Ananda Marga River School, Maleny, Australia
Report by Didi Anandarama
Arriving from Laos, Thailand and Egypt on seemingly endless flights, seven of us were met by Prabha and Giita from the Ananda Marga River School and literally dipped into the cool refreshing ocean waves at the Sunshine Coast before reaching the rolling green hills of Maleny and the piece of paradise where the Ananda Marga River School is located.
The school is situated on 25 lush green acres of the Ananda Kamala community where several families occupy another 25 acres as a PROUT cooperative. We were accommodated with the families in the midst of vibrant nature, organic vegetable gardens, wild bush turkeys, grazing cows and the humming overgrown rainforest with its exotic sounding birds.
The school has grown organically over the past 15 years starting in one building with a dozen children. Over time additional rooms were added and five more buildings donated and acquired to serve as classrooms for the now 200 children in 7 grades as well as three early childhood classrooms. The school has a sports ground, a kitchen, sheds for the buses, an Art Center where the art teacher teaches classes, and a shed for Fred who does the regular maintenance of the school facilities.
The school has a good reputation in the community and is regularly favorably featured in local newspapers. Recently the Australian Government graciously has approved an over two million dollar grant for the school’s expansion for a new administration building, library and auditorium facilities.
Although far from home the visiting teachers felt welcomed with kind hospitality and care for all their needs. This event was partly on the initiative of River School’s support for the Baan Unrak School in Thailand. Four visitors were sponsored by River School.
Observations at River School
We started our observations on a Monday at the collective Morning Circle time where the whole school gathers every week. Children light candles, say a blessing for the week, sing songs and draw a virtue card that will be emphasized by the whole school for two weeks.
Throughout the following week with lots of excitement to see a Neohumanist School in action the visiting guests mingled in all the classrooms, took pictures and video, talked to the teachers, helped in classrooms, studied the lesson plans of different grades and followed classes to the river when they went for a swim, or went on a hike with them to the vegetable gardens, observed their arts and crafts activities in the Art Center, tasted their fundraising snacks and watched their fundraising movie one evening. The Lao and Thai teachers shared about their countries and taught their folk dances during lunch break. Every day the visiting guests met, shared their observations, pictures, notes and interesting things that they could possibly apply in their own classrooms.
Visit to Ananda Marga Vistara Primary School in Lismore
An older primary school that was started 22 years ago, about three hours away, has been run by Didi Ananda Vitandra and Rukmini almost from its inception. The school has a family feeling of neohumanist love and care for the 60 children up to grade 7. It is similarly situated in the lush green nature of the countryside. The school is actively supported by the parents and community. Its outstanding standard and yearly spectacular drama performances are well known in the town of Lismore. The highlight of the school is the whole school celebration of Baba’s* Birthday in May attended by parents. Just after the first day of observing it was very clear that observation of a school in action is extremely valuable, along side NHE theory and seminars.
*Shrii P. R. Sarkar the founder of NHE is addressed as ‘Baba’ which means ‘father.’
Impressions and Thank You’s from Didi Ananda Anuraga
Almost a year ago Prabha gave us at Baan Unrak School in Thailand the amazing news: Ananda Marga River School of Maleny, Australia would sponsor me and some teachers from our school to visit and observe their school. On 19th March 2009 myself, teacher Janaki and Kindy helper Waranya left from Bangkok for Australia. We stayed at the Master Unit with the margii families who had bought the land 15-20 years ago. We heard about the hardships of the early days when the first few children were enrolled. They had only one building, the ground was all mud and there was no money. One can’t notice any of that history now. The school has 6 buildings spread over a big, hilly area covered with lush green grass. As one comes into the school grounds one crosses the bridge over the river where students study eco-systems, create musical compositions and swim and play daily. It is absolutely beautiful. 200 students are enrolled there now.
We spent nearly one month in Australia. We observed the classes at River School daily for 2 full weeks. The classes impressed me with the manifold choices the children had to explore, create and share and pursue their own interests. The children create the themes and plans with their teacher. There is daily story telling with students creating their own stories. As a result the students are very creative. They show responsibility and respect for each other. There is a strong feeling of unity and caring among all.
Easter holidays came and we went to see the countryside to see kangaroos and visit other Master Units. One was Ananda Pali, the first Master Unit outside India. We were lucky to visit Vistara Kindy and Primary School too in Lismore. We stayed at the school for a day observing the classes. It was striking to see how morality and values were interwoven into everything done and learnt. I read a beautiful article written by a grade 5 student on human rights and child slavery. It was very touching.
