James Donald was one of the very first students at John Colet School. Thirty years ago he started as a Lower First student in the school his mother, Judith Donald, co-founded with Mary McKendrick. At this time the school was in a two storied house on Falcon Street in North Sydney.
“I had Mrs Dunn in 5th class, and she got me on track with maths. You don’t think about those seemingly small steps at the time, but her attitude of ‘roll your sleeves up and get into it’, well it set me on a different path. I remember the effect her support and enthusiasm had on me. Maths has never been my strongest subject, but here I am now doing a very statistics focussed and quantitative PhD…”
“It was with Mrs Dunn that we did the first ever Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on stage at the Police Boys Club next door to the school. Mrs Dunn likes to remind me that I learnt all my lines in two days or something, but I think we were just responding to her passion. In 6th class we did Julius Caesar at Mahratta (The School of Philosophy head office in Wahroonga).
“My 5th class year was Mr Mane’s second year at the school, and it was in that year that he and the teachers introduced the House system. We had an assembly in one of the upstairs rooms at the house at 210 Falcon St and I remember the excitement among the 30 or so children, hearing who would be in each house. I was in Phillip.”
James says it was a huge transition from tiny little John Colet School, taught by women, to the very large Scots College in the Eastern suburbs, taught mostly by men.
“I was 11 years old - I’d started school at 4 -and it was a huge jump for a fairly sensitive kid. Academically I was fine, and the grounding in values and ethics and being a good citizen, that all stood me in good stead, but the transition socially was the biggest challenge.”
After a Gap year in 1998, where James worked for Scots College at their Outdoor Education Centre in Kangaroo Valley, he started a BA at Sydney University but switched to Economics halfway through.
“When I finished that degree, I was 24 and still not sure what I wanted to do, so I volunteered in Vietnam for a year, teaching economics at a University in Hanoi. Hardly anyone spoke English, even in the cities. I learnt Vietnamese with a teacher, and I got quite good at it. It was a really significant year for me, getting away from a white, middle class, private school world.
“The other significant thing that happened there was I connected with a Buddhist Monastery, through friends, and it was a link back to what I’d known at John Colet School with the meditation. I organised meditation programmes at the Monastery for expats living in Hanoi, and I really enjoyed doing that. It showed me that the focus on stillness I’d received from my education at John Colet and the School of Philosophy is truly universal.”
Back in Australia, James worked for the next three years with Australia’s Official Development Assistance Agency, then called AusAid. He was with a team of economists and analysts based in Canberra, managing the Australian aid programme to East Timor and looking at the associated economic policy issues. After that, he had a three year stint in the Commonwealth Treasury, working on the Rudd Labour Government’s health reforms, doing the economic analysis of the Federal Government’s funding and reform package for hospitals.
It was during this period that James was nurturing a desire to change career focus.
“I was thinking about ways I could work more in line with what I see as important, and taking into account my long-term interest in the practice of philosophy and meditation. I wanted to devote myself to something that would enable people to transform themselves and yet be accessible to them.”
A meeting with Dr Craig Hassed
(who presented on mindfulness at John Colet School last term) in 2012 in Canberra was the inspiration James was looking for, prompting his move away from economic policy and analysis, into a PhD assessing the impact of mindfulness in the work environment.
“I had a First Class Honours degree, so I was eligible for a PhD and I was lucky to get a government scholarship enabling me to do fulltime research. I’m looking at workplace stress and resiliency, how people deal with setbacks and crises. Does mindfulness training help? To what extent do people with a naturally mindful disposition cope? How effective are existing mindfulness programs, in the context of workplace resilience? This is the ambit of the research my colleagues and I are doing. It’s fantastic and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity.”
James Donald lives in Sydney with his wife Gauri, a dietician, and their very new baby daughter Alethea who is one month old. James serves on the Board of Governors of John Colet School.