A conversation with LWS director Helen Purcell and middle-school teacher Gary McSweeney
Q: The school culture and curriculum here are very different from other schools, and this naturally raises a question – what are the teachers like? What qualities does Living Wisdom School look for in a teacher?
Helen: We look for someone who has demonstrated an attunement with, or has the ability to learn to be in tune with, our school’s philosophy. We also look for teachers who have a solid grasp of the curriculum, and an ability to deliver it to each student individually.
Our teachers need to be able to understand the individual child at a deep, insightful level.
Our philosophy is based on the self-evident fact that every child is unique, and that the curriculum needs to be taught in a way that honors the child’s unique abilities and nature.
If a teacher doesn’t have the ability to understand the uniqueness of the child and their unique needs, they won’t be able to deliver the curriculum in the way we’ve found most effective.
Q: How can you tell if someone has that level of awareness of the individual children and their needs?
Helen: We hire teachers with whom we’ve had long experience. Our novice teachers are required to serve an internship of at least a year, so that we can observe them and train them to help each child in every possible situation.
If a teacher falls ill or otherwise becomes unavailable, and we need to hire an experienced classroom teacher as a replacement, we will only look at candidates who are very well known to us.
Q: Do you require the teachers to have a personal spiritual practice of some kind, to help them be intuitively aware of the students’ needs?
Helen: It’s a fundamental requirement that our teachers have a basic spiritual practice, although there’s obviously no requirement that they follow a particular spiritual path. This applies to all of our full-time teachers who define the quality of the energy in the classroom, which in turn informs the school culture.
Q: As part of the hiring process, do you ask your full-time teachers and interns about their spiritual practices?
Helen: We do, and it’s not enough to say “I’m Catholic” or “I’m Jewish.” We want to know that they have a consistent practice that informs their life.
Gary: We understand that spirituality includes many things. We hired Craig Kellogg to teach fourth and fifth grade because our teachers had observed him for an entire school year as an intern. We had an entire school year to watch how he related to the children in many settings – on the playground, after school, during play rehearsals, in math class, as well as by talking with him at faculty meetings. We looked for an openness to learn, and an ability to accept advice from Helen and the other senior teachers.
Craig basically said yes to everything, whether we asked him to take on the after-school care program, or to play a larger role in helping prepare the students for the school play. He’s very willing, he has dynamic energy, and he has the right consciousness, which includes spiritual qualities such as kindness, compassion, and inner strength. It wouldn’t matter a bit which particular path a teacher was following, if they were able to bring those qualities to our school.
These are the qualities we look for in a teacher. There are people who have a wonderfully expansive consciousness and a strong spiritual practice, yet we know they’ll never be good classroom teachers here, because they don’t know how to relate well with children. We’ve had a small number of interns who didn’t become teachers despite their many outstanding qualities, because they were weak in some of the qualities that we consider essential.
We’ve also had teachers who were trained in public schools and were highly motivated to teach here, but who didn’t have the right consciousness for this school.
What do we look for in a teacher’s consciousness? In one case, the teacher had taught for a very long time in public school, and she’d become fixated on a “boxed” curriculum. She didn’t take into account, at least to our satisfaction, the individuality of each student.
One of our students had trouble talking about math concepts, although he actually understood them quite well, and the teacher didn’t realize that she was frustrating him by insisting that he articulate math in the way she expected. He had an intuitive approach that worked well, and that was an expression of his unique nature. He could get the answers using his approach, but she tried to impose a system that wasn’t appropriate for him, instead of drawing on his unique gifts.
We evaluate teachers primarily during the one-year internship. We are is willing to stick our neck out financially to hire people for a long evaluation period, even if we might not need teachers at the moment. We don’t know of any other schools that will go this far to ensure that a new teacher will be ready to benefit the students.
If one of our teachers suddenly left and we needed somebody to step in, it would have to be the right person. And where better to evaluate them than in our own classrooms for a year?
Swami Kriyananda, the founder of the Living Wisdom Schools, said that when you’re operating one of our schools, you probably need to develop your own teacher training program, because nobody can do it as thoroughly and with as much care as we can. So that’s what we’ve done.
Craig is an outstanding example. As I mentioned, we observed him in countless situations, and all of the teachers observed him, not just his supervising teacher.
We don’t do “observation” in the traditional way, where the supervising teacher sits in the back of the class with a clipboard. We observed Craig in a huge variety of settings. I observed how he handled an infinite variety of situations in the after-school care program and during PE. We observed him with the children at circle time. And of course we watched him work with individual children in the classroom.
Our interns are operating in a fishbowl, because our school is small and we can observe them easily and often. In fact, the observation isn’t limited to the interns, because we’re continually observing each other, and it’s a constant process of supportive peer review.
