Bowing Out of the Learning Circle.

The individual is of first importance, not the system. ~J. Krishnamurti


My experiences in my first six years as a school teacher showed me unequivocally that the system is of first importance in a traditional school setting—not the individual.

Testing took precedence over learning. Administrators admonished teachers with frequent reminders of the rules and references to the employee handbook. Students’ needs—even basic, primary needs like hunger—were ignored until they could no longer be ignored.

To students of political science: forget completely about any textbooks ever written, any systems ever devised, any ideologies ever constructed, for none of their authors knew the entirely new, planetary, global and scientific conditions of today. You will have to write the new textbooks, devise the new systems and construct the new ideology needed for our time. Old ideas will only confuse and blind you. ~ Robert Muller

My final school as a teacher has former UN undersecretary Robert Muller as its namesake. He developed the “World Core Curriculum,” which is used by a handful of schools across the globe.

Midway through my third year at this school, the veil was lifted. I saw, painfully clearly, just how hypocritical this wannabe peacemaking school actually is.

Moreover, my paradigm had shifted. What has been seen cannot be unseen, and all that jazz. I had realized several truths:

  • School is oppressive.
  • School is not the answer.
  • School is a bully.
  • School is not the way to a good quality education.

So I got out. But in a messy, dramatic way that made me the talk of the town for a while. I literally heard strangers gossiping about me as I strolled down the street.

I missed my bright, innocent, bubbly students but felt free from an unhealthy, borderline unsafe work environment.

My liberation from the school was a catalyst in our search for and purchase of a tiny cabin across the lake. I was approached by a small group of mothers in my new neighborhood to “homeschool” their three fifth graders… two of whom had been in my class at the school the year prior. I gladly agreed, and we embarked on the new project in September.

For the first month, it was like a honeymoon. The site of the new “school” was my neighbor’s lakefront house, a mere 10-minute walk from my front door. The kids would jump into the lake at recess for a quick swim. I took the plunge along with them a couple times, too. We did a lot of bonding, team building, mindfulness, free writing, and poetry. I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to them.

But by late October, it was becoming clear that the project and I were moving in opposite directions. I was wanting to get more into project-based, student-led learning while the parents were wanting more structure, formal assessment and disciplined studies of spelling, grammar and reading for their kids.

We mutually decided it would be best for another English teacher to take over. Since no one was readily available, so I agreed to continue until we found a replacement. Last week, circumstances arose which propelled me to say, finally, “No more.” I collected my belongings and hugged the children goodbye. They understand. For now, the other teacher, Ed, has taken over my classes.

I am no longer a school teacher.

I am and always will be a teacher and a learner.

Here’s to the journey.

May you live with light, love, goodness and beauty every hour, every day, every week, every month, every year of your life.

I wish happiness to all those I love
I wish happiness to all humans
I wish happiness to this divine planet
I wish happiness to God and to the universe

What an extraordinary universe we live in!

~Robert Muller


I am not trying to destroy Life School.

Let’s get the story straight.

I was a good teacher. I loved my job. Then, everything changed.

I was fired. I was gonna let it go. Cut my losses. Move on.

Then, the school filed a denuncio (restraining order) against me. Unprovoked. I then pursued my rights and was told by the Guatemalan government that I was owed a certain amount of severance pay.

The school is willing to pay me zero in severance pay, as I was a “volunteer teacher.”

My argument is that I was only a volunteer in word; in deed I was an employee and my family was dependent on the income from the job. Further, the work environment and lack of community or support at the school this year, in stark contrast from my first two years there, is what led me to the point of such distress that I could not go on working there.

About two weeks ago, after our first meeting with the judge, due to my own desire to let it go and move on, I decided to drop the case.

I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, and no matter what the judge says, I am not going to continue the legal process. I told a few friends but not the school or the general public.

