‘It’s important that we send the message loud and clear that we are a Stronger Smarter school, and that’s what we’re doing here.
And it has been successful, there’s no doubt about it…’ – Judd Burgess
As the new Principal of Aitkenvale State School in North Queensland, Judd Burgess saw an opportunity to move the school forward by using Stronger Smarter Leadership strategies from the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program with his staff. Judd says the instability of several changes of principals had impacted on staff, and he saw that it would be important to build trust and honesty, enable improved personal and professional connections between staff, and break down silo approaches. Judd says, “Stronger Smarter was important for our school, simply because… although the school had a solid foundation, there was little culture of Indigenous perspectives amongst staff.”
Using the Stronger Smarter ‘dilly bag’ tools with school staff
The Stronger Smarter Leadership Program provides a number of tools and processes that school leaders can ‘put in their dilly bag’ and use where and when they need them. Judd decided he could use some of these ideas and techniques to bring staff together. So, he introduced a program where once a fortnight the staff meeting is structured around a yarning circle. He brought in friend Jason Pritchard to help him co-facilitate these sessions. “Jason had no baggage and no foreseen expectation about the school… I thought that was important – to have someone who was totally bipartisan and could look from the outside in,” Judd says. Judd and Jason are working through the strategies from the Stronger Smarter ‘dilly bag’ to build a culture and to understand “what makes our school now and what may make our school in the future”.
“We close the doors on our hall and shut the world out for an hour,” Judd says. “When you enter our Stronger Smarter circle we are together as one and we’re discussing expectations, we’re discussing relationships and we’re discussing a way we can move as one and move the school forward. We work together as a team to discover what we can do to make things better within ourselves and our school… it’s all about High Expectations Relationships and building trust with one another… it’s been extremely powerful.”
Jason agrees that he could see staff starting to connect from the very first session. “The way Judd set it up from the very first session, you could tell this was something special,” Jason says. “With Judd’s leadership it has set the tone for the whole thing. As an outsider looking in, it has been a marvelous thing to watch and be a part of. To see a program start off on such a trusting and honest beginning – the only way is up. It truly was an eye opener for me, and a journey for me on a personal level as well.”
Judd says he needed to break down initial apprehensions about what the program could deliver, and show that it was about “building relationships and high expectations to build performance and breaking down those deficit model barriers we put up as teachers.” But he says it is inspiring to see staff committed to the process and choosing to work together. “My yarning circle has up to 40 people in it. It’s amazing to see it work. But it really does work. Out of all the staff meetings I hold, the Stronger Smarter initiative is the most attended,” he says. “It has been an absolute cultural shift in our school. The laughter in my staffroom is a pure indicator to me that we’re getting on and working well together.”
Stronger Smarter in the classroom
Aitkenvale State School in North Queensland has a vibrant and diverse school community where approximately 30% of students speak one or more languages other than English. There are representative cultural groups from around the world, including Somalia, Burma and the Congo. Of the
465 students, 25% are from a refugee or migrant background and a further 22% are Indigenous Australian. Judd says there were two barriers to learning in the classroom: behaviour and the percentage of students with English as a second language.
Judd says that a result of working with staff is that they are now thinking more about the impact they can have with students and what is happening with student learning. They have already seen a dramatic improvement in behaviour. Judd says this is a result of talking to the students about Stronger Smarter, providing clear and consistent messages about what they expect the school to look like, and staff developing High-Expectations Relationships with each other and with students. “Expectations around student behaviour here were fairly poor, ”Judd says. “When I got the teachers to send the high expectations message to the kids, I noticed a massive swing with behaviour and expectations of the learning as well. We’ve had a 60 to 70 percent reduction in suspensions from Term 2 to Term 4 simply because the high expectations with behaviour and how teachers conduct themselves in class and with each other, and their communication with each other … that’s transferred over into the kids. So it’s a clear and consistent message that we’ve all got a right to be here and be respected but we’ve also got high expectations with our behaviour and expectations about what our school looks like and how we operate and who we are as an educational entity.”
Judd says addressing behaviour and providing separate intensive language sessions for the ESL students has allowed classroom teachers to focus on their job. This is producing some immediate improvements in academic results. “Because we’ve made those changes, the teachers expectations now are ‘we can do this’. The behaviour barrier is gone and the refugee barrier is gone, and they can do some really cool stuff, some really strong and smart stuff and we’ve seen amazing results in reading already,” Judd says. The staffroom at Aitkenvale features a ‘data wall’ with reading results for each student, and this internal data is already showing improvements. Judd says the NAPLAN results still need to improve, but believes that “in 18 months or two years we will be where we really want to be”.
Judd says the Stronger Smarter philosophy and approach is weaving itself into their school culture. Both Jason and Judd wear Stronger Smarter shirts to school everyday and the Stronger Smarter eagle is displayed outside the school. “I have a big digital sign outside the school and the Stronger Smarter emblem is out there at the front. It flashes across 10 hours a day,” Judd says. “People ask me ‘what’s Stronger Smarter?’ It’s got the community onside because they ask about the sign outside and we tell them a bit about what we’re doing here.”
