We’re really proud to be a Stronger Smarter school… The community ask us ‘what’s that eagle shirt you wear? Tell us about that’…they all know the eagle.

Wendy King, Assistant Principal, Casino Public School

Wendy’s story is told in collaboration with University of Queensland Social Science researcher Madeleine McGovern

This is an edited version of Madeleine’s interview.

I spoke to Wendy, the Assistant Principal at Casino Public School, late in the afternoon, after she had returned from Sydney where she was facilitating workshops for the Stronger Smarter Institute. Wendy says before she undertook the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program, she didn’t really know what the program was about.  “I didn’t actually realise that it was more of a personal journey that we were going to go on…. So it actually took two days into the first phase of the program for me to realise that it was more about me and the personal journey, before I then lead my school to go on this journey.”

Wendy told me the Leadership Program was something she knew was going to change her life and the way she lead within the school. She knew she was already doing a lot of things right, but the Leadership Program, “was going to change the way I taught, the way I lead, the way I was with people. It really helped clarify some of those areas that I personally found difficult.”

Upon returning to her school, she knew it wasn’t the usual professional development where you would return and say, “‘I went to this, this is what it’s about, I’ll put a PowerPoint presentation together.’ I came back to the school and knew it was how I was going to be”.

The principal and deputy principal at Casino Public School had also completed the leadership program with her, and when Wendy also moved to Casino Public, she felt she was in the right place to make a change.  “I just had this egg, this golden egg and I knew I was at the right place at the right time… So the three of us ended up in the one school, and all in executive positions. We just knew we had to put time, precious time, into how we were going to make this the best that we could in our school. And it was really little baby steps.”

Working with staff

they could see the changes in the other teachers, you could see the changes in the kids

Wendy said the main strategies she used with staff members were meetings in ‘Yarning circles’, where “everyone had their turn to speak. We really thought it through, and we started doing things differently, started running our staff meetings in a circle, started using a little bit of the language of perceptual positioning, and started using a few of the values of Stronger Smarter in our language.”

I discussed with Wendy what happened in the school after they had introduced the Stronger Smarter language and values. She said that there was a lot of hype surrounding the program, with a lot of the teachers showing interest to attend.  “I think the baby steps we took in implementing the processes… it became this… infectious thing and everybody wanted a piece of it.  And when the next Stronger Smarter Leadership training came up, the teachers were jumping at the chance to be trained.” Because the school had so many staff members interested in the program, Wendy says “…they could see the changes in the other teachers, you could see the changes in the kids”,

Wendy was involved in co-writing a facilitated version of the Stronger Smarter online module that she trialled at her school.  “I was doing that in small groups, after school once a week every Thursday afternoon facilitating eight teachers at a time. So we did lots of the activities that we do in the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program in a lovely little group of eight. And those guys just got so much out of it. And a lot of the ones who did the online modules have done a lot in the school with Stronger Smarter skills.”

I asked her if she had noticed that there were any strategies that were difficult to implement after having conversations with her staff. She explained that because a majority of the staff had completed the training, it was an embedded part of their school. However, she said that “slipping into old habits” was the biggest challenge.  “… We get to our stage meeting and we’ll sit together and we’ll check in and see what’s going on for each other, and if you see someone’s hitting a bit of a low, then we pull together to bring them back up and try and help them get back up to where they were. I think that would be the biggest challenge, is slipping back into old habits. I’m not saying old habits are bad habits, but old habits that brought them down, where they come to that brick wall and they don’t know what to do.”

The Stronger Smarter Leadership Program has not only created visible change within students, but within the staff and the school.  “It’s a whole school cultural change… our enrolments are going through the roof, we’re having to get new buildings brought into the school, because we’ve got a really great name in the community. And it’s not just about the programs that we’re teaching the kids and the curriculum, it’s about how we are together as a team, and how we are with the community.”

Stronger Smarter across the School

The community ask us ‘what’s that eagle shirt you wear? Tell us about that’…they all know the eagle.

The values and language of Stronger Smarter are embedded in the school philosophy and are visible in many ways. Wendy told me that they have a ‘Stronger Smarter award’, awarded to a student who has reflected the Stronger Smarter values. This is a special award, and the teacher will, “tell a story about why that child gets that award with the Stronger Smarter values. So it might be ‘somebody had the courage to stand up for themselves today’, or ‘someone really challenged themselves today, I can see them honouring what was going on in their classroom and they decided to really change their behaviour, and did really good work’.”

The school has also got a Stronger Smarter mascot – an eagle. Wendy said the kids love it.  “The little tiny kids love cuddling him because he’s all soft and fluffy, the older kids high-five him… he’s just a part of our school.” The teachers wear their Stronger Smarter shirts with pride, she said, “we’re really proud to be a Stronger Smarter school… The community ask us ‘what’s that eagle shirt you wear? Tell us about that’…they all know the eagle.”

Although Wendy isn’t in the classroom, she keeps updated with what Stronger Smarter strategies the teachers are using. The most used strategy is ‘checking-in’ with the students every morning and asking how they are. The school has been designed to facilitate these strategies, with a lot of spaces facilitating a circle dynamic.  “Every classroom starts their morning with a check-in, every single one. And we check out… we don’t check out every day, because sometimes doing that every day is a bit difficult, but we try as much as we possibly can. At the end of every week, every class in the school will sit in a circle and reflect on their week, and talk about how the kids work together, and how we want to be better the following week.”

