Children’s author John Marsden had a vision for a school like no other, and he’s taken teaching graduate Iain Murray along for the ride. Sara Coen visited Candlebark, set in the vastness of Victoria’s Macedon Ranges.
It’s lunchtime at Candlebark and there’s a hearty log fire blazing in the communal dining room. Eating together is a daily ritual which includes the whole school – principal John Marsden, 28-year old Iain Murray, his fellow teachers, and more than 100 kids.
A couple of lambs, a few roosters, a pet pig and a scruffy dog loiter behind in the playground – along with a few stray bikes, skateboards, and random shoes. A girl with purple hair darts inside followed by a boy wearing a cape.
When John Marsden decided to set up his own school, he didn’t do much guesswork. With books in one of every 12 Australian households – he’s pretty well versed on how kids think, and what interests them.
To top it off, John’s got plenty of hands-on experience in the classroom – including a stint as head of English at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus near Mansfield in the 1980s, and more recently teaching at Fitzroy Community School in Melbourne.
“I’ve always had my own theories about education,” he said. “Basically, I didn’t want to go to the grave without testing them out, so I built my own school.”
He set it up on 1,100 acres of native bushland – and named it Candlebark after a local species of eucalypt.
“I was never really mad on the name,” said John. “It’s not even greatly significant – but after months of brainstorming, it was the best I could come up with, so it just stuck.”
He did put a bit more thought into the principles and philosophy behind the school – which is what sparked Iain Murray’s interest.
“I first heard about Candlebark in 2005,” said Iain. “It was just about to open – and my dad read an article in the paper about it, cut it out, and sent it to me. He knew I was toying with going back to study teaching – and thought I’d be interested in what John was up to. Dad was right. I read the article and was instantly inspired.
“I moved from Sydney to Melbourne in 2010 to study a Master of Teaching at ACU – with the idea in my head to do a teaching round at John’s school.
I did my final placement at Candlebark which was amazing – and in 2012, John offered me a full-time position and it was like hitting the teaching job jackpot.
“I’m still pinching myself that I’m teaching a class of just five kids in a log cabin classroom – perched above a waterfall and creek – in Romsey, just north of Melbourne. It’s awesome that my boss is the guy who wrote all my favourite books as a kid. As a teenager, I was totally fascinated by John’s Tomorrow Series. The characters in the series were kids, but they had a sense of capability beyond their years.
“John believes children are fully fledged people, equal to adults – and this is reflected strongly in his books, and his approach to education at Candlebark. He gives kids lots of responsibility and independence at the school – encouraging them to think for themselves, and believe in themselves.
“They help out with cleaning, feeding the animals, gardening, harvesting fruit and vegetables, and running school activities and events. Children are capable of doing a lot more than we currently expect in schools. The more you trust kids, the more they can be trusted.
“I like working at a school that empowers its students. It’s important to maintain a sense of authority in the classroom, without robbing kids of their autonomy, creativity, and dignity.
“There’s a maturity and confidence about the kids at Candlebark – their behaviour doesn’t suddenly change when the teacher leaves the room. Here, students and teachers are equal – and you will never see John talking down to anyone. There is no hierarchy, just this wonderful alliance between children and adults.”
Iain thought he’d have to be a whiz-bang teacher with decades of experience to get a job at Candlebark, but according to John, he’s already well on the way.
“Iain’s gaining confidence at the speed of Black Caviar,” said John. “He’s constantly scanning the horizon for new ideas and fresh perspectives. He’s big on self-reflection – and never afraid to ask for feedback and suggestions to develop his teaching skills.
“The kids love and respect Iain – basically because he treats them fairly, stays calm under pressure, and is never afraid to try new things. He’s won them over with his kind and gentle nature – but he still insists on meaningful work and gets great results.
“All the teachers at Candlebark are exceptional. I look for people who are adventurous and have done stuff. They might have hitch-hiked around Russia, taught in schools in Thailand, published books of poetry, or worked as radio operators in the New Zealand Navy – incidentally, all of these descriptions except one apply to Candlebark teachers.”
Iain said John wasn’t concerned with his limited teaching experience.
“John can see my potential. He values my unique talents, creativity and strengths. He places trust in me as a new teacher, and has endless faith in my ability. The best thing about Candlebark, is that I can totally be myself and I fit right in. It’s my first teaching job, and I’ve already found my home.”