It has come to my attention that I was brought up and talked about at length at a parent meeting at the school recently. They presented it as, Michelle’s suing the school and if she wins that money is coming out of the scholarship fund. So now I’m the villain. Apparently some indigenous Maya parents want to circulate a letter saying not to hire me or work with me as an English teacher. In fact, I have already lost at least two work opportunities due to what happened with Life School and the rampant gossip in this relatively tiny community.

To set the record straight: it is not my intention to ruin Life School or take money from the scholarship fund. I am dropping the case. I wish the best for the school, and I have a lot of ideas about how it could change for the better. Sadly, the educational center does not seem willing to change or solve any of its systemic problems.

This is my final public statement on this matter.

Fin. firewoman

The Continuing Saga of Life

On Thursday, January 29, I wrote a memorandum, but before I was able to finish and translate and send the document, I received an email that announced the school’s decision to terminate me immediately. Here are the reasons the school gave and my responses to those reasons:

You used the LOGO and name of LIFE School without permission to call a personal public meeting.

Because I would not disclose to the director what I would be saying at the meeting, I was told that I could not have it on campus. I then decided to hold the meeting at Casa Cakchiquel. I never claimed it to be an official meeting of Life School. It was my meeting about Life School.

The meeting’s attendee were: myself, my husband, all five of my fellow female expat teachers, one of their husbands, three members or former members of the Board of Directors.

You publicly admitted to using illegal drugs, and this is offensive to LIFE School parents and the Board.

I made this “public” admission, in an email, in defense of a colleague, Nekia Wright—a competent teacher who had been abruptly fired in November, without warning. It had recently come to my attention that she was ultimately fired due to gossip among the parents and leadership of the school regarding her use of drugs.

For the record: Yes, I once smoked marijuana at a party in the past, but I didn’t inhale.

You left the school during duty hours without notifying the administration and receiving prior permission.

That is true.

You have created instability in the school community and emotional distress among students by telling them your personal problems and that you expect to be fired. Third and fourth grade students should not be involved in helping to manage or solve adult problems.

I didn’t ask my students for help with any problems. I told them, “If I’m not here tomorrow or next week, it’s because I got fired.” There is a great deal of turnover at the school and many teachers have left mid-year under unclear circumstances. I wanted the kids to know that my disappearance, if it happened, was not my choice. They had a right to know.

My 32 third, fourth and sixth grade students showered me with love, hugs, handmade cards and gifts. Whenever I see them on the street in town, they run up and hug me.

You sent emails to 35 people claiming that our students have social and emotional problems – giving a bad impression of them to people who have no right to private information about the students. This is damaging to the students and damaging to the school.

I did not give any specific names or details. I shared no “private information” about any individual.

The fact is, I went from part-time (22.5 hours/week) back to full-time in January 2015. The day before classes restarted after winter break, it was decided that I would be teaching 6th grade English/Language Arts, instead of the considerably easier 8th grade Social Studies class that I had been told to plan for in December. This was due to the fact that yet another teacher abruptly left the school and therefore her classes needed to be covered.

Several of the sixth graders were in my 4th grade class when I started at the school in 2012; a lot has changed in these two years. They are now adolescents going through puberty. In other words, they have social-emotional issues, individually and as a group. Several serious issues had come up this year, especially related to bullying and cyber-bullying. One financially-sponsored female student who had been at the school for six years was forced to leave in December, because she was seen as the perpetrator of bullying when in fact two other students (whose parents pay their tuition) and who were also guilty of bullying remain at LIFE School. There is no school psychologist or counselor to help students with these types of issues.

You have caused days of stress in the school through your erratic behavior that has lead to a loss of instructional opportunity of the students and loss of tranquility among the staff.

Sorry, not sorry.

How about the loss of “instructional opportunity” and “tranquility” that resulted from letting go, right in the middle of the year, a qualified, experienced and beloved teacher and colleague?

If you continue contacting LIFE students or by any means of electronic, paper, or in person communication , the Board of Directors reserves the right to take legal actions.

