School Assembly Episode 6: Building a team

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp. School Assembly is the podcast that explores what it takes to build a new school from the ground up. In Series 1 we’re following Principal Dr Ray Boyd and Associate Principal Rachael Lehr as they navigate the exciting and challenging journey. Each month, we touch base for updates and reflections on their progress in the newly developing suburb of Dayton, located in the eastern metropolitan city of Swan in Perth, Western Australia.

It’s the start of the school year and Dayton Primary School is about to open its doors to the first students. Last time out we talked to Ray and Rachael about the thought processes behind the physical build of the school, as well as the significance of the location itself. Episode 6 is all about building the foundation staff. We recorded our chat on 27th January, 5 days before the start of Term 1. I hope you enjoy it.

Jo Earp: Hi, Ray and Rachael. Happy 2023, first of all!

Ray Boyd: Thank you Jo, it’s a pleasure to be back.

Rachael Lehr: And back to work as well.

JE: Yeah. How are you both doing? I know that you’re really, really busy now. Did you manage to get a week off at all?

RB: Yeah, I made sure I took, I had a week, went away and got some time. And Rachael did a similar thing too. So, I went down south.

RL: And our family, we went for 2 weeks to Vietnam. So that was right from up to the new year. So since New Year, it's been back and right into work up to today, so there's a lot going on right now.

JE: And Ray, congratulations are in order. You've earned your PhD – Doctor Boyd.

RB: Yeah, I finally put that to sleep. So, I'm rapt about that, it means I can start the year with the correct door label, but more importantly that's the studies done. So, I can just put that to bed. It's done and dusted.

JE: Excellent, good stuff. So, we usually catch up with what's been happening since we last spoke, which actually was December I think you spoke to Zoe. So, what's the latest on the build? It was looking like there would be 4 I think that wouldn’t be done in time for the start of the new school year.

RL: Yes. So, that's where we are at. We moved in on Wednesday – so 2 days ago – and school starts next Wednesday and we've got 4 out of our 8 buildings. So, we've got 2 teaching blocks, our admin building and the staffroom and library. So, just enough space for us to squeeze in.

RB: I will say the builder did give us the nod, Jo, to get in a couple of days earlier than the Wednesday when we sort of announced we were in. So, we were sneaking stuff in and the lead hand here was quite happy for us to come in and at least get stuff into our office space so we were ready to go on Wednesday.

JE: Yeah. That that must be so nice, mustn’t it, just getting everything set up. You know, as you sort of leave a room and the different spaces are furnished and finished and you're like ‘yeah, we're ready to go’. That must be a nice feeling.

RL: Definitely. And our teachers were just itching to get in, so they've all been in. Yesterday was a public holiday, you know, there was about 6 of them in setting up classrooms. They were so excited to get in. You know, it takes a long time to set up a classroom for the kids.

RB: And Rachael and I were shifting furniture on Monday. My watch told me I did 28,000 steps by moving furniture into correct rooms. So, we were shuffling stuff around so the staff didn't have too much of a stress when they came in.

JE: Awww, you are so nice you 2. Now, I saw on your socials that you continue to build your team. You've got your foundation staff complete now. So, congratulations on those appointments. You've also had an induction day, haven't you?

RB: Yes, we have.

RL: Yeah, so we're starting the year with 23 staff for Dayton Primary School including ourselves. And that's you know, right from our teachers to EA's (Educational Assistants), our school officer and cleaning staff. So, 23 all up, a nice small little staff to start the year and 200 students.

JE: Excellent. So, we're going to focus on staffing in this episode then. Before we dive in, one thing you mentioned in the last episode, Rachael, was the Teaching and Learning Handbook.

RL: Yes, yes, that's been a big thing that's been ongoing and … when I got back from my holiday, I was working on that for the weeks up until our induction, which was on the 19th of January – so, a week or so ago. So, that was really outlining everything in our school around expectations for staff, for students, and for teaching. The pedagogy we'll expect, what we're looking for in literacy and numeracy. So, it really is like a step-by-step guide to what teaching and learning will look like at Dayton. So, a huge job but a work in progress too. So, what I said to the staff when we shared it with them on the Thursday was that this is like a working document. I want their input into it as well. So, it will change over the year, but we just wanted to make things really clear so our staff knew exactly what was expected and how things will look.

