Glenroi Heights Public School in Orange, country NSW, has well and truly embraced the Stronger Smarter approach. Since 2007, over 75% of staff have undertaken the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program. There’s a vibrant culture of high expectations, collaborative planning, and positive relationships. Staff take pride in delivering excellent educational outcomes in a warm and caring learning environment. Special Education Teacher, Belinda Waters says this is the reason she has chosen to work there. “Everyone is on the same page… here for the same reason,” she says. “It’s not the sort of job where you’re just going to sit in front of the class. You’ve got to work really hard to engage the kids. And if you’re not here doing that, you wouldn’t stay here.”
Helping children reach their full potential is where Belinda focuses her efforts. Before coming to Glenroi Heights, Belinda was working at the Orange Learning Centre where they provided short programs for children from surrounding schools who were struggling. “I really liked the fact that it was all about the relationships and getting to know the kids,” Belinda says. “Finding out why they were doing what they were doing at school, and seeing what we could do to help them and fix it, and support the school as well.”
But Belinda felt she could do more at a bigger school in a regular classroom setting. So she approached Glenroi Heights, choosing particularly to work in a school with an ingrained Stronger Smarter culture, which Belinda says is closely aligned with the way she works in special education and behaviour management. In 2010, the Principal at Glenroi Heights was able to support Belinda to undertake the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program and this was followed by an employment opportunity at the school.
The Stronger Smarter Support Program
As well as teaching a Special Education class, Belinda is a member of the school’s Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) team. Belinda says PBL is a behaviour system that has a strong focus on re-educating rather than being punitive, and aligns well with the Stronger Smarter approach because “it is about acknowledging the good things that kids are doing and building relationships.” The school has now been accredited to run a Tier 2 targeted intervention program, which Belinda coordinates. This is a social skills program designed for the 10 to 15% of children who just need something more than the regular behavioural programs they run for all students. They have trained two teacher aides as facilitators, who run a check in, check out process on a one-on-one basis with students on the program. “A facilitator comes in and has a quick check in with the kids: ‘How are you, how are you doing, did you have a good night, have you got your stuff for school today, any dramas?’” Belinda explains. The children develop their own daily goals, the teacher keeps a score for the day, and the facilitator then has a check out with the child, which Belinda says always takes a positive, strength-based approach. “If they haven’t achieved their score, the facilitators just say ‘well, alright, what are you going to do differently tomorrow, or what can I do to help you achieve tomorrow or your teacher can do to help you?’” Belinda says.
They chose to call this program the Stronger Smarter Support Program. Belinda says she liked the positive tone of this title. “Parents seem to know a lot about Stronger Smarter,” she says, ”and they’re really on board with it. So we thought if we can tie it in with that, parents are going to think it’s something good.” Belinda says the program also links with the Stronger Smarter approach of building strong teacher-student relationships. She recognises that sometimes if a teacher is spending time dealing with a student’s behaviour, it can be hard to find the time to build that positive relationship. This program ensures the teacher has a positive conversation each day where they have a short chat and congratulate the child on their efforts. In a small school of 200 children, where students and teachers all know each other, all teachers are able to work as a team to support students experiencing difficulties. Belinda says the kids love the program, and there are very few who don’t have a positive response.
A personal challenge
Moving to a school that already implements a Stronger Smarter approach, Belinda says she didn’t have the same challenges as some of the school principals on the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program who were thinking about how they needed to change their school. But Belinda says the SSLP helped her understand what people were talking about in the school because “it’s one of those things you need to experience.” The school keeps a Stronger Smarter approach going through Stronger Smarter staff meetings twice a term, where they set up the circle and check in and check out. Belinda says this is really good for staff morale.
But a challenge on which Belinda continually reflects is how she can build her skills to have the challenging conversations that are sometimes needed. As a young teacher, Belinda has occasionally found it hard to put her ideas forward. “You need the credibility,” she says. “I was talking a lot in staff meetings about what we could do to help the kids … it is a bit easier to justify what you’re saying if you’re able to tell them a bit of research about it and tell them why it works.” This has been an impetus for Belinda to complete a Masters in Special Education with a focus on PBL.
Now she has just been accepted for a PhD where she intends to look at how schools can best support beginning teachers to develop positive relationships with students and proactive classroom management skills. Part of her role involves helping teachers with behaviour management, so she wanted to tie her PhD into that work. She hopes this research might play a part in keeping young, talented teachers in a profession that currently has a high drop-out rate. “If I can do anything to support new teachers and encourage them to stay in teaching, that’s always a good thing,” she says.
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Belinda’s research is influenced heavily by her work at Glenroi Heights, which is underpinned by a focus on building High Expectations Relationships with students. “Having everything out on the table, having the conversations and getting the points of view is very much what we do through PBL,” Belinda says. “It’s not about punishment; it’s about having the talks and seeing what’s happened.” Belinda reflects that, “it’s something that happens at the school pretty well”.
In Belinda’s class for children with intellectual delays, she says it’s about “that safety of coming to school and knowing that everything is going to be flexible as far as their learning goes and we’re just going to keep trying different things until they can get it the way they need to understand it. The failure side is taken out of it, and it’s not like we teach it once and if you don’t get it, bad luck.” In other classes, it is about having that same familiar person there every day supporting students and looking out for them.
The school is continually trying to improve practice. Belinda says there are plenty of things to work on, but “we’re trying pretty hard.” One current area for professional development in the school is around differentiation, which Belinda says is about adapting to different learning styles in the classroom. “We’re really working hard on making sure nothing is being watered down and looking at how we deliver the lessons,” she says.
Belinda also continues to reflect on what High-Expectations Relationships mean to her personally. She admits that after some conversations she thinks, “I could have done that better.” She also reminds herself about Chris Sarra’s words on the need to challenge perceptions as well as giving positive feedback. But as she says, it is about being both honest and diplomatic, and that is not always easy when talking to staff and parents, or out in the community.
One thing Belinda says she never falls down around is her expectations of the kids. She says she has set herself a real challenge by signing up for a PhD, but one of the reasons for doing this is to be a role model for her students. “I can’t sit here and tell the kids keep trying, and do this and do that. I’ve got to practice what I preach,” she explains. “Some kids are shocked when they say ‘how come you don’t work on Thursdays and Fridays?’ and I tell them what I’m doing and they look at me and they say, ‘why?’ And I say, ‘because I want to know more’… I’m telling the kids that I’m doing this and it’s so hard for me but I’m still doing it. When they want to give up on something, you’ve got a bit of credibility to say, ‘try again, keep trying until you get it. You’re going to get it. You’ve just gotta work hard.’”