High expectations for all students is widely recognised as an essential element in improving Indigenous education outcomes. The importance of educators’ recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can achieve as well as any other student is nothing new. What is not always recognised, however, is that for an Indigenous student, being smart at school doesn’t have to mean being ‘mainstream’.
Our message of ‘Strong and Smart’ is that high expectations shouldn’t ever mean having to leave cultural identity behind when entering the school gate. A ‘high expectations’ agenda will only ever be successful when supported by a sense of strong cultural identity for students and high-expectations relationships with students, their families, and the school community.
Over the past few years, we have had many conversations with school principals about how they bring this understanding into their schools after attending the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program. Principals often describe the Stronger Smarter Approach (SSA) as the ‘train tracks’ or the ‘glue’. It is a way of thinking that brings other programs to life and everyone together with a shared vision and understanding of high expectations.
Personal leadership style
Firstly, Principals tell us that Stronger Smarter makes a difference – sometimes a profound change – to their personal leadership style. Words like ‘step up’, ‘greater commitment’, and ‘more involved’ describe these changes. The SSA is not so much a ‘new program’ that you implement, but a way of ‘doing things differently’ by taking a strength-based rather than a deficit approach.
As our alumni describe, Stronger Smarter becomes something you do every day without thinking about it. As one Principal told us, “It’s not something you consciously say, ‘what part of Stronger Smarter can I use in this situation, or with this issue, or to move this forward?’ It just happens. And then you reflect on it later and realise that’s exactly what Stronger Smarter is about.”
Stronger Smarter starts with everyone taking personal responsibility for improving Indigenous outcomes. School leadership can only bring staff along on a journey if they are seen to be stepping up themselves.
Bringing everyone along on the journey
Principals recognise that they can’t do everything on their own, and this may mean moving away from the top down, ‘triangle approach’ of leadership and working differently with staff. This isn’t always easy to implement when the triangle leadership approach is so strongly branded in our minds. However, a collegiate or distributed leadership that recognises that everyone has the potential for leadership at some level is clearly essential to embed cultural change.
Weaving Stronger Smarter into the school culture
When we talk to principals about how Stronger Smarter works in the school, we hear words such as ‘underpinning’ and ‘ties everything together’ and Stronger Smarter weaving itself into the school culture.
Stronger Smarter is a time of reflection on what is happening in the school and what might be improved. It provides a language that principals use to verbalise what they want to see in the school culture. Stronger Smarter brings credibility and positiveness to staff and reinforces collective visioning. Principals tell us they can involve all staff in unpacking what Stronger Smarter means in terms of the school’s values, mapping out what Stronger Smarter will look like in the school over a period of years, and embedding Stronger Smarter into their school plans.
Even where schools are already doing comparatively well in terms of enrolments, attendance and academic achievement, their principals still believe Stronger Smarter has an important place to re-start a journey or refresh a school culture. Stronger Smarter provides a framework that brings coherence to other programs and gives staff ownership and clarity about what they are trying to achieve. This helps everyone – staff, students and community – to share the same visions and hopes for the school.
Principals tell us they are working hard to move away from ‘this is how the school does it’ towards understanding the Indigenous lens and how to meet the needs of their local communities. As our alumni tell us, this is about relationships. It is about “having those conversations with the community about what they really want for the school”, “if this is what the parents need then this is how we’ll do it”, or “talking to families and asking, ‘what do you want me to do as principal of this school? ’”
A school improvement journey
Often when principals describe what they are doing in schools, it is part of a longer school improvement journey. The results they are seeing along this journey are staff are working more collegiately and clear and consistent high-expectations messages across the school. There are improved relationships with parents and community. Schools are also reporting that they have improved attendance, behaviour and retention, and in some cases have closed the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous achievement in the school. Students are more resilient, their results are better, and when they leave the school, they are better equipped for the future. ‘
We know there will always be many contributing factors to school transformation. However, we strongly believe that when the Stronger Smarter Approach becomes the ‘train tracks’ for programs in a school, that is when the results start to shine through.