Q: How do you help new teachers improve their skills? How can you tell if a teacher is becoming more capable?
Helen: The teachers from K to fifth grade have lunch once a week in my office, and we discuss a graduate-level book on education. We choose books that are based on solid research and that we feel could help us achieve our goals in serving the kids.
The broad topic at the meeting is “What are we doing, and how can we do it better, and how can we help this individual child?” And then talk about how we can adopt the best concepts from the book.
Everyone weighs in. They might describe a situation they’re dealing with, and how the author’s ideas could help. “Did you pick up on this concept? How do you think it might help this child in my class?” So there’s continual, ongoing communication between the teachers about classroom practices, curriculum development, and the needs of the individual child.
The teachers choose the books. A former teacher chose a book that she was reading in graduate school, just before she left us to become a professor of education. This summer, the teachers will read a book that I suggested, And With a Light Touch: Learning About Reading, Writing, and Teaching with First Graders, by Carol Avery and Donald Graves.
The weekly meeting is directed at novice teachers who want to learn how to set up a classroom, and it combines philosophy, curriculum, and practice.
Q: The teachers learn from each other’s practice, as well as from books?
Helen: Our teachers are hungry for continuing education, and a beautiful part of our school is that our continuing education program is based on actual classroom experience. Our staff development model gives our teachers a wonderful way to have ongoing training that’s alive and fresh, because it deals with what’s actually going on in their classrooms.
A teacher will ask about something that happened in class that’s related to something in the book. Another teacher will say, “I know what you mean.” And they’ll talk about something that happened in their class. Or they’ll say, “But what do you think about doing it this way?”
You end up with an extremely rich workshop for teachers, and a very deep, hands-on continuing education program. It’s as good as it gets, because it creates a graduate-level seminar that feeds on the daily experiences of the teachers.
Those two elements – books and practice – would usually be kept separate. In grad school, the coursework is heavily oriented toward theory. You take a course, and you read many wonderful books, but it’s not until you leave school that you get a chance to try the ideas with hands-on student teaching. So it’s very limited compared to what we offer. Our intern program offers a much deeper, more effective training experience than the graduate-level courses teachers take nowadays. I’ve taken those courses, and I know how graduate programs work.
We take a laboratory approach to teacher development and extended study. It has an immediacy that you could never get in graduate school. It isn’t just theoretical and philosophical, because you’re dealing with the child in front of you, and everyone in the seminar knows the child.
So it’s far more dynamic than the usual system for preparing new teachers, where something happens in the class you’re student-teaching, and you go and talk to the professor and the other graduate students, none of whom actually know the individual child and the situation.
You can’t get better teacher training than this, where you’re interning with deeply experienced teachers in real-life situations, in an environment where the individual child’s long-term welfare always comes first.
Gary: It’s a terribly important feature of our school, this constant interaction between the teachers. This year, I coached kindergarten and first-grade PE. The first-grade intern had middle-school PE, and we talked constantly. We have a dynamic, daily, continual cross-pollination where every teacher is exposed to all the other classes, far more than in any other school I’m aware of.
It allows Helen to speak from a perspective of real insights about any individual child in a particular situation, because she not only knows the theory, but she knows the child, the parents, and the teachers who’ve worked with the child over the years.
There’s tremendous individual attention paid to the child, and whenever an issue arises, help comes in a variety of ways, not just from the child’s teacher, but from Helen and all the other teachers.
Q: Is there a process where several teachers evaluate each child, so that no child falls through the cracks?
Helen: It’s very common for the teachers to come to a meeting, even if it’s just the weekly faculty meeting where the focus is on routine school business. Someone will say, “By the way, this happened on the playground today, and so-and-so was upset.” Or, “By the way, I saw this happen with this child from your class.” Or, “I’ve come to understand that this is going on with this child, and everybody needs to know about it and be on deck to help.”
It’s an exchange of information that is very regular and ongoing. And it’s all about helping the individual child who may have certain requirements, needs, or challenges. This happens every day, so if a teacher notices that a child has a situation, or if a parent calls about something that’s happening in the child’s life that might be impacting the child’s school experience, the teacher will tell all the other teachers who work with that child, on the playground and in class.
We hold a faculty meeting on Wednesday afternoon for two hours. We meditate for fifteen minutes and do healing prayers for all the children in the school and their families, and then we have the meeting.
Gary: A teacher can ask us to pray for a particular child if there’s a special need, but we also offer general prayers for the school family.