I continued communicating with parents. Which is why the presidenta of the Board, who happens to be a lawyer, went to the Justice of the Peace and filed a denouncement against me—a restraining order to keep me from communicating with any members of my former community. Fortunately, LIFE School has no jurisdiction over my social life.

I investigated my legal rights through the PDH (Procurador de Derechos Humanos, the national human rights organization in Guatemala). I was directed to the Ministry of Work, which provided me with documentation saying that LIFE School owes me a significant amount of money, according to Guatemalan labor law.

On March 6, LIFE School and I had a morning meeting, mediated by the work inspector. The school’s position is that I was a volunteer teacher, and I am entitled to zero. They claimed that they would have to shut down the school if they pay me the severance, which amounts to approximately $4,000 US, at most.

I was not given a written contract from the school this year. While I was technically a “volunteer teacher,” I received a monthly stipend on which my family and I were dependent.

I was wrongfully terminated due to poor leadership, lack of communication, and corruption in the form of total power of the parent Board of Directors and a total lack of rights for teachers.


Mi Redacción en Español

Yo pedí una reunión en la escuela con los maestros y el personal para el martes a las 3:00 de la tarde el martes 27 de enero. Porque yo no quise decir a la directora lo que estaría diciendo en la reunión, me dijo que no podía tener la reunión en el campus. Entonces me decidí a hacer la reunión fuera de la escuela, en la Casa Cakchiquel. Yo nunca he dicho que fuera una reunión oficial del Colegio LIFE. Fue mi reunion sobre el Colegio LIFE.

La reunión se celebró. Asistieron a mí mismo, mi marido, todos los demás profesores expatriados femeninas dy una de sus maridos, así como tres miembros o ex miembros de la junta directiva de la escuela. La conversación se calentó a veces; en general, me dio la sensación de esperanza de que era el comienzo de un buen diálogo entre el profesorado extranjero y los miembros de la Junta.
Hice una admisión “pública” de utilizar “drogas ilegales”, en un correo electrónico, en defensa de una colega, Nekia Wright, una maestra competente, que había sido despedido abruptamente en noviembre, sin previo aviso. Para el registro: Sí, una vez que fumé marihuana en una fiesta en el Mayo de 2014 en Panajachel, pero no es una parte de mi vida cotidiana.
Yo no le pregunté a los estudiantes en busca de ayuda. Yo les dije: “Si yo no estoy aquí mañana o la próxima semana, es porque me despidieron.” Habían salido una gran cantidad de maestros del colegio en los últimos tres años, con muchos maestros que abandonan a mitad de año. Quería que supieran que mi desaparición, si sucedió, no fue mi elección. Tenían derecho a saber.
Mis alumnos me colmaron de amor, abrazos, tarjetas y regalos hechos a mano.
El hecho es que me fui de a tiempo parcial (22,5 horas / semana) de vuelta a tiempo completo en enero de 2015. El día antes de las clases se reanudaron después de las vacaciones de Diciembre, se decidió que iba a estar enseñando sexto grado Inglés, en lugar del octavo grado de la clase de Estudios Sociales, lo que me habían dicho para planificar en diciembre. Esto se debió al hecho de que otro maestro abandonó abruptamente y por lo tanto sus clases necesarias para ser cubierto.
Varios de los alumnos de sexto grado estaban en mi clase de cuarto grado cuando empecé en la escuela en 2012; muchas cosas han cambiado en estos dos años. Ellos son ahora adolescentes pasando por la pubertad. En otras palabras, tienen problemas emocionales y sociales, como individuos y como grupo. Varios problemas graves habían llegado hasta este año, especialmente en relación con el bullying y el acoso cibernético. Una estudiante patrocinado financieramente, que había estado en la escuela durante seis años fue obligado a abandonar en diciembre, porque ella era visto como el autor del acoso escolar cuando en realidad otros dos estudiantes cuyos padres pagan su matrícula y también eran culpables de intimidación permanecen en el Colegio LIFE. No hay psicólogo escolar o consejero para ayudar a los estudiantes con este tipo de problemas.
La escuela ha causado una gran pérdida de “oportunidades de instrucción” y “tranquilidad” como resultado de dejar ir, a mediados de año, dos maestras cualificadas, con experiencia y amada.
Seguí la comunicación con los padres. La presidenta de la junta directiva presentó un denuncio contra mí para que yo no comunicarse con los miembros de mi comunidad anterior. Afortunadamente, no tienen jurisdicción sobre mi vida social.
Investigué mis derechos legales a través de la PDH. Me dirigieron al Ministerio de Trabajo, que me proporcionó documentación diciendo que el Colegio LIFE me debe una cantidad significativa de dinero, de acuerdo con la legislación laboral guatemalteca.
El 6 de marzo, el Colegio y yo tuvimos una reunión de la mañana, mediada por la inspectora de trabajo. Posición de la escuela es que yo era una maestra voluntaria, y no tengo derecho a nada. Maria dijo que tendrían que cerrar la escuela si me pagaron la indemnización, que asciende a aproximadamente $ 4,000 EE.UU., a lo sumo.
Yo no había firmado contrato con la escuela. Mientras estaba técnicamente un “maestro voluntario” que recibieron un estipendio, mi familia y yo dependían del dinero que recibí del Colegio LIFE.
Yo estaba despedido injustamente debido a la falta de liderazgo, falta de comunicación, y la corrupción en la forma de poder total de la Junta Directiva de los padres y la falta total de derechos para los maestros y docentes.
Muchas gracias.
Escrito por Michelle Margaret Fajkus
8 de marzo de 2015

Who am I if Not a Teacher?

It all started in 2005. Can you believe that was ten years ago?

I was working in a grey office building, making a decent salary working in advertising and marketing and hating my everyday existence.

My dad gave me a clipping from the local newspaper promoting an alternative teaching certification program. And the rest, as they say, is history.

From the beginning my career was both challenging and rewarding. I strongly identified as a teacher and generally enjoyed the act of teaching.

Nine years later, I find myself in rural Guatemala, having gained bilingual teaching experience at a public elementary school in Austin, Texas, an elite private high school in Guatemala City and a small, progressive private primary school in the western Guatemalan highlands.

Something else started last summer. My friend Kat sent me a book on progressive learning called Self Design, which I devoured immediately, as I was vacationing in Colombia, visiting my husband’s family. This book, written by the founder of a learning community in British Columbia, got me thinking deeply about education, schooling, teaching and learning.

It made me realize that I didn’t want to continue in the traditional classroom. However, I had signed on for another year at Life School here at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and did not want to back out at the last minute from that commitment. I (half) joked about how Life School was the only school in the world I’d be able to work at. That’s how progressive and unique I thought that it was.

And it is, without a doubt, a unique educational institution. The Robert Muller LIFE International School has been around for over 25 years. It now serves a student body of approximately 100. The students are mostly Guatemalan, though some are international. There is a diverse socioeconomic range among the families that make up the school and some students receive scholarships and financial aid while others pay out of pocket.

Long story short, I was fired from my teaching position at the end of January. I am no longer a Life School teacher. I am no longer a school teacher. I am no longer employed as a teacher. I am not a teacher anymore?

(Except that I am still a yoga instructor.)

(Except that I am a devoted profesora of peace and a mentor of mindfulness.)

(Except that I have my “Master’s in Education”—for whatever that’s worth.)

(Except that I will always be a teacher and a learner as long as I shall live.)


michelle and jade

How Mainstream Schooling Burns Teachers Out

Or, Why the Status Quo is Not Sustainable

“In public schools, the educator is backed by an entire system of demands, inducements, punishments, measuring devices, and packaging of knowledge: testing, grades, standards, curriculum units, textbooks, psychological and medical labels, detention slips, and much, much more.” ~ Ron Miller

Teaching is, hands down, the most challenging job I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot). Yet the rewards of working with children every day, seeing them grow and grasp new ideas outweigh the stress.

