A conversation with Living Wisdom School Director Helen Purcell
Helen Purcell has served for more than 20 years as Director of the K-8 Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California. Throughout her career in education she has taught language arts at the elementary, high school, and university undergraduate levels.
Q: Our subject today is your life in education — what you’ve learned as a teacher, and the experiences that persuaded you that it might be possible to help young people in better ways.
Helen: As part of my studies in earning my credential, I student taught an English course at Santa Monica City College, and among the discoveries I made in that first teaching assignment was that the relationship between the student and teacher is golden.
There was a young man in the class who was extremely bright, but he confided, “I’m not sure I should be taking your class because I’ve been living on a Pacific island for many years, and I hardly know how to speak English anymore.”
I said, “I can tell by the way you’re speaking that you’ll do just fine, so hang in there, and I’ll help you.”
As it turned out, he didn’t need much help, but because I had been so willing to help him, he was wonderfully supportive of what I was doing, and it made me powerfully aware of the importance of the relationship between the student and teacher.
I then taught for several years at a community college near Chico, California. It was in a remote rural area, and it drew many adults who were wanting to have an experience of college for the first time, as well as young people who were just stepping out into the world.
Because it was such a diverse group, I quickly realized that regardless of the subject you’re teaching, you are always teaching to the individual, and you need to consider their individual needs, which may be very different from your own, because if you ignore those differences, you’ll absolutely miss your goal of helping them, with their unique histories and their particular talents and graces.
This is a bedrock principle of the Living Wisdom Schools, where we are profoundly focused on getting to know each student so that we can help them move forward in the best way, starting where they are.
After teaching for several years at Chico, I taught at the University of Portland, and then at a community college in Oregon. I then decided to earn a high school teaching credential, because I felt that it would open a realm of teaching that was extremely interesting to me, and that had always been very dear to my heart. I knew that adolescence is an extremely important period in a young person’s life, and I felt that there were better approaches to preparing teenagers than the common practices in high schools at the time.
The Magic of Mixed Classes
The first high school where I taught was in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Most of the students came from white middle-class families, and some were just waiting to leave school and get a job, while others were planning to enroll at a community college or a state university, and a handful had higher aspirations.
I taught a combined class that included freshmen and sophomore students, and it was a wonderful experience, not least because the freshmen were learning social skills from the sophomores, and it reduced the behavior problems in my class. I realized that the school had been extremely wise in combining the classes, because a great deal of learning was being transmitted between the age groups, completely aside from what they were learning from me.
Being able to count on the students to help each other was a revelation, and I spent a lot of time thinking about that approach and incorporating it into my teaching. The camaraderie between teacher and students and student and student infused the entire learning process.
In the Living Wisdom Schools, we find that it works extremely well to have mixed classes where students of different grades and ages are learning together, because it creates a sense of responsibility in the older students that helps them develop a mature, inclusive outlook, and it helps the younger students both socially and academically.
It also showed me the wonderful sense of family that can develop in a classroom where mixed ages are learning together, even in a high school with 2000 students.
The high school administrators had been inspired to divide the school population into smaller elements, so that the same students would be learning together for the first two years. It made the transition to high school easier for the freshman, and it allowed the teachers to form closer bonds with and between the students. The older students developed a mentoring relationship with the younger ones.
The administrators were also intent on facilitating communication between the teachers, so that there would never be a student who was having trouble in math, for example, that I wouldn’t know about it, even though I was teaching English. To that end, the high school administrators gave the teachers time to get together once a week to discuss what was working for each of the students, and a staff psychologist would come to the meetings to offer his insights as needed.
This is another extremely strong feature of the Living Wisdom Schools, that the teachers are constantly talking with each other so that we are all intimately aware of what’s going on with every single student in the school.
Another lesson I learned while teaching in both college and high school was that the more human and real you are with the students, the less distance there will be between you, and that there’s a quality of naturalness and friendship that is absolutely essential for a teacher to have, if you want to be as effective as possible.
When I was in graduate school, we were never taught how to form a unique relationship with each student, yet it was one of the most priceless lessons I gleaned from my years teaching in high school and college.
In my credential program we were taught about the sociological characteristics of various cultural groups, and so on, but they failed to teach us the most important thing of all, which is how to help the individual student, regardless of the class size.