JE: So, as I say, we're going to delve a bit more into the staffing side of things today. We know the value of leadership and teaching, and support staff, in a school – what a massive difference they make to student outcomes. So, what's the starting point then for building the team, because you were on your own for a while, weren't you Ray?

RB: Yes, I pretty much spent the first term by myself. That said, I had asked Rachael, because she was the Principal at West Beechboro at the time, if I could just bounce ideas off her and I had a few other colleagues I was bouncing ideas off, just to make sure that the way I wanted to go wasn't misaligned in the sense that my bias was controlling what I was deciding to do. So, by having a sounding board with other colleagues it enabled me just to keep things on track.

Once I set up my prospectus, the first one was identifying who was going to lead with me. So I went with a leadership team of instruction. So, I advertised for an Associate Principal rather than a Manager of Corporate Services. The finances we could struggle our way through and manage those, but I actually needed someone who was able to assist in shaping what the pedagogy would look like and what our instruction would look like around the school. So that's, the person I needed was someone with that teaching experience.

JE: So, I read on the socials and the, you know, the promos that you put out there saying ‘come and join us’ – you were looking for staff who embody Ubuntu. So, tell me a bit more about that teaching and learning philosophy then.

RB: Yeah. So, as Rachael's already articulated (and it's all through our socials), I've set the compass, we've set the direction we want staff to go and we've given them a framework to work within. But at the same time, they have to understand – it was a point that I really made strongly on the 19th – that whatever they do in the school, it's going to have an impact on someone else. There's a flow on effect, not too dissimilar to throwing a pebble in a pond, and then the ripples stream out and hit every shore side that leads into the pond. So I wanted staff to understand that whatever they did, there's an impact on that.

So we have to get into this notion of understanding that ‘I am because we are’ – each of us makes the community as one. We all support each other. What I do with one child that enables the teacher coming in next year to build on them and so on and so on and so on. So that notion of Ubuntu, the South African, the tribes, is just about understanding that we're all part of the same community and we have a role to play, and every action has a reaction.

JE: But that's quite, I mean, for somebody who's maybe quite experienced … that's quite difficult to kind of communicate – you know what you're looking for, right, so like you say you get your prospectus out, you have an idea for which direction it's going in terms of staffing, what your philosophy is. But, how do you communicate that to potential recruits then? I mean, fair enough, the induction session and information session, but how do you make sure that you’re getting the right kind of candidate to start with, and they’re all aware of what’s going on in the school?

RL: Well, there was a couple of aspects to that. So those prospective staff sessions were very clear that, you know ‘if you come to Dayton, this is what it will look like … you'll be part of a team, you'll be a lifelong learner, your classroom will be open for admin, we'll be there to support you’. So, all of those things were really clearly articulated. ‘You'll be teaching in this specific way. You'll be using effective, evidence-based instruction’. So, they came in with their eyes wide open. So, after that I think there would have been some people that walked away and said ‘no, that's not for me’ which means they wouldn't have applied. And then there's the second stage, where we read through those applications looking for people that spoke to those things that we clearly outlined in the job ad in those prospective staff sessions – people that were willing to be a team player, they’re looking to constantly learn and grow.

So, we had the Lego sessions there too, where we actually spoke to all the things we were looking for and they used the Lego to answer those questions. So, we had multiple opportunities to say what we were looking for in our staff, and so everyone really came in eyes wide open knowing what it was going to be like.

RB: And the flip side of that too, Jo, is we articulated it in the way that Rachael said and then I was very blunt and flipped it to the negative in the sense where I actually stated to the people who attended the sessions ‘if you don't want administration in your classroom, if you don't want to work with other people, do not apply for our school’.

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JE: Did you sort of recommend people read certain books? Because I know you're into the research, evidence-based stuff – did you sort of give them a reading list of stuff?