Finally we had a 4 days conference. For that Manorainjana took part, and Arun came all the way from New York. Australia was all about meeting amazing people and learning amazing things. We got lots of new wisdom and ideas on how to improve our school here in Thailand. So many bits and pieces of my dream on education came together. I got all the strength and confidence I need to continue the development of Baan Unrak School. Well back here we are having a seminar, sharing the new wisdom with all our teachers who could not get this opportunity to see River School and Vistara School and the kangaroos and the beauty of the people and the country.
I would like to thank all the wonderful people we came to meet and stay with. Thank you Kamala and Giita for housing us and taking such good care of us. Thank you Prabha and Dada who made this possible by sponsoring our journey and stay. Prabha is like a tree filled with love, always there for all of us. Thank you to Katy for the wonderful vegetables. Thank you to all the teachers and students for having us around and being so willing to share and explain. Thank you to Lokesh for his mind expanding DVD’s and thank you to Manoranjan and to Arun sharing his wisdom so easily and clearly. Thank you to Didi Ananda Rama for always being a support. And thank you to all the others too, you were all wonderful.
Seeing the education of Ananda Marga so beautifully expressed and meeting all these people I can clearly see how Ananda Marga quietly is growing strong like a giant. With love to all, Didi Ananda Anuraga
Facilitated by Prabha Demasson
Prabha Demasson, Deputy Principal of the River School, has been managing the school for 15 years and has gained much valuable experience along the way that she shared in this pre-conference workshop. Mother of 5 children and 8 grandchildren, she lives with her husband on the PROUT cooperative land where she also takes care of 5 cows. She oversees the whole school on many levels from writing proposals to reviewing the teachers’ weekly lesson plans.
How to administer in a most efficient way?
How do ideas manifest?
What are the elements for a project to be successful?
To start a school you need at least one of three things – people, money or buildings in addition to yourself, the person who wants to start the school and to have it be successful. Any one of these three things will draw in the other two.
Then you start with the WHY. You need to be clear about the philosophy and the reason you want a school. The philosophy will be your closest guiding force. The philosophy will shape the WHO, yourself and your close staff who will work there. It will influence what you are looking for when you hire teachers. It has to be very clear in your mind what you want your project to be like. You need to have thought about every detail and prepare for its manifestation. It is important that you think about everything so that you are able to tell the WHAT. For example in the beginning of the year all the teachers sat together and wrote on a big piece of paper all the things that we wanted for that year and everything that we wanted came about.
Family Feeling at School
Then you look at the HOW. This is like making a lasagna, Prabha said confidently: You do everything purposefully keeping the ideas/the WHATin mind and as you meet people you gather a pool of resources so that when you need to, you know whom to call on. You need to have the ability to bring people in and make them feel part of the family of the school. For example, we saved the life of a man who was an alcoholic by giving him a maintenance job at the school and eventually he got a shed with tools and ‘Fred in the Shed’ stayed on permanently as part of the school family.
Prabha shared that she goes to each classroom with her laptop doing her work and at the same time observing. She helps to improve the content to bring in the Neohumanist philosophy and suggests where to make changes in the methodology in the classroom. You communicate honestly and openly and do not push things to conflict. Children respond to the teacher who cares for them.
Your role as an administrator is similar – you care for the happiness of the entire school family.
Financial flow at school
As an administrator you pay the bills on time so that people trust you and then you can depend on them. The months of the school are busy and it is important to reward the staff financially for extra work. Make them happy. In this way you can deal with things as they come up.
How to deal with negativity
Identify 10 thinking patterns that are negative and communicate with all the staff about them. Give more attention to those who are positive, be it staff, kids and parents as a rule. Involve them in the flow of the school and in this way you add to the breeding of positive culture in the school. You can involve positive teachers and parents to help you do your job. For example give a parent facilitator the job of reading the suggestions in the anonymous box.
Watch yourself and write down everything you do in a day to check how you spend time in the school so that you can evaluate which things you can delegate and which you will maintain doing. Understand your own pattern of tasks. You need to be clear yourself about your duties and responsibilities. As an administrator you are a juggler of many things; parents come to you, children etc. All the resources you need are in the community of the school and you need to stay open and be in control. Do not keep any grey area; give people opportunity to be involved. You need to know when to ‘fire’ someone but make sure you gave them care to develop first. But show your courage to follow through if someone is not fulfilling the expectations. It they do not work out, they need to go and they will be fine. It is clarity of what you represent that is important. An example: a parent complained about the disallowance of her child’s T-shirt with the writing “my sister is a monster” saying, ‘I thought Neohumanism stands for freedom of expression’. I said, ‘it stands for subtlety of expression and not freedom of expression’.