Thanks for tuning into this episode of Global Education – I’m Dominique Russell.
In today’s episode, I’m delighted to be joined by Rebecca West, Deputy Principal Instructional Leader at Bonnyrigg Public School in Bonnyrigg, about an hour west from Sydney in New South Wales.
Rebecca was this year named a Top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. She was selected from over 8000 nominees from over 100 countries, and has been recognised for her work at her primary school in supporting students with additional needs and refining the school’s professional development program so teachers can work through identified areas more in-depth than ever before.
The Global Teacher Prize is an annual prize presented by The Varkey Foundation which recognises one teacher for their outstanding contribution to the profession. The winner takes home US $1 million, and this year that winner was high school English teacher Keishia Thorpe from Maryland in the United States. We’ll be catching up with her in the new year, so be sure to subscribe to our free Teacher bulletin at our website, teachermagazine.com, so you never miss a story.
In this episode, Rebecca shares more detail of her approach to ensuring all student needs are met, how collaboration between staff is key to improving student outcomes, and why their professional learning is conducted in three-week cycles. Let’s jump in.
Dominique Russell: Thanks so much for joining me on this episode, Rebecca. It’s great to be able to speak with you. I just thought it would be good to start the episode off by understanding a little bit more about your school context and also your role there.
Rebecca West: So my role is Deputy Principal Instructional Leader – it’s a bit of a mouthful. It essentially means that I’m a bit of a mentor or guide for teachers in any particular area that we’re focusing on, but most explicitly here that is literacy and numeracy.
So, primarily I work across Kindergarten to Year 2, but we have a preschool here so I like to touch base and work with them when I can (plus they’re super cute down in preschool). And, of course, I can’t just put on one hat, so working across 3-6 is something that I like to do as well just to continue that learning and to see how our kids are going.
Here our context is a very low socioeconomic school. We’ve got just over 300 kids and that includes our preschool. So, we have a lot of emergency housing here – that could be refugees, that could be people fleeing domestic violence. And we have a high level of students and families where English is not their first language (so we call that English as an Additional Language or Dialect, or EALD) and we have, I think it’s almost 70 per cent EALD students; almost 20 per cent Aboriginal students. And it’s just a very complex setting here where we’ve got that diversity in terms of multiculturalism and the various traumatic backgrounds that they might come from if they’ve fled a war-torn country or if they have come from a domestically violent situation.
But it, you know, it means that we try to use holistic practices here to include wellbeing focus as well as the academic and social focus too.
DR: And so obviously something that you’re really well-known for is the fantastic work that you’re doing is ensuring that all of these students’ needs are really met – particularly including those students that have additional needs. So, can you talk me through a little bit about your approach to that?
RW: I think my approach is embedded in my practice because I started out like that. So, after I did my Bachelor of Primary Education I did do Special Ed subjects and then, when I started working, at night time I was doing my Bachelor of Special Education. And my first job was in an autism unit, so that’s kind of set me up for the fact that now I’m a mum with two boys that are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. So, I think it started with my interest in wanting to support those kids’ needs and then it’s just become a life thing for me because it’s a life I live as well. So, I have coordinated the Learning Support Team here in previous years working with parents and case workers and therapists and the school psychologist to be able to support those needs.
My own sister went through school with an undiagnosed condition – I think it was about Year 9 or Year 10 she was diagnosed with what was then called Aural Dyslexia (I’m not sure if they still call it that now), but you see the after effect of that of school disengagement and, you know, didn’t have the same social skills as what you would expect of someone going through school and that impacted her learning. And it wasn’t until later we found that, and she had to deal with a lot of bullying.
I think that personal experience kind of lended itself to my attitude towards making sure kids don’t slip through the cracks. I want to make sure that there are early diagnosis of those needs so that kids can access intervention and support. It’s not about labelling the kid, it’s about finding the right key to unlock the right door for those kids.
And I think it’s also about just making sure that kids love school. I want kids to enjoy coming to school and if they’re battling with something every day that’s unsupported then they’re not going to enjoy coming to school and to learning. I think it’s a bit of that personal and academic context that brings me into making sure that every child sees personal growth.
DR: And so, like you just mentioned there, it’s really about working with a whole range of people in a collaborative way to make sure that the student needs are met and that students are really well supported. I’m wondering if that is really important for you, in the culture of your school? Is that collaboration part of how you’ve really cultivated a culture at your school of supporting all students and meeting their needs?
RW: Absolutely, and there’s different measures of collaboration here. So we have, you know, our teaching teams who will collaborate together and create programs together. And then we’ve got different committees that will work in different ways – so we have the Aboriginal Education Committee, we’ve got different key learning area committees. We have a Schools as Community Centre here – so that’s a person who facilitates play group, so we have babies here that then go to our play group and move on, so that early childhood and early intervention focus as well.
And people are always joining together for whatever focus it is. So we could have a parent meeting with a family that could involve our school psychologist, it could involve our Schools as Community Centre Facilitator, the Learning Support Team. Everyone working together to support those child’s needs. And even if it means, you know, getting someone that can translate for us, it’s all that sort of ‘it takes a village’ approach to making sure that we’re supporting those kids.
Collaboration is always key in any part of education; we definitely can’t do it on our own in our own little bubble.
DR: So that’s interesting then with all those of different committees. I’m wondering then how you as a leadership team support them to be able to do the work that they need to be able to do. Are you able to really facilitate some time away from face-to-face learning so that can happen?
RW: Yes definitely. So a good example of that is part of my role is having data conversations with teachers. It does sound a little bit boring when we’re talking about data, but this is identifying where our kids need support. That’s the main focus. And that’s allocated in our timetable. I’m not asking teachers to get to school early or stay back or use their RFF [relief from face-to-face] time to do that. It is timetabled and they know exactly when it’s happening and I try and prepare all the background work, so that when we’re together it’s good conversation about what we need to focus on.
And we do that for other things as well. So, for example, we have the Tell Them From Me Survey –which is a very good survey in terms of getting student, staff and parent feedback. And again, we want to be mindful of the wellbeing of our teachers and their personal time, so we allocate time for them to come off and do that survey. We want people to take the time to think about it and give good quality, authentic answers and not just be like ‘oh, I’ve got to rush and get that done in the afternoon before I put the kids to bed’.
So, we try and make sure time is used in a valid and valuable way here. And I think the key part of having those committees is just sticking to a focus. That core focus area of what we’re doing; not necessarily thinking ‘oh, what’s the sparkly thing we can do this week?’ it’s ‘What’s our focus? How often are we going to meet? Let’s dedicate the time to doing that well together’.
DR: Fantastic. And something else that was also quite frequently mentioned in the Global Teacher Prize coverage was the importance at your school of creating a real safe environment for students. So, can you talk me through how you’ve managed to cultivate this and why it’s so important?
RW: We have some amazing learning spaces here. So we have lots of outdoor environments where the kids can learn in and these are attached to our classrooms. We have these beautiful big sliding doors that can open up and then classes can literally go outside and work with the teacher either inside or the teacher out there with them.
We have an amazing school farm here which started with a Stage 3 project who were hatching chickens and ducks here from an incubator that was made here. We have a teacher here who has all of those wonderful skillsets around working with animals. It developed into a chicken coop, it developed into this big farm, and now we have alpacas and chickens and ducks all here – which essentially kind of linked to science and environmental education, but we saw the great impact it had on the wellbeing of kids. Learning to care for something other than yourself, learning to be kind to something when you haven’t experienced kindness in your own life is just a phenomenal lesson for those kids. And they’re cute which means it’s highly engaging.
So we have kids now who are part of the farm team down there and they get to clean up and feed the animals and play with them. Obviously it’s a little bit different with COVID restrictions, but on a normal day you would go down at recess or lunch and see a group of kids down there in gum boots walking around in the mud and playing with the animals. And I think the best part [of] that is just the wellbeing factor; you can see how calming it is for kids to be around animals.
We also have a therapy dog here, Beau, and he is just adorable. And, same thing, that calming factor that comes with being around another animal and caring for something else just brings a great sense of safety to those kids where school might be their only safe place.
DR: Absolutely, and something else that I also read in the Global Teacher Prize coverage which I’d love to hear more about is that you’ve refined the school’s professional learning culture. So can you talk me through what changes have been made and why they’ve been made, and the impact that it’s had on staff and also then on student learning?
RW: So this was a collective decision that we made with the Executive Team where we were feeding back on – it kind of felt like we were doing professional learning, you know, each week it was like one thing, then another thing, then another thing and it was very rushed and we couldn’t get to the deep and meaningful part where we apply that knowledge to practice.
We would kind of just go ‘well, let’s hope that teachers are taking it in and that they’ve put it in their classroom and see if it works’. So, this was based on just a big review that we were doing of how the school was travelling in terms of professional learning and we just went, ‘do you know what, it just needs more time.’ It needs more time to sit and learn and listen and absorb the information. Then it takes time to go and try something out in the classroom and then it takes time to reflect with our colleagues and just engage in open and honest reflection. You know, if it failed, be honest, it failed, and why? And how can we move forward from that?
So we shifted to a three-week cycle of professional learning where we could do that and we identified topics based on staff feedback. So, we did an anonymous survey and we asked staff ‘how do you think we’re travelling with professional learning? And what do you want to focus on?’ And we had some key things come out like speech needs of our school – we had a high number of kids that have come back with expressive/receptive language delays as well as the EALD factor. Differentiation was something that teachers felt they needed support in, and there were some other areas of the curriculum as well.
So all we did was we just prioritised – out of the term, essentially in 10 weeks you have time for three of those three-week professional learning cycles and then perhaps a wellbeing week at the end. And, you know, that meant that we could be really strategic about what are we learning that’s actually based on teacher feedback and what they feel they need in the classroom and how we’re going to measure that improvement as we go.
And it’s actually branched out into some other really good areas of learning where the speech therapist – who is coming into the school to support us – ran almost an entire term of professional learning with one team who said ‘no, this is good, we want something that’s in-depth that we can sink our teeth into’. We’ve had one of our relieving Assistant Principals run another writing professional learning focus, which has extended almost over two terms now because people are loving the in-depth part of being able to continue and reflect that way.
So, it’s been great, and it’s been able to be sustained even during lockdown. So obviously I think teachers have felt that it has been a success in terms of changing that practice in the classroom.
That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts or SoundCloud, so you can be notified of any new episodes. While you’re there, we’d love for you to rate and review us in your podcast app.
In this episode, Rebecca West shares that after a review showed their professional learning structure was rushed, teachers were given more time to engage in areas of focus in more detail.
As a school leader, when was the last time you reviewed your professional learning structure? Are you aware of what areas staff would like to focus on in the upcoming school year? Is there room to engage the expertise of external experts, such as a speech therapist as Bonnyrigg Public School has done? Are teachers given time to reflect on PD and implement changes?