Less than a year after quitting my advertising career and completing a whirlwind teacher certification program, I stood before 22 eager third graders in my very own public school classroom in Austin, Texas. It had been a rocky road to get there, with a plethora of coursework, planning, preparation and anxiety along the way.

I always enjoy a challenge, so I had decided to become a bilingual teacher despite my rusty Spanish. Determined to gain fluency through self-discipline, I managed to pass the required oral Spanish proficiency test. Nevertheless, I was far from fluent by my first day of teaching. One student raised his hand and asked, “Ms. Fajkus, why are you a bilingual teacher if you can’t speak Spanish?”

I nearly broke down in tears. “Well, I am here to learn, just like you are,” I managed to say.

In November of that year, I attended a weekend yoga retreat and took a powerful kundalini yoga workshop. Later that night, I abruptly decided it was time to cut off all my hair. I guess I wanted to reflect externally some big changes I was feeling internally at the time. The next day, I went to Supercuts and had it shaved into a buzz cut.

When I showed up at school the following Monday, I wore a knit cap to cover my almost baldness. When I took it off to reveal my new ‘do to my class, the girls and boys shrieked, “Miss Fajkus! What did you do?! Why?!? What have you done with the real Miss Fajkus?!” This was a roomful of mostly Mexican-American kids from a culture in which all women are meant to have long hair. Of course, being children, they got over it by that afternoon. My friends and family were utterly supportive and complimented the roundness of my head and the boldness of my choice.

My principal, however, was none too pleased. She began a passive-aggressive campaign against me which nearly sabotaged my budding career. She lied to, manipulated and attacked me through fear-based tactics that I fell for, being an insecure, frazzled, first-year teacher. Thanks to my sweet students, respectful parents and amazing colleagues—and a last minute intervention from the school district’s Human Resources department—my career and I survived.

I continued under that same terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad principal for two more years before deciding to pack up and move abroad to teach in Guatemala in 2009. She had been forced by the powers that be to contain her disdain for me, but still tried to get rid of me twice more by: (1) claiming that I had breached the strict standardized test administration rules, a bald-faced lie that was dismissed in due time, and (2) switching me last-minute from 3rd to 1st grade, then to bilingual special ed.

All this is to say, the sole reason that I am still a teacher (now in my 9th year) is because I am no longer in the mainstream system. Three years of that and I could take no more.

The main reason? Aside from the nightmarish principal, it was the standardized testing. Teachers are forced by the public school system to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing students for benchmark tests in math, reading and writing and sometimes science and social studies, depending on the grade level. Weeks and weeks are wasted teaching them how to pass these multiple-choice tests or how to write a formulaic essay that will receive high marks—and administering the tests themselves.

I always thought I could get around it. You know, be creative, de-emphasize the tests’ importance. But the entire system is built around the importance of these test scores. Kids feel the pressure from their parents, teachers, principals and peers.

So I opted out, and it was the best career choice I ever made. Still, it pains me to read about and think about the millions of schoolchildren in the U.S. and worldwide who are being subjected to this absurdity. No Child Left Behind? Race to the Top? Please. Stop. The. Insanity.

My personal philosophy of education is ever evolving.

  • I believe that as adults, we can best instruct kids by modeling character traits like mindfulness, kindness, open-mindedness and responsibility.
  • I believe that helping students develop positive ways of handling their emotions and interacting with others is just as important (if not more) as engaging them in the academic curriculum.
  • I believe that all students can learn and flourish in an environment of honesty, respect and equality.
  • I believe letter and number grades are worthless and specific, constructive comments are valuable.
  • I believe everyone can be a meaningful mentor and a lifelong learner.

How do you feel about the mainstream school system today? What’s your philosophy of education?

teacher owl meme

What if the Teacher was Life?