As Helen mentioned, it’s also a time when the teachers can share about a student who’s struggling. It’s a time for the teachers to get together and share about anything in the school that needs our attention. The interns and new teachers are required to attend, and for them it’s teacher training. The teachers who come here from other schools invariably praise our faculty meetings and the collegiality we have, because we work together on every issue.
Helen: The Friday meeting has a different focus. It’s the practicum that I talked about earlier. It’s about the primary grades, K through third, and unlike the Monday meeting, the discussion is focused entirely on what’s happening in the classroom. So we aren’t talking about books.
We meet at lunch, and we hone in on the curriculum. There might be a discussion of the textbooks we’ll use in math or Spanish next year. This year, we did a great deal of work on refining our integrated curriculum. But anyone can present an idea. If a teacher discovers something that she feels is beautifully addressing her students’ needs, and it supports our philosophy, she’ll bring it up. “I’d like to do this in my class.”
Our first-grade teacher had an idea for an arts and crafts project, and after we talked about it at our Friday meeting, Ruth Rabin filtered it into her third-grade class.
Sometimes we’ll hammer out ideas for science or Writer’s Studio. The Writer’s Studio curriculum has a well-defined format, and if a teacher isn’t clear about it, she can ask the other teachers for help.
The teachers are always exchanging ideas, and our teacher training is structured to encourage the interns to be part of the exchange. I’m teaching literary figures of speech to the middle school students, and Ruth is teaching figures of speech in third grade. When I found a book on haiku that employs lovely literary figures, I mentioned it to Ruth, and that kind of sharing is common.
It’s an unstructured but focused exchange of information and resources. Instead of discussing educational theories, we’ll say, “This happened in my classroom – I’m facing this challenge. What do you think?” And the focus is always on the needs of the individual child.
The discussion comes out of what’s happening in the classroom. So the interns learn a lot, and the teachers learn from each other, and the children who may be having a problem receive the best of the accumulated insights and experience of the teachers in the school.
Here’s an example. One of our teachers described a project that she’s working on with her kids. The teacher in the grade before hers said, “Oh my gosh, that’s what I’m doing – is it appropriate for us both to be doing that?”
She wasn’t sure if she should be teaching the same subject before the children enter the other teacher’s class. As it turned out, it was perfect, because it prepared the children for what they’d be working on the next fall. It’s an example of how the teachers and children benefit from the constant cross-filtering of ideas in the faculty meeting. It ensures that there’s no chance a child will ever have an issue that won’t be immediately addressed and resolved.
Those two teachers got together after the meeting, and they ended up working on some ideas for helping the children who are very advanced for their age. They worked out how a teacher of the more advanced younger kids can accommodate them so they can keep progressing and not be held back.
As we never tire of saying, it all boils down to a focus on helping the individual child. We’re never limited by academic theory; we’re free to focus on ensuring that each child gets the benefit of the gathered experience of everyone in the school.
Gary: It’s informal but very effective. I recently met with the teacher of the kids who’ll be in my class next year, and he gave me a “scouting report” on every kid in his class and their special needs. So I have a clear idea of how I’ll need to work with the kids when school starts. It’s an example of the collaboration that goes on all the time among the teachers in the school. Whether we call it “teacher training” or “teacher enrichment,” it’s powerful, and it’s a hundred-percent focused on helping each child.
If a student has an issue, and you have questions about how to help them, you can go to a teacher who knows the child, or who has special insights about the issue. You can say, “I’m noticing this about this student. What did you find that worked with them?” As Helen mentioned, the Friday meeting very often leads to an informal get-together between the teachers to discuss a particular student.
Helen: In other schools, the teachers generally have the option to look up a child’s records. But some teachers refuse, because they don’t want to be prejudiced by anything negative that the other teachers might have said about the child.
Gary: It’s very different here, because we hold the welfare and highest potential of each student as our uppermost priority, and we can be absolutely confident that another teacher would never tell us something negative about a child. It just doesn’t happen.
The teacher will tell me how he works with the child to help the child achieve the best possible results personally and academically. Or he’ll give me a heads-up – “This child tends to stress out over this, and here’s how I deal with it.” Or, “You might think he’s this way, but he’s actually coming from here, and I find it helps if I address him this way.”
But it’s always directed toward the positive. When the teachers talk, it’s with exactly the same positive voice as the narrative reports we write about the child. It’s always toward the positive, and our hopes for the child.
Q: Do you require teachers to be credentialed by the state?
Helen: We joke that if you want to teach math and science in kindergarten and first grade here, you need to have an advanced degree from MIT. That’s because our most recent math and science teachers, Dharmaraj and Eric, graduated from there.
But, seriously, we feel that our new teachers are far better prepared than the average new-hire teacher in public or private school. They go through a much longer and more rigorous internship, and they’re observed much more intensively, and our standards are much higher.
Erica, our second-grade teacher, has a certificate in Education for Life teaching, which she earned by interning for a year in our school, and by taking the Education for Life training.
Our interns qualify to receive the EFL certification, but it isn’t automatic. They have to be recommended by the senior teachers and the school director. It may take a year, or it might take three years.
We feel our credential is a lot more difficult to earn than a state certificate. Most people who come out of a typical graduate program in education have no classroom experience, beyond one or two brief segments of student teaching. Our interns are in the classroom from beginning to end of the school day for at least a year, in addition to attending the weekly Friday practicum and Wednesday teachers’ meeting, which is basically a graduate seminar with a combined academic and practical focus. They also attend the school’s development meetings, which gives them insights on how the school operates.
After they’ve been trained and observed for several months, they begin to deliver lessons. For example, while Craig was interning he was responsible for teaching math, and he did a marvelous job.
Q: Do the senior teachers and administrators have a chance to observe the newer teachers as much as the other teachers do?
Gary: We observe them constantly.
Helen: I’m in every classroom multiple times every week, often multiple times a day. Also, I’m always coming through with parents who want to observe in the classroom before they decide to enroll their child. Or I’ll come in and observe just to see how things are going, or if there’s an issue the teacher has mentioned and asked me to help with.
While I’m observing, sometimes I’ll see something that needs to be addressed with the teacher. I remember a new teacher who changed the physical layout of her classroom in a way that wasn’t optimal for giving the students an Education for Life experience. Erica and I got together with her and helped her understand why a different arrangement would be better.
It’s all part of our intern training, to be observed and receive the suggestions of the senior teachers. For example, we taught Craig how to set up an EFL classroom, which might sound like a small thing, but it’s very, very important to the quality of experience that we want to give the children.
Gary: I have a friend who holds California state high school and junior college teaching credentials, and he told me about his student teaching experience, which the state felt was adequate to award him certificates for teaching full-time in high school and JC.
He did his student teaching at two big schools in Los Angeles. He said that one of his supervising teachers requested a student teacher because she’d been assigned to teach seventh and eighth graders in the same hour, and she got the idea that she could split the class and let the student teacher take one of the grades. My friend said that during the entire semester, she consulted with him just once, and it wasn’t about teaching methods. In fact, she didn’t observe him at all.
His other supervising teacher expected him to learn to teach by sitting passively in class and watching. The supervising teacher didn’t confer with him a single time, and gave him just one hour of hands-on teaching experience the entire semester.
By the standards of Living Wisdom School, it was staggeringly insufficient. In one class, he was teaching solo for an hour a day, without supervision or consultation, and in the other class he barely taught or received any instruction at all.
I suspect the situation in public schools hasn’t changed much since my friend was a student teacher. If anything, it’s probably worse. The fact is, in an overcrowded public school, the supervising teacher simply has little time or energy to give a student teacher the kind of rigorous, year-long training they would receive here, or anything remotely like it.
In our school, our approach to training teachers and interns gives them the same level of attention and energy we give the students. We find that if you begin with a teacher who’s highly motivated and enthusiastic, you don’t have to spend a lot of energy trying to raise them to a baseline.
Craig is a great example. He wants very much to be a teacher, he’s a terrific role model for these young kids, and his energy is wonderful. It’s the same for our second-grade teacher, Erica, who wants to be a really good teacher and sets very high standards for herself. They’re both extremely dedicated, so training them is basically a process of giving them practice in our philosophy and methods, and offering them feedback and help when they need it.
Q: You mentioned the classroom environment. Helen, is it your role as the school director to make sure the classrooms are set up appropriately? How would you describe the physical arrangement?
Helen: We have very definite expectations, because the classroom environment is extremely important. First and foremost, it must be child-friendly. It has to be creative and imaginative, with plenty of room to show off the children’s work. I visited a classroom in India where every piece of art on the wall was exactly the same as all the others. If you walk into a LWS classroom and look at the art and essays and poetry on the walls, you’ll find that it’s an accurate reflection of the curriculum, but it’s very, very individual, creative, and imaginative.
Gary: Teacher training doesn’t stop at the end of the school year. We’re winding up the year, and I’ve already started meeting with Craig to mentor him about teaching history when he starts teaching full-time in the fall. And Helen will mentor him in Language Arts.
Helen: Before the school year ended, Craig and I had already met for the first of several curriculum get-togethers to plan what he’ll teach next year. He has already created an outline for the curriculum from September to January. So he’s receiving ongoing mentoring well ahead of when he’ll start teaching in the classroom.
Gary: In our spring meetings with the interns, a lot more is involved than just ensuring that they have a solid curriculum plan before we turn them loose with the students. We continue to work with them intensively during the school year, after they start teaching.
Helen: We interact with the teachers throughout the year. Craig comes to every Friday practicum meeting, and like all our interns, he’s actively involved in our meetings, because as a young teacher he needs to hear the experienced teachers talk, and he needs to be able to bounce his ideas off them and ask questions. You’ll almost never find this level of ongoing training for interns and new teachers in other schools, particularly public schools where the teachers are dealing with much larger classes.
Gary: We also mentor the teachers when the whole school comes together, at the weekly all-school circle, the play rehearsals, and at lunch and recess. As Helen pointed out, we’re observing the interns and younger teachers throughout each day.
I observe them both during PE and as a mentor teacher. An intern will receive frequent, regular feedback on their teaching, including constructive suggestions. We’ll also look at how they’re handling the input they receive from the other teachers. Do they absorb and incorporate it? In the fall, there will be more observation, to make sure they’ve assimilated the guidance they’ve been given.
Q: When an intern or young teacher needs a correction, do you give them immediate feedback?
Gary: Not necessarily. We work with them more or less the same way we work with the children. When Helen observes in the classroom and sees something that needs correcting, she’ll make sure to offer her suggestions in a constructive way. It wouldn’t serve the teacher if she interrupted and said something brutally direct like, “Your classroom is all wrong.”
We work with an awareness of the individual teacher. A teacher might be highly intuitive and able to pick up on what’s needed with little verbal explanation, but another teacher may need more of the details.
We offer guidance in the same spirit as we work with our children. We work with the individual. We remember the positive goals we want to achieve for the welfare of the children, and we help the teacher understand how it all fits together, and how it will help them become better teachers.
We’re always assessing whether an intern will ever qualify to become a full-time teacher in our school. In Erica’s and Craig’s case, they were so impressive that when an opening occurred we had no doubts at all, because we knew they were on the fast track to becoming standout teachers. Even so, the senior teachers evaluated them separately, and when Helen finally said, “Really, I think we should hire Craig,” none of us were in the dark about him, because we all knew him very well. I said, “I agree a hundred percent.”
If I had had doubts, or if I’d had experiences with Craig that caused me to wonder if perhaps he wasn’t right for the children, I would have voiced them unhesitatingly.
The less-experienced teachers are being observed at every opportunity by at least one teacher with greater experience. For example, our current theater arts choreographer, Marguerite, has worked with us for seventeen years, and she wouldn’t hesitate to consult Helen if she noticed a problem with a teacher.
The result is that by the time a teacher is fully trained and hired, they’ve been observed by the senior faculty for no less than a year. Again, Erica is a fine example. Not only was she trained as an Education for Life teacher, but she grew up in the Living Wisdom Schools. Her parents started her in kindergarten at LWS, and except for two years when she attended a public school in Italy, she spent her elementary years in our system.
Not only does she interact daily with the other teachers about our methods, philosophy, and curriculum, she’s in close contact with Toby Moorhouse, who was her teacher in third and fourth grade at the Living Wisdom School in Nevada City. Toby has many years of experience bringing Education for Life into the classroom. So not only has Erica been thoroughly vetted by us, she’s very proactive about learning from the other teachers. Erica has so much content, so much care, and so much dedication in her teaching that our senior faculty have the greatest admiration for her.
It’s natural for parents to ask how we evaluate and train our teachers. But while we can describe the process, the standard by which we feel parents should really judge us is the results.
Every year, we have parents who enroll their children at LWS with unvoiced reservations. “We’ll enroll our child in this magical school for a year, and then maybe we’ll transfer him to a rigorous academic college-prep school.”
They’ll take a stance of “wait-and-see.” But when they start to see how their child is progressing academically and how happy they are, and how they’re learning to be mature, well-behaved, thoughtful, and caring, the parents realize that the results are speaking for themselves.
We can talk educational theory until we’re blue in the face, and it might all be very interesting and convincing. But the abstract theories tend to be lifeless and one-dimensional until they’re tested “in the cold light of day.” We can only measure their worth if a teacher learns to apply them in creative ways to help the individual child, as our teachers are trained to do.
I’m not surprised when parents express doubts about what we’re doing, because it’s so different. But I’ve seen, over and over, how the parents who initially had reservations were delighted when their child entered high school and did extremely well. We’ve come to expect that our parents will have questions, because we’re teaching in a way that’s at the vanguard of educational theory today. But it’s very gratifying when they tell us, “My daughter’s doing beautifully in her academically challenging private high school. You actually knew what you were doing.”