Driving into the Dharma School at Daylesford and immediately you feel a sense of tranquillity, peace and youthfulness.
I pull up next to a mini van full of Year 3s and 4s. The students have just returned from an excursion where they spent the morning rebuilding a community garden in town.
They bounce out of the minivan and greet me with big smiles. I want to bottle their enthusiasm. Their driver is not who you would expect, but the principal, Andrea Furness. She too greets me with a huge smile and hello.
The Dharma school is now in its 15th year and growing, not only in student numbers but with an abundance of wonderful programs.
Andrea, tell me how the Dharma School came to fruition.
It was given to me as a project in 2005 and I was very resistant to it. I went to a Buddhist teacher to ask some specific advice and he didn’t give me the advice I wanted to hear. He basically turned my view of what to do for the next 10 years around 180 degrees.
He took one look at me and said, “I think you can start a Buddhist primary school in Daylesford.” And I was like, “No way!”
I think it was great because it was a reluctant project for me. I’d wanted to go overseas and do a PhD, which is a ridiculous thing to want to do when you’ve got a four-year-old.
It was a very big project to achieve, as 75% of schools established fail in their first year. But we had a good foundation and a great board, and our pioneering parents. My hats off to them, they’re amazing.
For people who don’t understand the Buddhist philosophy, can you explain it?
We started as a Buddhist philosophical school, which is different from a religious school. We had a foundation of mindfulness, meditation, and ethical conduct.
We’ve never had many Buddhist families at our school, the majority of our parents are not Buddhist. It’s a very small minority.
It’s like a well-being philosophy for life for children that provides them with quite an inquiry based, almost scientific inquiry into reality and how we work emotionally and socially. I think that makes it very fertile ground for parents to be interested in.
Teaching meditation back in 2009 must have had its sceptics.
We were looked as being crazy. The idea of mindfulness back in 2009 was just not mainstream. People thought, ‘oh, that’s ridiculous, you’re wasting valuable learning time.’
It’s been amazing to watch all the research catch up with what we’ve been doing.
After 14 years, we’ve got a really amazing approach to the Australian curriculum. We’ve developed our own curriculum called the Australian Dharma curriculum. It started this year.
What else are you doing here that is a take home practice?
There’s a theme that runs across the week that’s a deep dive. This week was non-harm. Last week was interdependence, the week before it was generosity.
We also have our Bush School program, which is another aspect of wellbeing. For two terms, every week children engage and have a connection to landscape, which opens up the whole world of how rich nature is in our learning.
The other two terms we run compassionate citizenship. Our students are out in the community working on projects that will bring benefit to their community. At the moment we’re growing food for the good grub club.
You also have several other programs at the school, like equine therapy. Tell me about that.
It’s a pilot project for this year. We were approached by a wonderful teacher, Jess Lister, who has her own equine therapy business. She’s here for a whole day for the six weeks and the children get to spend an entire class engaged with Digby the horse. It’s very powerful. He reads energy and he does it through heart rate. If I’m a bit stressed, or I’m rushing, he’ll be flipping his neck up and down. And it’s like, stay away lady!
He’s reading what’s going on in your body as you get closer to him, and he really accepts you or moves away from you, based on what you’re presenting him. And that’s wonderful feedback for a child.
What other programs are you exploring?
Next year we’re hoping to get up a bike education program. It’s a program that takes children through to get a bike license and ride on roads, but we are at a primary level and would only deliver it to be safe on bike paths.
We’ll open that up for kids after school hours as well, where you can come as a family, and get the kids in this community onto the bike paths riding again.
Andrea, what is a fun fact about you?
Okay, fun fact. I make perfume. I’m a distiller. When I’m not being a principal, I’m a Chinese medicine practitioner.
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
There’s a practice called ‘Tummo’ in Tibetan, and it’s where you generate inner heat. You could sit naked in the snow and generate inner fire and actually be warm and have beautiful circulation and be very comfortable.
I think in this cold climate, as I get older, I would love that superpower.
If you were sent out to Wombat State Forest for the rest of your life, what three items would you take?
I would zoom in my apothecary. I’d set up my apothecary in the forest, so that I could engage with nature.
I would like to bring my granddaughter because she’s very cute.
And I’d bring a lot of textbooks that I haven’t read because I’m too busy.
What are the aspirations for the school heading into 2024?
It would be to consolidate our Australian Dharma curriculum, and that will launch next year. It’s going to be amazing for our teachers in every unit of work. There are three exemplar lesson plans. It’s going to take the planning out of our teachers’ hands. They’re going to have these beautiful lessons that are already pre-planned and customized for them. We will run a lot of excursions as well.
If the Dharma school had a hashtag, what would it be?
When someone comes to my door, and they storm in (I usually have open door) they storm in, we all have an agreement that we make this hand gesture.
We all pause, we take a breath, we make eye contact. They work out, is this a good moment with her? Should I leave? Should I come back?
And in that moment, we decide, do we keep going with this explosive, like I’ve got an emergency moment? It’s been a life changer for all of us.
Andrea, I’ll be using that with my 19 year old twins this week.
It’s been a pleasure to meet you. I wish you and the Dharma School all the best with your exciting new programs, and I do hope to come back and meet Digby the horse.
If you would like to know more about the Dharma School: https://dharmaschool.com.au/contact/
The interview with Andrea is available as a podcast on the Hepburn Community Radio Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/hepburn-community-radio/dharma-school. There’s more on the podcast!
Raquel Stevens is a former Network Ten News Journalist. She has been a part time local for more than 25 years, and one day hopes to be a full time local.