Institute of Sathya Sai Education of Hong Kong
During the summer I had the good fortune to visit the Sathya Sai School of Zambia in Africa. This school has come to be known in and beyond Zambia as the "Miracle School". Why is it called this? Firstly, the way in which it was established was a miracle. It was built twelve years ago on barren land outside the town of Ndola, and now a community has flourished there. Because the established schools at the time had already selected the best students, the first intake was those students who had failed the secondary school selection examinations, that is the potential failures and dropouts whose prospects for the future were bleak. However, the academic results with these students were nothing short of miraculous.
Within two years, the school had achieved a 100% pass rate with these students on the national examinations, with some being among the top scorers in the country. However, the biggest miracle has been the huge impact this school has had on changing the character of the pupils, as indicated by some of the students own written comments included below. For example, many of the students wrote that before coming to Sathya Sai School they had often succumbed to peer pressure to smoke, drink and take drugs, and that they had since developed strength of character to resist this pressure:
"I stopped doing many of the bad things I was doing at home. Here at Sathya Sai School I have improved. I am in Grade Eight, still in school and enjoying the lessons, especially the SSEHV (Sathya Sai Education in Human Values). Instead of laughing and mocking at me, my friends now admire me. Some are drunkards and they have nowhere to go." [Year 8 student]
"When I first came here, I thought it was a mistake to be at Sathya Sai School. I didnt have time to see friends I used to play with. They were bad company; they used to smoke and drink beer and due to them I became selfish and used to go home around 2300 hours. However, as the days passed, I started thinking about why these people at Sathya Sai School were there for us. At first I did not know about the five human values, so I was confused. One Monday I started learning about the human values and I started working hard .My mother is happy because she cant believe that I have changed." [Year 8 student]
"Before I came to this school I was a boy with a bad character. I used to do all sorts of bad things. I used to fight, steal money from my father, mother, brothers and sisters; cheat, insult, kill living things like plants, ants and frogs. I used to be greedy and I liked throwing stones at dogs. When I came to this school it became worse, so I started dodging school, and cheating my parents and teachers. After staying for about five years I realise that what I was doing was bad. After doing SSEHV lessons there has been a big change. I stopped cheating, stealing, fighting, killing living things and being greedy. These SSEHV lessons have taught me to love others, to be peaceful with people, to tell the truth, to have right conduct and to be non-violent. I have learnt to be kind, to have good manners, consideration and respect and to be helpful." [Year 8 student]
Several students commented on the way in which they had found purpose in life through the human values approach:
"I found out that what I was doing was useless and everything was pointless in my life. I remember the nights I spent crying with regret and pain that I had wasted my life. Ive always been glad that I came here .I know my life has been changed in my devotion to helping others." [Year 12 student]
For many of the students, this transformation came about as they discovered their own inner peace:
"People in the neighbourhood didnt like me because I was in bad company and we even used to bite people who tampered with us, calling ourselves the Trouble Gun Stars. After failing my Grade Seven exams I became depressed. The gang I used to play with abandoned me because they did not want failures in the group. People around me disliked me because I was badly behaved towards them. My parents were not happy. This really pained me because I thought that that was the end of me I am now loved by the people in the community I live in . to me, life is peaceful. Im happy about myself because the people around me are happy with me, love me and I love them. This is one more blessing of being at Sathya Sai School." [Year 12 student]
The students have learned to value character over materialism, and to accept others unconditionally:
"As a young boy I used to be told that the essence of character was to come and get rich. Now I realise that education without a good character is nothing, and that the end of education is character. Tribalism was the order of the day in my neighbourhood. I was not allowed to play with some of my friends because they belonged to an inferior tribe. Upon coming to Sathya Sai School I have been told that there is only one caste, the caste of humanity." [Year 8 student]
It is not only the students own character development that has been affected they have also reported direct and indirect effects on their families, friends, and communities:
"I have started living in harmony. I have started telling my brothers and sisters how to behave and how to respect elders . and I am sure that I will also change their characters by copying what this school teaches about human values." [Year 8 student]
These comments certainly provide evidence of what the founder of the Sathya Sai Education in Human Values Programme, Sathya Sai Baba, advocates, that "True education should make a person compassionate and humane."
My colleagues and I wanted to know what was happening to make it such a miracle school so we spend a lot of time observing the programmes and also the teachers. The school is developed around the Sathya Sai Education in Human Values programme which is based on the five universal values of truth, right conduct, peace, love and non-violence. Human values education permeates everything within the school. Daily values education lessons are conducted on topics like co-operation, honesty, perseverance, compassion and self-esteem. The teachers look for ways in which to elicit values in every subject. For example, when teaching the topic of plant transporation, the biology teacher will describe the perseverance shown by the plants roots as they search over and around rocks and other obstacles to find water, and the co-operation that is essential for the water to be carried to the leaves for their nourishment and growth and these qualities are linked to the pupils own daily lives. Twice-daily singing of inspirational songs is so uplifting that it charges the atmosphere of the school, and was one of the highlights for us. But the biggest impression on us was the teachers themselves.