High-Expectations Relationships

You ‘buy in’ to your relationships and build up the trust. So when it gets to the point where you have to have a more difficult conversation, you’ve got the trust built there

I asked Wendy what high-expectation relationships and strength-based conversations meant to her:    “You ‘buy in’ to your relationships and build up the trust. So when it gets to the point where you have to have a more difficult conversation, you’ve got the trust built there, ‘I’m here, this is genuine’, so when it gets to a harder conversation I’m going to be in the best place to have it, and they’re going to be in a better place to receive it, or vice-versa if they have to have that with me. I think strength-based conversations are keeping it positive, looking for the good, and where you can go. ‘We’re not saying forget about stuff that’s happened, but what we’re saying is, where can we go to from here?’  If something happens it’s about responding with possibility, not with defensiveness. Problems happen all the time at school. Conflict happens, but what’s my next step? Am I going to listen to that person? Am I going to respond defensively?”

Wendy said the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program gave her the strength to engage in difficult conversations.  “You know when you hear deficit language conversations and low expectations in the staffroom or the community, you actually step up and challenge somebody on that. But not in an aggressive way, in a way where you genuinely want to know where that’s coming from, and how can I maybe help that person get to a better place in their thinking.”

As the Assistant Principal, Wendy has these conversations with both staff and students. With staff, Wendy says she sits down with teachers who are expressing concern with students and offers solutions to deal with that situation. She expressed that it’s the way you have the conversation, not “making the teacher feel like they’re doing anything wrong, it’s more about opening up”. She gave an example of one of these conversations.  “…I listen to what they [the teacher] says and I say ‘Okay. What are you doing to help them to start off with?’ and they say what they’ve done, and I say ‘why don’t we have a look at it a different way. How do you think they want to learn… what kind of learner are they? Did you check in with them this morning, have they brought in any baggage from home that you may be able to work through with them?’ And I just sort of put it on the teacher… let’s have a look at what you’re doing… It’s not a one size fits all… It’s about differentiating your teaching strategies, and just opening them up to some new ideas.”

Wendy holds a ‘planning room’ at lunchtime at her school, where she engages in High-Expectations Relationships with students on a daily basis. The students that attend planning room have been misbehaving, and she sits and has conversations with them, with the most important step being “buying in’ to the relationship”. She says these relationships are extremely important for resolving issues now and for challenging conversations in the future.

She gives one example, “… We have a High-Expectation Relationship now where I can talk to him [student] about things where he just doesn’t blow up and give it back at me and run out of the classroom. He knows I’m genuine, that I’m going to sit there and have a conversation with him, and that I won’t raise my voice, that I’m actually going give it all into my relationship with him. And then when I’m honest with him, he gives me honesty back and we just have a really nice place between the two of us.”

Stronger Smarter across the Community

Seeing it through a different lens now after Stronger Smarter.

Wendy told me that she and a fellow staff member wrote a community program together to branch the values of Stronger Smarter into the community. This involved “key community members from lots of different areas who really wanted to see a change in education at the school”. Although Wendy has always been involved with the community, and is still doing the same things she’s always done, she is “seeing it through a different lens now after Stronger Smarter. And it’s just made me feel better about the way I do things.” She has seen positive change after involving the community with the school.  “After doing that we had lots of community members coming into the school, instead of us chasing them to do some stuff for the kids… community members would come in, Uncle Charles would drive in on his motorised scooter with his dog… the community program really brought a lot of people wanting to come in and share their stuff with us instead of us only doing something in NAIDOC week. It was a really lovely change that we saw in the community.”

As well as creating the community program, Wendy makes a conscious effort to retain strong relationships with people within the community, “have a yarn” with them. She said she had a conversation about Stronger Smarter with an Aboriginal elder:  “… We were talking about Stronger Smarter, and she said to me ‘it’s not just lip service is it Wendy?’ and I said “what do you mean?” and she said “a lot of teachers at school they’ll come and they’ll wave and say hello and be really nice, and if I saw them down the street they’d turn the other way”. And she said “I know Stronger Smarter’s working in the school when I can go downtown and a teacher will walk up to me and actually want to have a conversation with me, or sit down and have a cuppa with me’.”  She said this conversation “really hit home”. It has made her take the time and effort to build quality relationships within the community, saying: “… it’s not how many times you say hello and wave and smile, and it’s about the quality of the relationship that you have with them.”

Wendy hopes that Stronger Smarter continues in the school, and within everything they do, even after this cohort of teachers has moved on.  “My vision is for it to be something so embedded that it doesn’t matter who comes and goes, it’s just going to be here all the time… just be a Stronger Smarter school. And the community will know it, the kids will be it, the staff will just naturally be it.  We’re all going to be good role models with the kids… be great leaders, and be the best that we can be, because that’s my classroom motto over the years, is being the best that we can be. And if we’re doing that, then we’re going to see the changes that we want to see.”