Learning on both sides of the Tasman

Issue: Volume 97, Number 22

Posted: 6 December 2018
Reference #: 1H9pX0

Having time away from their schools to explore new ideas, reflect on their own practice and experience a new environment has given two Christchurch principals a different perspective on their leadership.

There’s a lot of talking going on in the staffroom at Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto as teachers prepare for the day ahead. And Tyson Grinham, Principal of Lockleys North Primary School in Adelaide, is taking it all in.

Tyson is visiting as part of the South Australia/New Zealand Principal exchange, where principals spend eight weeks shadowing each other as they lead their respective schools. Tyson has relished the opportunity to observe Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto Principal Sandy Hastings and get her feedback on what he is doing as a leader and where he is leading his school.

“It has also taught me the importance of taking the time to sit back, assess what is happening and build my skills rather than chasing instant results” he says.

For Sandy it has been a chance to step outside her day-to-day job and gain new ideas from immersing herself in a different environment.

St Francis of Assisi Principal Jo Earl and Golden Grove Primary School Principal Wendy Moore talk to students.

Similar conversations are taking place across town at St Francis of Assisi Catholic School, as Principal Jo Earl hosts Golden Grove Primary School Principal Wendy Moore.

“Being able to talk with Wendy about my experiences and what I observed has been a great way to reflect on my practice” says Jo. “You see things through a different lens depending on whether you are leading or observing and it really makes you think about why you make decisions.”

Lessons in leadership

Observing how others lead has sparked many discussions for both sets of principals, particularly around building leadership within teams and supporting collaborative teaching. At Beckenham, Sandy has invested in developing team leaders. To help teachers adjust to teaching collaboratively in new flexible learning spaces, team leaders were supported to develop coaching and mentoring skills.

They now closely support teachers in their teams to transition to more collaborative ways of teaching. This model of professional development has been very successful in enabling teachers to share practice and is raising the capability of the whole group. This has contributed to a smooth transition and has had positive effects for both staff and students.

“We’ve been able to use management units to recognise these extra responsibilities and it has been really useful seeing how Lockleys North School is using teacher release time to support collaborative learning models too,” says Sandy.

At both Lockleys North and Golden Grove Primary School, specialist teachers give others release time to develop their skills. Seeing how engaged Golden Grove students were when working with a specialist PE teacher has prompted Jo to investigate whether something similar could work for her school.

“I saw how focused the specialist teachers were and the effect it had on the children, and am thinking about how we could implement that in a couple of curriculum areas, such as PE, music, technology, and languages.”

The exchange hasn’t just been about principal development.

“I could see that our staff were enjoying the responsibilities delegated to them during my exchange so now we are more explicit about looking for opportunities to allow that leadership capability to flourish,” says Sandy.

Seeing how senior leaders have benefited from the opportunity to have new leadership learning, the team are now sharing leadership and management tasks to build capacity.

“The mystery and isolation of principalship is long gone, and that’s a good thing. The important thing is that we are able to have robust and deep discussions about the challenges we face and use collaboration at a leadership level to find solutions and ways forward,” she says.

At St Francis of Assisi School, Jo shares an office with her two deputy principals, who have also benefited from the opportunity to get Wendy’s perspective on issues they were grappling with and create bonds that will encourage collaboration far beyond this year. 

Through the exchange Sandy has also gained new ideas for growing students’ confidence and leadership skills.

“Seeing senior students on stage is really inspirational for younger children, and in Adelaide I saw Tyson’s leaving students giving graduate speeches. Introducing something like this would fit really well with our student leadership model and give our juniors something to aspire to”.

Approaches to learning

For Tyson, seeing what another school does has reaffirmed what he is doing and allowed him and Sandy to explore a shared interest in learning through play. At both Beckenham and Lockleys North School, allowing learning to be driven by children’s interests has resulted in much smoother transitions for children starting school. 

“We’re also finding that supporting children to solve problems with others and try new ideas in a way that flows more naturally from the preschool environment is working much better for new entrants with complex needs than a more structured teacher-directed environment would,” says Sandy. Beckenham new entrant teachers are also focused on making links between the key competencies set out in
The New Zealand Curriculum and the learning dispositions and working theories in the Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum.

For Tyson, learning environments play a key role in helping children adjust.

“Preschools are flexible learning environments, so to ease transitions we need to create that at school as well” he says.

Both Beckenham and Lockleys North have flexible learning spaces and he has had many discussions with Sandy about team teaching strategies and how pedagogy interacts with learning environments. Seeing how Tyson’s school uses specialist teachers in these teaching spaces has given Sandy new ideas for enhancing teaching at her school.

St Francis and Golden Grove are also exploring pedagogies where children take the lead and explore open-ended and interesting resources, either independently or with a teacher. With teams of teachers working in flexible learning spaces, St Francis is promoting student agency and engagement by delivering the curriculum through a project-based learning approach.

Students work in a flexible learning environment where they attend different workshops according to their needs. This has allowed teachers to better support children to explore their ideas, challenge their thinking and develop and test hypotheses. 

At Golden Grove, they’re teaching collaboratively in a more traditional setting.

“The learning spaces in our two schools are quite different and this has provided much food for thought,” says Wendy.

“Seeing Wendy’s teachers using many of the same techniques as we do has shown me that how we teach is the most important thing, not what space we’re doing it in,” says Jo. 

Student engagement

Seeing New Zealand schools contextualising learning for their local situations has sparked an interest for both Wendy and Tyson.

“Seeing how excited and engaged students and parents are about their local curriculum has been a highlight for me,” says Tyson.

While the Australian curriculum is more focused on specific content knowledge rather than the big ideas and concepts in The New Zealand Curriculum, Tyson is looking forward to finding ways of introducing some of what he’s seen in Christchurch to Lockleys North School. 

Tyson was impressed by the cultural inclusivity at Beckenham and the way Māori culture is woven into school life. He hopes to introduce some of the strategies he’s seen at Lockleys North and has recently appointed an Aboriginal Education teacher. While in Adelaide, Sandy shared some of the strategies her staff use to respond in culturally inclusive ways. 

Observing the children at Jo’s school has also allowed Wendy to reflect on ways to encourage student engagement at Golden Grove.

“St Francis is part of the Manaiakalani Outreach programme and getting our students blogging could be a great way to lift the engagement of our older students in reading and writing,” she says.

Broader experiences

One of Jo and Wendy’s many discussions about the ways their different systems worked coincided with the South Australian Principals Association conference, where international education expert Pasi Sahlberg spoke about three global trends in education, noting Australia’s use of standardised testing and the New Zealand system’s focus on applying knowledge. Unpicking the benefits of both their systems has allowed both Wendy and Jo to identify ways to enhance their practice. One of these was the use of data.

“I saw principals really drilling down into data at a review of a partnership (similar to NZ’s Kāhui Ako)” says Jo. “Introducing some of the structures that they have could work really well for our cluster in Christchurch.”

While South Australian schools take a whole-of-system approach, Wendy says her experience of New Zealand’s system has encouraged her to keep trying innovative pedagogical practices at her school.

Despite the differences, good quality teaching and learning in New Zealand is the same as good quality teaching and learning in Australia and having authentic relationships with students is important to all four principals. All four agree that the exchange has been a unique professional development opportunity and they encourage others to apply. 

The South Australia/New Zealand Principal Exchange enables principals to learn something new from the experience of shadowing a principal in a different jurisdiction, while providing an opportunity to build leadership capability and time to reflect on their own practice.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 12:15 pm, 6 December 2018

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