This is an image of a school where the teacher is teaching several little children outdoors amidst trees
holistic education

When Schools Turn Into Temples Of Learning

Soft tiny hands that reached out with love,

Big bright eyes that radiated wonder and innocence,

Joyful hearts and playful spirits,

Young children brought delight to my life when I began my journey as an Early Childhood Teacher in 2006.

Over the years, I worked in different kinds of schools – Conventional, Montessori, and Integrated Models.

While I enjoyed every minute spent with the little ones, I was miserable as a teacher.

Most schools did not give teachers the freedom to tailor their lessons to meet the student’s needs.

Free creative expression in children was a big no-no.

In one of the schools I worked at, the management performed a check on the books of the children every term. Based on what was seen in the books, they provided feedback to teachers on their performance as educators.

Lessons had to be taught strictly as per the curriculum and within pre-determined time frames. However, there was a growing awareness in educational circles that children learn in different ways and in their own time. In this light, it didn’t feel right that we continue to impose rigid approaches and timelines upon children. But the system was still evolving and many educators still preferred the old school way of working. So, I couldn’t do much about the scenario in this particular school.

However, I thought some free expression could be allowed at least in areas like art ( more so in the early years). Therefore, I permitted the children in my class the liberty to explore art freely.

If a child chose to colour the sun green instead of yellow, I just let it be!

Very often, the artwork of children appeared vague and illogical. But when I asked them about what they had created and they explained, it made perfect sense.

This approach of mine was not received well by the school.

During one book check season, I was summoned to the principal’s chamber.

“Haripriya, what is this I see in the art books of the children?” said the principal, looking alarmed.

I tried to explain to her the child’s perspective of art. However, she wasn’t convinced.

“We cannot allow this dear. What will happen to the reputation of the school?” she went on.

I was taken aback.

What was she talking about?

Is getting four and five-year year-olds to create picture-perfect artwork a way to build the school’s reputation?

My eyes welled up with tears. I felt like I was going insane.

However, I suppressed my tears and managed to appear normal.

I soon saw that this was the trend in many schools. They all pretended to have adopted new and innovative ways of teaching and learning. But what unfolded within the walls of the classroom was a totally different story.

I reached a point where I began to hate going to school.

I cried at home every evening and told Suraj it was impossible for me to suppress the free spirit and spontaneity of the little ones.

I eventually realised I was done working for the conventional and so-called integrated schools. I moved to a Montessori school. While I wouldn’t say the Montessori schools were perfect, that system felt way better. At least, no one insisted children must colour every tree and apple perfectly!

However, something was still missing…

I often dreamt of a school that prepared children for life, with academics also being an important feature. A school that did not suppress the free spirit of children and allowed them to blossom into the most authentic and empowered version of themselves.

I felt like such a school was out there but that I was yet to discover it.

My colleagues at work often laughed and told me I was living in fantasy land! They didn’t think such a school existed. But I continued to long for such a school. The longing became stronger when I became a mother to an adorable baby boy.

I believe our deepest desires are always granted by the Universe.

Synchronicity came into play and I was led to the school of my dreams!

And our son is part of this amazing learning environment today.

It is a space where-

  1. He learns spellings without ever mugging up a single one. He doesn’t even know the meaning of mugging up yet!
  2. He learns math not like a robot that applies formulas mechanically but through ingenious application that calls for a deeper understanding of numbers.
  3. He explores art with joy and freedom.
  4. His education is so much more than spellings, math and science. It is also about life skills, emotional intelligence and some age-appropriate spiritual grounding. And all this without ever compromising on academic learning.
  5. He is allowed to cry when sad and to reveal his authentic self, without fear of being judged or ridiculed.
  6. He receives unconditional love and acceptance from his teachers.
  7. Teachers embody their role fully and work with the sole objective of helping each child achieve their highest potential.
  8. Feedback for improvement is given in loving and constructive ways, without crushing the spirit of the child or the parents.
  9. And much much more…..

Eventually, our son will move to college and there is no guarantee he will enjoy a similar environment there. At the moment, he insists his goal is to become a doctor like his father. If he feels the same even at 16, he will be required to adapt to other ways of studying. He will also have to be willing to take on a lot more pressure in the form of competitive exams and at least a decade of medical training after that. And preparation for all of this will have to begin well before he turns 16.

