I think most of you know that I am the principal of a very remote, area school in the north of South Australia. We have about 230 students preschool to Year 12. We are classified Category 1 and have an ICSI rating of about 800. This could be considered ‘code’ for complex social, emotional and economic circumstances for a significant cohort of our student body. We are an interesting community, and the school population is 62% Aboriginal and we come from more than 30 different cultural backgrounds. Many are/were non-English speakers. School engagement has been problematic, with attendance running between 60 and 75% depending on what is happening in the school and broader community.
I have now been here for over a year and love it.
As is often the case, I have been doing some reflection about what has been needed as pre-requisites to enable our students to have a voice in their education. This continues to be an ongoing project!
Some key findings from my lived experience so far:
Shared vision takes time– My biggest ‘ah ha’ moments were all around the challenges created by being expedient, rather than working to bring others along by developing their leadership skills or creating shared commitment to a vision that inspires.
In a school that has an identified improvement focus: ‘laying the foundations’, it is easy to fall into the trap of making expedient decisions and just getting things done.
It’s a trap.
If staff are to feel empowered and that they have a voice, lack of consultation, not being brought along on the journey and a loss of appreciative focus are damaging.
I remember a discussion with a group of leaders many years ago. We talked about the importance of the trifecta: ‘appreciate the need to ….’, ‘willing to …’ and probably most importantly ‘able to …’
In a context like mine, where every primary teacher and more than half of the secondary teachers are early career teachers, the trifecta is crucial. Mentoring and support is thin on the ground and often tied to mandated literacy and numeracy expectations, so the ‘able to ..’ is a challenge that takes time and needs care.
Building a culture of respect and trust– From the beginning I have been struck by the expectation that I, as principal, should punish misbehaviour. There are a number of things I see as problematic in this expectation:
o I do not see myself as someone who uses ‘power over’ to solve problems, I am not willing to do it deliberately.
o Power over is problematic in that it creates compliance, but does not develop personal responsibility, ownership or motivation.
o I am one person, and there is a staff of 54 and 230 students – I couldn’t wield power over this number of people.
o Many of our students have trauma and grief/loss in their backgrounds, power is often a trigger for aggression. Some of our biggest ‘wins’ have come from offering choice. This can look like the forced choice that parents offer young children: Do you want to clean your teeth before or after your bath? But it works!
o In the same way ‘able to …’ has been crucial with staff, we’ve had to constantly reassess what our students know and can do social/emotionally, behaviourally etc. Teaching them how to be successful at school is certainly more effective than punishment.
o If we expect students to be resilient, independent, responsible citizens, they need to learn to take responsibility for their own behaviour. They need to feel that they are in a place that respects them and allows them to exercise their voices.
Ensuring that teachers have a voice. It didn’t occur to me initially, but of course teachers who feel limited and constrained, and defer to leaders for action and decisions, are unlikely to be able to offer opportunities for their students to use their voices. Teachers too need to feel they are in a place that respects and trusts them and allows them to exercise their voices.
The need for shared language, shared meaning and shared commitment to action. When people talk about ‘student voice’ they can mean anything from SRC/governance involvement to voice in learning. See my definition of voice here. We have begun to unpack some of the research into levels of voice and what this means for our context and have started some new initiatives to help students understand what ‘voice’ means:
o A range of consultation processes to find out what secondary students’ pathways might be and what they need to learn to get there, have shaped the timetable and our flexible curriculum options.
o Student Actions Teams Years 7-10. Students chose areas of action and every secondary middle schooler is in an Action Team (such as: grounds, interoception, PE/activities, IT tech team etc) that meets weekly to plan and take action. That’s a work-in-progress as yet, but it is interesting to see students grapple with how to make an idea come to life.
o Making a Difference (MAD) Years 5/6. We recognised that a disadvantage of being in an area school is that there isn’t a defined time where the leadership mantle falls on primary students’ shoulders.
We have created a ‘primary leaders being MAD’ focus and have students supporting a number of initiatives including: Everybody Reads in the library, mentoring younger readers and supporting the acquisition of sight words, peer mediators helping in the yard and a library team involved in book selection and library operations.
All of these processes involve significant teacher commitment and involvement and student learning.
Every day we have new learning experiences! What a gift, to be in a job and in a place that challenges our values and beliefs, stretches our thinking and requires us to be the best we can be to give the students in our care the best education we can.