One of the first things I did to humanize the classroom environment and turn it into an incubator of good energy and open communication was to arrange the desks in a semi-circle instead of in rows. It meant that even though I remained the guiding presence, I was no longer the visual center, and because the students were facing each other it encouraged communication.
One Student, One Voice
I made a special point of encouraging each student to have a voice, and that isn’t something that happens unless the teacher actively encourages it. In most classes, you have the academic superstars who will be engaged and will talk a lot, and you’ll have kids who are natural communicators who’ll enjoy speaking up, but you’ll also have lots of quiet ones — and you must find a way to reach them and give them the energy they deserve.
At about the time I began teaching high school, our founder published Education for Life: Preparing Children to Meet Today’s Challenges, and I was thrilled to discover that he had put words to many of the lessons I was learning, and that he had built on those ideas and taken them even farther and deeper.
He suggested that, as a cornerstone of our educational philosophy, we should ask the most fundamental question of all: “What is the point of our lives?”
The answer that he offered was: “What all people are seeking, behind the colorful multiplicity of their stated motives, is to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering.”
For high school students and for younger and olderstudents as well, finding their own, unique way to be happy will never be exclusively about getting good grades. It needs to include the whole child and all of the ways they are uniquely relating to their lives and to the world. One of the major steps toward learning to be happy and mature is to learn to relate to the realities of others.
When you can help young students acquire those very important interpersonal skills, it changes everything, because being able to relate affects the child’s ability to be happy and to do their best in school.
We Grow at Our Own Level
It wasn’t long before I began to notice that when the students felt that they were being seen and valued and included, the kids who weren’t among the academic superstars began to shine.
When they entered my classroom, they quickly realized that the school equation had changed, and while I don’t think they were always consciously aware of it, I made it a bedrock principle that I wanted to give them a great experience of school, and help them know how valued they were.
One of the ways I invited their participation was by asking the kids to give me their feedback at the end of the year.
I said, “What did you like during the year? What worked for you, and what would you suggest I could do differently that would work better for you?”
They could choose to write their thoughts, but because we were easy with each other by the end of the year, many of them chose to share their impressions verbally.
I would say, “Everything you tell me will be valuable, so go ahead and say it.”
There was a girl in one of my classes who was autistic, and she had two areas that she loved — she knew all about Star Wars and the Bible. So I made her our go-to person whenever we needed information in those areas. It came up surprisingly often, and nobody ever teased or harassed her, whereas she had been treated brutally in the past.
After class, she was afraid to walk down the hall alone, so I would take her arm and we would walk together. In my class she had a special place.
Unlike her other courses, she didn’t need an aide in my classroom, because she had learned to be more independent. I made whatever accommodations I could for her, but she felt thoroughly accepted, because the truth is that the other kids had learned to accept and value her. When I asked for their feedback at the end of the year, the autistic girl spoke up and said, “This is just the best class!”
When one young man in my senior class raised his hand, I said, “I’m so glad you want to contribute, because we don’t hear your voice often enough.” I said, “I know from reading your work that you have good ideas.”
He said, “I would never speak up in any of my other classes.” And when I asked why, he said, “Because no one makes fun of anybody in this class, and in my other classes I wouldn’t get out more than two or three words before somebody would be putting me down.”
I said, “Is that true?” And the whole class nodded, yes, and it broke my heart, because I sadly realized that in four years he had never experienced the kind of acceptance that empowers kids to grow freely and go far.
Teaching in a public high school, I had many experiences that showed me the worth of the principles we practice every day in our Living Wisdom Schools, and how powerfully those principles can affect the students’ experience of school, and how they free them to do their best, academically and personally.
A prime example of how we recognize our students’ growth is the Qualities Ceremony during our year-end celebration. The teachers honor each student with a positive quality that they have developed over the previous nine months, a quality that reflects greater maturity.
For a child who genuinely understands right and wrong, for example, it might be the quality of Justice. Or it might be Friendship, Kindness, Courage, or any other quality you would wish for the child to develop as part of becoming a confident, happy person. Then at the End of the Year ceremony, the child – even the youngest ones – will say a few words about their quality – how they understand it, how they worked on it, and how they feel about it
I was still teaching in public high school when I decided to start celebrating the students’ successes at the end of the year with a quality. I asked the office staff to help me print the beautiful certificates, and they got into the spirit of it, too.
