“You’ll be successful in any context if you can build strong relationships from the get go. For me Stronger Smarter has been all about being able to connect with a diverse range of people and building relationships with those people regardless of their cultural background”
Dave Hartley, Deputy Principal, Coomera Springs State School
Dave Hartley is a Barunggam man with ancestral ties to Chinchilla in South-West Queensland. Dave attended the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program in 2015 on a scholarship from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principals’ Association provided by MATSITI.
Dave Hartley says that after attending the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program in 2015 he realised it was time for him to really turn his high expectations rhetoric into action. Indigenous student numbers at Coomera Springs State School where Dave is Deputy Principal are low – only 3% of the total school enrolment. Dave says their Indigenous identity just wasn’t on the radar. He decided ‘high expectations’ for him meant lifting the profile of these Indigenous students and their families to give them a voice in the school. And so the idea of the Jarjums Club was born.
Dave started by talking to the parents of the Indigenous children in the school to find out what they wanted and what they expected from him. “I used the skills I developed with Stronger Smarter in terms of structuring our initial meeting within a Yarning Circle, introducing ourselves, checking in, talking about our backgrounds,” he says. “The diversity of our parents and our community just amazed me. We had parents from the communities on the central coast and northern NSW, we had parents from Torres Strait, parents from the Kimberley. It opened my eyes to the opportunities that our school had gone without for so long, so I really wanted to give those kids and those parents a presence.”
These initial meetings helped Dave determine how to set up the Jarjums Club. “It all came down to culture,” he says. “Our parents wanted their kids to be able to identify in a positive way, they wanted their kids to learn artwork, dance and song, and so I thought that was a beautiful starting point.” The Jarjums Club is still in the early stages. They have run a couple of painting workshops and are working on plans for 2016 where a local elder will teach the kids some song and dance.
“Let’s start looking at our diversity and let’s start looking at the differences in our school community and celebrate those differences too”
Initially, the Club has targeted the Indigenous students. But Dave wants to be clear to the school that this is not about Indigenous students getting extra support because they’re Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, but it’s about celebrating diversity. He says the program is boosting self-esteem and building pride in both students and their families by identifying them as valued members of the school community with a culture worth celebrating. In the long term he believes this will lead to improved academic results for these students as well.
Celebrating diversity and understanding of culture is important for the non-Indigenous kids too. Dave says, “It’s just as important for the other students to know that they do have friends who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and this is something we need to celebrate.” Gradually they will integrate non-Indigenous students into the Club, starting at the next meeting, where each Indigenous student will be asked to bring one of their non-Indigenous friends along. Dave says, “Let’s start looking at our diversity and let’s start looking at the differences in our school community and celebrate those differences too.”
A whole school approach – embedding Indigenous culture
“Part of my role is facilitating conversations and putting people in touch with the right organisations or individuals”
Another positive from this project is that the whole school is becoming more involved in learning about local Indigenous cultures and embedding this into their teaching. One of their senior teachers will help Dave lead the project next year, linking the work into her personal development plan.
When Dave sent around an email asking the teaching staff if they’d like to be involved with the Jarjums’ Club, he got a very positive response, and it opened up the conversations around staff knowledge and confidence. Some staff asked if it was alright for them to be involved when they are not Indigenous, and Dave says he told them “Absolutely, it’s really important that you become involved and share your knowledge and your passion with these kids as well.”
Dave says, “Staff were very straight up in saying they weren’t that confident in the delivery of Indigenous perspectives or they didn’t have a lot of knowledge around culture and they wanted to improve their knowledge.” He says teachers are very respectful in terms of asking for guidance and not telling stories they’re not able to tell or delivering the wrong type of information.
It is a balance between seeking guidance when needed but also for teachers to develop their own knowledge and confidence. Dave says staff come to him for advice, but he’s clear that he doesn’t have all the knowledge and it is important to develop teacher capacity as well. He takes a role in putting staff in touch with the people who do have local knowledge such as the Yugambeh museum. “So part of my role is facilitating those conversations and putting people in touch with the right organisations or individuals,” he says
The school as a whole is taking more time to embed Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum. “For example we had our Year 2 teachers get in touch with me a couple of months back”, Dave says. “They were looking at a story telling unit and wanted to know if there was an elder that would come in and tell them some dreamtime stories.” Dave contacted Uncle Graham Dillon who came out to the school and told the Year 2’s a story about Mibunn the eagle. “The teachers just loved having him out because it was something they didn’t feel confident in doing, but at the same time, I’ve had to say to them you’re not always going to be able to have an elder come out and some of this confidence you need to develop,” Dave says.
Another way to lift the Indigenous identity in the school has been through acknowledgements to country. Dave says, “I think we run the risk of when we do an acknowledgement to country, it just becomes a token thing that we say before an event. So at our larger events, we talk about the Yugambeh people, we talk about the language, we talk about what the land looked like before white settlement.”
