The Gift of Meaningful Work: Robin Hamsa Heinrich

Whether learning about inspirational “moral heroes,” creating papier mâché bird models with high school “big buddies,” or absorbing history lessons in situ along California’s coastal area or in the Sierra mountains, students in Robin Hamsa Heinrich’s third grade class are active and challenged. Students engage with a creative course of study that goes beyond explicit state standards and encompasses implicit lessons in social and emotional development, conflict resolution, and intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.

Heinrich joined Mount Madonna School (MMS) in 1985 and brings to the classroom a longstanding passion for teaching and supporting each student’s love of learning and development of individual and inherent strengths. She is retiring at the conclusion of the current school year.

“It is exciting to spark the learning process with children,” shared Heinrich. “Getting to know a group of students and the different ways they learn is a unique and somewhat mysterious process. No two students are the same. I am also always learning from them. At MMS we all are encouraged to be creative and imaginative. The faculty is supported in taking students outside the classroom on field trips and life adventures, as well as providing them with opportunities to perform and present their own works.”

On any given school day, the third grade classroom hums with activity – students working independently or in small groups solving math problems; reading silently or sometimes aloud to the larger group; taking science notes from lessons illustrated on the large classroom white board, or, in recent days, learning about the Vietnamese people for the elementary school’s Cultural Awareness focus on the cultures of Southeast Asia.

Students and parents who’ve passed through Heinrich’s classroom are likely to recall how much she values literature, art, storytelling and history, though Heinrich’s own story and path to MMS may be less well known.

Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, along with two older sisters and a younger brother, Heinrich recalls a childhood filled with outdoor adventures regardless of the weather. Her father Robert Smithson, a WWll navy veteran from Ohio, worked as a dentist; while mother Doris, who grew up in California and Seattle, was a fulltime stay-at-home mom who baked pies every Sunday. Doris had a strict – “if you killed it, you clean it” – rule for the family members who loved fishing and hunting. There was always a string of geese or a bucket of clams to clean. Heinrich became a vegetarian in middle school, which her patient parents allowed. Her family always supported her, even when they didn’t necessarily agree with her.

Heinrich holds a B.A. in American studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and has completed work towards a California teaching credential. Her college experience and path to becoming a teacher weren’t linear, and prior to graduation, Heinrich spent a year learning abroad at Schiller College in Bonnigheim, Germany. After that she returned to the U.S. and studied for two years at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, before taking a year off to pursue other experiences.

Heinrich credits mentor Baba Hari Dass (“Babaji”) with encouraging her to complete her undergraduate degree. Heinrich first encountered Babaji at yoga presentations at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. She subsequently relocated to Santa Cruz to continue her studies of Ashtanga yoga as taught by Babaji. In 1978 Heinrich met Greg, a yoga teacher, and they married.

Her son Santosh (’96) was born in 1979 – the same year MMS was founded. When Santosh was old enough to attend MMS’ preschool, Heinrich volunteered in the classroom and also began running a summertime daycare for several Mount Madonna Center children of working parents. She spent three years at this, before Babaji convinced her to consider her future and obtain a college degree so that she could continue doing what she loved – working with young children – and also get paid. Heinrich enrolled at UCSC and completed her degree.

For the first two years she worked at MMS, Heinrich co-taught a combined fourth, fifth and sixth grade class with friend and colleague, the late Sri Gyan James McCaughan.

“It was such an organic process,” she recalled. “I was serving my friends, family, and then my neighborhood. Once MMS got a bus, it just continued to grow and expand. My own growth went along with the development of the school – and to this day I continue to explore what it means to be an educator on a deeper level.”

Heinrich subsequently co-taught other grade levels, too: a combined first-second grade with Supriya Mary McDonald (now Head of School); and for several years a third-fourth combination class with former MMS teacher Michelle Paulus.

“Early on there were some challenging times, building classrooms, playgrounds and learning appropriate curriculum for different grade levels. Beyond the physical structures, there was always a budget for workshops and classes to hone skills and expand pedagogy,” she said. “I received such loving support from the administration and staff.”

