“Little Monks & Nuns” — Nurturing Children’s Spirit at School

Narani with her students, 1984.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Narani Moorhouse says with a quiet smile.

It’s a January afternoon at the elementary school on a grassy hill above the “downtown” part of Ananda Village, a thriving, fifty-year-old spiritual community in the foothills near Nevada City, California.

The children have skipped down the hill after school and Narani is enjoying the mild winter sun as she chats about education.

“I very clearly remember walking into the schoolroom on my first day of kindergarten and thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to do when I grow up!’

“In school I was always watching my teachers, tracking their teaching styles and noticing what worked and what didn’t. And whenever I had babysitting jobs I would make up little lesson plans for the kids and play school.” When Narani laughs, it’s like a small explosion, a bright exhalation of joy.

Watching her teach her third and fourth graders, it’s clear that her enthusiasm wins their hearts. They might not betray the seven-year-old’s code so far as to admit that they like school, but watching them, it’s obvious that they love it.

In Narani’s classroom, “spiritual education” means encouraging all aspects of a child’s nature, with happiness as the constant goal. As she talks about her experiences, spiritual truths assume a living form.

The teachers in the Living Wisdom Schools understand that universal, non-sectarian spiritual principles are priceless keys for finding success and happiness in our lives. Modern research has shown that attitudes of kindness, compassion, empathy, and feelings of social connection have profound positive effects on our bodies and minds, stimulating electrical and chemical changes that benefit our health, promote mental clarity and calmness, and generate feelings of inner fulfillment and happiness.

Currently there are eight Education for Life schools in America and Europe. For information, visit edforlife.org.

Q: Can you recall an experience from your years as a teacher that revealed children’s spiritual potential?

Narani: I’m thinking of something quite wonderful that happened my first year at Living Wisdom School. I was reading books by or about Teresa of Avila, a great saint of the 16th century. I was teaching third and fourth grade at the time, and part of my way of being with the kids has always included sharing the uplifting things that I’m experiencing in my own life. I was so inspired by my reading, and in our morning circle, I said to them, “You guys, I just have to share this with you!”

St. Teresa had so much love for God. She dedicated her life totally to do whatever Christ might ask of her, and she had complete love for whatever came her way. So I was reading to the children about loving God so much, and doing everything for God, and how the nuns were symbolically wedded to Christ at the ceremony where they took their final vows.

I told them how the nuns lived in silence so that they could always be thinking about God. And then one of the little girls piped up and said, “I think we could do that!”

I said, “Weeellllll… How?”

So we played with the idea. I had wanted to be a nun in the worst way when I was young, but I’d never felt truly called to that kind of life. And yet, oh! – it seemed like such a wonderful thing. So I thought, “Okay, this is my chance.” [Laughs]

We worked out how we could play nuns and monks, and we decided that we would do our chores in silence, just like the nuns in Teresa’s convents, and that our “chores” would be our school assignments. We had someone be the bell ringer, and they would ring the bell every hour and we’d stop what we were doing and pray.

One of the kids said, “What will we pray about?”

I said, “You know, if you felt that you were married to God, you could talk to Him in the everyday language of your own heart. Maybe you would want to ask for help, or you might ask how you could communicate better with your mom or your dad or your best friend. That’s how you would pray.”

So we would stop and say our prayers, and I didn’t try to rush them, but whenever I stopped I was never the last one praying, because there was always at least one child still praying. And I knew it wasn’t play-acting, because their hands were clenched tight and you could feel the concentration in them.

The first recess came, and two of the little girls got a bucket and started cleaning the entryway floor. And – well! – I had said nothing to them about the happiness of selfless service!

I said, “Oh, you guys, I have to break our silence, because I just have to read this to you!” I got my book and read a passage where St. Teresa talks about service, and how, when you love God with all your heart, and you love others as your brothers and sisters, you just naturally want to do things to make their lives easier. And it’s not that you have to, but you just want to do things to help them.

