Sam Saunders
School of Special Educational Needs

‘Most of the schools up here are Stronger Smarter schools so we all come from a common place and we all endorse those practices and high expectation leadership.’ Sam Saunders, Teacher Engagement

Sam Saunders is a consultant teacher for the School of Special Educational Needs: Behaviour and Engagement based in Broome and works with schools across the Kimberley region.  Sam says she is in her 14th year of teaching.  I started working in the South West of Western Australia,” she says.  “About five years ago I moved to the Kimberley, where I taught in remote Aboriginal communities for four years. I was at Bidyadanga as a classroom teacher, then I moved out to Fitzroy Valley for a couple of years and now I’ve moved back to Broome. 

Sam’s role involves working with government schools across the Kimberley, supporting teachers with students with challenging behaviour While she is employed as teacher, Sam says it is really a leadership role.  “Typically, we get requests for assistance for one of three reasons,” Sam says.  “Most of what we do is working with teachers to support individual students with challenging behaviours to develop an individual behaviour plan. We can also work with teacherscoaching them around effective classroom practice and behaviour management. Then we also deliver professional learning on all aspects of behaviour. 

Stronger Smarter Leadership Program 

Sam undertook the SSLP in 2016 on recommendation from colleagues.  “It’s a big priority up here. Everyone said it’s such an amazing program. You learn so much about yourself, and interactions with others and the effects that has on leadership, school management and outcomes for children.”  Sam describes how the program facilitators built safety and trust in the group in a short amount of time.  “Even though we all bring so much diversity and different values to the groupyou all feel like you start from a common ground, wanting the same outcomes, which is improved educational outcomes for children. That really resonated with me. 

The Stronger Smarter Approach 

Sam was at Fitzroy Valley District High School when she undertook the SSLP.  Sam was working with students with challenging behaviours, resulting from intergenerational trauma and FASD. The school deals with transient attendance depending on the season with people moving in and out of town depending on the weather.  “We have the wet and dry seasons,” Sam says. “The Fitzroy Valley has the massive Fitzroy river running through it. That goes into flood at various points and people move into town from the outlying communities and then they get stuck in town. When it dries up, they go back out to communities.”   

Sam says that after attending the SSLP, she worked with the school to change the conversation to a strength-based process to ensure all staff were on board with their processes as a Positive Behaviour Support school.  We had to really revamp and reinvigorate the process,” she says. “I changed the conversation to come from a strength-based perspective to look at all the things that were working well in the school. This involved sharing successes from other schools and empowering the team leader of the Positive Behaviour Support team – giving her strategies to have robust, dynamic conversations around the issue, not turning to deficit talk, but allowing everyone to air their concerns and then looking at some strength-based practices that they could use to get some quick successes. 

Sam says this process gave the team momentum to move forward. Using the facilitative leadership cycle enabled those really quite robust and dynamic conversations. I don’t think I would have been able to have some of those challenging conversations without having that Stronger Smarter foundation,” Sam says.  “I think it sped up the process because we all had a shared understanding and had those respectful relationships as our starting pointSo, I think that while we probably still would have had some good outcomes, the SSLP enabled that to happen a lot more quickly and probably more respectfully as well. That was the biggest change for me.” 

Sam says the Stronger Smarter Approach can help when working with students with challenging behaviours.  “A lot of schools use check-in/check-out with the staff and students on a daily basis,” Sam says. They also use a similar check in/check out process when working with individual students to give more structure around their support. Sam says this process fits beautifully with Stronger Smarter.  “It is a more formalised way of them coming in to meet with somebody in the morning, check how they’re going, make sure they’ve got everything they need for the school day and make sure that they’re traveling okay,” Sam says. “That coordinator links them in with their classroom teacher and then the student checks-in regularly with their teacher throughout the day. If it starts to get a bit wobbly they can always go and speak with their mentor or person that they have identified they trust and want to talk with.  Before they go home, they check-out as well and they do a bit of a reflection of the day – the good things, the not so good things, areas for improvement and what changes they want to make the following day.” 

A common language 

Sam explains that now, in her current position, the Stronger Smarter Approach provides a common language and understanding of the Stronger Smarter Metastrategies across the schools in the Kimberley.  She says a number of schools use the Stronger Smarter Approach to cultural action planning, looking at ensuring a strong foundation of values and understanding how the group works together to support the pillars of a deadly school. “Most of the schools up here are Stronger Smarter schools,” she says, “so we all come from a common place and we all endorse those practices and high expectation leadership.  

Sam says that the Stronger Smarter Approach helps in reflecting on situations and planning future improvements. “You can use the Metastrategies and high-expectations relationships to move forward looking at all the strengths to come up with plans to support the staff,” she says.  “You can use structured yarning circles and talk about the pillars of a deadly school and cultural action plans as the means to facilitate those discussions as to how we’re going to change school systems to have better outcomes for kids. I think it gives us that common playing ground, if you like, to have those discussions where everyone’s on the same page.”