School Improvement Episode 53: Successful school and university partnerships

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher. I’m Dominique Russell. We know that highly effective schools are enhancing student outcomes by fostering strong relationships with their community – not only with parents and carers, but also building and maintaining successful 2-way partnerships with other community stakeholders like First Nations elders, universities and local businesses. Successful and strategic 2-way partnerships that are collaborative, can not only enhance student outcomes, but build staff efficacy, too.

In this episode of School Improvement I’m joined by Lesley Johnson, Head of Pedagogy and Practice Development at Trinity College in Adelaide, and Simon Leonard, Professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of South Australia (or UniSA). These 2 have been working together closely through the partnership that the school has with the university and in this conversation, we delve into all the details of the partnership – from how it got started back in 2017, to what’s in the works for the near future. Simon and Lesley share how the partnership is improving practice for both school and university staff, how they have overcome challenges, and of course, the key to ensuring that this partnership is an enduring one. Let’s jump in.

Dominique Russell: Welcome, Simon and Lesley. Thank you for joining me on today's podcast episode. I thought to start our conversation, Lesley, I'll go to you first. Could you tell me a bit about your school context at Trinity College and also a bit about your role there.

Lesley Johnson: Trinity College is a multi-school independent co-educational college located approximately 50 kilometres north of Adelaide in South Australia. We have 6 schools – we have a senior school which is located at our Gawler campus (that is for years 11 and 12) and then we have 6 other junior schools and 5 middle schools. So, our most recent school is Roseworthy and that is currently a junior school but will roll through to become a middle school as the students progress through their educational journey. And the other schools, we have early years to year 10.

So it was founded 40 years ago in 1984 (it is our 40th anniversary this year) and it was founded out of a local Anglican Church Hall with a vision to offer a comprehensive education that really fosters spiritual, social, academic and physical development of its students.

My role is Head of Pedagogy and Practice Development. That entails advising and supporting the school principals on matters of pedagogy and taking oversight of the professional learning agenda so that we are all pooling together towards our aim, which is enactment of the Trinity Education Model.

DR: Fantastic. And Simon, can you tell me about your role at the University of South Australia?

SL: At UniSA I'm a Professor of the Learning Sciences and this means I'm interested in how educational knowledge and all the things that come from research are actually implemented in everyday schools. My team have been particularly interested in looking at, really, the intersection of the affective (or the emotional) and the cognitive. So it’s things like anxiety or motivation in a particular subject. We're interested in things like creativity in the decisions that students make. These intersections that reflect the reality of working with kids, where it’s never just one thing. And how we how we turn that into practice in a real school. That’s the research area that I lead.

I also look after UniSQ's pre-access equity program. So this is the work that the university does in partnership with schools like Trinity to improve the capacity for young people from underrepresented groups; be it low-SES [socio-economic status] or rural and regional Aboriginal kids to develop the capacity to choose higher education and I oversee that program at UniSA as well.

DR: And so Trinity College's partnership with the University of SA has been ongoing since 2017. Lesley, can you tell us a little bit about what the main aims of the partnership are?

LJ: Well, since I've been involved in this partnership with UniSA through the Trinity Research Institute, we've really seen this evolve a little bit. We started off (when I was first involved) in just trying to build the capacity of some of our teachers to engage with research and to engage in a way that was making a difference to their practice. That's still what we're trying to do, but we're trying to scale it a little bit more. And we also have a number of our staff who are working towards higher degrees now.

So, from our point of view, it's about raising that profile of research within the college, but also [making] it clear to the staff that it doesn't have to be inaccessible. It can be something that is very, very applicable to their day-to-day practice, but also that what they bring through their practice is also very, very valuable. And so it's that sort of symbiosis of ‘we're both getting something out of it’ that's really important to us.

And to also have some partners that we can bounce ideas off of; that we can think creatively with; that we can use as critical friends; that we can really use as a resource, but also use as a – not just a resource; it's not just about, you know, what the university can bring in terms of the materials that come to our staff for discussions that are had, but just the fact that it raises them up professionally in terms of what it means to be a teacher and what teacher professionalism is.

DR: Simon from the university’s perspective, why was entering a partnership of this kind of interest to you and how did the partnership come about originally?

