• Secretary's update

Every Student Podcast: Brad Lanham

05 April 2020

In a special COVID-19 edition, Canley Vale Public School acting principal Brad Lanham talks about how his school transitioned to learning from home.

Transcript

Mark Scott

Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education and welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. And what a remarkable time we're living in now and what great leadership we need in education as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenge that it’s presenting to educators everywhere. And the real challenge of ensuring that learning continues and that our students are safe and well and engaged in learning no matter where they are.

So this is the first of a series of podcasts in the Every Student series I'm going to be doing with our leaders as they manage their way through COVID-19 and as we all work together to ensure that teaching and learning takes place in a high quality and effective way. Today I'm talking with Brad Lanham, and Brad is the acting principal of Canley Vale Public School in south-western Sydney. Brad's school has more than 900 students and serves both a low socioeconomic and a culturally diverse community. And I'm checking in about how Brad's school is transitioning to learning from home, and how he's communicating with his school community. Welcome to the Every Student Podcast, Brad.

Brad Lanham

Thanks for having us, Mark.

Mark Scott

So tell us a little bit about Canley Vale. I mean, relatively few students there at the moment I guess, but when it's fully operational and going full speed, what do we find when we visit you there?

Brad Lanham

Look, you're right, we are relatively small at the moment. We've got five students there today, six students yesterday, so we're sitting at 99.4% absentee rate, which is fantastic. It shows the support that we have from our absolutely amazing school community. To give you context of our school community, I'm lucky enough to lead one of the most rich, culturally diverse communities in south-western Sydney. The students that we have in our school are hard-working, they're caring. The teachers at the school are hard-working, driven, and this whole experience has shown how adaptable they are from our early career teachers all the way through to our very experienced teachers.

Our community itself is such a generous, welcoming and accepting community, and the whole school community is built around very strong relationships, which has proven very, very useful throughout this whole experience. As you said before, we are a large P-6 school in south-western Sydney with over 900 students, very complex school, but we do have 97% EALD students, so that is something that through this experience we've found a challenge to make sure that all of our students have an equitable access to remote learning.

Mark Scott

One of the things about COVID-19 I think is how quickly it is moved from an item on the news on something that was happening a long way away to something that's dominating our lives now. I heard it said, though, that even from the beginning of Term 1, 11 weeks ago, that it was on the radar for your parents and your school community.

Brad Lanham

Absolutely it was. We have approximately 30% of our school community of Chinese background. Many of our parents absolutely love Lunar New Year and go home every single year for Lunar New Year. They go back to China and go to a large range of provinces within China. So from day one we had to make sure that we understood where our students were during their school holidays and make sure that we tracked them very carefully when they came back into our school community, because our whole school community, not just our Chinese families, were concerned about the spread of COVID-19.

Mark Scott

And did you have students who had to go into a 14-day isolation period as they came back from China after the Lunar New Year?

Brad Lanham

Absolutely. Mark, we had a quite a few students who did have to go into isolation.

Mark Scott

How did the parents feel about that, and the school community, feel about that?

Brad Lanham

The whole school community overall was absolutely fantastic. Our Chinese community were very, very understanding and all they asked for to be honest was, "Can you please supply us a bit of work to make sure that our children still learn?" It shows the high value of education within our community, but they were very understanding.

Mark Scott

So I want to talk about that and explore that a bit. I mean this is a successful and high-achieving school with a community that values education. I'm interested in the transition to online learning that you've done and parental expectations around that. So with the signs that you were seeing and the messaging you were getting for your community, did you start early in thinking through what a transition to online learning could look like at your school?

Brad Lanham

We did. As a staff, we had a long talk around what the worst case scenario might be, which was basically a complete shutdown. The conversations we had as a staff was around our students deserve the best and our community deserve the best, and we wanted to walk away from this knowing that the education that we were able to provide our students throughout this was the best education that we could provide at the time. So straight away we went into planning mode early to make sure that we had four weeks’ worth of work ready to go, which sat in a website that we built ready to basically be flicked on.

