“I do believe we’ve come together a lot more since we started training at Stronger Smarter, and we get a lot of parents’ feedback saying that we are a school that really does understand community, and that they feel comfortable and welcome.”
Michael Taylor, Principal, Casino West Public School

With enough momentum, the smallest stone can propel ripples of change towards the far reaches of a pond. For Michael Taylor, Principal of Casino West Public School in the Northern Rivers area of NSW, changes he made to his personal leadership after he attended at the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program have gradually rippled outwards. Now, he says, the Stronger Smarter approaches and strategies impact not only himself, but staff and students, and the school’s engagement with the community.

Understanding Stronger Smarter

Michael was an Assistant Principal when he attended the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program back in 2010. He says that while he knew a little about Chris Sarra’s work, he and his colleagues didn’t know what to expect from the program. It took a couple of days to work out where the learning was leading them. “HAt the end of the second day”, he says, “we looked at each other and said, ‘Do you know what this is about?’ We were perplexed.” But then, Michael says, something happened on the third day that brought it all together. “We were doing some activity, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Ok, we know where this is going now. We get it.’”

Michael says they came back to the school ‘all excited.’ Normally, they would share professional learning with other staff, but they realised this wouldn’t be straightforward. “We said to each other, ‘How do we share that, when we struggled so much trying to understand where we were going at first?’”. So instead, they took a different track, and decided to lead by example. Michael says he used one of the sayings from the Program that had stuck with him – Ghandi’s ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’. “We decided we were not going to walk past anything, and just take on a more pronounced leadership role, a more involved role – not step back, just try to step forward… I think it’s fair to say that both of us from that point had a profound change.”

Michael says other staff at Casino West began to notice a difference, and wanted to know more. “We had people coming to us and asking, ‘Is that Stronger Smarter?’ And we’d go, ‘Yep!’ cause it was! It was the commitment that went into things with Stronger Smarter – the way we were stepping up was very Stronger Smarter”.

Stepping up to leadership

“It was very much to the heart, more than to the head, the change.”

Michael says his decision to become Principal in 2010 was influenced by his participation in the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program. He had originally turned down the opportunity for the principal’s position until he came back from Stronger Smarter. “They came and saw me again… Stronger Smarter came ringing in my ears, and I just went, ‘Well, I haven’t stood up’. So, I changed my mind and went for it, and that’s why I’m now the Principal. The course changed my thinking. It was a big change for me personally.”

Michael says he’s found a new resolve to keep going when things get difficult. “It is my job, to get in there and do what I can. I do make mistakes every now and then, and I will make assumptions. What keeps me going is Stronger Smarter. It gives you a resolve and strength, and you realise that you have to do it, because someone has to do it. And that’s a really important thing.”

Michael says he’s not ready to leave education. “I don’t think my job’s finished yet. Eight years ago, I would have said I only have eight years left working. I think differently now. And I reckon Stronger Smarter might have played a part in that.”

Sustaining a shared vision for the future

“We have to reignite the flame and keep it going. It’s too important to let it die.”

Michael says that when he and his team sat down to write their strategic plan, they agreed Stronger Smarter should have a big emphasis on the way things were run at the school. They decided to get everyone on board in understanding the Stronger Smarter approach and to reinforce a “collective visioning”. “You’re much more likely to have sustainable change when you’re all involved in the process”, Michael says.

So they looked a professional development and started to send staff and community members to the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program. Michael also makes sure his team revisits the learnings on a yearly basis. He explains that, “Because it’s the philosophy that we have in the school, that’s become the way we do things. You have to re-light the fire.” In 2015, a team of 45 staff and community leaders participated in a Stronger Smarter professional learning day. Michael describes it as a “very successful day” leading to further positive changes in the school. The participants looked at their strengths, envisaged a positive future for the school, and decided on actions they need to take now to realise that future. “We’ve got tools now through Stronger Smarter that really help us set direction and monitor what we’re doing”, Michael says. They are also building relationships with other schools in the Casino and Kyogle areas to work together more closely as a complete community of Stronger Smarter practitioners.

Sticking to the tracks

“We are very much a collegiate school. That’s been a big change in the school and that’s again Stronger Smarter.”

Staff at Casino West had already been working with the Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) program, and developing an internal program called Growing Respect. These programs unpack the elements of respect and reinforce the values of courage and patience to show kids how to be respectful through their lives. Michael explains how Stronger Smarter has helped to tie these two programs together as an overall approach for the school. “Stronger Smarter is the train tracks …. where the school is going,” Michael says, “and the train itself – the carriages – are our programs. So it’s all three things working together.”