SL: The partnership really started with some conversations with the careers advisor at Trinity who was asking about success (or otherwise) of the students coming from Trinity into UniSA. We've got a very strong transfer of students – Trinity is the biggest individual source of students at this university, and we're the most common destination for students from Trinity to go to. So it was that conversation that was really the start of this, but the conversation really grew.

And we were really intrigued by what I would say is a holistic approach that we saw from Trinity and the leadership there. Because they were asking questions about all the things that a year 12 score doesn't capture when we're talking about success for young people after school and things about self-efficacy and confidence and why young people are making particular choices. And there was a genuine interest in that that piqued our interest. So in terms of a nascent relationship and, you know, just developing a conversation that was really worth pursuing, we were interested in the fact that we had a school that was understanding there were things that they didn't completely understand.

And that really grew into what I would describe as a formative approach to the partnership. We have together designed the things that we're looking for and built the research and let it find its own path, to some extent. Sometimes schools want universities to just come in and give them the answers. So, ‘we have a problem right now about wellbeing’ or ‘we have a problem with our literacy outcomes’ or whatever, and we’re quite confined and quite immediate: ‘What can we do right now that will address this problem that's our most urgent thing?’. But yeah, from our perspective, what we're really interested in and where we think this relationship has lasted for so long is we've taken the time to work out how those things fit together and not just try and solve the one thing right now, but to work out where those problems fit in a bigger picture.

DR: Lesley, back to the school perspective now, how would you say this partnership is really helping to meet both staff and student needs at the college and what opportunities is it providing your school community?

LJ: For our staff it is a place where they can come and talk about the big ideas in education. So the way that that plays out operationally is that the Institute is – it's notional, but it's also a place. It's a place within the library, and it's a space where, it's at the intersection of 3 of our schools, and it serves as a place where our staff can drop in. They can ask about particular big ideas. They can engage in conversation about big ideas. They can reflect on their practice.

And really what we're doing is we're building their capacity as practitioner researchers in one sense, but as reflective practitioners. So that they're actually thinking about the problems of their practice. And instead of looking for the next big program or the next big expert – they're thinking critically about, ‘how might I address this? And how might I use the expertise that's around me, including the partnership with UniSA, to get an insight or better understand what that problem is?’ Because it is very, very complex. We're moving our staff away from this linear understanding of cause and effect in education and more towards that complexity space. So that's something that wasn't even in our lexicon, you know, a few years ago. And now we hear staff talking about emergence and we hear staff talking about learning analytics and having a critical eye on practice, which then allows other opportunities to emerge.

And I think that part of the success of this partnership is that we have been very flexible. We are looking for emerging opportunities and we are sensing and responding, sensing and responding; as opposed to thinking: ‘We've got the answer. This is what we need to do and we just need to get to that endpoint’.

SL: I’ll jump in there Lesley and say what you describe there that sort of ‘drop in’ component –

whether it is the physical space in the library or the ability that we've had to just jump onto a Teams call and start having a having a yarn – I think that's been really valuable for a lot of my team too. Researchers can sometimes get quite insular; we're getting down into the depths of the problem that we're looking at. And for all of those … we're not all living off in ivory towers, but we can get a bit disconnected and sometimes just the informal conversations that this relationship has allowed to take place or the testing of ideas and to ground it back into the everyday experience of people in the classroom on a day-to-day basis, I think that's been a real value to my team as well.

LJ: And in terms of student need, the teachers are using this as a professional development/professional learning experience that is really impactful – immediately impactful oftentimes – for student outcomes, because this is about immediate problems in the teacher's practice that they want to address. And so it's not some sort of professional learning where you go, ‘oh, that's a good idea, I might try that next week. I might not,’ and then it just sort of sits on the shelf or in a drawer. It's that real time, really – I don't want to say real and impactful too many times – but it's that contextually nuanced response within the practice.

SL: Also Lesley, I was just reading, one of your staff had put together an outline of some innovative work that they've been doing and the ability that has grown to actually bring evidence. So, if you think of a process a bit like, say, the High Achieving and Lead Teacher Certification process and that call for bringing evidence to practice – we often get called on to help the profession with how do you do that. How do you actually present a brief of evidence based on this really complex thing that teachers do? And it's really hard to actually get across. You know, we can bring beautiful PowerPoints and well-crafted explanations of ‘what does it mean to evidence practice?’. But it's something you've almost got to live, because what is the right piece of evidence? What is the right piece of information that demonstrates a practice that goes across so many different functions and so many different components? And that there is never a right answer, the answer is always deeply contextual.

