Sometimes people ask if we teach Creationism or Darwinian Evolution. The school doesn’t really teach either: We don’t teach Evolution – the theory that species come into existence, change and disappear by a process of mutation and natural selection - because it is not in the primary school syllabus; and we don’t teach Creationism – that God created the heaven, the earth and its creatures in six periods of twenty-four hours, because we take these grand, mystic stories in the Bible to be allegories rather than literally true.
The idea that Science and Religion are somehow at odds is mostly spurious. In the context we are considering, this is because Darwinian Evolution doesn’t seek to address the existence of a Creator, who may or may not have embedded this mechanism of adaptation into His creatures. And Scripture mostly seeks to ask Why questions, rather than the How questions of Science.
In fact science tends to abdicate both the fields of philosophy and religion. Philosophy involves the metaphysical enquiry into existence, consciousness and the ultimate causes of things, and religion delves into the realm of spiritual and moral questions and of the nature of God and how life should be lived. To illustrate, while science tells us in detail how the internal combustion engine works, it is silent on the character of Henry Ford, or whether a car should be used in a drive by shooting or to transport a sick child to hospital.
Darwinian evolution gives a beautiful, elegant and useful hypothesis on the Mechanism of the adaptation of species, while religion enquires into the nature of, and our relationship with, the Mechanic.
Welcome back everyone to the new academic year. Aside from welcoming a new cohort of beautiful Lower 1st children, we also have over a dozen new children in other classes who are settling in nicely to their new school. And we have new members of staff as well, which always enlivens the school, bringing fresh perspectives to the classroom. And lastly we have our newly rebuilt Colet House.
Over the Summer the teachers met in December and January for a total of seven days. We planned the year, and also had some very stimulating in-service days on Mathematics, Gifted and Talented issues and Creative Writing; we also covered the basic areas of child protection and student welfare.
I would like to start the year by making school’s basic Philosophy very practical. We do believe in a higher power that is ever present, accessible and helpful. But remembering to be quietly present and to connect with that higher power in the hurley burley of everyday life sometimes presents a challenge.
So the staff have been reminded that all problems can be solved and all challenges faced best by being present and giving loving intelligent attention to the issue. And we have instituted a simple practice: from now on, at 11.00 am every day, the whole school including teachers, children, office and lunch staff and anyone else on the premises will be invited to be silent and still and peaceful for just a few moments.
The end of the year is upon us and that means Speech Night preparations, Reports, Picnic Day, and all the other end of year minutiae which press their claims at this, the busiest time of the year.
And the spirit of Christmas also begins to creep up on us. All those endlessly repeated Christmas songs, with their sometimes sentimental words, all sing about the warmth, love, family fellowship and generosity which accompany this most beautiful of festivals.
This is a time to celebrate, because the promise of Christmas is that the loving, intelligent, creative Divinity which guides the world is not just a Superman God – Up in the sky, is it a bird? Is it a plane…. It is a warm, loving Presence that can work the remarkable magic trick of being born in a stable in extraordinary circumstances in mid-Winter to a young woman; with visitors both noble and commonplace; and with a final miraculous escape from danger and death. A new-born baby from another world, invulnerable to the machinations of a powerful, murderous King of this world.
It would be hard to think of a more moving way of illustrating the unshakeable power of truth, love and reality, against ignorance and cruelty.
On behalf of all the staff of the school and on behalf of Mrs Mane and I, I wish you all a very happy, peaceful and prosperous Christmas and New Year and I look forward to seeing you all at Speech Night.
One of the reasons for starting John Colet – aside from teaching Grammar, Spelling, Times Tables, all of which had been jettisoned in the 60s and 70s – was to give the children simple, easy techniques of self-awareness. But why? And what do we mean by “self-awareness”?
Self-awareness has a shiny, positive, hooray sound; but it often entails a little effort to come out of self-unawareness. To help our understanding the wise refer to this as waking and sleeping. Shakespeare is characteristically apt.
In The Tempest Antonio, suggesting evil deeds to a reluctant Sebastian asks: Do you not hear me speak? And Sebastian replies:
I do, and surely it is a sleepy language, and thou speak’st out of thy sleep…. This is a strange repose, to be asleep with eyes wide open – standing, speaking, moving – and yet so fast asleep.