Mark Scott

So you flicked on that switch when the Premier said best if people learn from home. You were really pretty ready to transition to that, which put you ahead I think of many schools and many school systems around the country. Just talk a little bit about how you think through what quality learning looks like at home for your students and what are the ingredients of the work that was developed by your staff to transition this way.

Brad Lanham

There's a lot to unpack that we did talk about. We did talk about the quality of learning for our students. We did want to try and make it predominantly online. But as I said before, we are a low SES school and we do have 97% EALD families. So there are a lot of equity issues around the delivery of online learning. Feedback was possibly one of the most important things that we talked about on how we can provide authentic feedback to our students once we flick the switch, so to speak. So that's been embedded into what we had planned as well. We didn't put the reins on our staff to start with. We said to them, we wanted asynchronous learning, so parents could come in at different points. We didn't necessarily think that it was appropriate for our younger students to all log in at the same time to deliver really traditional-style classroom things just online.

So we talked about the platforms that we thought would be most useful. We were already using Seesaw in the kindergarten area. We were using Class Dojo in the stage one area, but those platforms were working well so we've stuck with those. But the 3-6 teams are using Google Classrooms. So there was a lot of conversation around what platforms we could use that would host the learning. And we are lucky enough and fortunate enough to have very strong instructional leaders in our school. And those instructional leaders worked really closely with the teams to develop learning that was rich as well. So basically it was all hands on deck. We had the EALD team in there as well to ensure that the EALD needs for our students were also being addressed.

Mark Scott

And there's a lot of material that's going up on the department's website and I think there's been a lot of sharing between schools or resources as well. Have you found that material valuable?

Brad Lanham

What the teams put together from the department, we've now shared with the rest of our team and they're looking at that how that can help shape what we're currently doing as well. I know that within that Fairfield network, all of the principals have been sharing a range of different resources across our schools. The Fairfield network do have a lot of, all of us are very low SES and high in EALD. So across the whole network, every principal has been sharing and that's been extremely useful for all of us.

Mark Scott

We're recording this conversation towards the end of week 10 of this long term and we're almost in two weeks of the transition that we've had to the vast majority of students learning from home. You tell the story about preparing in advance for that. You were ready, you've now rolled out the material and you've had about two weeks to watch it in practice. What surprised you about learning, and as you reflect on it now, what have you learnt through these couple of weeks at the end of Term 1 that will reshape how you do things in Term 2?

Brad Lanham

Evaluation has been the key to everything that we've been doing so far. When we initially put everything together, the conversations we had were essentially using revision within the first few weeks. What we wanted to do was test the online platforms that we were using and the delivery that we were giving to the parents and seeing how the uptake was. We collect data weekly around engagement to ensure that we have an understanding of how much engagement we're getting within the home. Parent conversations are happening daily with our parents, which really, it gives us a good understanding. Some of our grades, especially our younger grades have probably planned a little bit too much initially. Our teachers are very, very keen, but upon reflection we probably need to take a few steps back.

Mark Scott

Yeah, I've heard a bit of that, a sense of almost in our first rush we've loaded up learning for schools and that's been impressive. But maybe particularly in those juniors, less might be more. So that's how you're thinking about it a bit?

Brad Lanham

Absolutely. And it was funny that even in our initial planning phase, the word less is more was mentioned several times. I think it's built within our teachers that when you say plan hard, they do. And it shows that eagerness that our staff have and it's not just within our school, it would be across the state. However, you need to be realistic in times like this. From what we've seen, you're probably looking at close to halving the amount of work that you would expect in the classroom to be able to deliver online effectively. And you are looking at totally changing the way that you see teaching and learning and the activities that you might be giving parents, especially for parents who don't speak English. They need to be able to understand the task to be able to support the students.

Mark Scott

You mentioned measuring engagement and I sometimes think of this challenge in terms of the teaching and learning challenge, the student engagement challenge and the student wellbeing challenge. How are you measuring engagement? How do you know if kids are plugged into this learning experience or, if in fact, they're drifting off or you're losing touch with them in a way? Because it's hard to keep connected when they're not there in front of you.

Brad Lanham

Teachers do keep their logs about how many students are engaging with them online, but also we did set up Google analytics within our website to track the amount of traffic that we had to our website. To see exactly how many people were engaging within that as well. You can track the amount of users to each tab so we could see which grades were engaging more than others. We also set that up prior to making phone calls home. So we saw that the phone calls home did have an impact. Surprisingly though, Mark, it was actually setting up SMS and sending out bulk SMSs that ensured that there was greater engagement throughout the website. So that feedback.

Mark Scott

So how does that work? So what type of messages do you send out and when do you do that and what's the content of them?

Brad Lanham

The SMSs have been going out Monday to basically say the next week's worth of learning has now been made available to parents, indicating where to find that information and the website address as well. And also just encouraging parents to contact the school if they require any support as well. So that's set up through our central system that we have within the school.

Mark Scott

This is predicated, of course, on technology; not all kids will have technology in the home. Not all families will have internet access, I guess. So how have you taken on that challenge, which seems to be a big one across the country?

Brad Lanham

Technology has been an issue. We've spent the time re-imaging a lot of our devices within the school so they're more appropriate for home use. So a lot of our, nearly all of our devices have now been loaned out. I think we had 20 left within the school. I know that we will need more than that. We've now put our feelers out to a range of different suppliers to access more devices and to dig into our equity funds and use our equity funds to be able to supply the technology for our families. Our goal is, we talk about it regularly, is to make sure that every single student has their own device and when I say has their own device, we have some families that have three, four or five children within our school. And just saying, "’Have you got a device at home?’ is not enough" Each of those students needs a device and that's what we're pushing for and aiming for. I know that we've reached out to the department to try and supply the internet dongles so we can address our issues.

Mark Scott

They are in hot demand. This is a real challenge. Again, I think every school system around the country, many a business is looking for those. So they're in rare supply, but we're ferreting them out. And I think you've been surveyed as all our principals have been surveyed for us to identify where the demand is and how to deal with it. As you've indicated, nearly all of your children don't speak English as a first language at home, but we're enlisting parents to be partners in learning in a more profound way than they ever have been before. So how do you go about communicating with that parental community and how do you go about engaging them in support where particularly some of them might not be that comfortable or familiar with the learning that's taking place at the school?

Brad Lanham

You're right, some of them aren't comfortable or familiar with the learning that they have within the school. We have sent a range of letters home and we have translated them through QR codes where we have our absolutely fantastic community liaison officers and fantastic community language teachers who have volunteered to read the letter and that QR code then when scanned at home with a mobile phone, that letter is read to the parents.

Mark Scott

That's brilliant.

Brad Lanham

It has been useful and it's something new that our technology support officer within the school suggested and we thought it was a great idea, and I know that our community liaison officers have given us very positive feedback about continuing that. So that's what we're looking at doing for very important notes that go home to ensure that there is a nice clear and consistent message. I've talked about SMS that we do use within the school now.

We did printouts for all of our students, we mail-merged a range of internet passwords for our online subscriptions for reading aids, Mathletics, those subscriptions. But on there as well the students have the direct email address of their teacher and the assistant principal attached to that grade. So they've got the open communication available there as well. But what we're now realising is it's actually the phone calls home in the home language that is most vital. I know that Murat has talked about redeploying support staff within the school. Our SLSOs, our community liaison officers and our community language teachers are now used to help translate between the classroom teachers and home and that's hugely important, because the thing that we need to understand as well when we roll out the learning for our community, our community aren't necessarily literate in their own home language. And that's not a criticism in any imagination. It's just our community that we work with. So it is important that we do keep that personal aspect and not just send letters home that are translated into the home language.