Stronger Smarter is now embedded in daily business at the school. Michael says, “We have lots of sayings that go with this approach, and we revisit them everyday at assembly in the morning. I’ll go through something to do with Growing Respect, our four PBL rules or Stronger Smarter. We’ll have sayings like, ‘The next thing I do is the best thing I do’, and try to embed that sort of though in the kids.”

As staff have begun to understand Stronger Smarter, the ripples have spread out to student engagement. Teachers are using Stronger Smarter strategies in the classroom. They run check-in circles every morning and afternoon with the students, and when something needs to be discussed in class they will use a yarning circle. For instance, part of a maths lesson might be a Stronger Smarter circle where students can discuss any issues and learn to have the courage to say, ‘I’m having problems with this,’ and throw it to the group with the idea that they help each other. These processes help to upskill the students in conversations and relationships. “That’s what’s going to be important for their future,” Michael says. “That the kids learn how they should be with other people.”

He thinks the ripples need to go further, too. Michael would like to see the Stronger Smarter approach extend beyond the school environment to become standard practice in businesses and universities. “If we’re ever going to have true reconciliation and move things along”, he says, “programs like Stronger Smarter will need to extend their reach”.These changes in the classroom are making a difference. Michael says there are less suspensions and a definite change in the kids’ behaviours. Staff continually reinforce the school’s core values, and are creating a shared learning environment where teachers are seen to be “helping you learn”, rather than going around “telling kids what to do and what not to do”. By teaching kids to ‘be their own boss’ and instilling the values of respect and positive relationships into their learning, Michael hopes the school will help kids to recognise what is right and how to manage their own behaviour. He points out, however, that it’s a journey in progress. “You’ve just got to keep your foot on the pedal”, he says, “You’ve got to keep developing these things.”

The importance of collaborative approaches

“ When the community is saying to us, ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘How are you trying to improve the educational outcomes of our kids?’ then we know we’re getting somewhere; rather than us saying, ‘Come and join us’.”

The ripples of Stronger Smarter are also reaching the local community. Michael explains that it’s important to extend Stronger Smarter otherwise the school can become a silo. Since Casino West began Stronger Smarter training, Michael believes the school and the community have come together a lot more. He says it is evident in the feedback from parents that the school understands the community and makes them feel comfortable and welcome. “We have a much greater community engagement than we used to have”, Michael says. “The effort’s gone in and the heart is there now.”

The school has increased the number of Aboriginal staff they employ. Michael recognises that this has “made a massive difference because we get a far better connection with the community through employing community members”. By paying for community members to be included in Stronger Smarter training, the school has established connections with church and local groups who can help access the ‘kids who fall between the cracks’.

Another indicator of increased engagement with the community is evident in the school’s early childhood centre. After the Leadership Program, Michael and his staff started asking themselves why only two out of the forty kids enrolled in the preschool were Aboriginal. In consultation with parents, they made a number of changes to lift interaction with the community. They renamed the preschool Little Jarjums, and employed a cultural engagement officer to work with the resident preschool teacher. They painted murals on the walls of the building and spent money on redeveloping the playground so that it tells the story of Casino from prehistoric times and includes the local Aboriginal and farming histories. As a result of these changes, Little Jarjums is now an Aboriginal preferred preschool and half the children are Indigenous. Michael says, “The preschool is very important in terms of getting kids in early and helping them with the language so that when they come to school, they’re ready”.

The school’s Aboriginal Education Committee has also grown from a couple of people ‘talking at the photocopier once a month’ to a big group of people from across the school who “circle up”, have yarn ups and set directions for the school. Aboriginal Education Officer Aunty Sue Freeburn, who has also undertaken the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program, was instrumental in initiating the yarn-ups. “Everyone was very shy at first, and then someone cracked the ice and it flowed”, Michael says. “We wanted the good and the bad, and we got it. And it was just great to see people realise that that’s what it’s all about – it’s about them having a voice, and it really changed what we wrote in our school plan”.

Michael says that since Aunty Sue Freeburn did Stronger Smarter training, a lot of things have moved in the school. “NAIDOC Day is huge,” he says. “Three schools came over this year and joined us. The kids do all sorts of cultural activities, arts and games.” The school used to be lucky to have two people attend their Fathers’ or Mothers’ Day events, now they have over a hundred.

The Ripple Effect

Michael’s Stronger Smarter journey over the last four years has seen ripples of change spread throughout Casino West Public School. Michael believes the community is key, and success is when families know what they should be able to expect from their school. When the community can remind the school when they are slipping up and ‘not thinking very Stronger Smarter’, Michael says that will be a ‘good day’. He already believes the community at Casino West will expect his eventual replacement as principal to ‘be a Stronger Smarter person’.

“I think Stronger Smarter is the vehicle that will give people that courage, that license, to know that this is their right, and the community’s right to say, ‘What are you doing to strengthen our community, not just in the school but in all the groups, and all of us working together?’”