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Theosophy in the workplace:
A teacher’s perspective.

An interview with Susan Skarsholt

If someone were to ask you how you apply Theosophy in your job, would you be stuck for an answer?  Perhaps there is no direct application of its principles in your field.  Yet, somehow, there is a level at which Theosophy has an influence on all you do, isn’t there?  In this interview we ask Susan Skarsholt, a New Zealander who specialises in teaching deaf children aged three to six.


Q: How has Theosophy helped you in dealing with the deaf?  Many Theosophists are at a loss as to how to introduce theosophical concepts to their own young children, let alone to hearing-impaired ones in a formal educational setting.

Susan: If by ‘introducing theosophical concepts’ you mean building ideas like spiritual evolution, karma and reincarnation explicitly into lesson plans, I’m afraid I simply cannot do it, though I have done it for years at the TS in Auckland with the children who participate in the ceremonial work of the Order of The Round Table.  In working with deaf pre-school children, the principal challenge is in fact that of developing my own capacity to meet the difficult situations I’m faced with!  I have to spend a lot of time dealing with angry, grieving or troubled parents and this requires drawing upon inner resources.

When a parent discovers their child is deaf, their reaction is similar to what it would be if the child had died.  In a sense, their perfect child has died, and they now have this ‘defective’ substitute.  They tend to go through the same process as the parents of dead children – denial, anger, grieving, and (if we are lucky) acceptance and constructive work with the child.  Unfortunately, this sequence can take many years to cover.  Some never get past the first three phases and a few get stuck on the first one – denial – for the whole of the child’s life.  As I deal with children who are newly diagnosed, their parents are usually in the throes of the first two phases.  Their minds and emotions have gone into overload and they sometimes need to be given important information two, three or many more times before they register it.

So as I say, the application of theosophical teachings is mostly on myself, trying to develop the necessary patience, understanding and wisdom with parents in distress.  I need to give them practical ideas and assistance, to help them through this initial confusing maze.  Once they are through the first stages of the process, then perhaps theosophical ideas could be introduced to help them come to terms with the challenge before them, but they are simply too overwhelmed to hear or absorb anything at first.  They are in survival mode – or total rejection.

Q:  Karmically speaking, how do you explain the tragedy of a handicap such as deafness?  Do you think that the spiritual self is learning much through a limited body?

Susan: I can’t speak with authority on karmic causes.  One explanation might be that deafness in this life is related to the closing off of the mind in a previous one, to a refusal to acknowledge or listen to others, but we have to be careful of simplistic explanations.  Whatever the case, I would imagine the incarnation to be one of frustration for the inner self, as outer limitations make inner progress so very difficult.  Being deaf results in a tragic restriction of information and understanding about people and the world around.  Concepts are frequently very limited, and understanding is related to things physical.  The subtleties of language are of course not known or understood at first, and deaf children’s world is a small one of things they have experienced.  They are unable to relate their experiences to the wider world, because they are unaware that the same things happen to others.  As a result, they are egocentric, functioning on a basic, material level.

Many years ago now, I taught autistic twins.  As part of my attempt to reach through the ‘barriers’ blocking out the world around, I asked Geoffrey Hodson, who was living in Auckland at the time, if he would be so kind as to look at them clairvoyantly.

After gaining permission from the people involved, including the boys’ parents, Geoffrey visited the kindergarten the boys attended, and sat quietly observing them for some time.  Autistic children are not very aware of others as a rule, but on this occasion, one of the twins certainly gave Geoffrey several sideways looks.  His presence was powerful enough to attract attention without words.

Later, Geoffrey said that the ego or higher self appeared to be blocked from connecting with the lower vehicles of the personality (partially or fully blocked? – I can’t remember).  I feel the same blockage occurs with a large number of the deaf people I know.  Overcoming this tremendous barrier takes a superhuman effort from the deaf individuals concerned, and there is usually still a slight limitation, even in the most orally proficient deaf person.  It’s really very hard to say what the learning is at the inner level, though it is clear to me that the more restricted the outer vehicle, the harder the soul’s task is.

Sometimes I feel the deaf individuals are almost secondary in the puzzle, as they are often unaware of the extent of their limitations.  The parents and families suffer terribly through the lack of communication, however.  While it is very sad that the deaf individuals may never reach their full potential as human beings in this incarnation, it is often their families who suffer and grow the most.  In this sense, it seems more instructive to examine the operations of karma from the angle of effects rather than that of causes.  In other words, while I wouldn’t say that a child is born deaf in order to teach those around them soul lessons, the effect is often one of growth for them.  Family members need to develop tolerance, patience, acceptance, understanding... in short, inner strength.  What excellent training for treading the spiritual path!

Susan Skarsholt believes that: ‘Teachers have the privilege of being one of the agents in the deaf child’s life that help the inner self to emerge through the restricted physical form of this incarnation.’  Susan defines teaching as the attempt to bring out the Light within each child. Integrating a child with a special need amongst his ‘normal’ peer group at this young age, helps develop an acceptance of differences and introduces the concept of brotherhood in a natural manner.  Children learn tolerance and understanding and are keen to include and help their peers with special needs.