I think all of us can identify with this state of waking sleep – with eyes wide open, and yet so fast asleep. Where we feel guilt for an unchangeable past, or anxious about an imaginary future; and we therefore miss what is happening in the present moment.
So at school we encourage the children to be present; to see what is in front of them; to hear what is being said; to taste what they are eating. And why? Mainly because this is Reality. It is true, in the sense of being what is actually happening. And usually, good hearted children who are “awake” will then respond naturally to the need of the moment – to comfort the unhappy, to tidy up, and to attend to their friends.
In the course of any day at school there are innumerable interactions amongst the children. Most go by largely unremarked. Many are wonderful – acts of kindness and courage; of intelligence and care. And we like to reward these in some suitable way.
But a few of these interactions are less happy. The teachers are all devoted to helping the children meet and resolve these challenging incidents; and, most are dealt with relatively easily as part of the unfolding drama we call life.
One concept which helps the children to resolve their difficulties is above-the-line and below-the-line thinking. If we think of a horizontal line, we have, below the line: Blame, Excuses and Denial. Above the line we have: Responsibility, Acceptance, and Action.
One our aims in building character is to encourage the children to stay above the line; to take responsibility for their actions, to accept events as they roll out, and to act reasonably and appropriately in the face of those events. And, on the other hand, to leave behind blame, excuses and denial. After all, taking an extreme example, say a child out of weakness or malevolence says or does something mean or hurtful to another child. The teacher will, of course, do their level best to prevent a repeat occurrence, and a good way of doing this is to open the eyes of the perpetrator to the effect of his or her actions and, if necessary to surround them with some reasonable disciplinary boundaries.
But the “victim” often has a task before them as well. If they find themselves locked into blame, and excuses and denial of their, perhaps minor part in the drama, they need help to move above the line into the realm of responsibility, acceptance and action.
There is a lovely but curious story which Shantananda Saraswati tells several times: A holy man was offered a room in a house where he could devote himself to prayer and meditation and study. The four year old son of the householder used to go in quietly and sit with the saintly man, and without any instruction, used to copy him. The boy learned stillness and meditation and grew up to become a Mahatma – a wise man.
To me this story has many layers of meaning but one of the most humbling, for a teacher, is that who we are has more influence on the child’s character than what we say or do. Although what we say and do is important, they are only effective if they line up with who we are.
I have occasionally walked into a lively classroom, and have found myself insisting loudly and agitatedly that the children be quiet. If I am lucky I will wake up to the obvious disconnect between my state (agitated) and what I am demanding (quietude).
I then usually apologise to the children, and ask them to be patient while I become still and quiet. And then I ask them to join me. Much more effective, and pleasant, for everyone.
Because of the lack of ready comparisons, we face the practical issue of monitoring how John Colet is delivering the academic, cultural and spiritual curriculum to the children. We are not in any system of comparable schools so it is a bit hard to check ourselves against any benchmark.
So feedback from parents whose children have joined us from other schools is very helpful, and it is heartwarmingly positive. Especially when the Shakespeare Festival is on, I speak to parents who are amazed at the level of performance which the children deliver; and this regularly leads into a conversation about the miraculous change that has come over their children since joining us.
This year’s Primary Shakespeare Festival is no exception. The Infants performances set an extremely high bar. The Primary plays have been wonderful. Together all the plays have been a massive credit to the teachers, parents and, of course, the children. While the weeks leading up to the performances are sometimes always fraught, the children never fail to rise to the high demands we place on them.
It may not be politic for me to say this (because I love every performance from every child); but I can’t help feeling a swelling of emotion when I see a shy or awkward child who has struggled in past years, stride out confidently and begin to “own” the stage. As well as immersing the children in the greatness of Shakespeare’s works, it is this – the building of inner strength and character – which makes the commitment to Shakespeare worthwhile.
I learned that it is the weak who are cruel, and that gentleness is to be expected only from the strong. Leo Rosten
It is a paradox that cruelty, bullying, violence and mean spiritedness are the actions of the weak; and kindness, justice, tolerance, compassion and mercy are the actions of the strong.
