each other kindly, and to articulate their words with care, and to practice having consideration for others. I challenge them to learn how to self-regulate – how to choose an appropriate activity to calm their bodies, like deep breathing. Or maybe they need to sit and read a book for a while, until they can get calm and re-join the group.
Self-regulating is a skill that can be very challenging for four-, five-, and six-year-olds. The Education for Life philosophy has helped me understand how to help them manage their energy, and I’ve been inspired also by Bev Bos, a brilliant early childhood educator who believed in giving children a creative curriculum. My teaching has been very influenced by Bev, and by the Conscious Discipline methods we use here at Living Wisdom School.
Conscious Discipline is a set of tools that help children learn the basic things they need to say and do. For example, I will never tell a child, “Say it nicely.” Instead, I’ll give them the exact words: “Say to your friend, ‘Can you please hand me the pencil?’” I’m modeling the sentences the children need to know in order to express themselves effectively, which is a big part of what we’re doing at this age, teaching the children what they should say, and how they should say it.
I believe in Conscious Discipline very strongly, because it’s a beautiful set of tools, and it works. I think it’s wonderful that we’re encouraged here to help the children acquire these essential skills.
Q: It sounds like you’re helping them develop skills that may not be directly related to academics, but will help them be successful in academics – how to master a challenge, and how to succeed in small ways and enjoy their successes.
Mahita: And teaching them to love the challenges, and to feel confident within themselves that if something is challenging, they can do it. It’s about giving them a confidence from within, instead of trying to motivate them by external pressures and external rewards.
I think it’s very important that the children learn how to be intrinsically motivated – that they’re motivated from within themselves to do their best, and not that they’re motivated from outside. It’s why I don’t use sticker charts or reward systems. I’ve read lots of research on this, and I feel it’s best for the children if you can teach them, starting at a very early age, that the best rewards are when they’re able to look at their art or their math and feel very happy about it from inside.
Q: Is there an emphasis on language arts in kindergarten, on helping them learn to read and write?
Mahita: Yes, because developing literacy and language is extremely important for young children. There are many studies on the importance of exposing children to lots of new words, and to environments that are rich in a variety of print materials. They need to be exposed to a great many words for their optimal growth, and it’s why I read lots and lots of stories to them.
Storytelling and story reading play a huge role in the curriculum. I took a course on literacy and language development for young children, and I learned that the children need for you to read slowly, at a pace that’s significantly slower than you’d read to an adult. And it’s because they’re forming a tremendous number of new ideas in their heads at this age, and they’re learning to understand the context of each new word. So I’m very intentional in how I read to my class. I’ll make the voices of the characters in the stories, and in the second part of the year I’ll read lots of poetry to them, and I’ll get them started writing poetry, with some prompts, because it’s very helpful for developing their language and thinking skills.
As far as writing goes, at this age I’ll wait to see when each child is truly ready to start doing their own writing. Some of the children will be ready to start writing words and sentences halfway through the year, and they’ll be very excited. And some will still want you to write out the words for them, which is fine, because they don’t all develop the same skills at the same time. I teach writing on whiteboards instead of paper, because it’s easier to erase and edit when you’re very young and still developing your fine motor skills. And I teach phonics so they can start to recognize the sounds of the letters and work out the sounds of new words.
Language plays a huge role in how the classroom is structured. As I mentioned, I’m very careful about the language I use with the kids. I don’t tell them “Good job!” or “That’s perfect!” or “I really like it.” I stay away from those kinds of value judgments; instead, I’ll try to find out about them, and how they’re feeling and where their energy is. “Tell me about your art. Tell me what you did. Oh, wow, I can see that you put green and blue there. Tell me about that.”
Q: They’re rewarded because you’re interested, and because they can tell you what’s fulfilling them?
Mahita: That’s right. When the children first enter kindergarten, they’ll hold up their art and say, “Do you like it? Did I do it right?” And it might take a month or two, but then they’ll stop asking for approval, and they’ll start saying, “I did a masterpiece, Mahita!” Because they’re telling me how they feel about it rather than asking if it’s right.
Q: Does it affect the way they approach their academic learning?
Mahita: Very definitely, yes. They’re learning a process, and they’re learning to articulate, at a very young age, “This is what I feel, and this is what I need, and these are the tools I can use to calm myself and make myself feel better, and prepare myself to face this challenge.”
I don’t think that any human being can succeed academically, in the deepest, most lasting way and to their full potential, if they aren’t able to self-regulate. As the children navigate high school and college, they’ll face many stressful challenges. And having the tools to calm yourself and self-regulate and know what’s really alive within you will make a big difference.
I teach a high level of math in kindergarten. (laughs) Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I teach algebraic thinking at this age, and I really try to develop a solid number sense in the children. When they have a solid number sense, what happens is that they’ll breeze through math when they reach fourth and fifth grade, because they’ll have the right understanding, from tangibly working on these things since they were four and five.
Q: You’re giving them content in kindergarten that they’ll be using in fourth and fifth grade?
Mahita: Exactly. For example, I might put on the board: “Ten is the same as five plus what number?” Or “Ten is the same as eight plus what number?”
Q: That’s amazing.
Mahita: And they’re doing it all the time, so it becomes very natural to them. I start teaching these concepts in the first or second week of school. And I do lots of things to make math fun. I have a Math Owl who tells math stories, and I do activities that bring out their natural joy at this age, through storytelling, role playing, improv, and so on.