Q: The teachers of deaf children need these qualities in full measure too, don’t they?  It must be frustrating for you to work so hard for relatively meagre results?

Susan: Now and then there is a surprise.  I can’t say I’ve encountered any Helen Kellers to date.  However there are rewards and breakthroughs.

Q: Such as?

Susan: I remember once when I was ‘reading’ a book about the weather with a child – this involved looking at the pictures, then signing the meaning to him – a hailstorm broke over the school.  The classroom had a tin roof and the noise was tremendous.  The boy had been fitted with a cochlear implant (which is a kind of internal hearing aid), and he suddenly registered the sound.  He looked at me as the noise penetrated his brain for the first time ever, his eyes wide as he sought the meaning of the sound.  I quickly took up the book and flipped to the page showing hail, signing and speaking as I demonstrated what he was hearing.  It was a brilliant moment of revelation – what every teacher dreams of!  This child was taking the first steps into the expanded world of sound, and finding it meaningful.  It was like watching a door open from within.

Q: Tell us another story, please!

Susan: I recall Tommy, a normal hearing but severely emotionally disturbed child I taught within a Special Needs Group, who had been written off by the Welfare organisations at four years old, as a ‘wild child’ beyond help.  He had a solo mother whose method of controlling him was to chain him to a tree in the front yard of her property.  He was violent and unpredictable in the company of his peers, and I took him on in some trepidation!  I had a total of 6 children in the Special Needs Group, which functioned within the confines of a normal kindergarten.  These children had a range of difficulties – intellectual handicap, blindness, emotional disturbance – and I devised an individual programme for each.  In addition to ‘withdrawal’ time when I worked with each of them individually, they interacted with the children in the regular kindergarten environment, taking part in the daily kindergarten programme alongside normal children.

As a system, it was an effective learning programme for all the children and staff.  The normal children developed patience and acceptance of others’ foibles, helping each other when problems arose, and learning to work together.  Tommy had so many disadvantages to overcome he needed full-time supervision for the first term, and I had to devise an acceptable form of discipline if he was to be allowed to remain within the kindergarten environment.

I liaised closely with the normal staff, keeping them fully informed of decisions, and building a co-operative team approach.  Every time Tommy demonstrated unacceptable behaviour, I physically removed him (giving him a concise explanation as to why) to a pre-arranged Time-Out Chair in a designated area of the kindergarten playroom, where initially I stood behind him and held him in place until the oven timer in front of him registered one minute.  I would then tell him he was free to play in an acceptable way.  At first, the Time-Out Chair was in constant use, but gradually Tommy came to understand that the rule was a consistent one, and to accept that if he broke the rules, he would have to go there.  As the year progressed, on a couple of occasions he actually took himself there, unasked, when he knew he’d done something unacceptable.

Initially he was unable or unwilling to sit and concentrate at ‘mat time’, when all the children were gathered for group activities, so the staff and I agreed to a trial period of disrupted mat times, during which I sat with him firmly clamped between my knees with my arms pinning him in place, while he exhibited very violent, noisy behaviour.  The normal staff and children were extremely long-suffering and tolerant during this phase!

Within two weeks, we saw signs of change, when he began snuggling in and enjoying the close physical contact.  Within a month, while still only at the beginning stages of normal participation, he was enjoying cuddles at mat time, to the extent of taking my hand to lead me there.

Away from the kindergarten environment, Tommy was still a ‘wild child’, and half way through the year, managed to burn down the family home.  When with me at kindergarten, however, he responded well to consistent rules laced with love, even travelling safely in the car with me when necessary – something no-one would have considered or dared at the beginning of the year.

By the end of the year, he was functioning so like a normal child that when two Welfare people visited, they looked around and said “I see he isn’t here”!  I quietly pointed out Tommy playing alongside four other children in the sandpit, enjoying the game, sharing toys and interacting and communicating normally with them.

This was one of the best examples I have known of ‘Love Conquering All’ – love which encompassed discipline, consistency, modelling of suitable behaviour, trust, patience, strength of will – and body! – and an expressed happiness at seeing him.

Q: What were the theosophical dimensions of all this?

Susan: I had to look upon Tommy as a fellow human being in great need and to seek the divine spark in him.  I had to be very disciplined myself to deal with him fairly and positively.  I had to put myself in his shoes and understand how and why he was feeling and acting so badly, then try and counter this positively.  I had to learn to love this apparently unlovable and rather frightening individual, and interact constructively with him, when everyone else felt fear and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.  I came to love Tommy, and we developed an affectionate, enjoyable relationship with gentle teasing and laughter.  In this one area of his life, he was allowed and expected to be normal, and he responded well, his latent capacities beginning to show themselves.

You know, having the theosophical philosophy as a background adds a different dimension to one’s work.  It gives a framework for understanding, an ideal to work towards and a belief in every individual one comes across, however great the outward challenges.

Q: Thank you for sharing these inspiring stories with us, Susan.  It makes us aware of just what is possible when we put stereotypes aside and connect with another person at an inner level.



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