Head & Heart Ch. 17: An MIT Grad Reflects on Teaching at Living Wisdom School

image043Dharmaraj Iyer taught math and science at the Living Wisdom Schools in Palo Alto and Nevada City, California. This is his farewell talk to the students, teachers, and parents of the Palo Alto school, where he taught for six years.

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

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

I was a graduate student at MIT in computer science. I had been offered a summer job at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), just a few blocks from the school. 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 spiritual community.

I arrived at the community, and soon after starting my job I had a conversation with Asha Praver, one of the leaders of the community. She said, “Have you ever had an interest in teaching children?”

I said, “Well…”

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

I had to pause, because it was one of those moments when your mind just stops.

I said, “Yes, I would be interested in teaching children.” It was a moment of inspiration, and it felt right.

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

She said, “You’d be talking to kindergartners about the weather.” (laughter)

So it was a bit hard to beg out of my promise.

Asha invited me to the end-of-year ceremony. This was in 1999.

I was amazed. I didn’t know any of the children, and I didn’t know any of the teachers when I came to the ceremony, which we’re having again today.

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

Each of the children, from age five to fourteen, talked about a special “quality” that the teachers had given them at the year’s end. I thought it was inspiring that every child receives a certificate of appreciation for a special quality that the teachers saw in them, and that the student had been trying to develop during the year.

The students’ presence on stage bowled me over. Their ability to speak with poise, and the maturity of their talks, and the feeling they projected – I was moved to tears several times by the sincerity and clarity with which the children spoke.

I said to myself, “I don’t 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 we – Asha and I – just needed to ask the school if they would be interested in hiring me.

After the ceremony, Asha introduced me to one of the teachers.

She said, “This is Dharmaraj, and he’s interested in teaching at the school.”

And this very experienced teacher, with wise caution, said, “Well, that’s nice.” (laughter)

She said, “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 on her shoulders and she lasered-in on me and said, “Really…?” (laughter)

It turned out that both of the science teachers planned to spend just one more year at the school before moving on. So I came at the right time.

I visited the school over the summer. I observed the Selfish Giant theater workshop, and I came to a classroom and saw these beautiful children concentrating on their fantastic artwork.

Three of the regular teachers were present, 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! How hard could it be to teach these children? They must certainly teach themselves.”

Little Max was working away, and then finally he completed his drawing, and 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 teach the children.

Photo: Dharmaraj teaches a lively math class.
Photo: Dharmaraj teaches a lively math class

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

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

I tended to learn abstractly, at least in recent years. And my students didn’t always take to abstraction right away. They might prefer a visual or auditory or written way of learning. And they might like to write about their experiences with math, linking their language and math minds together.

While I was struggling to learn how to be a good teacher, I had a conversation with Swami Kriyananda. I told him what I was doing, and he said to me, “You need to make the abstract concepts clear by concrete examples.”

So whenever I taught science, I would try to give the children a hands-on experience, and concrete examples drawn from their lives. Because otherwise it was just words and abstract concepts for them, and that’s a very cold and impersonal way of learning, and it’s not very interesting, and it’s easy to forget what you learn.

But the real challenge, as every teacher knows, is not the content, when you’re starting out. It’s 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 your calm, quiet words.

For example, I would be doing my job as a teacher and thinking that it was completely impossible, and all of a sudden I would see the example of one of the great teachers we have here. One of them would say, at the end of 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)

So I knew it was possible to learn that skill.

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

She was immensely valuable to me, first by the example of how she was with the children, and the way she spoke to them.

And also, she gave me feedback, as I would stand up in front of the firing squad and deliver a few words before I went down in flames. She would give me feedback about what went wrong, and why. And she made it all very clear,  and she tolerated my many woes.

There was a time, about halfway through the first year, when I said, “Does it get any easier?”

Helen said, “The first three years are awful, but then…”

And I couldn’t get past that. “The first three years!!??” Because I was just trying to make it through the next week. (laughter)

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

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

That’s what makes teaching hard for every one of us. And when it comes to leading people, 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 children the right way. In fact, I didn’t know what the right way was. I just knew that some of my teachers had done it the right way 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 have a gifted teacher now and then. But I didn’t know if it was a skill that you could learn.

Then I met the wonderful teachers at Living Wisdom School, and I had the opportunity to watch them for several years.

I met Helen, and saw the way she taught. I saw all of the teachers, all of them teaching the right way. And again, I wasn’t 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 along, and Ghislaine, and Megan, and I saw that they all taught the right way, too. And I began to wonder, “What is it that’s so special about our experience here?”

Because it wasn’t just the gifted teachers, or the wonderful students, or the dedicated parents.

Photo: Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer.
Photo: Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer.

I realized that a great part of the power of the school, and what made it work, was our philosophy of Education for Life.

It was the power of small classrooms. The power of Circle Time. The power of meditation and prayer and chanting.

It was the spiritual lives of the teachers and the students and their families. And the plays, through which all of the children have the opportunity to act out the life of some great person, by living that life on the stage, experiencing it, and trying to understand it. Because they’re the ones who will be telling the story to three or four standing-room-only audiences of several hundred adults and children.

And, of course, it is the active blessings of Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, the founders of our educational philosophy.

These are things that some might say, and some do say, “Do they interfere with the students becoming really good at academics?”

In actual fact, as we’ve come to see, they not only don’t interfere with excellence in academics, they support and enhance it.

The proof is evident in the top-level high schools and universities that accept our graduates, where they thrive. Our graduates are accepted at the most competitive high schools in this area and beyond.

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 to them, and we give it as fast as they can take it.

We’ve had students who enter high school and place out of algebra through the entrance exams. So they do very well on standardized tests.

This year, Rose placed out of first-year science, and she’s moved directly into sophomore biology. The students have had their poetry published. They’ve registered so many outward accomplishments that support the claim that academics are enhanced by all of the cross-curricular enrichment programs at our school.

But what of the students who have to move through the curriculum more slowly?

I’m very glad to say that the students who need more time are not left behind. Keith Devlin, a famous mathematician at Stanford, visited our school last year. 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, may not excel in math, but they all like math.” And he was very impressed and surprised, and I was proud to be able to say it.

Now, Samantha and Sarah are looking at each other. (laughter) But I’m saying this because I feel it’s very true. And it was something I could be proud of, and that we can all be proud of.

It’s six years later now, and Dharmini and I have felt the call to move on. We’ve wanted to move to Ananda Village, and now the time is finally right. She will work at the guest retreat, and possibly with some music students, and I’ll teach in the fourth through sixth grade, and I’ll help with high school math and computers.

Good-bys are hard. There’s no shortcut around the sorrow of parting. I’ll just say that I’m very grateful for my time in service to you all. 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.