Something I was really proud of was looking at, you know – I think it's an outcome of what we've been doing – I think that the professional conversations that we've generated around the Trinity Institute model have led to just this increased capacity for an understanding of how we draw evidence to demonstrate excellent practice, or how we draw evidence to improve practice as well. So I think that's been a really great outcome.

LJ: Another thing that – I’m just reflecting on our first cohort of the Trinity Institute Professional Certificate of Future Oriented Learning cohort and thinking about how they came into this experience, really passionate about, you know, we feel our education system is broken, we think we've got some idea about this, but we're not sure what. And they really wanted to dig into that. But what we found is that as we were leading some discussion around some academic work that we were examining, they would often look to who they considered to be the experts in the room and say, ‘is that right? Is that right? Am I picking that up properly?’ But then we moved through that process, you could really see their capacity being built and that they started to engage in dialogue with each other instead of through who they consider to be the expert in the room. And what we've also found from that then is a lot of those people in that first cohort and indeed the second cohort have gone on to take up leadership positions within the college. Now, you know, that could be the chicken and the egg sort of analogy there, but I do think that being able to engage in critical, reflective dialogue has really helped them to build themselves as professionals.

DR: And Simon, in terms of the partnership at the current time, is there anything that you wanted to share with our listeners about any work that's currently being focused on?

SL: Yeah, look, I think we’re at a really exciting stage now. I was describing before some of the longevity of this partnership is that we've been able to take, it feels like a formative approach or a developmental approach, and to make decisions together over time. But while we've been doing that, we've been collecting some longitudinal data where – and this is really unusual in [worldwide] education – to start to get some detailed pictures of a large number of students over a number of years. And so one of the exciting things we're doing at the moment is actually starting to have longitudinal data that we can analyse and write out of and tell the story that that data gives us. And so we're analysing that.

And so, the analysis that we're doing with the kids and the learning and things we’re able to demonstrate. We're learning a lot about the nature of self-efficacy. And we're learning – one of the really interesting things that one of my team did recently was to have a look at the interrelationship between where the kids perceive that they are going to able to be creative in a particular subject and the decision to keep choosing to do that subject when it stops being compulsory. And we found that it's actually a really strong relationship. And so sometimes when we think you know, ‘how do we get encourage more kids to choose mathematics?’ or ‘how do we encourage them to choose languages?’ we'll often focus in on the content. But what this data at Trinity is telling us is that when we step back from the content a little bit and start thinking about ‘what is the activity that goes on in those subjects and do students feel that they can have power, the power to be creative?’ And it comes back to an idea of autonomy, I think.

So we're having findings like that fall out of the data, so that's one of the really exciting things that's starting to happen because we've been able to sit and actually track ‘what was this kid, or these group of kids, thinking when they were in year 7, year 8, year 9, and all the way through now’. We've got a cohort that's gone all the way through high school.

We're also seeing a lot about teacher behaviours. Lesley’s described that a little bit already, but what she didn't mention was she's just published a paper [of] her own research. She was looking at how informal networks can develop. They can actually work really effectively alongside the formal leadership structures in a school. And schools have traditionally very, very strong hierarchical structures. And we all know that that's not the only thing that goes on, right. Teachers are highly autonomous, teachers have lots of say in what they do in their own practice, and teachers work with each other in collaborative groups that are sometimes quite distinct to the formal hierarchies. And that's appropriate, teaching is a profession. But what we've been doing in the partnership at Trinity is actually working very hard on scaffolding those networks and making them live networks and empowering the people within those networks to recognise their own expertise and recognise the expertise of the people they're working with and where to go when they don't have expertise. So we're seeing that sort of finding coming out.

And we got a few more of the – again, as Lesley said – a few of the Trinity teachers now moving into using our structure of the HDR (a higher degree, like a PhD or a Masters by research) to really drive key elements. One of the things that we've done together, with Trinity, is work on the Trinity Education Model and it's been a collaboration around what is the best evidence in the literature showing and how is that understood in each of the schools that make up the Trinity College? And then through that process (and this is something that Lesley now leads) is the implementation of a college-wide model that brings greater coherence to the discussions.

