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  • Writer's pictureDanny Hyndman

Finish Strong

It takes a long time to build a school up to excellence.

This is a story of pride and surprise.

In 2010, as part of a regional conference, a presentation was made using a school’s data to highlight that it was the worst performing in the region.

The school remained anonymous in the presentation, but enough time has passed to let you know that it was Woori Yallock PS.

Prior to 2011:

  • the school was teacher centred, with a welfare mentality

  • the teaching and learning was fragmented, ad hoc, often lacked planning and there was little documented curriculum

  • student learning data was literally going backwards

In 2011 I took over the school as principal.

My instructional leadership style led to a culture shift, that included a strong focus on coaching, research based professional learning, and lots of hard work.

The school transformed from not owning or knowing its data, to a school that engaged in learning walks, team teaching, having high levels of differentiation and teachers using video to reflect on their practice. We were always searching for ways to improve our practices to better serve our students.

The improvements were gradual, but significant.

Some highlights:

  • numerous educators/schools coming to visit to see the excellent practice in action

  • presenting at international conferences

  • being identified in the top 59 schools in Victoria and in the top 300 in Australia for learning growth

  • the school was a finalist in the Victorian Education Excellence Awards in the categories of Primary School Principal Of The Year and School Advancement Award

When you look at it like that it sounds like it was smooth sailing from 2011-2016, but I can assure you it wasn’t. I will spare you some of the gory details for another article.

My first year as a principal was tough – from getting hate mail before I started, to a rocky end of the school year.

Me joining the school meant that there would be change. Change is hard at the best of times, but for a school that had resisted making any changes for a long time, the challenge of change was compounded. It had been a big year for everyone, and by the last 10 weeks everyone was a bit sensitive, emotional, and tired.

Throughout the year I had made a conscious decision to not shy away from hard decisions. I had the courage to tackle behaviours, practices, policies, and actions that weren’t appropriate/professional, etc. This included:

  • informing staff that they would be physically moving classrooms for the following year, as well as changing the year level they would be teaching

  • challenging some staff that their performance review may not be successful

  • not renewing a teacher’s contract

I made lots of mistakes in my time as a principal, but that’s how we learn right? The biggest mistake I made was to have too much going on at the end of a very big year. While it wasn’t the prettiest end to 2011, nothing was broken, and a good summer holiday break meant that everyone came back re-energised and ready to go again.

Despite this I was keen to ensure that I had learnt my lesson and that the end of 2012 would be as smooth as possible. My strategy revolved around two key aspects, a motto, and a plan.

  1. Giving out an article titled ‘Finish Strong’ to all staff before we began the last 10 week stretch of the year.

  2. Our Assistant Principal gave everyone a countdown document that gave clarity to all the key events to finish the school year and when they were happening. This included budgets, evacuation drill, classroom allocation, student leadership, reports timeline, roles and responsibilities, Christmas Carols, graduation, and plenty more.

Compared to 2011, it was hard to believe how smooth the end of year went in 2012. It was still busy and frenetic, but everyone still had energy in reserve when we said our goodbyes on the last day of the school year.

It has now been five years since I left to work for myself independently, and I’m so proud of the sustained improvement at the school. It is a real testament to the leadership and staff, and the structures we put in place.

The sustained improvement is not only in results, but also in the culture of treating education as a profession and always looking to learn and improve practices.

There is one sustained practice however, that if you gave me 1,000 guesses, I would never have landed on it.

Funnily enough it was the lesson I learnt at the end of my first year. The Finish Strong article resonated enough for the saying to be adopted and emblazoned on t-shirts – 9 years later!

My advice around this would normally be for the last 10 weeks of the school year. Due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown in Victoria, all students/schools will return to school next week. It is even more important right now given the reduced energy levels and deep-seated fatigue caused by the pandemic that we have the mindset that we are going to finish strong.

Stephen Covey writes about marathon runners picking up the pace when they ‘hit the wall’. We have definitely been in a marathon, but my advice would be to try and keep a steady pace until December 17th, the finish line is in sight.

Finish strong!

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