Creative, Independent and Service-Centered: Faculty Spotlight on Hema Walker

Nurturing the social and emotional development in the formative preschool and kindergarten years is a gift and responsibility that Mount Madonna School (MMS) Preschool/Kindergarten (Pre/K) Director Hema Shireen Walker holds in high regard.

“There are many reasons why I love teaching young children,” shared Hema. “I have an innate love for the kids and the magic of this particular age. I get to bring and share all of my talents: baking, sewing, felting, storytelling and developing seasonal circle time experiences for the children. I love to be creative and can express this through all aspects of our curriculum.”

“It’s very important to me to connect children to Mother Earth and natural processes and cycles,” she explained. “I strive to help my students to connect to one another, through developing their social skills and working together to make our world better. In addition to work with Pre/K students, I also appreciate the opportunity to teach in our annual summer program, where I’m able to reconnect with old friends and make new ones!”

The inspiration to pursue a teaching career began in 1996 with the birth of her daughter Rami (’15), and was renewed with the arrival of son, Param (’17), two years later.

“Becoming a mother enticed me to know more about the magical world of young children,” said Hema.

When Rami began attending the MMS preschool, Hema became a frequent volunteer in the classroom, and then in 2002, joined the MMS faculty as a preschool-kindergarten teaching assistant.

Already a college graduate with a B.A. in psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, it was around this time that she decided to return to school. She earned an A.S. degree in early childhood education from Cabrillo College. In 2005, she became a full-time teacher in MMS’ Pre/K, and in 2015 she became director.

Hema was born in Van Nuys, California and moved north to Petaluma with her parents and older brother, Rolf, when she was one and a half. Her father, York Westgate, was a salesman, and her mother, Eida Moore, was a stay at home mom. When she was eight her parent divorced, and she and her brother were raised mostly by their dad from that point on.

“My dad provided a loving household and passed on his strong work ethic to me,” she shared. “My mom inspired me to pursue my own personal spiritual path.”

Young Hema attended The Children’s Workshop kindergarten, a program which encouraged children to choose their own activities. She enjoyed making things, and was drawn to the art and book areas and also to baking.

“Before I learned how to bake from scratch, I thought I had to use Bisquick for everything, although I never thought it tasted very good!”

Around this same time, she started learning how to use a sewing machine. She loved unstructured free time outdoors in the fields behind her house, where she recalls feeling very peaceful. The family lived fairly close to her dad’s parents. Hema fondly recalls that her paternal grandma, Bea, was “wonderfully creative and sewed all of her own clothes as well as many dresses for me. I was definitely inspired by her!” These experiences all left indelible impressions, sowing the seeds for her future pursuits and aspirations.

A motivated student who enjoyed school, writing and “all things artistic,” Hema said she was conscious of being kind to other kids so they wouldn’t feel left out. She attended Petaluma public schools from first through eighth grades, where there was little to no art, music, dance or drama classes offered. To nurture her budding interest in song and dance, she participated in community theater productions during her elementary school years. Athletic and active, she was a competitive swimmer for a few years, and later played third base on a community softball team.

“When I was 13, my mom had me take the EST Training for personal development,” shared Hema. “Afterward, I volunteered at a ropes course helping to guide others through their experience of facing fears and overcoming limitations. This was a big part of my teenage years.”

Hema attended Branson High School, a small, college preparatory private school, where she enjoyed creative writing and history. Her athletic streak continued, and she ran cross country throughout high school.

“For my senior project I chose to intern at the kindergarten of my former elementary school. It inspired me to see two very different teaching styles – the traditional hard-core academic approach and the other, an experiential-based learning that included having pets in the classroom and kids allowed to move around and talk freely. With the latter, I noticed these kids seemed so much happier with lots of social interaction. This experience provided a first little glimpse of my possible career path.”

In 1990, Hema was drawn to the Mount Madonna Center (MMC), to deepen her studies of yoga and meditation under the guidance of teacher Baba Hari Dass or “Babaji,” as he is affectionately known by his students. At that time she regularly volunteered with the center rock crews, and helped with the construction of many of the rock walls still visible around MMC. Babaji is also the inspiration for the creation of MMS, and years ago he gave her the Sanskrit name, “Hema,” which means “goddess of wealth and wisdom.”  In 1994 she was living at the center when she met her husband, Umesh, and they married shortly thereafter. The study and practice of yoga continues to be a shared interest, as well as gardening, hiking and, of course, parenting their children.

“I knew before my children were even born that I wanted them to attend MMS,” said Hema. “I’m so grateful to have seen them start in the preschool and grow up through each grade. As soon as I visited the Pre/K classroom in 1997 and saw children happy, engaged and excited to learn, I knew it was where I wanted to teach!

“Through the years, I have come to admire the school more and more. I am so impressed by the creativity that is nurtured in both teachers and students. Teachers are encouraged to practice an educational approach that rings true for them. I appreciate the opportunity to develop strong bonds of friendship with my students. As a parent, I have felt that my own kids were cherished all throughout their school experience – and I want the other parents to know their children are valued and appreciated as well.”

A substantial portion of the MMS preschool-kindergarten curriculum is about more than teaching “the three r’s. At its essence, she explained, is helping children to understand how to be a good person and how to be a good friend.

“I feel my yoga practice supports this in myself. I am trying to develop my best self and then try to bring that into the classroom. Striving to be calm and self-reflective is a way to offer those qualities to the children. It is very gratifying to see the children’s progress as they become more confident,” she continued. “They learn communication skills to build more positive relationships while also feeling free to be who they are and express their true nature – all the while developing skills in age-appropriate academic areas.”

Of the many MMS traditions, the all-school Ramayana! is her favorite event.

“It speaks to me because of the spiritual undertones of the story and the way it provides continuity throughout the students’ experience as they move through the grades. It also brings our entire community together.”

When she is not in the classroom, Hema enjoys jogging, hiking, meditation, yoga, gardening, sewing and taking hula classes. When asked about special mentors in her life, I am honored to share that she named me!

“Sarojani, you were an amazing example of how to be a wonderful teacher!” You taught me SO much, and I’d say the highlights are the importance of connecting heart-to-heart with the children, using humor and employing a generous bag of songs, poems, stories and games to engage the children in the “work/play” of their education. You also guided me in how to create a meaningful, joyful and enriching program for young children, by providing a balance between structure and freedom, with time for creativity and outdoor exploration, and by creating and maintaining a beautifully prepared environment.

“I am excited to be a part of such a supportive community. I hope to stay connected for many years and watch it evolve and blossom as new teachers and students contribute their gifts to the amazing and vibrant framework of MMS. As I move forward, my ongoing pursuit is living a positive life and being good, kind and supportive to others. I try to see my life’s work as service offered to the community and to the light of life. To aid this pursuit are some words from Babaji that I find so inspirational – Work honestly, meditate every day, meet people without fear, and play.”


– By Sarojani Rohan

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.


Upcoming Events: