School Assembly S2E10: Staff collaboration and feedback

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Hello and thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher, I’m Jo Earp. Welcome to Episode 10 of the School Assembly podcast series, where we explore what it takes to build a school from the ground up. In Series 2 we’ve been following Jo Camozzato and the team at the dual campus Bemin Secondary College in the Melbourne suburb of Truganina. Our topic for this episode is staff collaboration – we’ll be talking about how you foster that with a completely new team, setting aside time for collaboration, uncovering and sharing staff expertise, and how feedback informs planning. I hope you enjoy the episode!

Jo Earp: Hi Jo, before we dive into this week’s topic then (or actually it may be related to it in terms of staff feedback) I did see on LinkedIn the other day about you’ve been running some staff wellbeing workshops.

Jo Camozzato: Yes, we did do some a couple of weeks ago. Look, I've always been conscious that it's important that staff have some fun together and there's, you know, informal events and gatherings that people are welcome to go to if that's what they want to do. But not everyone can go somewhere after school, you know, they've got commitments, family, sport, whatever they're doing, really. [And] I think it's really important for us to have a laugh and enjoy each other's company.

So, recently, we did offer some sessions after school for our staff run by staff. I always feel a bit guilty when I ask staff to volunteer, because I figure when you're running something yourself, you're not necessarily getting a chance to engage in things, but at the same time, I swapped things around. So, we ended up with the most popular being de-mystifying how to cook a souffle; and there was quite a few interesting souffles in there. Some people made a lot of souffles and realise that you really need to eat the souffle straight away, so they had 3 or 4 to eat in one go. Then there was like a Science Experiment Escape Room, which was fantastic – all these different science experiments with clues. And also, a very relaxing watercolour sort of painting a landscape, and that was also a terrific one.

I went to all 3 because I'm the principal! But, at the same time, you know, it also showcases the talents and the abilities of staff. [You] can see how really good some people are at teaching and their sense of humour and their passion and that provides a lot of engagement as well.

JE: That's excellent, it sounds like it was good fun. I've never been able to make a souffle myself, but all tips welcome! So, we know that staff collaboration then, which is the topic of this particular episode. That's obviously really important for a lot of reasons, not least sharing expertise. But in lots of situations, working together, we know that that produces better outcomes. So, I was thinking in a new school, though, you've got something a bit different there. You’ve got a group that hasn't worked together before (largely – I mean you might have a couple of members of staff that sort of come along together). So, it's not really like the usual thing where you sort of go into a workplace, there's that established strong collaboration and you become part of that. So how do you foster that in a new school?

JC: Yeah, that's a really great question, and I think I need to sort of relate it back to my drama teaching and theatre background, because it's not dissimilar. When you pull together a new cast, you really have to work hard in making sure there's a relational trust amongst the cast members, but also the designers and the technicians and people doing your music. And, you know, so this is something that I quite relish. I probably don't even think that much about it, but I know that there is a strategic intent about what I do.

So, I see it like that. That, you know, you have to work from the beginning and provide time in meetings and on curriculum days to actually allow staff to interact and give them targets to achieve as well, that are focused on our Strategic Plan. So you might remember, you know, it's ages ago I know, but even before we opened, we had an Induction Day with all the staff, and then I had other Induction Days for leaders. So I'm building smaller teams and then I’m building the bigger team, the whole team.

But that Induction Day isn't just sitting down and looking at our curriculum materials or listening to me talk about vision, it's actually setting tasks for people to work on, providing them with a coffee truck, you know, opportunities to socialise as well as opportunities to work. We even had a photoshoot that day of all of us altogether as a foundation staff. And I even arranged sort of a walk and small tour of the school that had an opened yet, which was very exciting for them. So, it's multilayered. It's like, walking around talking, having fun, talking, working on tasks, talking, you know, listening to each other.

So, it begins like that. And then I really strategically invested a lot of time in our curriculum days. And of course, that spills over to now, where the language of our college is all around professional learning communities and collaborating. And I'm not saying everyone's great at collaborating, because if you haven't come from a workplace where you're used to doing that and you want to get things done on your own, or you just find it quicker (sometimes that is the case), you can be a bit overwhelmed. But, at the same time, it's an expectation that we set.

So, I think in this space the staff are doing really, really well at Bemin Secondary College. Our after school Professional Learning Community meetings and School Improvement meetings are really a lot of talking that is focused on what we're trying to achieve.

JE: Yeah, it sounds like you've made a great start there in terms of, like you say, with the induction and things like that, just to get things going. And then also, like you say, it's like trying to keep things moving in that direction. And then you kind of swamped by the busyness of things. And you're right, sometimes it is quicker to do yourself or just [that's what the task suits]. But how do you then sort of keep that going during that busyness of it? There are the after-school moments, I get that. Is it a case of trying to build that into some sort of protected time during the day as well? Do you have to do that?

JC: Yes, and the reason I hesitated there is sometimes in a secondary school timetable, it's harder to build in protected time for teams to meet, because, basically because of the timetable and the subject offerings. However, we do have protected time in the school at the moment for the principal class team, because there is 6 of us – so if we don't build in a time for us to meet, because people are teaching, we actually don't get to meet either. The Student Engagement Team also has protected time, the Student Wellbeing Team has protected time and our Learning Specialists, so I suppose instructional leaders, have some protected time to meet with their assistant principal.

At the same time, currently I've had the ability to maintain all the teaching staff at less face-to-face teaching that's required, and so I don't dictate what they do in their extra time, so to speak, but we are providing opportunity for them to link in and get together. We're also a bit fortunate that some of our staff are under-allotted, which means they're not teaching to the full capacity of even the less face-to-face (for those of you that understand all that) and that means they have even more time to decide if they want to connect with others.

So, there is that – there is time in the day – but I suppose it's also the expectation, it’s the school culture, it's a language that we use where we're encouraging people to connect with each other through these structured meetings or structured projects. Because we shouldn't forget people like our graduate teachers, you know, people that are working in KLA teams or subject areas also have the opportunity to connect with each other. And what's starting to happen a little bit across our campus is that occasionally there's also online meetings together. If someone can't get across somewhere else, they might chat online because they’ve got to run off and take their next class. And that's okay. I mean, I've pushed a lot of face-to-face meetings because when you don't know each other, I think it is important to be able to read the room, read people's body language, see how the meeting is going or how the, you know, the planning is going if it's a planning meeting. But at the same time, we have to be practical, and if practical means everyone can get online for a short 30-minute collaborative discussion and look at a document altogether online, then that's a good way to go. You've got to be flexible in that manner.

I keep it going also by mixing things up in our official meetings. So, you might remember I said that staff just don't get to sit wherever they want to sit in the staff offices, I sort of strategically mix people up. And the same thing happens at meetings after school. It's like a wedding party. I always have a look at who should sit with who so that we are constantly, you know, making sure people have a chance to speak to each other and find out more about what's going on. It's not just about sitting with your bestie all the time. It's very, very deliberate what we do.

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JE: In Episode 7 then, the one on establishing an instructional model, you spoke about getting a temperature on the staff skillset and how that informs the professional development planning and so on. And I always think that sharing expertise in a workplace is a really interesting one (in any workplace) because you know, there's so much talent there. But we've all got our particular kind of role. We've all got our focus. We've all got our expectations and things we've got to deliver on. And so, it's really difficult, I think, to uncover all those talents … you mentioned there about people who can make souffles and people who could do watercolours and you know that professional side of it then, it can get a bit siloed, can't it? So, I was interested how you’ve gone about that in terms of sharing the expertise that you've got. Is it kind of a culture of ‘look, don't be afraid to shout up if you need help. Don't be afraid to offer help if you if you can’?

JC: Yeah. Look, you've asked me a big kind of thing there. There's a lot of ways I can respond on different levels. I mean, certainly as a leadership team we've sent out a Google sheet and everyone says what they can teach and everyone says other things that they're interested in, in education. And we keep that as a tracking tool, because sometimes, you know, I'm the person that holds all that knowledge in my head (and I can't hold it all in my head) because I've read everyone's applications and interviewed everyone. So, I have an idea of what they can do. I remember what they've done in the past. So, we do use Google Sheets or Google Surveys to collect that kind of information.

Short surveys in general are also good to get a temperature reading on the staff. Like, what do you need more of? What do you need less of? What can you offer in terms of professional learning? In case they have sort of done a lot of that at their previous school, and we don't want to be repeating things that they know, or can we use that staff member to actually help others? I think that's really important.

Another way of doing it too is sometimes, you know, it's just about having conversations with people. So sometimes I'm a bit like the PR glue – I might be in the staff lounge and I'm making myself, you know, trying to make myself a coffee and of course, every time the principal uses the coffee machine, there's no coffee beans and I'm stuffing around. And I talk to someone, and I find out something that they used to do or, you know, in their pastime they do whatever they're doing. And then someone else mentions something and I say ‘you should talk to Jo. Did you know that Jo coaches netball? She might be really great at coaching the netball team’ and so then that teacher scurries off and finds Jo and says, ‘Oh my God, I heard that you're a netball player…’, you know. So it is about also enabling staff to connect with each other and giving them little bits of information that they can go on a treasure hunt and find out in a new school.

But another thing is that we very much formalised Where do I go for help? So we actually have an infographic document that we send out and we put it in our Induction Pack, and it makes it very clear which role you go to for help. It doesn't stop you from going to [get] help from everyone. But it might be, you know: If you're concerned about curriculum planning, who should you see? If you're concerned about student wellbeing and engagement, who could you go and talk to? If you're concerned about your workload, who could you speak to first? What's the role of the Department Employees Assistance Program (and all of this) and when might you want to tap into that? What's the role of the education union (and all this)? And you might want to tap into that. And what's Consultative Committee do? And you might want to tap into that. And if you're a grad, where can you go for help? And the reason that we created that here is because I had to create that at my previous school when I realised that new staff are often very confused where they can go to for help and they can end up wasting a lot of their precious time going to the wrong person and getting the wrong advice or support when we could actually help guide them with this infographic chart. So that's another way of tapping into all of this as well.

JE: That's good, that's a great idea. You were mentioning there about trying to keep everything in your head. You're trying to keep my questions in your head! Because I don’t know about you, but I think they get longer as we're getting through the series. I'm so sorry. I'll try and keep this one a bit shorter. Oh, I do love catching up with you. OK, then – collaboration can mean a 2-way conversation as well between teachers and leadership. How do you get that feedback loop going and then how does that inform your planning and action? Are you a kind of, like, ‘my door’s always open’? How have you gone about that?

JC: Yeah, I am a kind of try to be ‘my door’s always open’ kind of principal. But in saying that, you end up being the principal that doesn't get any work done at school; especially in the early years of a new school because you're conscious that you're also about supporting and building the capacity of others around you. So, if you're not available, they can't access you, they can't check in, so I do keep that kind of open-door policy. And I think that is important actually, especially across the 2 campuses. I personally might walk around with people on yard duty and have a chat to them as well and sort of listen to what's going on. Or if they raise a concern, I kind of try to work out, you know, what's really … is this about not enough time? Is it about not enough skill? Is it about that another leader hasn't communicated clearly? And how can I sort of navigate that for them?

We do like to send out short surveys. I think that's really important. How did this go? What did you think? So, coming up soon is our year 10 exams, which, you know, exams are such [a massive] organisation in a school. And many schools … we start them early, to give the kids who are going to go on to do these exams in senior school a chance of understanding. But there's no doubt we have to review what we've done and see if we can improve that. When we do our first reports, we'll send out a survey. Anonymous, whatever, let us know what you needed to know more of. What did we do well? What do we need to focus on?

And I've also gleaned some information recently when I sat down with each of my assistant principals and just sort of had a, not a formal review, just asked them about how things are going in reference to the Strategic Plan. And some made some really good comments and suggestions, which I could see there was a bit of a theme around visibility, educational visibility. Are we being seen enough walking around and going into classrooms? What can we do about that? Because that's the other key thing, isn't it, to actually action something you might hear about.

And then of course, like a lot of state schools, I suppose, we have the [staff opinion] survey that's coming up, and staff get to formally do a survey on many aspects of the school and we take those results very seriously. I mean, they're usually used to inform strategic plans and annual implementation plans. So, that's sort of another layer on top of just what we do in-house.

JE: Yeah, you're right. The key bit is the action, because if you just keep ignoring it going ‘oh, thanks very much for your feedback’ and not doing anything about it then people are likely to clam up next time you say ‘oh, have we got any suggestions or feedback?’

