Four school leaders in northern NSW describe how they have used strategies from the Stronger Smarter Specialists Program to deepen their understandings and skills to work with staff to build a culture of high expectations across their schools.

Stronger Smarter facilitator Damian Bisogni has been talking to some of his colleagues in Ballina about how they are using the Stronger Smarter Approach in their schools.  Damian says, “I wanted to catch up with some of our alumni who I’ve had a long association with.  Sharon, Danny, Aaron and Greg all began their Stronger Smarter journey with me, first with the Online Module.  Then we all went on to complete both the Leadership and Specialist programs.  We all work in different spaces now, and I wanted to find out what everyone has been doing.”  

An environment for learning

Danny Henman, the Principal of Southern Cross School of Distance Education, describes how important it is to create environments and cultures where all students have the best opportunities to learn.  Deputy Principal, Sharon Hodgson describes how this needs to be a strength-based process that is “intrinsically part of the way we do business as an educational facility rather than something that we’re doing over here as a goal.”  

At Mullumbimby High School, Principal Greg Armstrong says the focus has been to provide a learning space where all students feel empowered to succeed. “Checking in on them, their engagement, are they hungry to learn? Fire in their belly? The terminology that we learned at Stronger Smarter,” Greg says.  At Ballina Coast High School, Aaron McDonald says one of the reasons he wanted to take on the role of the Deputy Principal was to make a difference to the students.  “Whether it be Aboriginal or Non-aboriginal kids, I want to get them to where they should be,” he says.

A way forward for all students

At Southern Cross School of Distance Education, where some students have already been through the juvenile justice system, Danny Henman sees their schooling as their last chance for a different future. “I refuse to let them down,” Danny says. “We are picking up students that have really failed in every other environment, kids we were told were un-teachable and we need to find a way forward for all of them.” Danny says they are already seeing the results.  “We are seeing kids really achieving where they haven’t in any other environments. These kids are not only achieving the HSC but they’re going on to apprenticeships and traineeships, to Uni and into TAFE further education.”

High-Expectations Relationships

Building these learning environments where all students feel valued and safe and can trust that their teachers will be there for them, supporting them every day, means building High-Expectations Relationships with students, parents and the community. Aaron McDonald explains how these ideas of developing better relationships with students are highlighted in the Stronger Smarter training. “The thing that has resonated with me throughout my journey is the concept of changing the way you think as a teacher or deputy and the processes of trying to develop better relationships with the kids.”  Greg Armstrong explains that this is where the Stronger Smarter Specialists program has helped.  “It takes time to build that trust in that relationship, but that’s what Stronger Smarter has given me – the tools in the Dilly bag to be able to do this genuinely and authentically.” 

Danny Henman says Stronger Smarter strategies have supported their approach to looking after student welfare while also ensuring they support students’ educational pathways beyond school to work and further study. “Those high expectation relationships are so important. We will cut right back to building rapport and relationships with the student and the family so that we can start the learning process. Within that environment everybody can learn. These strategies put a focus on what’s required to get from point A to point B and then more importantly from point B to point C. These strategies really underpin everything we need to do to ensure that we’re taking them all the way.”

A shared school focus

At all three schools, building supportive learning environments for all students means all staff working together in the same direction. Aaron says the Specialists Program gave him the in-depth knowledge to bring back into the school to create a consistent Stronger Smarter Approach.  This was particularly important when two schools amalgamated.   Aaron was able to run sessions during staff development days using simple Stronger Smarter processes. Aaron says he has seen the difference in the relationship building, both for himself and other teachers in the school. “I see in our school on a daily basis, teachers checking in and checking out with kids. I see kids walking and talking.”

At Southern Cross School of Distance Education, Danny says the Stronger Smarter Specialists programs reinforced what they were doing in the school and why it was important. “It’s given me more direction and allowed me to really embed that within our school plan, our school leadership and management direction. We are exploring all of that to create an understanding across the entire school community as to why what we do is important. It’s our school focus and direction.”

Deputy Principal, Sharon Hodgson, describes how she wanted to be able to take the strategies from the Stronger Smarter Specialists Program back to the school. “The trusting in the space and the power of the facilitators – their incredible ability to hold that space for the participants – was something that really struck me,” she says.  She is now trying to build the same safe and trusting space for staff.  “So, we are encouraging people to express opinions rather than just sit there not say anything. Setting up that scenario where we avoid judgement and it’s about building up an understanding of everyone’s viewpoints.“

Sharon Hodgson explains how they have been unpacking with staff that you can’t have high expectations unless you have the high expectations relationships. “It’s probably taken us 12 months around getting everyone’s head around that,” she says. They then aligned this to departmental documents to understand the correlation between high expectations and High-Expectations relationships. The result was a school statement called “Agreed to principles – high expectations’. “So, we’ve got a common understanding amongst our staff,” Sharon says.

The Stronger Smarter Specialists Program

Danny, Greg, Sharon and Aaron all describe how the Stronger Smarter Approach and the strategies they learnt through the Stronger Smarter Specialists Program have played a significant part in building a school culture of high expectations.  Sharon describes how this starts with personal self-awareness. “The knowledge, skills and self-awareness you get from the Stronger Smarter training opens you up and encourages you to keep building your own awareness and confronting things within yourself  and others,” she says.  For Greg it is about making sure he is authentic.  “Not being someone who’s giving people lip service. It’s making the time, making people feel safe. I think that’s what Stronger Smarter is always about.”  For Aaron, his Stronger Smarter training has also influenced his career decisions. “I suppose I thank Stronger Smarter for getting me where I am today. If it wasn’t for changing my thought pattern of what I wanted to do I probably wouldn’t be a deputy.”   

As Danny Henman describes, this then leads on to using the Stronger Smarter strategies to bring consistent messages to staff and setting a culture for the school where staff are moving in the same direction and all students are achieving the results they’re capable of.  “What you do. Why you do it. How you do it.  We are exploring all of that to create an understanding across the entire school community as to why what we do is important. It’s school focus and direction,” he says.  “Stronger Smarter labelled everything for me, so I know what I’m looking at. What I want is for everybody to be on the same page and have those levels of consistency.”