Speaking at ACEL’s National Conference today, Marsden lobbed verbal mortar shells into the audience – an indiscriminate bombardment that may not have intended to offend, but certainly didn’t mind running the risk.
Whether denouncing mentorship as a “wanky” modern preoccupation, attacking the Australian right wing as “idiotic” or labelling teachers without experience outside the classroom “boring and uninsightful”, Marsden remains unafraid to speak his mind.
Although most well known for the now-ubiquitous Tomorrow, When the War Began series, his career has been bookended by teaching. To amused delegates today, he wryly acknowledged that to finally land a job as a principal, he had to start his own school.
Marsden has largely stepped away from writing since Candlebark School opened its doors in 2006, but certain lessons learnt as an author have guided his return to education.
“Whatever’s true in fiction is going to be true in life,” he said.
“In any worthwhile work of fiction, anyway.”
Marsden claims to have never been good with visual descriptions, preferring instead to focus on capturing the ‘voice’ of his characters. He offered the example of a character knocking on a door – what can be inferred from the intensity or rhythm of their knock? A halting, quiet knock could signal trepidation or timidity. A character pounding on a door with the side of their first says something else entirely.
“One of the things we need to do as educators is make sure that children have their own voices,” Marsden said.
A teacher’s own voice is equally important. Marsden struggled with behaviour management when he first worked in the classroom, but a simple observation proved revelatory for him. He noticed that his more experienced colleagues preferred to say “thank you” than “please”, pre-empting their students’ obedience.
So, “sit down, please” became “sit down, thank you” and everything changed.
Nature abhors a vacuum, Marsden said, and so too do students.
“If the students sense that there is a vacuum, then it will be filled … It will be filled by the most raucous, disruptive, subversive student in the room.”
Teachers must prevent this from happening by filling the vacuum themselves.
Another cornerstone of Marsden’s education philosophy is that his teachers must have lived “extravagant, adventurous” lives – they can’t have travelled in a straight line from the classroom to university and back again. By devoting his energy to finding extraordinary people, Marsden is then able to simply put them in a classroom and let them teach.
“Most of my life as a principal is saying ‘yes’,” he said.
On one occasion, a teacher requested that she be allowed to set up an ‘explosions club’ at the school.
“As you can imagine,” Marsden said, “it’s wildly popular with young people.”
Just as life experience is an essential requirement for Marsden’s teachers, imbuing it in students is a fundamental focus of his school.
He suspects that Candlebark’s students are the most well-travelled in Australia.
In the first term of prep, students shake off their overprotective parents with a four-day camp. Some of the adults get very upset by the experience, Marsden said, but their children don’t.
“We do that because I know that firsthand experiences are what forms a person.”
Running well over his allocated time, Marsden begged the school leaders in attendance to reclaim their profession from bureaucrats that would have them take on ever-increasing responsibilities, only tangentially related to education’s fundamental goals. Schools have already taken on so much of this work that they more resemble “psychiatric day care centres” than places of learning, Marsden said.
Marsden attributes much of the blame to a long line of federal education ministers who have never worked in the field they are tasked with governing.
“Since federation, we have never had anybody in charge of education in this country who actually knows the first thing about it,” he said.
The closing argument of education's leading provocateur was thoroughly uncontroversial to those in attendance: teachers must stand up to the politicians and bureaucrats, adopt a firm voice and assert their expertise.