“What if religion was each other? If our practice was our life? If prayer was our words? What if the temple was the Earth? If forests were our church? If holy water – the rivers, lakes, and oceans? What if meditation was our relationships? If the Teacher was life? If wisdom was knowledge? If love was the center of our being.” ~ Ganga White

I wonder what if everybody got 100% in every subject?

I wonder what if schools evolved into open, natural learning communities?

I wonder what if assessments were self-reflections instead of tests?

I wonder what if we would all start being kinder, more loving, and more compassionate to all beings including ourselves?

I wonder what if everybody got unschooled?

I wonder what if education really could be the key to peace and enlightenment on the planet?

I wonder what would happen if everybody could live their dream, pursue their passion and live a fascinated life?

I wonder what if everybody served and benefited everybody else just a little bit more?

I wonder what if we uproot the whole system and plant a whole bunch of new seeds?

I wonder what if schoolhouses became meditation centers, yoga studios, writing retreats, libraries of wisdom?

I wonder what it would be like if anyone could walk into any classroom at any time and start learning about anything they want in any way they want (whether alone or with a partner or in a group)?

I wonder what if there’s actually no such thing as Special Education, and in fact all education is (and should be) Special.

I wonder what if, acting mindfully together as a global society with this whole new paradigm of education, we actually can change the world for the better?

~ Michelle Margaret Fajkus

What are you wondering, I wonder?

Conscious Learning, Conscious Teaching

Even if you’re not a teacher, you’re a teacher.

So, what are you teaching yourself? What are you teaching others?

What are you learning?

Learning is a lifelong process. Learning happens from the moment of birth (actually, before) until our last exhale.

Failure is learning. We learn by looking, listening, reading, watching, but most of all by doing. And by teaching others.

At all times, we are learning 1,001 things we don’t even realize we’re learning. Our human minds are just that brilliant.

Conscious learning starts with the basics: breathing and relaxing.
Conscious learning is dynamic, ever changing and moving.
Conscious learning is getting in touch with our inner purpose and innate power.
Conscious learning means loving ourselves, each other and the process. Choosing compassion, collaboration and creativity over negativity.
Conscious learning is about communicating clearly — reading, writing, speaking, listening and expressing.
Conscious learning taps in to our imagination and intuition.
Conscious learning incorporates continuous reflection and integration.

So, be curious and reflect every day. Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself these sacred, mundane questions in the quiet space of each dawn or dusk.

What am I learning? What am I teaching? How am I experiencing this moment?

Listen to the answers; they just might teach you something that could change your life.


Here to Learn

Welcome to EnlightenEd.

Whether you are an educator, parent, student, entrepreneur, artist, business person, buddhist, atheist or go by some other label, we are all here to learn.

We are Kat and Michelle, two lifelong learners and evolving educators who believe there is more to the catchphrase “learning is a lifelong process” than is explored in most educational settings.

We started this site in hopes of creating learning experiences that can be used in classrooms and extend beyond the four walls of a classroom but more importantly, we aim to reach deep within the learner in you, regardless of your learning environment, how far along you are in the course of life or what you do (or will do) for an income.

As for the name EnlightenEd — we are not claiming to be enlightened (or anywhere near). We aren’t promising you enlightenment or asking you to follow us on a spiritual journey either. We are offering resources in conscious learning and an opportunity to connect and collaborate within a community of others who long and live to learn.

Other than that, we aren’t really sure what EnlightenEd will become. We have some ideas (a lot of them) but we intend on letting EnlightenEd take shape and grow naturally based on what it feels the need to express while staying open to feedback from others and the environment. After all, isn’t that what learning is?

So what is conscious learning?

There is nothing new age or esoteric about it. To us, conscious learning simply means being aware of what learning is, including some of the how we learn (though our minds are far too complex for any of us to ever truly understand), but mostly, why we learn. The why will determine the what and the how

So, why do we learn? Why do you learn?
Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment and/or brainstorm within a group or class. Remember, the aim is to describe – not define – learning because it is an ongoing process that we each experience in our own way.

January 2015