Class of his own

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John Marsden didn’t like school. So he built his own.

Candlebark, Marsden’s own co-educational day school, is built on his 1100-acre Tye Estate, just north of Melbourne. Taking its name from the tall eucalypts marking its ground, the school has no uniform, no bell and operates on a first-name basis.

The concept of Candlebark was a long time brewing. Sitting in class at Sydney’s King’s School, a young Marsden knew he could do it differently. He recalls thinking, “Why do they do it this way? This way is ridiculous. This is not the right way to run a school, or to teach.

“You were fairly impotent in schools in those days,” says Marsden. “The only way you could express or gain any power was in a subversive and indirect way. So my way was to sit in the back of the room muttering comments or making jokes or refusing to do the work that was assigned.”

Marsden admits that as a student he was deeply antagonistic, overtly obnoxious – in short, a teacher’s worst nightmare. “I was a bit difficult,” he laughs.

In his defence, he describes a recently discovered syndrome that he has taken a shining to – Oppositional Defiance Disorder. “Basically it means you just don’t like doing what you’re told. And I certainly had that. If anyone told me to turn left, I’d turn right, and if they told me to go straight ahead, I’d go backwards.”

There is now a certain irony as Marsden faces students not dissimilar to his younger self. “In a classroom, you’ve got a whole lot of people who are ready to be oppositional and defiant. You’ve got to find ways to engage them so you’re going to be more successful.”

He admits to difficulty in dealing with such students. “I certainly haven’t become a saint in the classroom. I get annoyed and frustrated; I try everything from punishment to flattery, but usually I try to get to know the student better, to figure out what’s going on with them, and if there is some way we can achieve a relationship that will make them more likely to work better in my class”

Teaching the children well

Marsden says that if a student has a good relationship with a teacher, they are more likely to put in the extra effort. As such, Marsden was determined to teach in a different way than he was taught. And he did, going on to become the Head of English at Geelong Grammar School and, later, at Timbertop, the School’s Mansfield-based campus for year nine students. While he doesn’t “make any claims to be wildly different to anyone else nowadays” he certainly takes a non-traditional approach in delivering his lessons.

“I try to give people firsthand experiences instead of second, or third hand experiences. So rather than have them read about something or have them hear about something from someone else who has experienced it, I try to give them the actual experience so they can not only just write about it with more force, but help them to become more interesting people, better conversationalists and so on.”

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird during his tenure at Geelong Grammar, he was met with a class of apathetic students. His solution, although unorthodox, was effective – one morning he got the students to paint their faces green and issued strict instructions the paint was to be left on all day and no explanations could be offered in their defence.

“I [wanted] them to understand what it was like to be a member of a minority group, to be treated differently. Those things make a huge difference because then everything in the book becomes understandable in a vivid and personal way.”

While the exercise sparked an enthusiasm for Harper Lee’s work, Marsden acknowledges there is a certain danger in this approach.

“I suppose it’s like having wealthy teenagers sleeping out for one night and then pretending they know what it’s like to be homeless on the streets. Nevertheless, it’s the best you can do in terms of giving people some understanding, to make them more imaginatively aware of what it would be like to be one person with a green face in a whole room of people with white faces.”

Individuality is key for Marsden. In Candlebark he seeks to create an environment in which students are free to express themselves. Strongly influenced by Melbourne’s Fitzroy Community School, Candlebark operates within the structure of a traditional five-day timetable, offering English, Maths, Science, Technology, Arts, Health and Physical Education and perhaps most importantly, Study of Society and Environment (SOSE).

Unlike the traditional structural split – kindergarten to six, then years seven to 10 – Candlebark teaches children up to year nine. Candlebark’s numbers are kept small, reaching 150, to keep an intimacy and security similar to a family setting, and to fast-track academic progress.

The reasons behind the structure were also practical. To cater to the senior years would have meant an additional range of teachers, subjects and resources, whereas teachers who are trained at a primary-school level can teach up to year nine. (While not all of his teachers are primary trained, this does make scheduling the timetable considerably easier.)

Marsden firmly believes teachers have a responsibility to not just instruct, but to inspire. In a teacher he looks for a strong self-awareness, a confidence that will motivate his students. Many of his teachers have achieved things outside the sphere of teaching, bringing a richer experience to the school.

“Most students only have two, or at the most, three outstanding teachers in their lives – that’s abysmal.”

Live and learn

Marsden must be doing something right, with Candelbark now in its eighth year of operation. Still, the school is a relatively new endeavour and success is not easily measured. In doing so, Marsden cites testimonies of parents, teachers and students as well as less tangible indicators, such as “the cheerfulness and evident happiness of the children, their confidence in dealing with adults, their enthusiasm for work and their pleasure which is so obvious in the way that they approach so many of the activities of each day.”

Candlebark is entirely Marsden’s responsibility – self-funded and self-directed. Yet even with the scale of the commitment, his confidence has never wavered. He was certain the estate would work as a teaching environment, having run successful writing classes and camps on site for several years prior, to much success. Nor was it an issue financially, with money in place to sustain the school for as long as was necessary. And he went in with the assistance needed to run a successful business operation: a business manager, a good accountant and strong support staff. In order to cope with any difficulties, a good sense of humour is crucial – not just for the individual, but for the school as a whole.

“It’s essential,” Marsden says. “It’s almost a point of pride among the staff in some schools not to laugh at the students’ jokes.” When asked why, he answers with mock sincerity: “Because, heaven forbid, they make another one!”

Amid the vast grounds, Marsden wants to foster a nurturing environment in which students are free to express, to experiment, to take risks and to find adventure. This is because he believes environment informs education; that growth is reliant on stimulation and challenges. This culture has been meet with incredulity from teachers at more traditional schools, but so far Candlebark boasts a comparatively low accident rate. Candlebark takes a holistic approach to educating a green and ethical future.

“I think it’s important not to be too didactic because people naturally react against being told what to do, what to think and what to believe,” he says. “You have to be more, you have to really lay out the range of possibilities for them and then let them make their own choices. Of course, you try to give them a solid grounding, something of value so they can make good choices.”

Marsden says Candlebark places great emphasis on the need to allow children to take individual responsibility for their actions – here, it’s about living to learn, and learning to live.

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