Seven and a half years ago, I started my first day of teaching at Oak Grove School. I had spent the summer planning lessons and figuring out how to adjust from teaching forty students a class to teaching twelve to sixteen. As 8:00 am approached, I put on my game face, ready to show the students that I was a force that should not be trifled with.
As the students filed in, I said in my most stentorian voice, “My name is Mister… umm … Will, and I am going to start with my expectations for the class, which are EXTENSIVE.” I began rattling off my policies on tardiness, food in the classroom, punctuality, ad nauseam. Had I looked up from my notes, I might have noticed a bemused expression on the students’ faces. However, my lecture was interrupted by a student who burst through the door with a haggard expression on his face. He announced, “I am so sorry. I ran over a squirrel on my way to school and I had to stop and think about that for a while.”
This stopped me in my tracks. I paused to consider how to proceed. My professional instincts and training urged me to continue with my lecture, knowing that one can only fit so much curriculum into my 181 days of instruction. However, another part of my brain started prodding me in another direction. This inquiring, curious part of my brain had atrophied in recent years, and it begged for some exercise. So, I turned to the student. A small smile started to crack the facade of my game face and I asked, “So after you hit that squirrel, what did you think about?”
So, we spent the first day of US history class, engaged in a free-ranging discussion on death, random chance, moral agency, and ethics.
Krishnamurti writes, “Education in our schools is not only the acquisition of knowledge, but what is far more important, the awakening of intelligence, which will then utilize knowledge. It is never the other way around.”
Something awakened in me that day. I suppose I could call it intelligence, and it profoundly changed the way I approach teaching and my relationship with my students. The culture of this school has a way of changing those who come into its orbit, and this change is not limited to students alone. While our focus remains on the students, the magical thing about this place is its ability to awaken intelligence and to promote a culture of self-inquiry in the community of teachers, parents, alumni, and community members.
So, I wish to challenge you with this question—How has this school, this wonderful institution of learning, led you to consider and question your own ways of thinking?
To that end, I wish to recount a few events that have occurred during the years that I have taught and been a parent here at the school. Each caused me to reflect on Krishnamurti’s words when he founded this institution. In the ‘Intent of Oak Grove School’, he writes:
Academic excellence is absolutely necessary, but a school includes much more than that. It is a place where both the teacher and the taught explore not only the outer world, the world of knowledge, but also their own thinking, their own behavior.
Learning without authority
I’ll start a few hundred miles east of Ojai, on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Each year, I have the privilege of taking the junior class on a ten-day tour of the southwestern United States. We visit parks and wild spaces across Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, learning about the natural and human history of the region, and soaking up the spectacular scenery. For the students, the trip is framed around building group cohesion, resilience, and leadership. They have ten days to disconnect with the electronic world and the pressures of their academic life, and instead focus on building relationships within their class. For me, the trip is a chance to return to the many years I spent as an outdoor educator and to reconnect with the natural world. However, it is also ten days apart from my family and the comforting routines of domestic life.
On this particular trip, we had been challenged by unseasonably cold weather and rain. I had announced the night before that I would be leading an early morning run to the canyon rim to watch the sunrise. However, when I reached for my shoes outside of my tent in the morning, they were covered by a few inches of fresh snow. Nonetheless, I persevered and slipped on my freezing shoes to keep my promise to the students. One student made it out of the warmth of her sleeping bag to accompany me on my run. As we ran through the forest path on the way to the rim, we experienced the wonderful stillness of a world covered by fresh snow. The reveal of the canyon at the end of the path caused us both to stop and marvel. The snow had stopped but the clouds were still roiling with stormy energy. The sunrise was piercing the clouds and casting long shadows on cliffs and spires below us. We had arrived in the dark the previous evening, so this was the first time the student had seen the Grand Canyon and I could tell it was having a profound effect on her.
At that moment, I felt that adult urge to explain the scene to her. Use the teachable moment. Isn’t this what we are told to do as parents and teachers? I wanted to make some sort of comment like, “Can you believe it’s a mile to the bottom!” or “You are seeing a billion years of geology in cross-section.” But then I paused and reflected on why I wanted to interrupt the moment with an explanation. I wanted to be the authority in this moment. I wanted her to know that I knew more than her. I wanted to be the teacher in this moment. But I didn’t open my mouth. We simply stood there in silence, shivering as we watched the changing shadows in the canyon. We stood together as equals before the majesty of nature.