But part of the way that we're implementing that process, and that process of continuous change and continuous improvement is by having – some of the teachers are using the PhD as a way to do that, to really get a deep understanding of processes like goal setting. Because goal setting is something that we know is useful for metacognition and self-regulation of learning. But goal setting can be done in very different ways, and so we're interested in understanding ‘how is the best way to do goal setting in this context with the traditions of this place and with the understanding that these children bring to their schooling?’ And what better way to do that than a long-term project being made by a teacher in the school?

So, these are some of the sorts of things that are starting to happen right now. In terms of activity, it's really getting to the exciting time. We've been doing a lot of a lot of good stuff for a lot of years, but the demonstrable outputs and things that we can say with certainty and things that we know that we need to explore more are becoming really evident.

After the break, Lesley and Simon share why this partnership has been so successful for so many years, the challenges they’ve encountered, and what’s ahead for the future. But first, here’s a quick message from our sponsor.

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DR: In terms of how this partnership has been so successful for so many years, when we think about the elements that have made that your reality – I know Lesley, you've mentioned so far that the partnership is quite flexible in nature and from your perspective, Simon, you've said it’s a really formative approach and it's kind of developing quite organically with the work that you're participating in together. But I thought if there's anything else to mention about what's really been key to the success of this partnership. Lesley, would you like to share any insights with us?

LJ: I think definitely a mutual respect for each position. So, knowing that it's not all about the academics and the theory, and it's not all about the practice – it's about the intersection of those things. And I think because there is that respect for each other's stance, we do realise that we've all got something very unique to bring to that partnership. And really working with the collaborative spirit as well. So it's definitely not transactional. It feels very natural and authentic and truly collaborative.

DR: And Simon, was there anything to add?

SL: Look, I'd echo that and echo it strongly. I think sometimes you work with schools and there's a real [message] coming across of, you know, ‘last time you were in a classroom, you were still using a blackboard’, right? And I've never had that at Trinity. There's always been a recognition that we bring a particular kind of expertise from the research world that has value. And I'm always glad to hear that the reverse is true, that Trinity gets the sense that … because because we really do value the expertise that is daily practice. Teachers do really complex work that's constantly evolving and learning from that is so important to us to understand and build the kind of knowledge that we build.

Some other things that I think we've done well on both sides of the partnership is to make sure that there is tangible short-term benefit for the staff that get involved. And I think that is, you know, for all we have talked about, it's flexible and it's long term (and the leadership has really engaged at that level) but for busy teachers, for busy teaching and research staff in a university, trying to find the time to invest in what we do in this partnership can be hard. You sit there and go, ‘at the end of the day do I want to go and talk to that person from the university, that person from the school?’, and it can easily get bumped down your priority list.

So, we’ve done things like, on the school side, Lesley was talking about cohorts of a Professional Certificate. So we've structured some of the way that we're related and some of the way that we build small projects and some of the way that we do that, just the opportunity to have conversation; we’ve structured that as formal professional development so that the teachers have been able to put the time of the relationship into the teacher PD column and meet those requirements for their registration and so on, or just for their career advancement. And we've done that in structures that do provide pathways into higher learning in the university. So, there are credit transfer pathways into our Master of Education, or it provides a pathway towards a PhD, say. So, there's that kind of tangible activity on that side.

And on the university side, it's probably just as important, when we have, particularly early career researchers, trying to find their feet in a system where the pressure to produce is always there. We expect our staff to produce outputs, publications, to find new projects, and to make it all happen. And I think what we've done well with the relationship with Trinity is actually provide really strong scaffolding for those, particularly the early career staff who have been able to work in the relationship in a way that does, (you know, we'll make sure, we'll put the structure in place), does make the performance requirements within their own jobs, so they're not having to invent everything.

And from the university perspective and thinking about that role of how we develop these staff – and these are these staff are critical in the in the big picture of school education because these are the people who look after initial teacher education, and we need them to really establish strong careers so they can help educate a whole group of new teachers. And by having this long-term relationship, we're actually taking a lot of the stress out of establishing the research careers, and that's been fabulous. So yeah, that way of getting tangible short- to medium-term benefit mixed in with a bigger picture that's saying, ‘yeah, in the longer term we don't know exactly where this is going, we just know that we're going to keep evolving as the context evolves’.