A personal leadership journey
“Where Stronger Smarter comes strongly into play for me is in my professional interactions with my staff”
Dave says that if he can lead by example, this will contribute to success in the school. “It’s all about relationships for me, and it’s about leading by example as well. If people see I’m taking the time to value others and to put 100% into what I do, well I know we’ll have success as an entire school,” he says.
Dave developed his passion for school leadership back in 2009 when his role as a numeracy coach teaching other teachers about maths pedagogy gave him a ‘burning hunger’ to use the skills he was developing in a leadership position in a school. This led to an Acting Deputy Principal position at Waterford West State School in Logan, and then to a permanent Deputy Principal positon at Woodridge North State School before his current posting at Coomera Springs.
Dave says the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program has helped support this personal leadership journey. “The program is extremely holistic in its approach and I’m not only seeing a benefit of how it’s helping me at school but also how it’s helping me personally. The Program has been particularly useful for Dave this year to support building relationships with staff in a new setting where he didn’t know the teaching team. In the school setting there can be challenging conversations to talk about how perceptions of students might be based more on teacher beliefs rather than based in fact, and how these beliefs might impact on curriculum delivery or teacher-student interactions. Dave says, “Where Stronger Smarter comes strongly into play for me is in my professional interactions with my staff and especially in the challenging conversation I have to have’
Dave says Stronger Smarter has also been about having high expectations of himself. “When you talk about high expectations, it’s not just high expectations of others, it’s also of ourselves. So making sure I’m accountable for every program or initiative I put in place and seeing it through is something that I’ve taken a lot of pride in and probably given a lot more attention to since doing the course. ‘’
Building positive relationships
“It’s about listening more than talking”
A major part of building a positive Indigenous identity in any school is building positive relationships with parents and families. “Working at Waterford West and Woodridge North grounded me in terms of being a relational leader and being able to relate to parents and relate to students,” Dave says. “It’s more about listening than talking. It’s a basic human need – everyone wants to feel valued or loved. Our kids definitely want to feel loved, and parents want their beliefs to be heard and valued.” Dave found that as he built relationships with key families, parents started seeking him out. Initially he was concerned that he was not qualified to give advice on culture or how a child was going to fit in. But then, he says, “I came to realise it’s not so much about coming to us for advice, it’s about looking for a friendly face in the school they can come and talk to. Part of my success with engaging with those families is being a good listener and hearing them talk about their own experiences but also asking them what they’d expect from their child’s education and helping deliver on that.”
Dave says, “Many Indigenous parents at my two previous schools didn’t have positive school experiences, and so they’d enter the school grounds with some trepidation or negative thoughts based on experiences they’d had in their own childhood.” For Dave, success was having parents who were reluctant to even answer a phone call from the school, feeling comfortable to come into the school by choice to talk to him.”
Lifting Indigenous profiles into the future
“ I see the skills that I’ve learnt through Stronger Smarter as transferable to any school context ”
Dave says there will be some exciting things happening at Coomera Springs into the future. The school has an innovative principal and a young, enthusiastic teaching team who are very willing to develop their craft. Compared to Dave’s previous schools where the focus on learning was sometimes challenged by dealing with behaviour and putting out spot fires, at Coomera Springs the focus is around improving reading pedagogy with a tight focus on building rigour into these practices. New programs for 2016 will also support the kinaesthetic learners who need to use their hands. There will be a centre of excellence in music, and a Makerspace where students can use their maths and science knowledge to build projects in a real life context. Another of Dave’s projects is to help the school develop a focus on coding, robotics and digital and design technology which will see Coomera Spring’s primary students well placed with the skills they’ll need in high school. Dave will also continue the focus on lifting the profile of the school’s Indigenous students and embedding Indigenous perspectives from a whole school celebration perspective.
Dave also has plans to follow up on his successful ‘Deadly D and Justice Jones’ series of books co-authored with rugby league player Scott Prince. This time it is a new ‘top secret project’ targeting a female teenage readership. “At night, when the school works done, and the girls are tucked up in bed, I sit down with a cup of tea, and knock out a couple of pages,” he says.
Personally Dave is aspiring to the role of Principal and will take Stronger Smarter with him to new roles and new schools. “I see the skills I’ve learnt through Stronger Smarter as transferable to any school context regardless of large Indigenous enrolment, small Indigenous enrolment or no Indigenous enrolment at all,” Dave says. “Stronger Smarter is steeped in valuing our First People, it’s steeped in wanting more for them and doing more for them. But it’s relational as well, so you’ll be successful in any context if you can build strong relationships from the get go. For me Stronger Smarter has been all about being able to connect with a diverse range of people and building relationships with those people regardless of their cultural background.”