Twenty most powerful questions
After participating in the Stronger Smarter Leadership program Judd lead a process based on the Stronger Smarter approach Judd calls ‘The 20 most powerful questions.’ He started this process with a workshop that looked at the school’s culture, where staff collaboratively built a list of things that would help cultural change within the school. One of the priorities was around getting to know the kids better in the classroom. Judd set up a yarning circle where teachers developed questions they might ask their students every day that would help in knowing the children better and developing individual learning plans. Then they picked the 20 most powerful questions, and that became the framework which is displayed on the wall underneath the Stronger Smarter philosophy.
Each teacher was expected to ask their students one of these questions each day over 4 weeks. Teachers could choose their own journey and pick questions that most suited the context of the day. By asking the questions within the safe, supportive environment of a classroom yarning circle, all students were able to answer each question. Questions such as ‘what’s in your lunch box today?’ or ‘where did you sleep last night?’ allowed the teacher to start to build a picture of each child. Teachers then shared this information with each other in reflective sessions. Judd says, “The feedback we got from that was incredible. They shared the stories, they shared some of the different comments, things they didn’t know about kids.”
The whole process resulted in a shift of behaviour for teachers, and a change of culture. Staff now feel more open to having staff room discussions to seek support when they are finding difficulties with a situation in the classroom. Teachers have become more reflective in the classroom as they think more deeply about the underlying causes of student behaviour, and reasons why a child might not be progressing academically. This has helped raise teachers’ expectations of students, which in turn has helped with ideas about how to raise academic and attendance levels.
Judd says the success comes from a collaborative process where all staff had ownership. It became a powerful experience for all involved, and improved relationships and connectivity between the staff. “I just think it opened up a whole different world to where our school was, and we travelled a long way. I know 20 days doesn’t sound like a lot but we travelled a long way,” he says. 20 MPQ will be revisited in all classroom at Aitkenvale in 2015.
The Younger Stronger Smarter Program
Now that staff have been undertaking Stronger Smarter activities, some of them have said, “How great would it be to share this with the kids?” Judd says Stronger Smarter has created something special in the staff and he now wants to deliver a program to the kids to try to get the same change. So Judd and Jason are developing a Younger Stronger Smarter Program, based on ideas from the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program, and focused on student attendance and engagement. “We’ve driven all our programs and our targeting around data. What we’ve got now and what we need to change for the future. And attendance is probably the big thing. Get those kids here and they will learn, there’s no doubt about that. We need to engage them.”
Jason, who will be employed as the school’s Mobility and Transition Officer for Indigenous students in 2015, will run the program. Over ten weeks, ten students will participate in a series of 2½ hour sessions centred on building culture with each other and finding out who they are as individuals. Judd is inviting community members and sports stars to get involved. “They’ll be in different places around town doing different team building activities, and every session will start with a yarning circle,” Judd says. His aim is that participants will know ‘that it’s strong, smart and deadly to have high expectations, to be proud of who they are and know that they’re smart.” When they complete the program, students will receive hats and shirts at a celebration ceremony with families, which they can then wear to school. Judd hopes students will be proud to be “part of a special group that has gone through some pretty awesome stuff to get through to the end”, and that this will translate to greater engagement at school.
High Expectations Relationships
High Expectations Relationships are central to the Stronger Smarter approach at Aitkenvale State School. Judd says that part of building a High-Expectations Relationship in the classroom is knowing more about the students and understanding what is going on in their lives outside the school, as well as ensuring parents know what is going on in the school. “High expectations to me is transparency with school and community,” Judd says. “That parents and the wider community know exactly what’s going on in our school, know exactly what we’ve got to offer, know exactly how to be a part of it and how to join us. That we don’t settle for second best in our school… If you go to our school, you’ll learn. It’s about not working from the deficit model. It’s about empowering those kids who need guidance and knowing the answer is not for me to give handouts, but to give hand ups.” The relationship is twofold. Judd says, “I expect support, belief and trust from the community. I expect the same of my teachers and I expect the teachers to expect the same of me. And I expect the teachers to deliver that trust, care and support to the kids.”
As part of the journey, the school has been unpacking what Stronger Smarter means for them. Judd says, “It’s about having expectations of one another with trust, integrity and dignity, and knowing that performance is important but we can do it in a way that doesn’t belittle or degrade anyone’s opinions or values – it embraces them.” There is still a way to go, and the journey will be ongoing as staff come and go from the school. Judd wants the school to be seen as the hub of the community, and wants academic results to rise. “The journey along the way is going to be fantastic,” he says. “It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to involve a lot of people, and it’s going to be an eye opener for our school.”
Once they’ve worked through the ‘dilly bag’ suite of activities this year, Judd says they’ll still keep their Stronger Smarter staff meetings going twice a term “to keep the fire of Stronger Smarter going”. They have also used the Stronger Smarter yarning circle for the Quadrennial School Review (QSR) process. This brings stakeholders from all parts of the community, including the local member for parliament, to work together to build the strategic direction for the school within boundaries and with high expectation.
The Stronger Smarter initiative will be ingrained in their strategic plan. Judd describes Stronger Smarter as “elegant, powerful and humbling”. He says, “It’s been a really empowering and groundbreaking process for our school. It’s built integrity, it’s built spirit and it’s built a belief within teachers that working together and having high expectations… well I know it has lifted the performance across the school. Aitkenvale is Strong and Smart.”