I said, “I didn’t read this book to you, and you’re doing exactly what it says!” We had never scrubbed the floor before. [laughs] And they were out there with their buckets and rags scrubbing away, all without my asking, and it was amazing.

So the day went on, and it was so cute, because the little girls would button their sweaters over their heads like veils, and the boys were stuffing their arms in their sleeves like monks. It was a wonderful day, and everyone was real inward and happy.

The next morning, I thought, “Oh well, that was wonderful, but now it’s over.” And then at our morning circle one of the little boys said, “Can we do that again?”

I was feeling that I didn’t want to run it into the ground and spoil the blessing. So I said, “No, I think one day was enough.” And I had a rebellion on my hands! “No! No! We want to do it again! We want to do it again!”

Finally a little boy said, totally serious, “Look, I know God helped me with my work yesterday!” And I thought “Ooookkaaay….!” [laughs]

Well, we ended up doing it all week long. We spent the whole week in silence, and it was a little awkward to teach! [laughs] I mean, trying to figure out how to teach fractions without saying anything, where you can only write on the board. But it was wonderful.

It was unusually warm for January, and they were showing Friday night movies on the market lawn. “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” was scheduled for the coming Friday, and I thought, “Uh-oh, here comes all this St. Francis stuff!” And sure enough, when the kids came to school on Monday they were demanding, “Now we want to be Saint Francis and Saint Clare!”

I said, “Okay. How can we do it?” Well, the one thing they could think of was to beg for food. [laughs] And as a first-year teacher I just didn’t know if I could send them home with notes to their parents, “Please don’t send lunches with your children, because we’re going to go down to the market and beg from people after they’ve eaten their lunch.” [laughs]

So I said no, but later I thought, “What a shame!” Because Francis’ attitude was to accept whatever God gave him, and if God gave him food to eat, great, and if God didn’t, then God wanted him to be a little hungry, and that was okay, too. And I thought, what other chance would these kids have to be hungry and learn to accept it? Now, they probably wouldn’t have been hungry for very long as they walked among their families and said, “May I have what’s left of your sandwich?” [laughs] I doubt people would have turned them away, but it’s a shame that they didn’t have the experience.

I had shared with the kids about Teresa of Avila because I was so enthusiastic that I just couldn’t contain myself. And, in fact, that’s what I really garnered from the experience.

More than anything that I told them about Teresa, the kids picked up on my enthusiasm, and that’s really what gave it life for them.

It taught me something extremely important about encouraging children generally, and helping them understand spiritual principles, and ever since that time, whenever something really moves me, not only ideas but whenever something’s truly stirring me, I’ll share it with the kids. And, almost without exception, it’s been something that touched them deeply, too, because they could feel the love and joy in it. And it’s so different from when I’m just talking about some abstract aspect of academics or the spiritual life, because when it has that kind of enthusiasm behind it they’re able to feel it right away.

Q: Does that connection happen rarely, or is it a regular part of the education that children receive at Living Wisdom School ?

Narani: I believe you have to be open for it to happen at any moment. You can’t force it – if I were to try to recreate the experiment with the kids living as monks and nuns, I doubt that it would work, because it was a spontaneous thing that presented itself with inspiration, and I think it can happen at any time, but it has to come from that source of heartfelt inspiration and enthusiasm within.

Q: As a teacher at Living Wisdom School, do you have more opportunities to teach spontaneously than you would in other schools?

Narani and kids take time to visit the garden at Ananda Village and learn about plants.

Narani: Because we work a great deal on the children’s character development, they need to be able to trust us, and to know from deep inside that we care for them as persons and as souls.

If you put thirty six-year-olds together for six hours a day, day in and day out, you have to spend an awful lot of time on classroom management: “Everyone, be quiet! Do this, do that.” But when it’s just twelve kids, there’s more time for learning and being together, and it does support a certain spontaneity.

If the sun comes out after the rain, and there’s a beautiful rainbow, and the most wonderful thing is to walk through this wonderful countryside, it’s nothing to manage it with twelve kids.

Q: How do you balance learning life skills with the academic side?

