Bringing Out the Best in Our Teens

What is the best learning environment?

A mother visited our school recently to decide if it would be the best choice for her daughter. After walking around the school for several hours observing, she said, “Every private school in the San Francisco Bay Area promises to help children develop in body, mind, and spirit. They all promise to create moral, ethical people and to work with the students’ emotional and social challenges. But you’re the only school that seems to be doing it.”

It was probably an exaggeration, because I know of other schools that are making a genuine effort to develop well-rounded students. But I believe she had touched upon a unique quality of Living Wisdom School.

One of our parents was a professional educational psychologist who specialized in assessing young people with learning challenges. She told me, “I visit all the schools in the area to test the kids and talk to the teachers. I believe your school is providing the best learning environment.”

She couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was about our school that inspired her, but she told me that she clearly saw the results. She saw happy children who were growing in every area of their lives, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, academically, and spiritually.

I led a tour of the school for a group of prospective parents. One young woman asked me several unusually penetrating questions about important issues in education. Later, after the other parents left, she said, “I have a confession–I’m not a parent. I’m really a spy!”

She laughed and explained that she was working on her doctoral dissertation in education and child psychology, and as part of her research she was visiting all of the schools in the area. She said, “I knew this place was different from the moment I stepped on the grounds. But I didn’t know exactly why until I’d spent several hours watching the kids. Your kids smile a lot. They’re laughing. They’re exuding joy, and it’s something you just don’t find in other schools.”

What was it about our school that inspired these people? I believe it was a quality that lies at the heart of what we’re doing.

Our fundamental premise is that the purpose of life is to give young people the mental, emotional, and spiritual skills that will enable them to experience increasing happiness and avoid suffering.

More deeply, we believe that, beneath the individual’s body, mind, and personality, their deepest inner nature is joy.

Our job is not to “fix” young people

When I talk to parents who are thinking about enrolling their sons or daughters at Living Wisdom School, I tell them, “What we’re doing may appear to be routine classroom-based education, but it is a radical approach that will challenge your traditional notions about educating and raising children.

“It’s radical because we’re addressing the original goodness in young people. And because we do that, the entire educational experience becomes positive and affirmative.”

Our primary job is not to tinker with students in a superficial way–to “fix” their minds, or prepare them for the new global economy, or even to focus narrowly on their academic success–although these things all happen in our school, very often spectacularly. But our main job is to give them the tools that will enable them to express their unique gifts, and to build on those strengths to succeed in their own unique way.

To accomplish that, we’ve had to redefine education in terms of the deepest goal of life, to help them find happiness. And to find it in every area of life.

We’ve had forty years of experience with this approach, and it has more than amply proved its worth. The proof is that young people thrive under Education for Life.

A boy came to us from a private school with a reputation for its high-powered academic focus. The emphasis was entirely on getting the students admitted to a premier university, so that they could land a premier job and make lots of money, with the assumption that they would then be happy.

But research tells us that this is a false equation. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, found in his studies of Harvard students and business managers that the most successful were happy before they were successful, and that it gave them a tremendous advantage that contributed greatly to their success. He eventually found that it was true also in every area of our lives, including our relationships–the ability to know how to be happy contributes tremendously to our ability to achieve and succeed.

The general assumption has always been that the accumulation of money and prestige will bring us happiness. But Achor found that the opposite is true–that happiness brings success in its wake.

The wise teachers of all ages tell us that the point of life is to find genuine, enduring happiness. And with that goal in mind, in our school we refuse to impose on our students the false equation that happiness comes with outward success.

Instead, we get to know them as they are, on a deep level, and we support them in finding success in their own way. It doesn’t mean that we neglect their areas of weakness. It means that we never define them by those weaknesses, as academically oriented schools can do.

The boy who came to us from a school with a reputation as an academic pressure cooker had difficulties in several academic areas, but we quickly realized that he was exceptionally gifted, but just not in ordinary ways.

At our initial conference with his parents, it quickly became clear that they were entirely focused on his deficiencies. They described how he was failing in this and that, and all of their attention was on the problems, not on finding solutions.

I finally interrupted and said, “What do you see as his strengths?”

They slowly began to delineate them. But the solutions they suggested were all within the paradigm of what would work best for him when he entered college.

I knew that this boy’s talents lay outside the standard academic conventions. He had a tremendous artistic sensibility that was very verbally advanced and profoundly comic. He had an amazing talent for making people laugh. We decided to work with his strengths and see how it might empower him to correct his academic weaknesses.

We supported him in expressing his unique talents, and we gave him a stage–within reason! And in the end, he came into his own in the academic fields that he had formerly found so challenging.

The story has a sequel: this young man was accepted at Stanford, where he thrived in a very demanding, highly competitive academic environment.

When I help others, I’m happy

A student in our school joined her classmates on a service trip to a San Francisco shelter that serves meals to the homeless.

The shelter’s philosophy is to remind the guests of our shared humanity. The homeless are honored at a weekly sit-down dinner featuring multiple courses, all served by volunteers.

This girl was inclined toward a pessimistic outlook–her glass was always half-empty.

After serving at the shelter one night, she told her teacher, “My parents are trying to talk me into therapy, but I tell them that all I need to do is come here and help. When I’m helping these people, I don’t even think about myself, and I’m really happy.”

When the teacher shared the story with me, I thought, “There’s no way in the world we could have taught her that lesson in the classroom. She needed to experience it for herself.”

This is a very large part of Education for Life. It’s about giving young people experiences that enable them to understand the thoughts, feelings, and actions that will give them the greatest happiness.

Teaching meditation

Meditation is a central practice in our school. Students see the fruits of daily meditation modeled by the teachers. And once they get a sense of the calmness, concentration, and joy of meditation in others, most of them want to experience it for themselves.

We start by helping them experience how our breathing patterns affect our emotions. When someone becomes hyper-excited or emotionally upset, we show them how to calm their breathing, as a very powerful way to calm their hearts and minds.

Before they take a big test, play an important game, or rehearse their part in the annual school play, we teach them to calm their minds and focus their attention. These simple practices are tools that will serve them well throughout their school years and career.

An academic track record

The number-one concern that parents have had over the years regards academics: “Now is the time we have to get really serious about academics. We have to prepare our students for the real world.”

My standard response is to tell the parents about our students’ forty-year record of academic success.

We’ve existed long enough to observe the careers of our graduates through high school, college, and careers. And the record shows very clearly that when someone is affirmed at the soul level, academic excellence and personal success naturally follow.

Bringing the whole person into the learning process–body, heart, will, mind, and soul–is the best way to create highly motivated, energized, enthusiastic, happy students. It helps the academically gifted make the most of his or her gifts, and it helps the more academically challenged find their strengths and leverage them for success in academics and life.

Students with learning challenges leave Living Wisdom School with their self-worth enhanced and as accomplished artists, athletes, and writers.

Living Wisdom School is academically rigorous, but not in the same way as schools where academics are the only focus. Our teachers have discovered that revolutionary success becomes possible when the school’s priorities are in the right place, putting the student’s all-around well-being above everything else.

Helen Purcell is the Director of Living Wisdom School (TK-8) in Palo Alto. She is a gifted educator and passionate leader in childhood education, with a lifetime of experience working with young people of all ages, from elementary school through college.