Heinrich fondly recalls the early years in the former third/fourth grade classroom (now occupied by second grade) – for the strong camaraderie she shared with Paulus; and the “amazing, hands-on support and unbelievable help” teachers and students received from alumni parents, including Charles Weston and Lesley Miles (Alicia ‘01 and Madeline ‘07), Jeff and Lisa Rosendale (Erika ‘05 and Alexa ‘08), Alice Saavedra (Sophia ’16 and Aaron 10th) and Barbara and Morty Cohen (Mariah 7th).

“The Rosendales and others gave so much in so many ways to make things happen,” she noted. “This worked because MMS provided the space and an environment that was open to this sort of collaboration.”

As MMS grew, more dedicated classroom space was needed. The Courtside Building adjacent to the gym was re-purposed and remodeled in 2004, and, for the first time, the school could offer separate third and fourth grade classes. Heinrich appreciated this new infrastructure and the opportunity to have input on her classroom’s design and layout.

“I never thought I would be here so long,” laughed Heinrich, thinking of her 30-plus years on the mountain. “To this day I continue to be inspired by my students, by parents who contribute in so many ways, and significantly, by my colleagues. I’ve witnessed a lot of change and ‘big growth’ at this school over these past decades. Education at MMS continues to evolve and be relevant – and yet very personal.

“MMS has some big personalities and big programs, the power of which continues to be inspirational. There’s a long-term core group of educators, and also more recent, diverse, talented and dedicated faculty who’ve joined the school. As MMS continues to grow, I have faith that the education we offer will continue to make our school thrive. Our programs are built from peoples’ talents and passions, and the differences and strengths each person brings to the classroom enriches us all.

“Right from the onset, we were trained by Babaji to be passionate about our work,” Heinrich explained. “When teachers have this passion, and parents are also supportive and engaged, then together so much more is possible. This is evident in various components of MMS, including, quite visibly, our respected volleyball program and in recently our thriving track and field program. Behind athletics are individuals with a lot of passion, like [faculty member and former athletic director] Sidd McDonald, and the many coaches and parents who’ve contributed.

“Our ‘big buddy’ and travel programs are other examples; and [high school science teacher] Nicole Culbertson continues to engage and strengthen both. For a small school we manage both of these programs so naturally, providing our students with the opportunity to learn in many different environments. There are just so many individual who’ve made contributions for the betterment of the whole.”

When she’s not teaching, Heinrich enjoys her grandchildren, gardening, reading (she’s currently enjoying Still Life by Louise Penny and Fools Crow by James Welch), working on fiber arts projects and playing the bansuri flute.

“I love music and have spent years studying north Indian classical music,” she shared. “I’m a big fan of Deepak Ram and was lucky enough to have been able to study with him.”

Heinrich’s sphere of influence extends beyond the elementary school, too. Students who did not attend third grade with her, and their parents, may know Heinrich for her decades of behind-the-scenes makeup artistry for the annual Ramayana!.

“I love history and the arts and watching our kids onstage,” said Heinrich. “Ramayana! includes all of these elements. Helping with makeup for this grand community effort is such a natural fit for me. It’s so revealing and fulfilling to see the kids in new roles each year as they develop and grow.

“What I hope people know about me is that I particularly like second and third grades,” she continued. “At this level, students are becoming more independent and enjoy being in school. I’m a kinesthetic learner; that’s one of my strengths. It helps me relate to kids who need a more tactile, physical education experience. As a teacher I continually work to reinvent myself. It’s kind of like a puzzle, and you have to figure out how you continue to fit in and be relevant. Learning is so intrinsic, and, on a good day, I feel quite honored to witness my students’ engagement with the learning process and the joy they experience in sharing their knowledge.

On May 1 Heinrich was honored for her decades of service to Mount Madonna School. The event was attended by Heinrich’s husband, longtime friends, current students, administration, faculty, staff and former MMS teachers.

“It has been such an honor to have been able to teach at MMS and make a difference all these years,” said Heinrich. “I am so grateful for all of the support and stability that school has given me. As a teacher, I was able to grow and create and bring new ideas into my curriculum. All of the great people that I work with have taught me so much about how to handle challenging situations or a creative endeavor. It’s really going to be interesting being retired.”

Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Director of Marketing & Communications, [email protected]

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.