Most teachers wherever they are are dedicated to their jobs and love their students. But the reality is that teaching can be a very stressful occupation, we are all human beings, and sometimes we get tired, unhappy or angry in such a way that it reflects on our pupils. We all know the validity of the sentiments expressed below:
"It is important to note that to say good words, give wise advice to a child has little effect, if one does not show by ones living example the truth of what one teaches. The best qualities to develop in children are sincerity, honesty, straightforwardness, courage, disinterestedness, unselfishness, patience, endurance, perseverance, peace, calm and self-control; and they are taught infinitely better by example than by beautiful speeches" (Kireet Joshi, p.52)
"If teachers do not follow the normal ethics of truthfulness etc. how can they instill good habits and values in children?" (Sathya Sai Baba)
but we do not always find it easy to put these into practice, particularly on the bad days.
This was a school based on values education, so the teachers were expected to be exemplary role models. But it was not necessarily always easy for them to do so they faced the usual teaching-related stressors like large classes (30-40) and long working hours (more than twice the number of contact hours of other Zambian schools). Yet it was clear to us that the Sathya Sai School teachers were happy teachers and that there was something very special about the ways they interacted with their pupils and the environment of love and peace that prevailed. So we set out to observe what they said and did that enabled them to create this special environment.
In order to gain insight about the characteristics of the Sathya Sai teachers, a two-part questionnaire instrument was developed. In the first section of the questionnaire the teachers were asked to rate, on a 5-point Likert scale, the perceptions of the extent to which they believed themselves to be models of a given list of core values, where a rating of 5 indicated that they perceived themselves to be models of the value most of the time. The teachers mean ratings were higher than 4 for all of the values, the highest being self-confidence (4.79), followed by compassion (4.76). Similarly, when asked to indicate the extent to which they believed they encouraged the development of the values in their pupils, the mean ratings were all higher than 4. The highest-rated value was honesty (4.86) followed by self-confidence (4.76) and compassion, kindness and sincerity (all 4.71).
The second section of the questionnaire invited the teachers to give open comments about some of their best practices, to give further insights about how they reflect human values in their teaching. First, it is interesting to examine the reasons why they became teachers in the first place. With the exception of one who was accepted the first job that was offered, they all indicated that they had chosen to become teachers because of love for people and/or because they regarded teaching to be a noble profession, in many cases because they had been inspired themselves by a particular teacher. Interestingly, even the one who didnt want to remain unemployed later indicated that he had come to love and value his profession in time. When asked why they were still involved in teaching, the respondents unanimously indicated that it was because they still love and respect the profession even though two indicated that they might stop at some time in the future if this should cease to be the case. Many of the responses indicated that the teachers felt they were successfully serving their community and/or their country through nurturing the characters of the children. We invited the teachers to reflect on the most useful piece of advice that was given to them during teacher training. Once again, their comments reflected higher ideals, to love the children, see them as human beings, and be an exemplary model to them at all times.
What they say
In listening to what the teachers said in the classroom, we were very much aware that they were constantly reminding pupils of the important values. For example, when one class of boys was faced with a difficult task the teacher reminded them of the benefits of sitting silently and reflecting on the task before beginning it (please refer to my earlier Silent Sitting and Creative Visualisation in the Classroom, posted on this website on 22nd November, 2000), asking, "How does silence help you? In a state of silence one can think properly." At another stage during the same lesson the teacher reminded the pupils of the importance of perseverance in the face of difficulty, "What value, starting with p, does this remind you of?"
In a group activity, another teacher reminded the pupils to, "Give moral support and respect to each other .Think before you speak will it hurt anyone?" Another commonly-used comment arose from a deliberate strategy to encourage the students to accept failure as a learning experience rather than to fear it, "Please say what you are thinking there is no need to be afraid of giving a wrong answer."
The teachers were careful not only to reflect on the knowledge that was gained from their lessons, but were also aware of the need to promote skills that equip them for life not just merely for making a living" (Sathya Sai Baba). For example, they would commonly ask the pupils to reflect on, "What skills will you gain from this activity?"
It was also noticeable that the teachers made careful choice of words, always choosing words that make the pupils feel valued and constantly building up their self-esteem. For example, students were always greeted politely and with genuine interest in their well-being, such as the teacher who began each day by saying, "I hope you are all fine today". Rather than demanding pupils to pay attention, another teacher would use the expression, " are we together?", thus conveying the importance of the whole class co-operating together as a unit, as well as his respect for every individuals contribution to the whole. Similarly, the same teacher conveyed the teamwork atmosphere through comments such as, "I have some examples if you have any other Im sure you will help me out", and, "You are free to make any contribution, question or observation". This sense of freedom to contribute in the knowledge that their contributions would all be treated with equal respect was a feature commented upon by many of the staff and pupils. Teachers were continually emphasizing the students positive qualities, as in the example of the teacher who asked, in a discussion about moral choices, "Which one would you being a sensible person choose?"