Q: The Education for Life book suggests that young children are working very much with their feelings, and that they need appropriate learning tools.
Mahita: Yes, exactly. We’re using appropriate tools. We’re using the tools they naturally have. Children at this age play, and if we can incorporate play into what they’re learning, and make it playful for them, then the learning sinks in easily. And we can carefully observe what they’re learning, and what we can do to help them learn even better. I’m always watching them and thinking of what I can bring into the classroom that will help them in their play.
Q: I visited the fourth-grade classroom, and the focus of the children was amazing. I asked a little girl if I could take her picture, and without glancing up from her book she said, “All right.” She absolutely did not want to be distracted from her math book. It was inspiring to see them working in pairs and deeply concentrated on their math. It’s not at all as if they wanted to be someplace else.
Mahita: It’s pretty incredible. I think sometimes I might take it for granted because I’m in the middle of it all the time. But I have five- and six-year-olds who are so dedicated to what they’re doing that they’re completely absorbed, and they’re engaged and excited.
Q: Five-year-olds are notoriously distractable. It’s fascinating to hear that they can be focused.
Mahita: If you can frame an activity for children so that their enthusiasm is alive and they’re fully engaged, the learning happens naturally, and you’re there to support it.
I think it’s only when you don’t frame a lesson or an exploration of ideas properly, that the children are more easily distracted. I’m very, very carefully observing all the time what’s working and what isn’t, and what I need to fix. Maybe there’s a lot of joy around an activity, but maybe the energy is a bit too high. I have to be on my toes, and be ready to adjust to each moment, and stay flexible.
Q: It seems very different from the old-fashioned classroom with the kids sitting in rows, doing the same thing at the same time.
Mahita: I can’t imagine having kids sit at their desks all day, especially at this age. I can’t imagine how it would affect their learning and development. I’m continually problem-solving and adjusting my teaching. I always have a curriculum planned for the next week and month, but if an activity isn’t working, or if it’s taking too long, or if the children are taking it to another level, I will go with that. There’s no doubt that being flexible is a key requirement for being effective as a teacher.
Q: One of the most common complaints among teachers in public schools today is that they have to follow a state-mandated curriculum, and it takes away their flexibility to adjust the curriculum to the needs of the students.
Mahita: At this age, they’re naturally curious. They naturally want to learn, and I feel it’s tragic when a child’s curiosity is shut down in an attempt to deliver some sort of prescribed lesson plan. My hope is that when the children leave here, they’ll feel that they can ask questions and be curious, and cultivate their natural love of learning, and not feel that there’s only one right answer, or that they have to stay quiet instead of asking a question.
I joke that if you come into a kindergarten and it’s too quiet, there’s no way that learning is happening, because the kids are not naturally quiet while they’re learning. Sure, you want a reasonable level of quiet, but I feel that the best times of learning are when the children are excited and talking to each other about what’s going on, or they’re asking each other questions, or they’re asking me questions, so it’s very alive.
Q: Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, found that the most successful Harvard freshmen were not those who spent all their time trying to grind out good grades. The most successful Harvard students were engaged with each other, asking questions and forming study groups. They were social and knew how to get the help they needed. They were the kids who talked about everything, and knew how to enjoy what they were doing, and how to connect with it. And it sounds rather eerily similar to what you’re teaching your kindergarten students. (See the article “The Happiness Advantage in School,” on the LWS website here; included are two fascinating TED talk videos with Shawn Achor.)
Mahita: It’s so important for these kids to learn the skills of cooperating and problem-solving. I wish you could see how they grow throughout the year. At the start of the year there are always a few months where it’s just constant conflict resolution, and constant learning to use the right words, and constantly giving them the sentences and words that will help them be successful.
Then, after a few months, they’ve gained enough skills that I’ll be able to sit and observe them for extended periods during the day, and they’ll be completely, one-hundred percent able to navigate and cooperate. And it’s not because I’ve solved their problems for them, but because I’ve challenged them, “How can you solve that problem?” And they start to become thinkers. “Oh, we both want to play this game, but we want to play it differently, and how can we do that?” Or they start to figure out the right way to ask their friends for help when they need it, and how to make requests of each other, instead of grabbing.
It’s very rewarding to me as a teacher to see the transformation, and to think, “Wow, most adults can’t even do this.” Can you put twelve adults in a room all day, and they’ll get along? Most likely not, and these kids can do it beautifully.
Q: Do you talk to the other teachers about how your students are doing after they leave kindergarten?
Mahita: Definitely, yes. I wrote an email to a parent today, and I said, “As a teacher, you really love these children and care about them, and you can’t just switch it off.” It’s not like it switches off on the weekend, or when you go home. And for me it’s a big deal and very important to talk to the teachers that they’ll be going to, because I want the next teacher to have all of the information that helped me to help each child grow during their kindergarten year. I’ll talk about the reading level they’re on, and what I’ve found that can help the child in a variety of situations, and I’ll let the first-grade teacher know I’m always available if they have questions.
Teaching isn’t just about academics. It’s about having a sense of who each child is, and what’s important to them. And I’ll want to have a conversation with their next teacher about that, too.
With an individualized curriculum, you basically have twelve curriculums going on at the same time. And as teachers our job is to make sure that each child is getting his or her individual needs met every day.