I undertook training in Kindergarten education at the Children’s Garden School in Chennai in 1978. In October of that year, I had my introduction to the Krishnamurti School. I knew nothing about Jiddu Krishnamurti and presumed the school to be like any other school, where the emphasis would be on developing the three Rs, with all learning centered around this. To my surprise, I found the school in Poes Garden a veritable Parnashala, a Kutira, much like our ancient gurukulas.
The headmistress, Mrs. Chinna Oommen, a gentle, kind, patient lady, merely glanced through my books, materials and certificates, which I thought were all important at an interview! She gave me a gentle pat and bowled me over with sincere queries about myself, my family and my interests. I could not have asked for a more informal, yet warm interview. She then invited me into an aesthetically arranged room, where eight children, seated on mats, awaited us.
Chinnakka, as she is fondly referred to by all, then asked me to speak with or sing to the children. I was speechless. I had not bargained for this very different classroom environment, or for such a strange technique to engage the children! My diffidence made me aware of how difficult it was for me to say anything at all to the little children in front of me. I did not know how to handle this freedom of expression given to me!
Chinnakka, sensing my confusion, took over spontaneously and for the next few minutes I was enthralled as I watched her interact so naturally with the children. Soon she got up to leave, looked at me encouragingly and simply stated, ‘Now you take over!’ This implicit, unquestioning faith in a novice like myself was a bolster to my sagging confidence. I sang to the children, spoke with them and before I knew it, all barriers had dropped.
My journey as a kindergarten teacher had begun.
‘A shared responsibility’
I came to the school with my own traditional upbringing, my conditioning, my ideas about discipline, obedience and conformity. I realized soon enough that a subtle but sure transformation was going on within me as I progressed in the school. Very quickly, I realized that the children needed demonstrative affection, care and understanding. A timid child is afraid to explore and needs encouragement. A hyperactive child needs challenge for his energy. A curious child needs a stimulus and an aggressive child needs soothing. Thus I saw each child needing a different response from me. I came to the realization that as an adult I must be tremendously patient – to listen, understand, watch and guide the children. Thus everyday was new, it brought different challenges for me as a teacher, and more so as a person.
The first two weeks of school, for me and the children, were spent in getting to know each other to develop a positive relationship. Slowly, the parents of my students began asking me for suggestions and seeking my advice on how to deal with their children. Some of these questions have not changed over the years.
- I am a working mother. I find my child being violent at home in my absence. What should I do?
- My child wants to go to school even when he is sick. How should I address this?
- My child does not want to go to school. What could be the reason?
- My child does not say anything about what has happened at school. Why?
- My child does not like her younger sibling. Why?
- My husband is away for long periods at work, and I am unable to handle the child’s pranks. What do I do?
- Our relationship is turning sour and our child is getting trapped. What do we do?
Krishnaji’s views on relationship strengthened my own convictions as I worked through these questions. These sessions with parents also brought home to me the fragile nature of relationships and enhanced my own awareness of my interactions with my colleagues, co-workers, helpers, my family, friends and other children at school.
‘Neither the teacher nor the taught’
I heard about Krishnaji’s advice to teachers – do not let children simply identify objects by their name - by naming the object, our perception of the object diminishes. Initially, I did not understand this in its totality. I decided to experiment for myself and discover the truth of this statement. I chose a tree and sat in front of it, seriously looking at it, pushing the word ‘tree’ as far back in my mind as possible. I tried to look at the tree without the name. Soon it dawned on me that I was so absorbed in the actual looking, that I had perceived a lot more than when I had looked earlier.
This experience of a whole new dimension to learning thrilled me beyond words. A sensitivity to my own learning was born. This insight into the great possibility of learning differently, encouraged me to allow the children to observe nature without any labeling or preconceived ideas. My nature walks with them took on a different hue.
I began letting the children take the lead and I followed behind, observing them. They explored the campus with earnest enthusiasm, immense curiosity, an excited sense of adventure and the joy of discovery. They watched ant holes, butterflies, parrots in their perches, the slow moving snails, and brought back to me amazingly tiny grass flowers, which my adult eyes had not noticed till then.
This, in a way, was great learning for me too, bringing alive Krishnaji’s words – ‘In learning, there is neither the teacher, nor the taught – there is only learning’ and ‘the school is a place of leisure where the educator and the one to be educated are both learning’!
Sometimes we sat under a tree and closed our eyes for a while. We later shared our experience of the various sounds we had heard in our silence. I soon found myself looking forward eagerly to these walks.
‘Developing serious thinking’
By this time I had read Krishnamurti’s Letters to the Schools – about jealousy, comparison, sensitivity, thinking globally, awakening curiosity, questioning, analysing and thinking critically. I was eager to implement some of my responses in my classroom activities.
Developing serious thinking at a very early age by encouraging children to question everything around, was one of the themes I explored. My children and I discussed every topic and held conversations about every activity. We gave each other the freedom to express ourselves as we were and not as we were expected to be. Some of the questions and statements went like this:
- Why do the lion and tiger kill other animals?
- My baby sister pulls my hair and grabs my toys.