Narani: We have to prepare the kids for success in the real world. They won’t be able to feel really good about themselves if they aren’t successful in some outward way. So we’re very careful with the curriculum, to make sure that everything gets covered, and over the years in our school we’ve found that they’re very consistently ahead of grade level.

Last year a little girl from New Zealand visited our class. She was a first grader in a typical school where they moved the kids ahead quickly. She was in my class for two weeks, and she did fine. But after she left we got a call from her parents, telling us that her teacher was extremely puzzled. And then the teacher actually called me and said, “What did you do in your class?” Because this girl did not read when she left, and she came back able to sit down and read a book.

At first I couldn’t imagine what I had done. In fact, I hadn’t done anything more than I was doing with the other kids. We simply spend lots of time with books, and we sit down and read together. And that’s when I thought that our small, supportive group of children might have been all she needed to relax and allow her reading to flow forth with ease.

Of course it wasn’t as if I could have taught the girl to read in only a couple of weeks. But then it occurred to me that there might have been a degree of academic pressure at her school, whereas at Living Wisdom School we cover a great deal of ground in academics, but there’s always a warm, friendly feeling to it. The little girl was rather shy, and I daresay that she was able to relax and use the knowledge she had, and start moving ahead, free of the fear and tension that a large, impersonal classroom might generate.

One of the strongest attitudes I see in our teachers is a very, VERY deep respect for the children. Our role as adults and as leaders is extremely important, but at the same time we understand that these are souls, and they’ve been here before. They were old and they knew a lot, and while those past experiences may not be in their conscious memory, these souls are still very worthy of our respect, and of being treated in a kind, fair, and respectful way. And that attitude leads to a certain family feeling, and a genuine care and affection for the children.

Q: Has being on a spiritual path helped you as a teacher?

Narani: One of the first things that comes to mind is a certain inner knowing that it isn’t all riding on me, and that I’m not going to make or break these kids.

In class, I may come up with something that’s intellectually challenging, but if it doesn’t have an inner spirit behind it, and a resonance with their heart and soul, there will still be a lack. But if what I’m giving them has a resonance with their heart, and an attunement with their spirit, then I find that it tends to be much more meaningful to them.

I remember a meeting that we teachers had with Swami Kriyananda, the founder of Education for Life. He said, “Always look to the consciousness behind anything that you bring into the classroom. Whether it’s music or an art activity or a game or the way you present history, look to the consciousness behind it.”

So we’ve developed aspects of the curriculum that reach beyond the intellectual. In teaching history, for example, we look at the soul development of people such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and how they grew to be great leaders by embodying spiritual values of courage and compassion, and by nobly holding to justice and truth. And in everything we do in the classroom, we try to bring out those deeper insights.

When I put my heart and soul into a lesson, and I find that maybe it isn’t coming off terribly well, I know that I can ask for guidance within, because I don’t feel that my brain is the only resource I have, but that there’s a greater resource I can draw on, that cares about each particular child and knows exactly what they need.

I’m not one to sit down and pray and see flashing lights and hear a voice telling me what to do, but there’s a sense of “Ah, yes!” An impulse will come, and sure enough, it will be just what’s needed, whether it’s about an academic subject or a social situation with the children.

Q: As our country’s schools increasingly seem to be floundering in confusion when it comes to teaching children about morality and values, many people are saying that outward solutions are the answer, whether it’s by enforcing a certain academic rigor, or setting rules, or putting police in the halls. Whereas you seem to be saying, help them discover what works best and that gives them the greatest happiness.

Narani: I feel that the inner and outer are both extremely important. It basically does come down to what’s going to make a child happy. And it means that they need to have control of their energy, and they need to have control of their attitude, and they need to learn how to deal with the things that their life is going to throw at them.

In playing a game, there’s the outward skill and there’s the quality of your character, and just behind the struggle to learn math concepts and spelling the children are also developing spiritual qualities. We try to work with both aspects, helping the kids learn to deal with what they’re given and be the best they can, both inwardly and outwardly.

Narani Moorhouse is the author of Supporting Your Child’s Inner Life.

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