These choices of words may seem like a small thing, but it was this attention to the small details that had some of the most positive impacts on the pupils. For example, it is a policy in the school to refer to the pupils, even in the youngest classes, as "ladies" and "gentlemen" rather than as "girls" and "boys", and even this has had an impact:
Before I came to Sathya Sai School I was called a boy. Now I am called a gentleman. It is this title that has contributed to my transformation. I now behave like a gentleman instead of a boy (Year 8 student).
I discovered that schoolboys of my age were called gentlemen. As I was learning I gained some self respect because I was called a gentleman" (Year 7 student).
What they do
How often do we, as teachers, say something positive and encouraging to our pupils, while our body language is conveying an entirely different, negative message? We observed many examples in which the Sathya Sai teachers showed through their actions and body language that they were indeed role models of the values they were trying to impart to their pupils. For example, they would all keep calm and demonstrate bottomless patience if a pupil did something wrong but at the same time would show when something is unacceptable. There were two examples of this that were particularly notable to us. One was when a pupil came to class out of uniform. His teacher told him that he was expected to wear his uniform at all times, but the chastisement was delivered with an air of gentility and compassion even though the message was clear that his behaviour was unacceptable. The second example was when a child was found cheating by bringing a page of definitions into a test. The teacher calmly and lovingly told the child that this was the wrong thing to do, explored with her the reasons why she had thought it necessary to cheat, explained what the consequences were that she would have to face as the result of having done something dishonest, and then forgave her and began again with a clean slate. We felt convinced that both of these pupils would never make the same mistake again not from fear of being caught and punished, but rather from the experience of having been listened to and forgiven in a loving way.
Another feature of the teachers body language is their listening skills. We could see that they were sincerely listening to and interested in what the pupils were saying. Typically, they listen with head on one side, smiling, making eye contact, and acknowledging what the pupil is saying by nodding and smiling sincerely. They are also great story-tellers, and can make particularly good use of humour in telling stories. In fact, their ability to laugh with the pupils is a feature even in one instance where the teacher made a mistake on the blackboard and it was pointed out by the pupils, he was willing to laugh with them at himself.
The teachers are very much aware that the body language they use can have a big impact on their pupils, so they are constantly vigilant to project positive emotions that will develop confidence, rather than anger or frustration that can have a negative impact:
"I most of the time show positive emotion because I dont want to show my children that all is lost. But I want them to be confident."
"I speak with drive each time they meet tough challenges."
"Do not be angry if a child cannot understand something or makes a mistake, because this can lead to fear of failure. Show them how to recover from the mistake and try again."
"I am careful not to frown if a child makes a mistake, and dont allow other children to frown if a classmate makes a mistake either."
Every opportunity is utilized for emphasizing the importance of good character, and every decision made within the class is on the basis of character, as indicated in the writings of one boy who thought that he should been given a leadership role because of his strength and size:
"My teachers were always interested in character. I thought they were going to make me a monitor because I was bigger than most of the boys. I was surprised to see that my teacher chose a boy who was medium-sized but with good character. I learnt that to be a leader, you have to lead by example and not just be physically big while you are small in character (Year 7)."
What we documented were practices that, taken one by one, were very small things. But the impact was in the fact that the teachers were firstly consciously aware of the need to be vigilant about these practices and secondly were genuinely sincere about the importance of putting them into practice. The outcome of these practices was an atmosphere of love and support that permeated the whole school environment and in turn further generated the teachers motivation to perpetuate the strategies that generated the love and were in turn generated by it. On the topic of love for their pupils, the teachers wrote:
The best advice I was given during my teacher training was to love the children and be a model to them.
As a teacher you dont have to be very harsh on pupils. Not all pupils come from good homes. Firstly, if you can see any problem in a child, try to find out what is causing the child to behave in that way.
Teaching is a noble career. You join the teaching career not because you will be paid a lot of money but that love of children you teach is far more important than monetary gain. Put the service of the child first.
has led me to treat the pupils I teach as my own biological children.
Punish a child always with a smile.
In terms of compassion, I show it according to the situation. My voice is low, sorrowful and composed. My metamessage is completely compassion. When anything happens, as a role model I must be equal minded.
I use comforting and kind words to people who are stressed.
In describing their best practices in the classroom, it is clear that the teachers are again modelling and projecting the values of peace and love. Most indicated the use of silence and/or gestures to maintain discipline, talking less and using techniques such as silent sitting for this purpose. They are firm and give punishment if necessary, but this is done from the base of love. Several of the teachers also commented on the importance of modelling time management strategies and punctuality. While their comments indicated that there is nothing unique or different from the mainstream about their actual teaching and assessment practices, there is again the underlying pattern that the pupils are seen as individuals and as human beings and that the primary concern is to nurture all aspects of their growth. In particular, several of the respondents mentioned the importance of smiling at the pupils even on occasions when they need to be firm with them. The teachers indicated their belief in the importance of love, compassion and sympathy for their pupils, and it was clear that these values are carried over into their practices continually. What they are really doing, in the words of one of the teachers, is
"Giving that healing touch so much required in todays world."