A place for leisure
Five years after I started teaching at Oak Grove, my perspective on students shifted when my daughter Maybelle started in kindergarten and my son Jack in preschool. At the time, I taught a class that started at 8:00 am, and I would arrive at my classroom with my kids in tow. They would wait in my classroom as I got the high schoolers started with the day, and then I would run them across the hall to drop them off at their classrooms. Once we settled into this routine, my kids soon claimed their own desks in my classroom and would tell me all about their high school friends. They would get out sheets of paper and get to the work of coloring and drawing as they watched the older children busy themselves with their work. They would whisper and joke with the high schoolers despite my stern admonitions for silence. A few of the high schoolers even got invited to some playdates and a birthday party.
In seeing my own children sitting together with the high school students in the morning, I came to another realization as well. A high school student is no different than a preschool student. They are both children who are internally wired to learn, but they are also full of a playful energy that is not always suited to an academic classroom. High schoolers also need to play, explore, and have moments of downtime in their life. They need the occasional spontaneous dance party or walk through the meadow. They need to climb trees and build forts, to read for pleasure, and have a nourishing snack. They even need to rest and close their eyes every once in a while.
Krishnamurti writes about the best conditions for the ‘flowering of the mind’. This flowering will never come about without, “the cultivation of the body, the right kind of food, and proper exercise.” He writes, “When the mind, the heart, and the body are in complete harmony, the flowering comes naturally, easily, and in excellence. This is our job, our responsibility as educators.”
Krishnamurti’s advice applies to all the children at this school. It is tempting as an educator to fill the students’ day with academic enrichment, to question any moment where the students are off-task, and to see certain activities as not relevant to a quality education. Krishnamurti’s advice also resonates when I consider my professional and parental responsibilities. I too need rest, exercise, and play for my own mind to flower. Krishnamurti also writes about the concept of leisure. He writes, “School is a place of leisure. It is only when you have leisure that you can learn.” So, I remind myself to build leisure into the lives of my students and my family.
I leave you with this question—How has this school, this wonderful institution of learning, led you to consider and question your own ways of thinking?
School as family
In my Human Rights class, we introduced the year with a discussion on culture. To help them understand the concept, I asked the students to create documentary films about the culture of Oak Grove School. This is a good way for new students to learn about the school and for returning students to attempt to synthesize the key elements of the culture of the school into a short film. In the course of creating the project, one of the student groups decided to go around campus and ask students, teachers, and staff to describe the school in a single word. However, they came to me with a problem:
“Will, everyone keeps on saying the same word.”
The word was ‘family’.
When asked to elaborate, here were some responses they heard:
“Family—people look after each other.”
“Family—occasionally dysfunctional, but full of love and kindness.”
“Family—we know our teachers and classmates REALLY well.”
During this exchange, I started reflecting on another quote by Krishnamurti from the founding of the school. He writes:
This school is entirely different from the other schools in India and England. Here the parents are involved in it, which is a new kind of experiment, because if the children are going to be different then parents must also be different, otherwise there is a contradiction between the child and the parents, and there will be conflict between them. So, to avoid all that we thought it would be right that the parents as well as the teachers and the students work together as a family unit.
A family unit—do we as parents, educators, and students work together as a family unit? And to what extent is it a functional family unit? I began to ponder these questions two years ago in our discussions on ways to improve the school. As a teacher, I am constantly in communication with the parents of my students. However, those communications are focused on the wellbeing of students and can occasionally be fraught with conflict. The shift to email in teacher-parent communication is a boon for making contact easy, but it is also a vehicle for misunderstanding. Even face-to-face interactions can become heated and adversarial when discussing student well-being.
We started looking at ways to build a relationship and connection between staff and parents. One initiative has been our parent education program. An intent of the program is to create opportunities for teachers and parents to come together as learners. It is awe-inspiring to attend a workshop and see a group of adults collaborating and strategizing about the world or child development and parenting. And in designing the workshops, we have attempted to create activities and mechanisms for the adults in this community to build stronger relationships that can endure when conflict arises.
I often facilitate the parent education workshops, and I typically start by making clear that I am a parent and an educator but I am definitely not a parent-educator. We are familiar with this type of individual; this is the person who confidently tells you that your family’s problems will be solved if you simply adopt this technique, do this four-step program, or read this book. I am a great consumer of parenting books and media, and I always appreciate the wisdom and experience of these parenting gurus, but I can never envision becoming such an eminence.
But I have to admit that we are all comforted by the presence of someone who knows all the answers. And as a teacher, parent, or an authority figure, it is often easier to feign this type of confidence than admit that you are simply a fellow learner. What would a ‘family unit’ look like when there is no authority, no patriarch or matriarch to tell the family the proper way to live and learn? This is the challenge that we face when trying to bring the parents, students, and staff into the vision that Krishnamurti articulated.
Finally, I leave you with this question—How has this school, this wonderful institution of learning, led you to consider and question your own ways of thinking?