Collaboration with Blue Haven Public School - What works best podcast

This podcast was originally published 13 October 2020.

This podcast is part of an eight-part series. In this podcast, Mark Scott, former Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, dives into what teacher collaboration looks like in practice and why it is important at Blue Haven Public School.

Mark Scott speaks with Substantive Principal and Principal in Residence Literacy and Numeracy, Paul McDermott, Relieving Principal, Dale Edwards, and staff at Blue Haven Public School.

Intro: Welcome to the final episode CESE podcast series on the ‘What works best: 2020 update’. For eight exclusive episodes join the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, Mark Scott, as he speaks with schools and students about effective teaching practices that support student academic achievements.This week’s topic is on collaboration with Blue Haven Public School.

Mark Scott: So today I’m talking with Relieving Principal Dale Edwards and Substantive Principal Paul McDermott and staff at Blue Haven Public School. Always a lot of attention paid to Blue Haven, great work taking place at that school, and we’re talking about the ‘What works best’ theme of collaboration. So what are some of the ways Paul the teachers of Blue Haven use professional collaboration to enrich their learning practices and how do you think it impacts on student learning?

Paul McDermott: Collaboration has been used extensively across our school markets, been really pivotal to our turn around success, we’re firm believers that great teachers don’t happen they’re developed here at Blue Haven so we’ve really tried to build a culture around collaboration and sharing of best practice. Some years ago our school used to work a little bit in isolation and in silos, and we had isolated pockets of excellence. So in order to see systemic improvement across the school we decide we needed to work together and we needed to build capacity amongst all of our staff so collaboration has been hugely effective in helping us to tear the walls down, we all want to be great teachers and the best way to do that is to share our best practice across the school and across the system. So some of the ways we’ve done that effectively here at school, we’re inducting new staff for example, we have teachers that visit one another and share best practice, we have teachers that will actually take all of their class and go and sit in on another teachers class so they can see what great teaching and learning looks like, we have lots of opportunities for providing and receiving feedback, extensive coaching and mentoring through our structural leaders, our wellbeing assistant principal as well. The model that we use here at Blue Haven is really a gradual release, it’s a bit like I guess the model we use in teaching for our students as well so we really support our staff extensively to build confidence and best practice. So our coaches will go in and do demonstration lessons initially and then gradually release that responsibility and turn into a team teaching arrangement and then finally it’ll turn into a coaching arrangement. But certainly the collaboration that takes place here at Blue Haven is based heavily on relational trust and our coaches and our leaders do a marvellous job in developing that trust with our staff so that people feel confident to have people in their rooms and to showcase the best practice they have in place in their rooms. We have 5 weekly collaborative planning sessions where staff will reflect on data and review what they’re doing, look atwhat’s working and what maybe needs to improve to get the best results for our kids.We review our practices constantly here at Blue Haven, so we have processes of collaborative inquiry where teachers will form professional learning communities and review for example reading comprehension, and look at what’s been working and what the research says around what should be happening with reading comprehension to constantly challenge our thinking and build that collective efficacy across the school and to create a culture where there’s great belief in the processes we have in place and the right systems to support people as well.

Mark Scott: Now Dale you’re the Relieving Principal there at the moment, can you talk a little bit about how you’re going about just to create the conditions and the culture that support a meaningful teacher collaboration?

Dale Edwards: Yeah look that culture is absolutely key, we have a really strong collaborative system set up so it happens at all levels within our school, it’s not just at that coalface, that teacher level as Paul was sharing there in that those leadership sessions occur as well. We have a strong senior executive team that we all get together and we collaborate on really strong structures and processes and we lead by example and show that we’re just as open as everybody else to having people come and work with us and engage with us. That collaboration has to be from seen across the entire organisation otherwise you don’t get the buy-in and take-up by the staff and that’s what we have seen. We’ve seen that significant take-up across the school, we’ve had significant turnaround in our data in a very short period of time, in a time that shouldn’t occur and it has been purely based on having strong structures and processes but those collaborative processes that we embed throughout everything, that gets that consistency and that collective efficacy right across the board.

Mark Scott: One of the reasons Blue Haven is such an interesting case study is that strong lift you’ve seen and you’ve held, and strong value add in the school, and you’re saying this is all based around the collaborative culture and that professional culture of learning from each other and working together. I suppose if you work at Blue Haven now you know you’re meant to be doing this because they’ve heard Paul talk, they’ve heard you talk about it Dale, they’ve read the work done by CESE, the school’s kind of famous for it. How do you know that that collaboration is taking place effectively? It’s one thing to go through the meetings and allocate the time and to have the sharing but how do you know that that collaboration is actually having the effect you want it to have in improved teaching and learning outcomes in every classroom? Paul what do you look for?

Paul McDermott: Look it’slike any change process, I think if it’sembedded it’s certainly going to be more successful, and the change we’ve put in place and the collaborationwe’ve put in place at Blue Haven is cultural now. And that’s the really rewarding element of the collaboration that we’ve got in place. Look the situation at the moment with me being in a different duty is a perfect example that we’ve been collaborative since day one and we’ve built the capacity of staff from day one, and the results of that is I’ve walked out of the school to fulfil another role in the department and Dale was ready made to step up into those shoes because we’ve worked so closely together for so long and other staff were able to fill higher duties because we have collaborated on all levels across the school. It’scultural because everyone believes in the processes and systems we’ve got in placewe’ve qualified all of it with evidence to back what we’re doing. There’s a great belief in the direction of the school, and there’s an excitement and a willingness for people to step up and take on leadership duties. So, I think that one of the really positive reflections of the collaboration that we’ve had and the way we know it’s been successful, is the number of people now take on leadership opportunities to lead it in the school which has been really rewarding.

Mark Scott: Dale let me ask you on this because Paul and I have talked previously on it the Every Student podcast we did together, you’ve stepped into this leadership role this year and you’ve picked up the baton and the great collaborative work continues. How confident are you that any school can learn from this collaborative experience? That this isn’t just idiosyncratic to the strong leadership on the ground at Blue Haven but other leaders can really focus on collaborative practice and collective efficacy and see the improvements you’ve seen at Blue Haven?

Dale Edwards: Yeah, I think that absolutely something any school can take up. In fact we’ve had a number of schools contact us to work with us at different times were more than open to that and we’ve had a number of schools come pre-COVID do visits with us and post-COVID do Zoom sessions where we’ve been able to share a bit more detail to our journey and what we’ve been doing and expand that collaboration beyond our own school into other schools and be able to support them with those processes.I think one of the big keys for what we do is about removing those barriers for all schools and teachers because we don’t want it to be a system of monitoring, the collaboration needs to be owned by everyone. And by allowing everyone to own their collaborative engagement with each other then they have that autonomy and they have that motivation and drive to succeed and just to follow on with what Paul was saying we hear the conversation, they are so excited by different processes that they are in control of that they want to tell us and they want to let us know. So they’re always talking to us about what they’re working on and coming up with new ideas around particularly in the areas of PLC’s and things like that to share how they can move forward and it’s absolutely something that any school and pick up and run with.

Paul McDermott: One of the other elements that’s been really rewarding in that collaborative process as well is when we first committed to collaboration in the school and gave people time to meet, and that’s really important in collaboration is committing the time, to give people the time, to collaborate. A lot of the discussions were around timetabling and how do I fit this in here or that in here and where do I do reading and that’s evolved in the last few years now where we’ve moved beyond those surface level conversations to really deep conversations about impact at a classroom level, and this is where my child’s at how do I get them to the next level. And it’sreally rewarding to walk into those collaborative sessions and hear the conversations that are taking place, because they are very high level now and they’re really focused on getting the best that we can for our kids on a daily basis. So that’s another, I guess, indication that it’s having impact at a classroom level. Mark Scott: That’s terrific, thanks Paul, and thanks Dale. Now we’re going to roll in Cathy, Amy and Claire. So Cathy as a teacher at Blue Haven what are you seeing as the benefits of teacher collaboration?

Cathy Dawson: Well I think teacher collaboration has really engaged and motivated us as a staff and it’s helped us to build really supportive and trusting relationships with each other. I think everyone comes to Blue Haven each day with the same goal of wanting to provide a really high-quality education to all of our students. Coming together to combine our strengths is going to give us the best possibility of reaching that goal. Working closely with our colleagues allows us to utilise the expertise that we already have within the school. We’re able to upskill each other in areas that we may feel we need support or improvement in. Another really big benefit of working together is that shared responsibility that it creates over student outcomes. I think when we are working together each day to create programs, we are reflecting on assessment and data, we’re engaging in planning days and just having that regular discussion and dialogue about where our students are and where to next. We all have ownership over student progress. We are able to come together to problem solve and we are able to come together to celebrate and acknowledge student achievement. Mark Scott: That’s great. Tell me when you’re tapping into the expertise of others do you have a clear sense of who you go to for what kind of help, that a certain teacher is just outstanding in classroom management, if there are literacy and numeracy challenges there’s someone else you go to? How do you kind of identify and share that expertise?

Cathy Dawson: Probably one of the fist places we go to are the instructional leaders and they can kind of guide us if we’re not sure, but then also within our team I think we all know the different teachers that have different strengths in different areas which we can go to and share. We regularly touch base at our team meetings, and share successes and what’s happening in our classroom, which gives us a good opportunity to know where people’s strengths are and who you can go to.

Mark Scott: Brilliant. Nice work. Thank you. Roll in Amy. Hi there. How are you?

Amy Quilty: Good thank you, how are you?

Mark Scott: I’m very good. So Amy you’re an instructional leader, a Deputy Principal Instructional Leader at Blue Haven, how do you share ideas, practices and resources?

Amy Quilty: As you can see from some of the things that Paul and Dale said we really value collaboration. It’s kind of that key to success in our school. So we make sure we provide as many opportunities as we possibly can for staff to take part in collaboration, so some of those include whole school PL, where we make sure that every message we share, is shared at a whole
5school level, it’snot just one group getting information and then another group getting different information.

Mark Scott: And why is that important, what’s the benefit that comes from it being a whole school PL?