JC: Yeah, look, I think the key is communication because sometimes people give feedback, but they're missing the rest of the picture. And so, we're not going to action on that, but it might alert us (or might alert me) to something else. Or we can actually be transparent and report back in a staff School Improvement meeting and say ‘this is the kind of feedback we received. We can do something about this and something about this, however we want you to all work in groups about some ideas around this’, so it's a shared ownership to solutions as well.

JE: Yeah, good point. Okay then, we've reached the last 3 questions for reflection then. So, usual thing, the last month if you cast your mind back. So, we've got biggest challenge, key learning, proudest achievement.

JC: I think the biggest challenge at the moment is that we are trying to get through all our senior school registration policies, documents, course outlines by the 30th of June, while we're also trying to run the first year 10 exams and help teachers write exams and understand and prepare the students – and all of this is coming together in a, you know, cacophony of high levels of productivity and a little bit of stress. So that's the biggest challenge. We've got a date and we've got to meet it, but we can't ignore the rest of our responsibilities and other things we need to do. And there's only so many of us. There's no solution to this, it's just acknowledging we have a challenging month ahead and we'll get there and then we'll see what happens in the holidays. We'll have a rest. I'd like to say that we could manage it differently, but you know, there is a lot of stuff that has to happen for the first time in new schools, and people really sometimes underestimate that – every time you do something and you introduce something for the first time, it takes a lot more work than when you stepped into an established school, and it's already been set up and you might adjust it and review it, improve it, get rid of it, but it's been set up. That's my challenge.

Key learning? Look, I think this is just, this is just a general comment because obviously as a principal I get to sit in meetings where there are parents and students who maybe have made some poor choices, or good choices. But generally, you know, I think I just want to acknowledge the key learning is to remember that parenting is actually really hard. It's a hard gig out there at the moment. Parents are competing with electronics, with the phones, with live streaming channels, with young people who are confident in many ways and maybe not so confident in other ways. And I just want to say, you know, my learning was to remember that parenting is hard.

And when I listen to some of our parents, I realise they're trying to do their best or they're not really sure what direction to go in next, and we can't always help them, but it's not that I think … I think everyone wants the best for their children. It's just that parenting is hard, and as schools, we do provide a lot of support, but obviously at the end of the day, the young person goes home to that family and to the parent or carer.

And my proudest achievement, this is a really smallish one – it's not my achievement, it's the students. Very small, but kind of exciting because sometimes it's the little things that are very exciting. So, as a new school, when you go off to compete in interschool sport (and I've probably mentioned this before) you can actually get thrashed by the other schools; because you have less students to choose from, you kind of find that the staff member who's your coach is busy running around doing, you know, lots of yard duties, because we only have limited number of staff. So, even though I'm happy for them to train, it's not always actually possible.

But our year 10 boys soccer team has won there interschool sport final at the network level, so they're going up to the next level – and that's pretty awesome. They were very excited. They did train after school with their teacher, but it was more that, you know, even though we've only got ‘x’ amount of students that they can achieve this and they've, you know, are going to go up against other schools that have Soccer Academies, but they don't care about that, because they all play club soccer and they think they can hold their own. And that does create a bit of a buzz.

You know, kids go ‘alright, we're new, but we actually did this. This is pretty good.’ And, you know, I think that's special. That was exciting. I did a bit of an announcement over the loudspeaker, because I like those kind of things and celebrating all the kids’ achievements.

JE: That's a good one! Go on the year 10 boys soccer. Well done! OK, then we're going to stick with the whole reflection thing next time because it’s nearly been a year since we started talking to each other and it's actually going to be the series final next month! So, I'm looking forward to that one. Going to let you go now, though. I'll speak to you soon.

JC: No worries, Jo. Thank you.

That’s all for this episode – the next time we catch up with Jo it’ll be for the School Assembly Series 2 Final, so hit subscribe on our podcast channel to make sure you don’t miss that one. If you want to keep listening now, there are more than 300 episodes in the Teacher archives to binge on. And if you could leave a rating and review while you’re there, that would be awesome – it helps people like you to find the podcast and it’s a great support for the Teacher team!

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Other episodes in this series:

In this episode, principal Jo Camozzato shares how she uses short surveys to check in with the school community on various practices in the school. As a school leader, how frequently are you utilising surveys to receive feedback from staff, students and families? Are you using results from surveys to inform your next steps? How are you communicating the value of feedback to your school community?