I gave my students individual qualities of Courage, Joy, and so on. Then, at the final class of the year, I explained what I was doing, and I handed them their certificates.
I vividly remember giving one girl the quality of Delight, and how vehemently she protested — “This isn’t true!”
I said, “But it is! You are absolutely delightful. I always love having you in my class.”
She said, “No, no! This is not true! I am not always delightful.”
I said, “Wait a second, I’m not saying that you’re always delightful. This is saying that you are mostly delightful, and even if you have your off-days, as we all do, I see you as delightful.”
I asked the class, “Am I right? Is she delightful?” And they shouted, “Yes, yes! You are!” And I could see that she was having to take that quality into herself and accept it as a defining part of who she was.
Of course, it was absolutely true, because from the moment she came into the class she had a way of making everything lighter and happier and funnier, and a way of including everybody and being responsive — all of the qualities that make a wonderful member of the community and a wonderful learner.
Later, as I reflected on that first informal Qualities Ceremony, I thought, “It’s such a simple thing, and it took so little time and effort on my part, but I think it was life-changing for her…and for who knows how many others.”
Does Education for Life Work?
Now, some people might say, “These are soft skills, and they are not what’s going to get you through life,” but I would disagree very heartily, because everything I’ve learned as an Education for Life teacher tells me that when you approach children in a way that acknowledges them as whole persons and in their deepest essence as shining souls, they respond beautifully. This became the spirit behind every encounter I had with a new student. My first thought was always, “This is a shining soul.” We must acknowledge them as a unique light, and our job is to help them shine ever more brightly.
And how can we do that?
When a teacher is holding that thought uppermost in every encounter with a student, it gets communicated both subtly and overtly. Then the student feels that their experience of school is much deeper, and more personal.
When I was a little girl, the teacher would give us gold stars for good behavior or for penmanship. It was a formal system of external rewards. You can have a reward system in an Education for Life school, but it will take on a very different meaning, because it’s all about the individual relationship with each child.
One child needs to learn to believe in herself, and another needs to learn to respect and believe in others. Whatever the lesson is, it’s always individual.
I believe this is another major point in favor of our system of education. It’s so real, because it’s based on helping them where they really are, and according to their own nature.
At the big high school where I taught, I was able to accomplish a great deal by teaching to the individual students in my classroom, and yet there were outside forces wanting us to march along in orderly rows.
There was a young girl in my class who was very popular and well-liked. She was a cheerleader and part of the homecoming queen’s court, and she was also very bright. At the same time, her whole life was geared toward getting a super grade-point average and going to a great college. Because she was measuring her success entirely by grades, she didn’t get nearly as much out of my class as the other kids.
For her final exam she wrote an essay which was okay but not great, and after a great deal of careful thought, I gave her a B-plus for the course, although I knew she would be disappointed. And, sure enough, she came to me and said, “I need an A! Why didn’t you give me an A?”
I explained that an A is something you earn by going beyond simply regurgitating the information — it indicates that you’ve engaged with the subject, that you’ve taken it in and made it part of your awareness in a creative way.
But she wasn’t convinced, and I wasn’t surprised when I got a call from her father.
I felt a great deal of regret for her, not for the B grade, but because the other kids had grown so much more, each at their level.
Education for (Real) Life
Our class included students from typical middle-class families and others who had come to America as refugees and immigrants. We were discussing immigration one day, and a boy from a white middle-class family made a negative remark about Asian people who were seeking refuge in this country and taking jobs, and so on.
There was a girl from Laos in the class, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, where am I going to go with this?” But before I could say a word, the Laotian girl spoke up, which was remarkable in itself, because she had never spoken in class.
She said, “For your information, I am a refugee, and I have as much right to be here as you do!” The boy stammered out a response, but the class came together and confronted him with the flaws in his reasoning.
I was so proud of her, that she had felt free and courageous enough to take him on. She said, “By the way, if you go back far enough, you’re an immigrant, too!”
