Jenny in the library with L-R Olin Stratford, Rory Williams, Fynleh Duncomb
A HUMAN DYNAMO is about to spin into Maleny in the form of newly-appointed Principal of the Ananda Marga River School. When I caught up with Jenny Oakley at the school she was in earnest discussion with staff, but within minutes she had a circle of children eager to show us their herb garden, then they were off to lie on comfortable cushions on the library carpet to hear a Dr Seus story. We dropped in on Kingfisher class (Year Three) to discuss the meaning of life in answer to a question from a student. Jenny’s high energy level is undeniable, but it all stems from a passion to teach.
Her path to the River School has taken many turns along the way. As a young university graduate she entered the world of international business. While this venture proved successful, she found it did not sit well with her ideology: her two worlds did not match. Having wanted to be a teacher since the days when she lined up her teddy bears to instruct them in maths, she left the business world and enrolled at Queensland University of Technology. After graduating, she taught in various primary schools for 10 years – everything from Prep to Year Seven, as well as working with gifted and talented children.
Jenny in the herb garden with L-R Fynleh Duncombe, Olin Stratford, Tyla Paterson
Jenny is a single parent of a delightful ‘five-and-a-halfyear- old’ boy called Lachie, who will commence Prep Year (the Sugar Gliders) when his mum takes the reins at the River School from the beginning of term three. While she was on maternity leave expecting Lachie, QUT asked Jenny to work for them as a lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy, particularly on educating Middle Years and Early Adolescents in the sciences. This led down the path of a PhD which is nearing completion. Her thesis is a perfect fit for her involvement with the River School – Co-generative Dialogue: involving students in decisionmaking processes within classrooms and schools, and the effect it has on behaviour, engagement and emotional climate of classrooms.
After 14 years living in Wamuran, Jenny has bought a house in Tamarind Street, Maleny. She believes in total involvement with the community, something that is already standard practice at her new school.
Jenny stresses that she is not coming to the school to be The Boss, but aims to become an integral member of the school and community. She does not have an agenda. She will spend the rest of the year getting to know each child, parent and teacher, to assess what is really working and what might benefit from change, always in consultation with children, parents, teachers and the wider community. Most importantly, she plans to spend lots of time in classrooms, to be involved in lessons, something that was very obvious as I watched her talking about scientific experiments and gasses with the Kingfishers.
A happy school, not a quiet school, this is what Jenny loves to see: children bouncing out of their seats to answer a question, inspired by their love of learning with excited chatter as they discover new things. She has always admired the neo-humanistic approach to educating the whole child; the way “that extra bit of magic” is added to the standard Australian curriculum. As we walked through the school, each child we passed gave Jenny a wave and smiled hello. I asked a group of older girls what they thought of Jenny, and they all gave her the thumbs up.
Almost as an afterthought, she told me of her involvement in setting up two schools in rural Cambodia. Two and a half years ago she visited Cambodia on a holiday where she met a young university student who asked if he could talk to her to practice his English. He had set up a little school in his rural village to try to teach the children. A trip to the village inspired Jenny to assist by funding buildings, supplies, paying the teaching staff and providing advice. There is now a second school in another village, and each has taken ownership of the education of their children. As Jenny says, it takes a village to raise a child. Early this year, Jenny and Lachie returned to observe the progress. And, the university student is now the proud holder of a BA degree, courtesy of Jenny’s support.
On a personal level, Jenny is a vegetarian, and meditation and yoga have been part of her life for as long as she can remember. It is something she shares with Lachie.
Jenny knows she has very big shoes to fill. Prabha, whose dream created this wonderful learning space, will stay for two weeks to pass the River School on to the very capable hands of Jenny Oakley.
And Jenny’s answer to the meaning of life? For her it is to help children develop a love of learning, to educate them to look critically at life and to question everything they will see and hear as adults.
Jenny Oakley takes over from the founding head of the River School, Prabha who, since 1995, has guided and shaped a curriculum lauded as individualistic and progressive in primary education. River School teachers, parents and pupils will sorely miss Prabha and her steady guidance and wisdom over 18 years.
by Dale Jacobsen