RB: Very much so. There was there was actually – once we ran the prospective for staff, when we advertised, we said to the prospective staff ‘if you want information, please contact us’ and all those that did, we actually sent out a list of books that the school was built around in terms of its philosophy and its instructional framework. I sent out a big spiel about Ubuntu. We sent out a big spiel and that about the sense of belonging and what we wanted for the school. So, all those reading lists were there. People like Archer & Hughes, Hollingsworth & Ybarra, Rosenshine’s work, the stuff from Ollie Lovell to that are a go-to book for us around all his podcasts and, again, that looks at Cognitive Load Theory. There was a truckload of books in there. Legacy (James Kerr) was another one which wasn't an education book, but it's that notion of ‘sweeping the sheds’. So, there was a rather comprehensive, I think it was about 24 books on it there for staff that they could have a look at if they wanted to get a sense of what we were looking for.

JE: Great. And what about getting the right expertise, the right mix then? So, is that something that you sort of learned during your own experience as a leader, because you want you want a mix don’t you?

RL: Yeah, we've ended up with a really nice balance. We've got a couple of newer graduates as well as some very experienced teachers. We didn't specifically employ our staff based on the fact that they may or may not have used certain programs that we're using, or have experience with daily reviews or explicit instruction or anything we were implementing. It was more about their willingness to learn, and just the fact that we really wanted staff who were just really passionate about teaching and wanting to do the best for the kids. Because you can always teach someone how to maybe implement a program, but you can't teach them to really love what they do, if that makes sense. So, we really were looking for that passion coming through.

JE: Yeah, absolutely. But also, Ray, you've got budget to think of, haven't you?

RB: Oh yeah, there's … the staffing budget’s probably the easiest part of the equation. We had a process where we put a pool together and as our numbers grow, we could employ more staff. So we knew exactly how many staff we could employ, it was just a matter of going ‘right, we've got more kids, right, that gives us a little bit more money through the process that's done for budgeting, we can afford another staff member’. So that actually probably the easiest bit. The hardest bit was deciding ‘right, we've got this group of people (and I think we had 34 in our final pool) which people are we actually gonna pull out to use as our starting 5 (as we started to call them) and who would we use initially?’ So that was the difficult bit, making sure we got that mix that Rachael just explained and that there was that nice balance there.

RL: And, contrary to what some people believe, it doesn't cost us less to employ a graduate than a very experienced senior teacher. So, you know, some people think that graduates are you know, people load schools with graduates because it's cheaper but it doesn't work like that. So we were really just looking for the right fit for the team. You know, they would be working with this other staff member – who would work well together. So, that was more of the consideration than a financial aspect.

RB: And we got to see that Jo during the Lego play with Joel Birch; we got to see the teachers or the people that actually interacted well with each other, or we actually got to see where their ideology sat, we got to see whether they were stepping in as leaders when they needed to be, whether they were prepared to step in or they were the sort of person they just jumped in feet first. So, we got to see all that during that 2-hour session we did with Joel.

JE: Yeah, that's interesting that about, you know, the costs of different grades of teacher, I didn't realise that. What about the teacher shortage challenge then? Rachael, we've touched on this haven’t we in a previous episode about the difficulty locking people in on contract.

RL: Yes, so, I'm touching wood right now because we're all good at this time. No-one has called us up over the 6 weeks of school holidays and changed their mind. So we are locked and loaded ready for next Wednesday. But we did, as I had mentioned in the podcast in December, have I think it was 3 teachers that had signed and then changed their minds. So, I'm sure that will happen again in the future but at this stage we're all good.

RB: And I've even said that in our induction session, Jo, and I've told staff, those ones that when we offered them the position, they were offered another position. We've said ‘you do what best fits you – we'd love to have you on board, but if the school where you're at offers your position and that's more suited for your lifestyle and travel and everything, by all means take it. We'll support you 150%. And my crew here on the 19th, I said if you get an offer 3 months down the track and it's where you want to be and where you need to be for your family and personal reasons, by all means go. But just let me know so I can support you in that move.

JE: Yeah, you want a happy staff don’t you, you want a comfortable staff, you want people who really want to work there.

RB: That's right, exactly. … and everyone wants to be here, but at the same time, I don't want someone who's been offered something, and then knock it back and regret not going and then get disenchanted.