Shantananda Saraswati was asked about tyranny and injustice in the world and he said that cruelty, totalitarianism and evil have the outer appearance of strength; but they are in fact fragile because they are based on fear and lies and, when, like Soviet Communism, they collapse, they can do so surprisingly quickly.
On the other hand liberal democracies, with government with the consent of the governed, which have open vigorous debate, and which value free speech and the tolerance of divergent, even heretical, views, can have the appearance of chaotic weakness. But, he says, they are inwardly strong because they are based on simple principles of mutual consent, freedom and truthfulness.
At school I often point out to the children the obvious fact that no one is hurtful or a bully or mean from a position of strength. Strong and confident people have no need to be unkind or vicious. And, further, the proper response by the strong to the weak is compassion and a helping hand.
We tell lots of stories to the children in Assembly, in Scripture and Philosophy classes; and all of them are intended to be lively and entertaining. Without wanting to be ponderous or heavy, we also want the stories to edify. We want the stories to be captivating and therefore memorable; and therefore lodge in the children’s hearts, and so be available when the point or principle embedded in them is needed.
These stories are often directly about God. Because God is compassionate, merciful and highly efficient, He comes to us in a myriad of ways, all designed to capture our attention and arouse our curiosity. God can come to us externally in the guise of an invisible, loving parent-like figure with carefully formulated rules for living a good and fruitful life.
Or God can turn up in a more intimate form as an affectionate friend and intimate companion, usually embodied as a Jesus or a Krishna, whose human qualities excite our warmth and admiration, and whose God-like qualities excite our devotion and reverence.
Lastly, God comes to us in that still small voice of inspiration, conscience or insight which appears in us as a flash of light, or as a steady guiding lantern of moral or ethical values. In this guise He is our own highest Self, readily accessible through inner stillness and meditation.
All religions speak of these three forms of God; and the stories we tell to the children cover all bases as well.
Welcome back to a new term. I hope everyone had a refreshing restorative break. Many members of staff spent part of their break on a week's meditation and study retreat at the School of Philosophy.
This term we have several highlights to look forward to. The School's annual cycle of special events and assemblies fulfil several purposes. They give the school a regular pulse or rhythm which is repeated every year and contributes to the "feel" of the school. And each has its own special significance - at the Easter Assembly, for example, we concentrate on sacrifice, redemption and forgiveness; on Anzac Day we remember the sacrifice of our fighting men and women and experience national unity; Teachers' Day honours the teacher; Founder's Day celebrates the life and work of Leon Maclaren and connects us to the history and founding principles of the school.
This term we have the Primary Shakespeare Festival, the Christmas Celebration - including the annual Nativity Play and Carol Service - and, wrapping things up for the year, our gala Speech Night at the Concourse in Chatswood.
Each of these annual celebrations is designed to lift our sights and raise our thinking beyond the day to day. They all exemplify some significant principle - so at Christmas time we focus on the joy of rebirth and the promise of freedom and salvation; and on Speech Night we not only celebrate the school and individual children's achievements; we also wish our graduating 6th class a warm and heartfelt farewell and best wishes for the future, with every confidence that they will continue to display the fine qualities and strength of character which make their parents and teachers justifiably proud.
“Often, it’s not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don’t know how to be.” ― Heath L. Buckmaster
I rather like this quote on education. Making a child - or anyone - into a "new person" is not only impossible, but it is also impertinent. We can't turn ourselves into someone else. And if we are not able (and often are not willing) to do it to ourselves; it is therefore a bit rich to try to do it to someone else.
Life, I believe, is a "come as you are party". Children turn up with their own unique natures. Education is not so much about teachers moulding children's character; rather it is a matter of teachers (and parents) setting a living example of the virtues and values that are dear to their heart; and also providing to the children love, discipline and the finest food for their hearts and minds and spirits, such as Shakespeare, Sanskrit, Latin, Philosophy, Scripture and Mozart.
Having done this all we can do is cheer the children on as they use as much or as little of these influences, to build their own unique character. This means the children can grow into the people they already are.
Headmaster with 3rd class K on school camp, before they get down to the business of raftbuilding.
