Françoise and Mary have taught at Transition School for over twenty years, where they have helped create a unique educational environment for children between the ages of 6-14. Here they talk about what motivates and inspires them.
Françoise first read about Auroville in a UNESCO magazine of 1968. “I loved what I read––Mother sounded so free, so unconventional. And when I read about Auroville I thought, that's the place where I want to go.” When she finally decided the moment was right, she visited the Auroville International office in Paris . “This lady asked me, ‘Why do you want to go to Auroville?' I told her, ‘I just want to be there'. Then she said, ‘Nobody will smile at you and if you have no money you'll never be able to make it'. That was great! It meant I arrived here with absolutely no expectations!”
Mary first heard about Auroville in the early 1970s from her then husband, Dilip, who had studied in the Ashram School . When they left the U.S. in 1972 they intended to come straight here, but it actually took them another twelve years. “What kept us out of Auroville so long were largely our worries about the standard of education for our children.” In 1984 they finally arrived.
Françoise also had young children. “I wanted something different for them from my own very academic education,” says Françoise, “I wanted them to be able to enjoy a more holistic education. When Françoise arrived at Center School with her two children, the teacher airily informed her that she was just off to the Post Office, “So you look after them while I'm away.” “She just left me there with thirty kids!” Mary's immersion experience was only slightly less abrupt. “When I told Frederick I would like to help the little kids with sports, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a real challenge. A couple of times I remember telling myself, ‘I'm going to do it, I'm going to go through this'.”
So Françoise and Mary began their teaching careers in true Auroville fashion––abruptly, and with little guidance.
In 1985, the older children from Center School transferred to the new Transition School . Françoise went with them, Mary joined shortly after. Françoise remembers it as a very interesting experience because the teachers helped decide the layout and design of the new classrooms; they even got to choose the furniture. “What a difference! That monsoon, for the first time, we could keep on teaching. At Center School we'd had to stop during the monsoon because it was so dark–– we had no electricity–– and the rain came in.”
The shift to Transition was not without its challenges. Françoise remembers the teachers having discussions about whether or not there should be blackboards in the classrooms. “For some people they had no place because this was the new education. But blackboards are really useful. It's like the Auroville Charter says. You don't start every time from scratch but you take what is good from the past.”
The blackboards were duly installed.
Now, twenty years on, what have Mary and Françoise learned about teaching? “In order to be free, you have to know your limits,” says Mary. “My students know how far they can go in terms of their behaviour, but within that structure there's a lot of freedom to choose, for example, what they want to study.”
Françoise notes that the teachers don't want to be authoritarian with the students. “We want to bring a vibration of harmony, unity and respect for each other into the classroom.” Practically, what does this mean? Mary explains that with a new class she will begin by making agreements with them about how to behave in the classroom. “The children themselves say they need a certain amount of order, they need quiet, and they don't want others taking their materials without permission.”
And if somebody contravenes these agreements? “The kids usually want to be tougher on offenders than we do!” Mary notes that with her older (13 year old) students she even draws up a contract which she also signs. “A couple of years ago one of the conditions they laid down for me was that I couldn't have any favourites!” If there is a conflict in class, all other activities are suspended until the problem is solved.
Françoise admits that building relationships in the classroom did not come easily to her. “I had to work hard on the organizational level first. Only when I felt secure there could I go on to be freer with the children.
It's an art. You have to be able to hold your class, to feel what they need at any moment, to know that you can do this activity for six minutes but that eight will be too long. It's like a big Body Awareness class.”
Mary points out that one of the main goals is that the students learn how to learn. “So when they ask a question and I tell them I don't know the answer and we go and look it up together, it's very powerful. They see us learning alongside them.
“I don't know that I came to the school with any expectations beyond being useful, but what I've really loved and grown with so much is this joy of learning. I'm learning things all the time, and I think that joy goes into the kids, they pick up my enthusiasm.”
And what about their lives outside the school? Lately, Françoise and Mary are rarely, if ever, seen at General Meetings. Are they uninterested in wider community issues? “When I first came I was very interested,” says Francoise, pointing out that both she and Mary have been members of the Reps. Group, Maintenance Group and the Entry Group. “But, at a certain point, I thought I've been given this job in the school, and to do it well I have to put all my concentration and energy there. So I dropped all the rest.”
Françoise explains that the teachers agreed that when they arrive at Transition every morning they should try to empty themselves of everything to do with their home lives, community politics etc., so that they can concentrate fully on the children. “It's so important,” adds Mary, “because we have teachers with different ideas and we don't want to start having discussions at school which may create tensions between us.
“It's not that I'm uninterested in these other things,” continues Mary. “Actually, by nature I'm quite a politically-inclined person.” But when she went to a couple of general meetings, she came away feeling discouraged. “As a community we have to find a different way of working. People have so many different interpretations of what we should be doing. That's fine, but we have to learn to respect each other's interpretation.”
Is this what the children are learning at school? Mary nods. “This is one of our major tasks in the classroom. We have a lot of ground-rules for discussions, like everybody's entitled to their opinion. But we ask that everybody should have a little something to back up that opinion!”
“It will be interesting to see how the children carry on these lessons,” concludes Françoise. “I hope one day they will show us a new way.”