Daylesford Dharma is the only school in Australia that operates according to the respectable morals and ethics of the Tibetan buddhist principles. The children have infused in their day the five precepts, based on the five things that any lay or practicing buddhists in the tradition must at first agree to.
These precepts are listed on the walls of their classrooms. The children are spared the long hours of regular meditation and the dedication to the eightfold noble path, in its place is the adherence to the curriculum of the Victorian Department of Education, in a playful and low stress environment.
The school was founded in 2009 by Geshe Konchok Tsering, a local buddhist teacher, following the guidance of her teacher to start a buddhist school in Australia. Three years later, Joel Hines, the current principle took over. He’s a practicing Buddhist who had spent 12 years previously in IT. Joel and the school board now oversee the decisions that will shape the future of this school.
It currently uses the Daylesford Tennis Club’s club house as its main building, otherwise mostly unused for tennis except for a couple of evenings and weekends in Summer. This cooperative arrangement fits with the school’s community oriented ethos yet is only temporary, with 25 acres of land recently purchased near by soon to be the permanent location, with plans to include a new high school.
A primary influence on the teaching methods at the school is Carol Dweck, a psychologist who has developed a philosophy called the “Growth Mindset”. It focusses on children learning the power of “yet”: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point” (Carol Dweck). Over and above this though is “an integrated curriculum encompassing cross-disciplined learning, a spirit of inquiry and debate, reflective practices, self awareness, conflict resolution training, and interconnectedness with community and environment.”
The class sizes are small and the age groups are mixed. The first half an hour of class time in the morning, across all age groups, is dedicated to mindfulness. I sat in on the mindfulness session of the five year olds group and I took part in various guided activities that were aimed to help the children develop awareness of their body’s sensations. For the littlies, this may not be meditation exactly but definitely a precursor. As well as this, they discussed strategies aimed to help maintain a sense of calm, strategies that tie in with the current terms theme of Social Harmony.
After this I went to the older kids age group, years 5 and 6, to sit in on a literacy class. A teacher stood at the front of the class next to a white board with children sitting around four rectangular tables facing her. It was a follow on class on the ways of writing conclusive arguments. Because I was present in the class that day, they begun with a beautiful display of openness and confidence, as each student responded to the teachers request to share anything they might like or not about their experience at Daylesford Dharma School. There was an overwhelmingly positive theme to the sharing, the students commonly siting the absence of any experience of bullying as a general attribute of the school, also the family-nature of knowing everyone across all grades.
Discussing this with Joel a little later on, he identified a number of areas which he felt contributed to this aspect of the school. Conflict resolution is central to the schools vision of creating “a school community abiding in compassion and universal responsibility.” The children are helped to practice resolution based on mutual respect, appreciation for differences and compromise, using Non-Violent Communication techniques and mediation. Mornings are focussed on teaching the curriculum as specified by the department of education. Afternoon activities and project time are focussed on one of four different themes, one for each term. They are: Wellbeing, Social Harmony, Cultural Diversity and Environmental Balance.
Having only been operating for 7 years, last year saw the graduation of the first 7 students who began in kindergarten in 2009, the school is still very young. Apparently all 7 students are adapting well to their new secondary school environments, two of whom began their high schooling on academics scholarships. There is great excitement for the new high school and the opportunity to continue these skills and practices through to adulthood would be greatly beneficial.
The school website conveys that this approach to education is ultimately about developing the buddhist elements of compassion and wisdom. It is also inclusive of all religions with the understanding that these elements are essentially mirrored within them.