JE: Before we wrap up this episode then Ray and Rachael, what has been (gosh there’s a lot to take in, I should imagine) what's been your key learning, your biggest hurdle, your proudest achievement over the past, well, it's been two months, really, hasn’t it?

RL: I think I can probably speak for both of us in just today walking around our school, watching our signs go up. Our teachers are in. Everything's coming together. I think our proudest achievement is all the hard work that was invested – Ray for 12 months, me for 9 months – and it's coming together and it’s looking amazing. So that would surely, I don't know if you agree Ray, have to be the proudest achievement. It's just you go, we invested so much time and it looks so good so, that's, it's been a real buzz.

JE: What about biggest hurdle?

RB: The biggest hurdle for me, and probably for Rachael too, is we haven't yet met our, we've met our Kindy families, but we haven't actually interacted with any of these kids before. We haven't been able to communicate to parents to say, ‘come down to the school and have a look’. So that Wednesday when we first open for kids next week, that’s a hurdle for me because everyone will be new to the site, it'll just be sort of organised chaos.

RL: And yeah, so everyone is, I mean, the families are super keen to get in it just hasn't worked out that we were able to have an open day and that they could see the classroom. So, there's going to be a lot of nervous and anxious family members and students, and staff as well. But it's just the way it's worked out. It wasn't ideal, but we have to work with what we've got, so.

JE: Yeah, it's a bit like that, isn't it? What about key learning then?

RL: We've learnt that just because you order something like a type of furniture doesn't mean it arrives, and that's what we've learned. We have so many random things that have turned up.

RB: Things get lost in translation, or transition, everywhere you look at it.

RL: Never assume what you think you're getting is what you're going to get. That's what we've been learning the last 2 weeks. We've just been bewildered going ‘Oh, I'm pretty sure we didn't order a bright green light table, but that's what we've got’.

RB: It's like that movie with Michael Douglas and he's having a bad day and he walks in and he gets the burger, and it doesn't match the picture on the wall. So, we're looking at it going ‘that … it does not look at all like that picture’.

RL: So, we're not sure if it was our muck up or someone else along the line, but a lot of things we were going ‘oh, we'll just have to take that – we need a desk, so don't worry about it’.

JE: OK, that a good learning. So, we're speaking to each other on the … we're on Friday today and you open on the Wednesday, but take me through what February will look like then.

RB: February will be very much the staff settling in with the kids. We've told them not to worry too much about getting on the same page with instruction. We'll catch everyone up. We want everyone to settle in, learn the kids, allow the kids to learn the school a little bit. We'll be running some inductions, more inductions, and learning around our daily reviews and warm-ups will be our first focus for this term, and then we'll start to work through the programs. It will also give the front leadership core group a chance to see what is still missing and what we need to bring into the school. So, very much a settling and identifying gaps in where we need to go and what we actually need to do as you walk around and see our staff – because we haven't seen this staff teach before, the majority of them, 90% of our staff, we haven't got a clue what they're like as teachers in the classroom.

RL: So really it's going to be a month of relationship building on all levels with our families, with our students, with our staff, you know, staff with each other and so on. And so, it's all really just about building a strong foundation so that you know, we will become that school of excellence that we've talked about that over the last year. So, it's actually a really exciting time. But like I said before there’s an element of nervousness matched with the excitement as well. So, it will be an interesting month.

JE: It certainly will. Well, enjoy it, both of you, you've really earned it. And I'm sure it'll be great next Wednesday. Best of luck with the first day and I can't wait to hear how it goes next month, but we'll catch up. We'll catch up soon.

RL: Yeah. Thanks, Jo.

RB: Thank you, Jo.

That’s all for this episode of School Assembly, thanks for listening. Next time, we’ll be chatting with Ray and Rachael about developing school policies. In the meantime, you can follow Ray and Rachael’s socials for updates in between episodes by following the links at the podcast transcript over on our website,

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Other episodes in this series:

As a leader, what is your school’s teaching and learning philosophy? How do you articulate that to current and prospective staff?

In this episode, Dr Ray Boyd says ‘… we actually sent out a list of books that the school was built around in terms of its philosophy and its instructional framework’. Is this something you’d consider doing when recruiting staff for your own school? What would be the benefits for you and for the applicants?