However, I believe the well-rounded education he is receiving during these foundational years is empowering him to hold himself steady in the outside world, no matter what career path he chooses. I trust he will carry the strengths he is developing here to build a life of his choice and also to pass them on to others he will be associated with in future.

His journey may not always be easy but it does feel like it would be worth it!

It is my prayer that more and more children receive an education that helps them blossom to their highest potential in body, mind and spirit!

This is an image of geometric solids in a blog post on holistic educztion in When Spirit Meets Science by Haripriya Suraj
holistic education, when spirit meets science

Montessori: Education for Body, Mind & Soul

As a child, playing ‘teacher’ was my favourite pastime. I could spend hours pretending to be a teacher and teaching an imaginary class full of children.

Little did I know at the time that this was my soul’s calling playing out.

I explored different career options in science as well as business management but soon realised that none of them resonated with me.

My passion lay in work that was creative and nurturing.

Working with children felt right. A year later Reiki healing and writing also came into the picture.

I felt drawn to work with young children under six years of age. In 2006, I enrolled in an Early Childhood Educator Training Program and was placed in a reputed kindergarten school after completing the training.

Interacting with little children every day felt fulfilling and I began to thoroughly enjoy my work!

Along the way, I realised that Early Childhood Education offered some non-conventional models of learning too, such as Montessori and Waldorf. The Montessori approach to education appealed to me in particular.

Here in India, ‘Montessori’ is often confused with ‘day care.’ Until my training, I was under the same impression too! But once I stepped into the school environment, a whole new world opened up before my eyes.

I understood that ‘Montessori’ was not ‘day care’ but a whole system of education. It is based on the groundbreaking work done by Dr. Maria Montessori, the first female physician of Italy.

Montessori is education, not just for the mind, but for the body and spirit too.

It is a way of life for children.

One of the key characteristics of the Montessori approach is that children are not ‘taught’ in a conventional sense but are allowed to learn.

Each child is allowed to grow and develop in their own time. This is based on the premise that nature has programmed children to achieve specific milestones at specific ages and our job as adults is to facilitate the process of learning and development appropriate to each stage.

This is in stark contrast to how many of us were educated as children, where concepts were almost pushed down our throats irrespective of whether we had the capacity to absorb them or not. All we had to do was digest the content placed before us and thereafter reproduce it on paper. This is not to say that approach was wrong. It was the best known at that time and I am grateful for the opportunity to be literate. However, today, we have more holistic approaches to education where the overall development of the child is the focus and learning is not just a checklist of lessons to be ticked off as done.

As compared to traditional classrooms, where children are mostly confined to their desks, a Montessori workspace allows children some ‘Freedom Of Movement’ as they learn. It is not natural or realistic for children (especially younger ones) to sit still on a chair for hours. Almost the entire world knows this to be true! Yet we suppress their natural need for movement and push them hard to sit still.

Contrary to what one may expect, a Montessori environment is a peaceful space where children work in silence, despite enjoying freedom of movement. I was astonished the first time I witnessed this silence! It felt like a miracle – two to six years olds working like busy bees in absolute silence. It was refreshing, to say the least. The fact that they are inspired to learn rather than forced to is the secret behind this silence!

I feel the Montessori approach to education is very healing, not just to children but to the teachers (adults) working with them too. There are several well-established institutes offering rigorous Montessori training to teachers and I respect each of them. However, my personal opinion is that this system deserves to have more joyful training programs in place. Trainee teachers must experience firsthand the joy of teaching the Montessori way. Unfortunately, almost all Montessori training programs I have come across make the training process harder than it needs to be. Their opinion is that high standards of perfection and rigour are necessary to prepare one to be a Montessori teacher. I personally do not feel this is the case. The flipside to overly rigorous training is that the joyful essence of the methodology is lost in the process. One cannot train in pain and then expect to create a joyful classroom for children. The happier the teacher is, the more likely she or he is to pass on that joy to the little ones. Several talented teachers feel discouraged by the challenges posed by Montessori training and give up on their dream of working in a Montessori environment.

It is my intention that a peaceful and joyful system of Montessori teacher training takes birth so more people who feel inspired to work with children heed their soul’s calling and make a difference in the lives of future generations.