Mark Scott

One of the remarkable challenges of this is not just the disruption that social distancing brings, but the profound economic impact that this is having as well. We can expect very significant levels of unemployment, great turmoil across communities that that triggers. You'd be seeing that in your community as well and school often remains as the one stable institution in a complex and demanding world. You've been doing some special work working with local community members to support families that are under stress at this time.

Brad Lanham

Absolutely. Our phone calls home, we're already starting to see unemployment on the rise within our school community and our community is very proud. They're very generous, they're very caring, but this is the time we need to flip it and we need to be generous. We need to be caring for them and really keep an eye out on our community. I know that we've already reached out to a range of different support services and shared that with our community as well. And I know that currently our executive team are speaking to Guy Zangari, our local MP, and trying to work ways around the Woolworth's limitation on ordering produce and things like that for our community and try to put together some care packages for our family at their time of need, and just looking at trying to tackle the disadvantage that is going to only increase in our community before it gets better.

Mark Scott

Let's just conclude by thinking about the wellbeing challenge here. You know we've got a challenge of keeping kids learning and keeping them engaged in learning, but what an insecure and tumultuous time that children are experiencing. I think particularly of those Kinder kids, they only had a couple of weeks of school and all of a sudden they find themselves at home. We know that we have students at risk all across the system and we have students where school is the one stable, secure, safe part of their life. So how are you thinking through about keeping connected and engaged with students and supporting their wellbeing at this time?

Brad Lanham

You're right, that is a concern. Currently we are looking at a 90-day trial that the department's entered with Zoom, that video side of things of trying to get the students to still connect in that way is something that we're now going to explore a little bit further as well, but it is at the moment primarily the phone calls home. But we talk about the student wellbeing and that is our top priority within the school and always will be.

But the other wellbeing that we're focused quite heavily at our school is our staff wellbeing. We talk about technology being the key here. For us, we honestly believe that technology can be replaced, our teachers can't. We need to, at this time, be very, very aware of the extra stress that the staff may be under. Some have young families and they're concerned about going home to their young families. We need to understand that our experienced teachers, we've moved the goalposts of teaching and learning within two weeks on teachers who have been working in a very similar way for 30 years, and that for me has been one of the most positive things that I've seen is some of our very experienced staff just embrace the change. I'll use a sporting metaphor even though it's probably not the right time to use a sporting metaphor.

Mark Scott

I think metaphors are all we've got in sport, so you should dive right in.

Brad Lanham

That's it. The goalposts, we've moved them; we've moved them to a different stadium; we've changed the code. That's what we've done to teaching and learning in the last two weeks, and our staff are the ones who have shown their adaptability. They're the ones who have collaborated and shown the positive mindset in our school and it's there in the learning pit. We talk about our students being in the learning pit. It's our teachers that are primarily at the moment in the learning pit, but they're the ones coming out the other side now and they should hold their heads high.

Mark Scott

And it is interesting. I think, it's almost the inherent contradictions of the strange times we're living in. I mean, everyone's world has been turned upside down to a degree. These are just very strange times and they're concerning times, particularly the health risk. How will it affect us? How will it affect those that we love, those in our community? But at the same time, as you've said, I've just seen such remarkable work, such passion for the craft of teaching and passion for students' learning and engagement and wellbeing and extraordinary tireless creativity to just get these last few weeks done. And so I suppose my hope for our teachers, my hope for you is that this Easter break that's coming up provides just a little bit of respite, a little bit of time off the grid to just take it easy a bit and renew for what lies ahead as a challenging and demanding term.

Brad Lanham

All of our staff deserve that break.

Mark Scott

Thanks very much for your time today, Brad. We appreciate your efforts and your engagement and your leadership. And as I've been saying in my meetings with principals around the state, this is where our leadership is really tested and I feel that our leaders have really stood up. Thanks for the way that you're standing up at Canley Vale Public School and pass on our best to your leadership team there.

And thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast.

Or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator that we could all learn from, you can get in touch with us via Twitter, Facebook or email everystudentpodcast@det.nsw.edu.au. Thanks again and I'll catch you next time.

Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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