One of the issues I raised in the TEDxParramatta talk was the four things needed for education are: a teacher; a pupil; knowledge; and a flow or interaction usually involving language and speech. The teacher can be a paid, trained, skillful professional; or it can be…. anyone or anything.
For example, I was in a carparking area a few months ago and a kind lady offered me a parking ticket which still had some time on it. I was grateful and expressed my thanks. When she had gone I felt I had “gushed”, because of a slightly uncomfortable feeling of reluctance to accept other people’s generosity. It was a small thing but I found it instructive. That lady - and the situation – without knowing it, was my teacher.
But for a teacher’s lesson to work, it does require a willing pupil who is ready to learn. Shantananda Saraswati says that no one can learn anything without respecting the teacher. That respect, in the form of a willing ear listening to what the teacher has to impart, is crucial.
Hence our emphasis on respect, as one of our five core values. The teachers try to model this by respecting each other and respecting the children. And we ask the children to enact this by standing when adults come into the room, addressing adults politely and fully, and so on. All this creates a respectful atmosphere where the knowledge can flow easily.
On another note: the P & F stalwarts have worked long and hard to put together a Trivia Night which is a fundraiser and which is also fun and sociable. Sadly Mrs Mane and I were already booked to go to Brisbane to see relatives, but I would love to hear how mightily successful this event was on all fronts!
In the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday Dr Timothy Hawkes, the Headmaster of The Kings School, listed ten which things which he felt were not covered adequately by the standard curriculum. How to:
Live in a community and forge good relationships;
Know yourself and what you believe;
Handle intimacy and sex;
Control emotions and impulses;
Manage financial matters;
Do practical things, to clean, cook, make and mend;
Be good mannered and know etiquette;
Be resilient and deal with grief and loss.
I think this is a good list and, while all need family input and some are more appropriate for high school, I feel that John Colet School addresses many of them. But it did occur to me that, as in school so in life, you can’t pass a test you haven’t studied for. All the lessons in the world on kindness, for example, won’t get a jot of compassion out of someone who hasn’t worked to make it a natural part of their dealings with others. Making a virtue natural means hearing about it, seeing others live it and then, most importantly, practising it until it becomes natural. In this way the above list can become a practical guide for life rather than an unrealistic pipedream. We as parents and teachers help enormously when, for example, we model and encourage the children to control impulses, accept responsibility and be resilient.
As the Headmaster has been away sick this week, this 2008 comment is from the archive.
Also, because of illness and last minute timetabling difficulties, our final round debate with Alexander School has been postponed.
The Infants Shakespeare Festival, which saw each class give two full dress rehearsals and then three performances over a fortnight, was a triumph of organisation, creativity and shear hard work from all involved – parents, teachers and children. Profound thanks and congratulations to all involved. The Shakespeare Festival exemplifies the two fundamental elements which we believe will give children the tools to develop themselves into fine young men and women: first, the company of truthful, emotionally mature teachers; and, second, giving them the best possible input. Shantananda Saraswati, who recommended this approach said, the children should be in good company; and be provided with good material. Of the good material, such as Shakespeare, he says: “If they take it, they will be good enough to look for what they need and build their character accordingly.” In other words the individual child has a role to play here. The adults who love and care for the children – their parents and teachers – should, and do, give as much fine input as they can, and set as good an example as possible. But ultimately it is the child, and all too soon, the young adult, who will have to take what they can of this rich, stimulating and creative mix of influences, and build their own character and life in their own completely unique way. That’s the part that no one else can (or should) do for them.
When I took up the job as Headmaster in 1989, I had a vision for the school which included establishing it squarely in the fine tradition of education in the English speaking world; a tradition that has always had at its heart the rigorous teaching of classical languages. There is an erroneous idea floating about in education that what the children learn should be “relevant”. I have mentioned before that the idea of relevance is a red herring, simply because, in a world where the audio cassette is a museum piece, and the CD and the video store are on their way out as well, no one knows what the world will look like in ten or twenty years. The things a child needs to learn which will be relevant are things which don’t change like the ability to think and attend; honesty, resilience and compassion. I was recently asked to deliver an after dinner speech at the Classical languages Teachers Association. In it I listed some reasons for teaching Sanskrit and Latin, which make these subjects very relevant: