A year after I joined the Rishi Valley School I was asked to be a 'house parent' to 16 boys of ages 10 to 13. I was to live with them in a newly extended two storey white brick building called Palm House. I had one large room of 10 boys directly above me and a smaller room of 6 on the same floor.
I was 24 years old then, with little experience of working with children. What was to be my role as 'house-parent' to 16 pre-adolescent boys in a residential school, living together in this campus full of flowering trees nestling between ancient, rugged hills? The distant figure of the 'hostel warden' of my college days, or the kindly but stern 'house master' in the public school I had attended, supervising, via a team of prefects, the lives of 80 pupils? These could hardly serve as guiding models for what I would be expected to do. The intimacy of smaller numbers and the living arrangements at Palm House called for a different quality of response from me, a different kind of relationship between me and my students. Underlying the structures and ethos of Rishi Valley School is Krishnamurti's educational outlook which stresses a direct and vital teacher-student relationship. I could now begin to discover my own understanding of this relationship - its imperatives and its multiple possibilities. This became the context in which many of my perspectives on the teacher-student relationship evolved over the next several years.
For 8 years I looked after boys of classes 6, 7 and 8 at Palm House. Each year some of the older boys would move to other houses and a few new ones would join. The year would begin with the inevitable need to help the new ones 'settle in', integrate with each other and with the older boys. The relationship between me and my students would have to be reestablishment and as the patterns of relationship amongst them took shape, I would have to respond to a variety of situations . Each proved an entirely new experience, with a new grouping of personalities, new problems and challenges as well as opportunities for collective growth and fresh learning, Each year my perspectives on house-parenting changed and evolved.
I now look back in order to draw out from these experiences a broad framework for viewing the responsibilities of the teacher-student relationship in a residential school setting. I imagine before me a fresh group of 10, 11 and 12 year old boys whose house parent I am to be. Looking at them - at the eager, open faces, the growing self-assurance of their young bodies, and the more self-conscious gaze and postures of the older ones - I wonder. On what basis is a relationship to be established between us? What do they need from me and what can I possibly give them?
(To) provide them with their first form of security...I need to create an atmosphere of sensible expectations.
There must first be a mutual sense of acknowledgment and contact. These boys who have come away from home, away from their parents, have little choice but to seek contact with me. I am to be the primary adult presence in their lives at school, a parent-substitute in whom they will instinctively seek to invest the 'holding role' that they need, especially the newer, less self-assured boys. Even the more independent, older ones or those who exude an air of boisterous self-assurance are aware of me, as a 'restraining presence' . This aspect of my presence in their lives has immediate value in providing them a context within which their energies and impulses may find appropriate channels of expression.
My contact with these boys begins when I acknowledge that I indeed have this restraining and channnelizing role, with my willingness to exercise it. By making the boys clearly aware of this, I provide them with their first form of security. For the 'rough and tumble' of living amidst diverse personalities of different ages does need the restraining hand of an older person. Right from the beginning I need to work at creating an atmosphere of sensible expectations. In 'house meetings' and other interactions basic behavioural, social and moral 'group rules' can be suggested, boundaries within which our relationship may evolve.
Further, I need to negotiate with them, a set of 'roles' or 'responsibilities' which they may be asked to take up according to temperament and interest or on a rotating basis (e.g. common-room in-charge, letter distribution and accounts in-charge.) Besides encouraging a co-operative spirit of sharing the tasks of managing the house, these roles become an arena for exercising the autonomy of growing children. Such structuring may draw a ready response from some boys, but knowing the complexities and impulsiveness of this age, I must be prepared to continue acting as a 'keeper of a sense of order' .
In the pre-adolescent's struggles to grow, a concerned adult can serve as a supporting as well as a challenging presence...
A restraining and organizing presence is not enough to sustain a relationship that is nourishing. A deeper understanding of individual children is required of me. By this age a child is quite aware of himself as a person, his particular needs, wishes, and his distinctness from others. And he wants the adult presence around him to be cognizant of this too. (He then feels recognized as a person, not one among many students.) This requires of me an interest in children, a keen sense of observation and a willingness to invest myself in the well-being of individual children. When these concerns are alive in me, I may discern - from the conversations and daily activities in the house - individual traits and idiosyncrasies to be drawn to different children in different ways. As my awareness of individual personalities, interests and specific needs fills out, I can base my responses to each child on this under-standing.
However, I need to maintain an 'openness' and a continued watchfulness, for children are growing and changing rapidly at this stage. Their personalities are still relatively malleable, their behaviour driven by diverse and changing impulses, readily influenced by peers and the attitudes of adults around them. I must be careful not to form fixed images of these pre-adolescents, and make special efforts to get to know those to whom I find myself not readily drawn or those who may appear as 'problem children'. I need to be conscious of my own temperament and tendencies, my affinities for particular children, the impact of my responses on various boys and also be aware of my own limitations in understanding. The onus lies with me, if I am to learn to balance my responses vis a vis individual children and draw out new ones. Thus I may seek to generate more individualised contexts for the growth of the different children in my house.
Living with observing over successive years, the changing characteristics of boys of this age group, I have noticed certain regularities in their developmental patterns. This stage of growth - as 10 or 11 year olds emerge from late childhood into the phase of pre-adolescence at 12 or 13 - may be seen as the beginning of a turning point in development. Dependence on adults begins to give way to a greater self-directedness, often accompanied by closer allegiances to their peers and less need to look to adults to run their day to day lives. Personalities begin to fill out, as rapidly developing pre-adolescents gather wider physical, intellectual and social experiences, and become more aware of their capacities, their interests and their emotional responses in a variety of situations. Their growing self-knowledge is often acquired through comparisons with peers. However, when closer relationships with adults are also experienced by a pre-adolescent child, these continue to have a potent influence on the course of his development, on his idea of self and on the sense of autonomy he begins to acquire. In the pre-adolescent's struggles to grow, a concerned adult can serve as a supporting as well as a challenging presence.
But what are my own intentions as a house parent? What do I want for the children with whom I may have established a rapport? This is a complex issue, one that requires closer examination and perhaps a continual questioning on my part of the ways in which I can support the growth of children in my care, while remaining alert to the possible need to challenge them.
As a house parent, I can draw opportunities of learning from the flow and friction of relations among the boys in the house. Thrown together closely with each other over an extended period of time, the boys develop co-operative associations and friendships as readily as they get into conflicts and tensions. Close friendships may form between boys of the same age, or occasionally between older and younger boys, with the older taking the younger under their wing. These friendships are often naturally educative in themselves and my role lies in supporting and encouraging them while monitoring at a distance the changing relationships among the boys. For in the midst of these friendships, there is also a tendency for peer 'gangs' to form, including some and excluding others. Domination by an individual or a group, being 'left out', nursing jealousies, irritations, as also teasing, quarrels, arguments, threats, even physical blows, are all part of the dynamics of the relationships of boys in the house, and fielding complaints is an inevitable part of house parenting.
By involving myself in the day to day life of my students — having meals and tea with them, chatting and listening to their banter, and on occasion playing with them - I not only keep my relationships with them alive, but I am also able to keep an 'ear to the ground'. Thus when unhappy situations or altercations arise, I can judge when, and in what manner, my intervention may be necessary vis a vis an individual or a group of boys. These occasions can be used to help students become more aware of 'cause and effect', and to reflect on their own reactions and roles in a particular episode, learn to own responsibility and apologise if need be. Challenging them thus without moralistic overtones and with a natural sense of fairness, this process can inculcate in these boys a growing ability to see the consequences of their actions and check their contrary instincts. Some boys are capable of a direct empathy with others: being genuinely apologetic if they have hurt someone, or instinctively helpful and supportive of friends in need. I would encourage such sensitivity in my students without making it an expectation of them. For boys growing through these years in general tend to become 'self-enclosed', perhaps out of a need to begin defining themselves as distinct persons and asserting their autonomy. Whereas they develop a clearer sense of their own feelings and are able to formulate their own points of view, they are often not yet able to take into account others' points of view and feelings while expressing their own impulses.
But side by side with this apparent 'self-centredness' the possibility of an openness and pliability remains in growing pre-adolescents. As they mature — and this I have noticed in a few older boys who have lived with me - they begin to become more cognizant of how others feel or think, and this makes possible a qualitative change in their relationships and the way they relate to situations around them. Their growing faculties, new-found feelings for others and wider appreciation of life situations, however, need new opportunities for expression. Such struggles for growth I need to recognize, support and perhaps help draw forth. Some students mature early and are capable of taking wider responsibilities and I can seek their help in organizing house affairs, at the same time providing them opportunities for taking on leadership roles. Individual contact and discussion with the older students may put me in touch with their thought processes and the dilemmas some of them may be facing. I too learn from the observations of the more thoughtful students. A few seem to have their ears and minds tuned to questions and formulations well beyond their immediate realities, and I have shared with them their curiosity, wonder and insights.
(The house parent is) the creator of a context for the expression of impulses, interests and passions...
Whether they are 10 or 13, boys at this stage have the capacity to involve themselves fully in their 'passion of the moment' or pursuing a variety of interests, as the case may be. Sports and games have top priority with many, collecting objects as well as 'facts' is popular with most, while some discover and develop more individualistic interests - reading, sketching, painting, playing an instrument, solving puzzles or playing chess. The natural bent and talent of children begin to find more purposive expression if avenues for these pursuits are available. As their house parent, I would like to give individual children, to the extent possible, the room to discover their own interests and pursue them in their own manner. The strong passion for particular activities that children feel is often fueled by the immediacy of the enjoyment. My encouragement or a structuring of time and materials may be helpful, but I need to watch the tendency to curb or channelize according to adult motivations, which could diminish this gift for passion. Given room for expression, these deep involvements may flower into future talents or else wither away naturally to be replaced by new pursuits. In all this, however, I need to discriminate between 'healthy' passions and those that become obsessions detrimental to the growth of an individual or to relationships among a whole group of boys. For instance, even collecting and exchanging stamps can become a furious and consuming pastime, or tussling and quarrelling to play the same game over and over again can lead to ill feelings. So I continue to play the role of a 'moderator', 'setting limits' when necessary and giving students a realistic sense of what can be done when, within the confines of the school routine.