LJ: From Trinity College's point of view, we really have to acknowledge the commitment to enable this partnership by the college. So, the amount of time, the amount of release, the funding of positions like mine, the fact that we have a Trinity Research Institute and it is held in high regard throughout the college, I think is really testament to that vision by the head and the board to pursue this and commit to this. And we have seen very tangible outcomes of this partnership in terms of the Trinity Education Model – so to be able to put some shape around those ideas and then to evolve in a way that we are now looking to implement that and implement that with the staff in a very power-with mode.

… It's not without its challenges, because we're all time poor, but I find that the fact that we can, as Simon said, jump onto a Teams chat, you know, jump onto that Teams chat and ‘we've got a question about this’ or ‘do you know someone who is writing in this field?’ that's very useful. Challenges of engagement, sometimes, in terms of the staff and the ebbs and flows of the terms. So that, you know, sometimes we will just not have a meeting for a few weeks, but that's okay, and nobody feels like they can't rock up to the next one because you've missed the last 4, because it is just the nature of that really, psychologically safe, I’d say, environment that's being created.

So we are attempting to, as I said before, sense and respond to challenges. And I think that it's testament to the partnership and the longevity of the partnership that we have been able to roll with any challenges that have come to pass.

SL: The time issue – it's interesting. As I said, Lesley just published the paper looking at these informal networks that have developed around the work that we've been doing. And she did mention on the way through the way that so many of the people that have been involved in the collaboration have moved into leadership positions within the college.

And we had one of my other doctoral students from another school, is a leader in another place, who was reading Lesley's work and at the same time thinking himself about the way that teachers think about time, the way that teachers allocate their time, what are the key and critical things to do? And again, it's a really complex issue because there are different points of value that different teachers bring and trying to think through that use of time became really important. So, he was looking at that work that Lesley had done around these networks and going, you know, it's fascinating to start thinking about ‘where are people allocating the time to research?’ and against so many other competing demands.

And we recognise absolutely some of the teachers who have got involved in the Trinity Institute, that they have no time. And Lesley has no time, as far as I can see, because there's so many demands within the busy schedule of a school. So, in terms of what is a challenge for the partnership, I think finding the time is absolutely the biggest challenge.

But I think how we've actually gone about dealing with it and said, yes, the tangible benefits part that I mentioned earlier – but the other thing would be the openness to actually discussing even those challenges. We'll have someone come along to one of the Thursday afternoon meetings and open their laptop and show the inbox with the 300 unanswered emails from today. I think what we've done really well to address that sort of challenge is create the safe space where people can just go: ‘I am snowed under. I cannot keep up with the work demands of this place, but this is a safe place for me to actually explore the professional challenges as well as explore the new knowledge generation that we're doing’.

LJ: And really, it's the partnership that's created that space, because without the partnership, we wouldn't have the Thursday night meetings, because there wouldn't be necessarily anything tangible to be working towards. And nobody has time to just get together with their colleagues and talk about big ideas. So, it's through creation of that physical space, but also that more intangible space, that we've created those conditions for that psychological safety. I think that being able to just come along and have those discussions is so valuable. Whether it's against a backdrop of big ideas or academia or just ‘look, this was a day-and-a-half’, it's really valuable to have that connection and establish that safe space for social learning.

But something I think that we've done quite well is foregrounded the fact that if you do want to study, formally, then the best thing to do is to make it part of your everyday work. So the most successful completions, you might say, in this process have been those projects or an examination of those practices that are directly occurring every single day, or at least every week, in a classroom. So that then you're not doubling up and trying to do extra study in your bedroom after the kids have gone to sleep on a weeknight. It's actually a lot of my data collection from my PhD – in fact, all of my data collection from my PhD – was done during those meetings, because the networks were those that I was examining. So really, it's about being smart about what you're looking at as well. There's no point in maths teacher looking to examine practices in, for example, an English classroom, when they're never in an English classroom. That's quite a, you know, simple example. But the more you can integrate the examination of your practice for study purposes with your actual practice then, you know, the more time you're going to have because you have that dual purpose of that time. You're doing 2 things at once.

DR: And so let's look at the future now to end our conversation. I'm really interested to hear about what the future looks like for this partnership. So, Simon, would you like to kick us off?

