‘When I did Stronger Smarter and read Chris Sarra’s book, I felt like it really changed my life. I suddenly said “no, I’m not going to dumb down the curriculum. These kids are so smart I need to change my approach.’ Evelyn Allard
Evelyn Allard was a teacher at Lockhart State School in Queensland when she undertook the SSLP1. In this interview she talks about her experience with the SSLP and how the ideas were implemented at Lockhart.
Evelyn says that Lockhart River is not an easy work environment, and the town is essentially shut off from the world during the wet season. When the roads are open, it is an 11-hour drive to Cairns. In such a situation, a strong, positive, collaborative work environment is essential. Evelyn describes how the team building exercises from Stronger Smarter resulted in a very positive, strength-based, collegiate work environment. She summarises that the success at Lockhart was down to building relationships as a necessary foundation before the school can focus on literacy and numeracy. “We work together and once you’ve got that, then we build on everything else,” she says. As a result of that philosophy, she says the school was a lot more cohesive and enjoyable to work at and the well-being of the students was at front and centre. “If your focus is on the reading or the data, then the well-being and the relationships are lost,” she says. “Then none of the reading data really matters because you’re not going to get to teach reading if you haven’t got the relationship.”
In her own classroom, she saw the impact on academic outcomes from implementing high expectations and building relationships. Evelyn suggests that the SSLP is an important professional development for teachers coming into remote communities who might lack confidence in building relationships. “It’s breaking down assumptions, teaching that we’ve all got values and that these are tools you can use to build a relationship with someone who’s very different to you,” she says. “The Stronger Smarter training really gives people confidence and more understanding around these fears. As a result, you can teach better.”
Building a collegiate environment
Evelyn attended the SSLP in Cairns together with Special Education Teacher Jess Asquith. Evelyn says they were supported by a Principal who had a strong collaborative leadership style. “There was no real hierarchy,” Evelyn says. “Her entire philosophy was to build relationships. We work together and once you’ve got that, then we build on everything else.”
The Principal had previously organised an in-school Stronger Smarter professional development. Evelyn says, “Everyone joined in – local or not local. If you worked at the school, you were expected to be there.” As a result, staff already had some understanding of the Stronger Smarter Approach and Evelyn and Jess were able to work with them to extend the training.
They started this work on the day after they returned from the SSLP with an hour-long presentation to staff. This continued with a 30-minute activity every second Tuesday. “Our principal gave us the freedom to implement what we had learnt at the SSLP,” Evelyn says. “I think everyone could see the value in it. Other people started bouncing around ideas from those few small activities we did.” Evelyn says it flowed through to the classroom, with staff using the activities as icebreakers with the students to build relationships.
They took staff through the AusIDentities2 activity (that characterises personality types as Australian animals) and that helped them understand each other better. “All off a sudden instead of getting angry at each other, we were able to say, ‘oh, she’s a wombat of course, that’s why she’s doing that’. You could have a little smile and just move on,” she says. Evelyn says this helped move the staff into a positive, strength-based space. “It was like a weight was lifted,” she says. “I felt like the whole place was so much easier to be around. It was just a good work environment.”
This allowed the activities from the SSLP to occur in a collaborative, circular framework. “We were all a real team. And when I say all of us, I mean everyone, Indigenous staff as well. We all were as important as each other. We worked with each other’s strengths, regardless of job title. It was very collaborative, and I think that’s why the training worked really well because everyone was able to voice their opinions. I really do think having those little activities definitely helped the staff be really strong. And when the staff were really strong, I feel the school was stronger in general.”
The positive thinking and high expectations extended to the classrooms with some staff running check-ins in classrooms. Evelyn says another simple activity that had a high impact was implementing an acknowledgement to country every morning. “We had a parade every morning and would do a whole school check in. We’d all sit down for 30 minutes. We had a rotating roster and the kids would get up and do an acknowledgement,” she says. “At the beginning they were really nervous and even mispronouncing some of the words that they weren’t used to using. By the end of the time I was there, they were getting up so confidently on the parades every morning.”
In her own classroom, Evelyn saw the results of high expectations. She says the SSLP and Chris Sarra’s book had a personal impact on her view of high expectations. “I felt like it really changed my life,” she says. “I suddenly said, ‘no, I’m not going to dumb down the curriculum. These kids are so smart. I need to change my approach’. ” Evelyn taught the same cohort throughout her three years at Lockhart. “I did all those relationship building exercises,” Evelyn says. “The physical things, like doing the check ins and yarning circles made a real difference. I tried to teach them about having high expectations: ‘you can get to school today and do all this work with no complaining’. And they did! It’s as if no one had ever thought they could do it before. They were so used to people just saying, ‘oh you can’t do that? All right, we’ll just colour in or just watch a movie’.”
Evelyn says the success of this approach is shown in the successful outcomes for the cohort she taught. “The group that I taught is now one of the most successful Cape York cohorts. 90% of my year 6 students were enrolled into secondary school while I was there, and the majority are still in high school”, she says. “A group of about 20 kids are nearly all about to graduate grade 10 this year. I can’t believe it.’
She says that someone from the boarding school interviewed her to ask what she had done with the students to see this level of success. Evelyn describes that it was the Stronger Smarter Approach of high expectations that she believes made the difference. “I do think it was all because of having high expectations and actually believing that they can do it. It’s taking the time to build those relationships and valuing the students and learning about them that makes you realise they actually can do it,” Evelyn says. “It was believing that the kids could succeed… because they could, and they are.”