Way back in 2011, I was successfully appointed as principal of a primary school that was arguably the worst performing school in the state. The Regional Network Leader at the time, who was in charge of schools in the area, presented the school’s data anonymously at a regional conference to highlight the sense of urgency in such a school.
The school was essentially a welfare state. By this I mean there were low expectations, an emphasis on ‘social’ skills, and building self-esteem rather than academic achievement. The school actively promoted itself in this way.
In taking this approach the school reinforced and compounded the many issues the community had. This mentality was so strong in the school’s profile that I very nearly didn’t apply as it was everything I’m not.
My belief system is based around high expectations that every student can achieve whatever they set out to, and it is our job as educators to support, push and ensure that every opportunity is available to every student when they graduate.
It was colleagues of mine that pointed out to me that my moral purpose was the exact reason why I should be applying.
The level of disadvantage that I observed within the community upon my arrival correlated with significant welfare demands. Substance abuse, domestic violence, broken homes, and chronic unemployment were unfortunately all part of the narrative.
These challenges didn’t decrease over the six years, when I was in charge.
However, the change in focus and mindset were the catalyst to breaking this cycle via the students in our care.
Wellbeing was critically low, but what many educators don’t realise is that the most effective way to improve wellbeing for all members of a school community is to have a high quality teaching and learning program.
This approach is exactly what I led in my six years as principal. At the core we developed a culture of seeing education as a profession. A belief that there is always more to learn, and if we get better, then the outcomes for our kids can be life changing.
There were many actions that drove this culture. The big ticket items were:
· Engaging with an amazing consultant in Keay Cobbin
· Every staff member receiving coaching
· Videoing of practice for reflection, and capturing excellence
· Study groups – collaboratively discussing practical research, and trialling practices
· Celebrating all of our successes, both big and small
Over the six years results dramatically improved in every measure. What captured the education community’s attention was the big jump in academic learning outcomes. The wellbeing outcomes that were just as impressive, tended to be glossed over.
To complement the unrelenting focus on teaching and learning, I had an amazing wellbeing team at my disposal. At the end of my six years all members of the team were still extraordinarily busy, but they were picking up the pieces that were more obvious, rather than being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of need for their services.
In hindsight the improvement could be tracked by the areas we focused on. Reading was the first area that we targeted, and by the end of the first year the orderly environment was excellent for the first hour of the day during reading, but then deteriorated.
Over time with each teaching and learning area we worked on the improvements and momentum continued to build. Students knew what to expect, and they were having success.
I have no doubt that there are some people who will read this, and it will challenge their paradigm. They might say things like “our kids are different”, “you don’t understand the challenges of our community”, or “that won’t work here”.
These schools have a choice to make. Either continue what they are doing, and get the same outcomes (at best), or raise expectations and dream big.
It can seem impossible, but it can be done if you invest in high quality professional learning and development of staff, and you play the long game. No short cuts, and no quick fixes.
The trauma that COVID induced on students and educators alike cannot be downplayed, and fingers tightly crossed that we never have to revisit anything like it ever again.
As a result of the pandemic, it is completely understandable that there has been a greater focus on wellbeing for all concerned.
The impact on schools has been serious, with one key aspect being the constraints on the collaborative culture within schools, and the limitations of engaging deeply with professional learning.
What I observed earlier this year is that the strongest schools I work with acknowledged the challenges of COVID, but also got back on the horse at the first opportunity. At times this equated to two steps forward, and the odd step back. It has still made for a long year, but school life has returned to something approaching normal.
It is impossible to solely focus on teaching and learning, but it is also easy to get dragged away from the core business of schools. Hurtling towards 2023, let’s make sure we have a narrow and deep focus on teaching and learning. Improved wellbeing will be just one of the positive outcomes.