Amy Quilty: You never know what class you’re going to be on next year. So if you are only privy to the information at your stage then you can’t transfer that in future years to different classes. Also, you’ve got a range of kids with different abilities in your class, so you have to make sure you can cater for them. I guess it contributes to that collective efficacy, we’re all receiving the same information, we all have the same goal and that is to improve and build our capacity as teachers but also to improve outcomes for students. That’s a really important thing to remember, that’s our ultimate goal.

Mark Scott: It’s a great piece of research by CESE that says collaboration is the hallmark of a great school, and Paul and Dale can talk about it being a cornerstone of the success at Blue Haven which a lot of people have commented on, it kind of sounds easy ‘well lets collaborate’, but in practice it’sprobably hard to execute on a daily basis in the school. What are the challenges you’ve had?

Amy Quilty: So for me personally some of the challenges, I guess I was really lucky I’ve been at the school a really long time and initially I had those relationships I didn’t have to necessarily establish them because people had been in my classroom before I was an instructional leader and we’ve had lots of collegial conversations. So, I was lucky to start off with, but I guess that challenge comes when you’ve people youhaven’t established that relationship with. So,the key is taking the time to build those positive relationships and I guess when you are collaborating, ensuring everybody is given the opportunity to have a voice. And that can be tricky when you’ve got new people to the school who are going to try and share your pedagogy which might be unfamiliar. Making sure everybody has the opportunity to share their voice but also making sure that you’re giving them the skills required to feel comfortable in this environment because it is very different to other schools.Mark Scott: What about collaboration beyond the school gate? How do you look to reach out to other schools collaborate with them and learn what they’re doing?

Amy Quilty: And look Mark that’s a really, really important thing. It’s one thing to do fantastic things in your own school but as teachers our goal is to make a difference in as many students’lives as we possibly can. So,opening our school for other schools to come and visit is our first step to developing those really strong relationships with other schools. We’ve had over 300 visitors to our school in the past couple of years and from that we’ve built really strong relationships and gone and visited other schools as well. We don’t pretend that we know everything, there’sso many schools that have fantastic things happening and we’ve been able to visit them and take ideas from them to implement in our school as well. So, I think making sure that we understand that there is more to education than just our school, and to make a difference we need to take on other ideas and practices as well.

Mark Scott: Terrific. Thank you for that. Hi Claire how you going?

Claire Taylor: I’m good how are you?

Mark: So Claire we’ve heard so much about collaboration at Blue Haven, but this must take time, right, to find time to plan and develop and refine teaching and learning programs. How do you go about freeing up time and getting the space to do this collaborative work well?

Claire Taylor: I think it definitely starts with the planning so not only what we’regoing to plan, but how we’regoing to do it and where we’regoing to start. So, we’rereally lucky at Blue Haven that we use Google drive. So, Google drive is an interactive one where I can be working on the same document as the teacher next door in the afternoon. We can ask comments, we can say what does this mean and I think this is a fantastic way that we continue to work on one program at the same time, but also to share our results, our data. I know that in our lessons now we even take some photos and put them up as our evaluations. So it’s a great way of saying oh look this is where my kids are at, and I’m doing writing at the moment too and I find that anytime a teacher writes a comment about how the lesson went that night, I can go ok I’m going to edit and change it this way so it’s suiting where our students are up to. We also have some time every week in our stage meetings so we have about a good set of time aside to discuss a focus area, in terms of if it’s English, maths, where we want to go to next. So we’ll share success stories, well bring in some work samples, we’ll change some lessons if we think they need to be adapted. I think it’sreally important to have that time in our stage meeting to share that success and make sure everyone feels valued as a team. We also have planning days, so every five weeks all the teachers on that stage are off together so we’re able to look at problems, really dig into data to see what’s going on and where we need to go next, bring in work samples and definitely sharing the ideas and strategies that you are using in your room. I know definitely myself I learn best from if someone will say “Oh, I did this for reading and it worked really well and then I’ll try it the next day. We also do, when it comes to refining our teaching, I love at Blue Haven that we have an open door policy. Only last week I did some team teaching with the teacher next to me who’s new to the school and then I would love to do another couple of weeks to go with her to see her strengths as well. We’re able to book in our instructional leaders, so our instructional leaders can come in the room to demo or to watch us teach, we’re given some time to be off class with them to look at how to teach programs. Now that we’re doing with explicit phonics, looking at the exact way we should be teaching it and strategies to use, and we also have mentoring which is great. So,at the moment I’m even mentoring a new teacher to the school, so it’s been awesome to share my expertise but even learn from that teacher as well. So we’rereally lucky that we have an open door policy and we value each other as well.

Mark Scott: Well thanks for sharing that story and thanks to everyone from Blue Haven it’s really one of the great stories in NSW education. And there’s a lot more about Blue Haven up on the CESE website, on the Department of Education’s website. And I really encourage people to read more about the terrific achievements at school and I feel that what we learned today is that what’s taken place at Blue Haven is replicable in government schools all across NSW, so thanks for your time today.

Paul McDermott: Thank you.

All: Bye thank you.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this special ‘What works best’podcast series, produced by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation or CESE. Please subscribe to hear our future podcasts.


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