I believe that the freedom to engage with real-life issues is at the core of an Education for Life, because true education isn’t only about mastering information, it’s about mastering how you want to live your life, and how you can be a good person, and how you can be part of a family and part of a workforce.
Of course, it takes a great deal of hard work to master a professional field, but in the end I believe a successful life comes down to certain universal and indispensable principles — that if you want to be truly successful, you have to be honest with others and with yourself, and you have to value others and search for the highest in yourself and others and behave accordingly.
And when you fall down, you have to be able to pick yourself up and try again. And if somebody else falls, you don’t gang up on them, but you go over and say, “Let me help you.”
We see that behavior in our school every day, because the culture is based so completely on being able to tune in to each other’s reality. If a child skins a knee, everybody runs over to help. They use the tools we’ve given them. And then the teachers will come over, and the children will make way, because there’s tremendous respect that’s based on the caring and love the teachers have for the children.
I marvel at the good fortune of the children in this school, because they’re allowed to be who they are, and they are given every opportunity and support to grow into their own fullest nature.
The children in our school are very individual, and they will need this or that kind of special help. And while they don’t always live up to their highest potential, their highest is what we’re always holding out to them.
If children get into it with one another, as they will, we guide them to understand, “That person’s reality is different from mine, and it isn’t necessarily bad.” And in that way they learn to navigate even very nuanced situations on their own.
The teachers have earned the students’ respect, so they are able to involve themselves at a deep level with them, because they are honest with them, and they love them.
If a child feels loved and seen by someone in authority, the defenses around the heart go down, and then that child can take any kind of correction, because s/he knows that it’s offered by a friend who wants to help.
Creating a Safe School Environment of Growth and Joy
Q: I’ve been struck by the atmosphere in the school, and how it seems to harmonize lots of things.
Helen: I couldn’t agree more. When I started teaching here twenty-odd years ago, I met with a group of parents who wanted to learn more about the school. Afterward, a woman stayed behind. She said, “I have a confession. I’m not a parent, and I don’t have a child for your school. I’m a spy.” Of course, she got my attention.
She continued, “I’m a psychologist, working on my PhD, and I used your school as part of my research, but I need you to know that your school is very different from other schools.”
She said, “When I came through the gate I felt a change in the energy, and I didn’t know exactly what it was. But then I saw the children walking between classes, and every single child had a smile on his or her face.”
She said, “Then I understood where the mysterious energy came from. It’s because you have happy children.”
I said, “Well, that’s the truth. The children who are in our school are basically really, really happy.” And she said, “You have no idea what it’s like, by comparison, to go into some of these other schools.”
“Oh, I do,” I said – “from the children who come here from those schools. They share their experiences – the lack of freedom, the bullying, the cliques, the competition, the stress.”
I believe that when you look at children as souls, and not merely as personalities, it instantly deepens and expands the relationship. When you visit the classrooms here, it strikes you that the students aren’t afraid. There will be times when they aren’t able to rise to the highest level they could, but the overarching truth is that they are essentially loved, and when you take fear out of the equation, almost anything is possible.
Encouraging High Aspirations
A keystone of our philosophy is a principle that we call “directional relativity.” The idea is that everyone in the world is looking for happiness and freedom from suffering, and the only way we can get there is by working with ourselves exactly as we are, right now. So we’re all moving in the same direction, toward greater happiness and freedom, but we’re going forward at our own pace, starting from the unique place where we are.
I don’t think I could go into a classroom and be an effective teacher without having that principle in mind, that you’re always looking at the individual child and very clearly understanding where they are, and then you’re imagining where they can go, and you’re helping them go forward in that direction.
So there’s a sense of directional progress but without a fixed timeline, and you’re always tuning into the individual child and evaluating their points of readiness.
A child takes a test, and they’re upset about their grade. We don’t see that as a bad thing, because it signals that they want to improve. So the teacher will give them lots of encouragement and support. “I love the fact that you want to do better!”
It’s the idea that we’re always wanting to move forward, starting where we are, at the level of our own abilities, without the slightest sense of being judged, and we communicate that security to the children through our expectations, our language, and our support. So it all works together in the child’s favor, and when you can communicate that sense of support and faith and promise, there’s no telling how far the child can go.