SL: We're doing a lot of futures thinking at the moment. So the University of SA is in currently in a process of joining with the University of Adelaide to form the new Adelaide University. And we're going to be a very large university that is going to carry with it the ethos that UniSA has built over the last 30 years of really strong industry engagement, really strong partnership engagement. And so a big part of the future in this partnership is really understanding that this partnership, to us, is the foundation and has given us availability to learn how to do things really well with other partners.

So we've moved into an approach that we're now – we're launching, alongside the new university, the idea of an Education Futures Academy. And the Academy we see as our school partners. This isn't a centre at the university, it's a way of developing particular relationships and particularly strong and deep relationships like we've done with Trinity. And to make sure that the work that's done in all of those places gets shared across the partners that we have and then shared out with the wider profession.

So, we're doing things like starting to convert and use the research that we've been doing in partnership into teacher PD that we can make available to the profession across South Australia and indeed across Australia. And to put that professional development alongside exemplars of best practice. So we're starting to capture great programs of teaching and learning. Great resource design, great interventions into the improvement of educational environments and tell that in a form that is readily digestible. And we're not going into competition with Teacher magazine, right, but we we're going into the, we're going into the really deep dive.

And at some level, we'll do things like produce: ‘Here's a unit of work that you can pull off the shelf’, which we know sometimes teachers absolutely need, right, but we'll put that alongside, ‘here's the PD’, and here's the story from the teacher who developed it in partnership with some of our researchers. And sharing that work with the profession is what we see as the future of the Education Futures Academy. This has all been founded in the relationship with Trinity and we're really excited that we're featuring work that we've done with Trinity as we get that project up and running.

In terms of the relationship with Trinity itself, I'm really excited by the doctoral program projects that have now started. This is going to a greater depth than we've done, these are the long-term deep research projects. [And they’re] interrelated. We've got a few teachers who are doing things that all intersect. So there's one larger project, and again, this is really unusual in educational research – so often we'll have one PhD student doing their project in almost total isolation, and what we've got at Trinity is half a dozen teachers at various stages of looking at practitioner-based research, but research that is worth sharing with the world. Research that makes the immediate environment of their own workplace a better workplace and more powerful work being done.

And so that that phase that we're moving into there of having the professional research community actually in place all in the one school with projects that are separate projects, but that connect to each other, and are going to give us a bigger picture of life in a school and change in a school in response to the evidentiary based coming out of all the other research, that's really exciting and that's a future I'm looking forward to.

DR: And Lesley, from your perspective?

LJ: From our perspective, those teachers who have engaged with the Institute, given that we are such a large college, it's a relatively small proportion, but not an insignificant proportion. Those staff were really the trail blazers and what we want to do now is democratise the process a little bit. I mean it always was open to everybody, but we have our meetings on a Thursday afternoon, so it's those who could make it to the meetings and those who feel that they have the capacity in terms of time and resources. But we want to democratise this and take that out in implementation of the Trinity Education Model so that we are building the reflective practice of our teachers in every single classroom and we're building the collaborative inquiry skills of the teachers in every single classroom. And really taking our lead from those trail blazers that went before them who were involved in the Professional Certificate and higher degree by research cohorts.

So we're looking at sort of tiering of involvement with the Institute. And that is really in its very embryonic stages at the moment. We don't really know what that looks like, but we definitely think that UniSA is going to be a huge part of that.

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Related reading and resources

Johnson, L., Devis, D., Bacholer, C., & Leonard, S.N. (2024). Closing the loop by expanding the scope: using learning analytics within a pragmatic adaptive engagement with complex learning environments. Frontiers in Education.

Vieira, M., Kennedy, J., Leonard, S. N., & Cropley, D. (2024). Creative Self-Efficacy: Why It Matters for the Future of STEM Education. Creativity Research Journal, 1–17. This paper reports on the work mentioned by Simon in the podcast episode on creative self-efficacy.

Watch a video on the findings from Lesley’s paper here:

Read more about the partnership at Trinity College’s website:

In this episode, Simon Leonard says a key element to the success of the enduring 2-way partnership between UniSA and Trinity College is making sure there are tangible, short-term benefit for the staff that get involved.

Think about a voluntary staff working group in your school. Are participants afforded tangible, short-term benefits through this group? If not, how could you incorporate this?