A growing concern in today's world is the continual barrage of impressions and images, ideas of self and others, of lifestyles and worthwhile pursuits, that young pre-adolescents absorb from the wider cultural environment. This is even more so with the current explosion of media, various forms of electronic entertainment and advertising, often aimed at children. The messages they receive become ingredients of their own developing notions of themselves and of human possibilities, and this at a stage when their imagination is easily captured and they are just beginning to learn to discriminate and form independent judgments. I believe that the images and world view that children imbibe when they are young have an effect that is potentially either limiting or enhancing in their long term development. It seems today that 'popular culture' tends to hold sway on their minds unless other opportunities are provided, even encouraged.
I see that I can determine to some extent-in this remotely located residential school campus-the quality of their present cultural environment, and I think it is important to exercise a degree of discrimination in what students are exposed to here. Without being censorious about their pre-formed cultural inclinations, often the result of peer group as well as social influences, I could on occasion discuss these with them and also attempt to expose them to music of different kinds, stories that express a wide range of human situations, and reading tastes that go beyond popular fiction. Music and stories (including myths from various cultures) are capable of touching the deeper sub-conscious levels of the mind, conveying a depth to human emotions and aspirations and leaving impressions of the complex patterns of life, growth and death. It is my hope that these may remain embedded in a child's mind and be available for drawing upon as he grows older to face the complexities of the modern human predicament. He may then be less susceptible to the attractions of a popular, consumerist culture and open to making a search for a deeper meaning and creativity in his life.
I have the responsibility of watching my own behaviour, reactions...being aware of the background from which I respond.
Through all this I wonder if, as a teacher, I may be imposing my own forms of conditioning upon my students, in terms of morality and world-view and directing their interests and activities. If a child accepts my point of view, will this not have a limiting effect on his own understanding and free growth? Conversely, if my ideas do not cohere with his own pre-formed and still developing notions, might it not produce reactions of conflict or rejection in the child? Either way, I need to see the dangers of merely adding further to the child's conditioning, without allowing his own capacity for judgement to develop. And yet I cannot escape being an 'adult model', someone the child may look to for guidance or unconsciously imbibe traits from. This places on me the responsibility of watching my own behaviour, reactions and utterances, and also of being aware of the background of conditioning from which I respond. I may need to cultivate an attitude of self-recollectedness, of enquiry into my own values in a changing world, along with a sensitivity to each child's actual state and particular needs, if I am to steer clear of the tendency to impose one's own conditioning.
There is one other concern that I have for my students. I think it is important, from time to time, to direct their attention outside of themselves, their particular notions of self and others, their interests, problems and preoccupations. In this I have discovered an ally in the natural beauty that surrounds us in the valley. Looking at and being quietly aware of nature — to changing vistas and tiny living details - can bring about a freshness of spirit and dwindling of the thought process. This is a quality that may be shared, say on a walk, with a receptive child. Another possibility is to sit quietly with a child and together become aware of the thought process. One may then suggest to a child that he may, now and then, go for a walk by himself or spend a little time alone. Creating such moments of quiet space has, for both adult and child, a 'freeing' quality, which helps to bring a harmonious balance to the mind and to deepen its reach. If they begin to experiment with such ability and experience in their early years, it may enable young people to learn to put aside self preoccupation and become aware of things and people around them, not only through the filter of images and concepts they hold, but directly and vividly. This quality of mind, if it can be cultivated is, I believe, most vital for their continued healthy growth as human beings.
Let me summarise the framework I have attempted to draw. I see that in living and being involved with his student's growth, a house parent's role is many layered. He is the 'restraining presence' and 'keeper of order'; the organiser of structures and the cultural environment in the house; the creator of a context for the expression of impulses, interests and passions; a supporting or challenging presence for individual students, whose temperament, needs and difficulties he can respond to. He may also be a catalyst for inner growth, providing experiences, suggestions and encouragement for the exercise of new faculties and feelings. And if together with his students, he can generate an overall atmosphere of shared growth, friendship and humour, he may enjoy himself doing all this, while enhancing the quality of his students' lives. It is a difficult challenge for any house parent to try and orchestrate all these roles for the students in his care. But in attempting to do so, there is much he receives in return: affection, a natural respect, and the enduring goodwill of his students. He also keeps himself 'aware', observant, aware of his own limitations, and hence, possibilities of continued growth. And he is privileged to participate in the creative motion of life as it shapes the growth of his students and himself.