- Why is the bucket of wet sand so heavy?
- Where do these baby snails come from?
- Where are the millipedes and ladybugs going?
- Akshay is throwing stones inside the fish tank.
In discussing these, I could see the children beginning to respond to serious thinking, to analysis and to drawing conclusions for themselves.
Once we spoke about birds and their habitat. The conversation lingered on free flight, the joy of spreading wings and soaring up to the sky. One girl said she feeds the lovebirds at home that are in a cage. This led us to talk about how a caged bird would feel, how animals in the zoo feel, and how we would feel if we were caged. The next day she came skipping into school unable to contain her joy. She had let the lovebirds free the moment she had got home the previous day. Such interactions gave me the profound insight that even a four year-old child can analyze, reason and also take decisions, and stand firmly by them.
‘Watching and facilitating I learned more’
I found that the environment I created was conducive to a keen observation of the natural behaviour of children, for they felt free to express themselves without inhibition. In the classroom children had access to various activities. The freedom that every child experienced was to make a choice of activity, adding a dimension to self-learning. Each child learned at his or her pace with no fear of competition or comparison. The most liked activity would be attempted first and then there would be a slow exploration of other things around the class. The space to explore, discover, try, manipulate and learn, enabled children to remain highly motivated.
The skills that I intended to develop in the children were carefully chosen and laid out before the children arrived. Eventually every child would have developed all the skills by moving from one activity to the other. This arrangement also enabled me to remain in the background, available, watching and facilitating. I learned more about my children, their interests, strengths and weaknesses, their work habits, social relationships and much more.
To me, the happy child is a willing learner. Hence my priority was always to ensure that the child is comfortable within himself at the start of the school day. Whenever I noticed a child with a sad face, head hung, insecure, ailing, in pain or afraid, my first action was to identify the cause of discomfort, attempt to overcome it with understanding and affection, and get the child back to his natural happy self.
One such dramatic experience of a child who held a dormant fear was revealed to me during classroom activity. This boy usually interacted well with his peers, had a healthy appetite for play and smiled cheerfully all the time. That morning during indoor activity I distributed papers to the children for drawing and colouring. As I handed one to him, he burst into uncontrollable loud cries, and threw the paper down screaming, ‘I don’t want to draw!’ I was taken aback by the sudden outburst. I took him aside, spoke with him and assured him that he need not draw if he did not wish to. However, he would not stop crying. I soothed him as best I could, and knowing that his favourite spot was the doll house, I led him there to be with his friends. He slowly calmed down and felt reassured.
Later I spoke with the mother who solved the puzzle for me. Her older child who studied elsewhere brought home piles of homework. The mother had to force and pressurise the child to complete her work. The boy had witnessed his sister’s plight, and being a sensitive child, associated what he saw with paper and pencil and had interpreted the situation as a punishment. His fear and crying were understandable.
The mother and I discussed what needed to be done at home to relieve the situation. To make him feel secure and happy in class, I made sure that he had the freedom not to draw or colour till he was ready for it. I saw that as he moved through other activities, he observed the other children while they coloured and had fun. As I expected, one fine day he asked for a paper and settled down to draw. He never looked back!
‘Learning at lunchtime’
The need for the right kind of food to keep the body healthy in young children cannot be overemphasised. In all K schools, a simple, nutritious, balanced vegetarian meal is a must for all. At lunchtime, I would sit with the children, serve them, talk to them, tell them about why they were eating, get them interested in their food, encourage them to try new flavours and tastes, and feed those who were still learning to eat by themselves.
Food and emotional well-being, I realised, are closely linked for the child. A bonding occurs during lunchtime between the child and teacher, which is an important avenue of relationship. The learning at lunchtime is also about the value of food, table manners, and coordination skills. I dealt with the children kindly, but firmly. There were many instances of parents sharing their gratitude because the child’s eating habits had improved. Children who had thrown tantrums earlier and had refused certain vegetables and fruits were now asking for more.
‘A new challenge’
As the years have gone by, I see to my dismay that children are becoming more violent and less sensitive to their surroundings. Among other things, I see the advent of the television as particularly responsible for this. One child lived in the ‘He Man’ world. He spoke the dialogues he had heard and was totally unaware of his class environment. He preferred to be outdoors, using the slide as his ‘domain’, and actually believed in the world of his imagination – the ‘He Man’ world.
This was my first such experience after 13 years of teaching. I took it up as a new challenge. I had a number of talks with the parents. They requested me to mention it in the report, which would enable the grandparents to see what was happening to the child due to their own addiction to the television. I also had a number of serious conversations with the child, and gradually, with the parents’ cooperation, weaned him out of the predicament.
Each year thereafter, I have found more and more children having similar problems and growing more aggressive. The time we now live in is fraught with selfishness, one-upmanship, competition, not to forget materialism and its hold on us. I see that the earlier innocence among children, the joy and thrill of learning, is diminishing very fast. I have realized that an understanding of Krishnamurti’s vision of education is the need of the hour for young parents and children. I see the challenge that Krishnamurti posed for teachers and schools more relevant than ever before.