• Secretary's update

Every Student Podcast Deirdre Dorbis and Dwayne Hopwood

15 June 2020

Two principals join Mark Scott to share what they learned during the pandemic shutdown and their focus for the future.

Transcript

Mark Scott

Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education.

Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today, I'm talking to two of our school principals from NSW, Deirdre Dorbis from Wisemans Ferry, a rural school of 41 students who mostly come to school on the ferry, across the Hawkesbury River. Also with us is Dwayne Hopwood from Ashfield Boys' High, a large multicultural metropolitan school in Sydney with 744 students.

Today, we're going to talk about the impact of COVID-19, and take a few lessons from what these principals have learned and what they want to focus on now. So Deirdre, let's start with you. You started at Wisemans Ferry last August, and it's been all go ever since.

Deirdre Dorbis

It certainly has, Mark. It's been an interesting 10 months in my first principalship. We've been faced with bushfires, floods and now COVID-19.

Firstly, the bushfires we were impacted by about Week 5 of Term 4. We had a number of days where we were non-operational during the last five weeks of that particular term. We were surrounded by two fire fronts, so we had the Gospers Mountain fire front behind us, and then the Three Mile Creek fire front on the opposite side. The big impact for us really was that the safety of the students, because many of our students had to travel along the roads where the fire fronts were. So we had helicopters firebombing the mountain, making it unstable. We had the fire at Gospers Mountain being worked on. There we had trees falling across the roadways and they were the access points for our students to get to school.

Mark Scott

So fires across the summer and in Term 4 causing the school to be shut down over days, or not operational for some days. And then floods in Term 1?

Deirdre Dorbis

Yeah, about Week 3 of Term 1, we were greeted with floods. The floods took out the vehicular ferries, and that's how most of our students come to school. Obviously, the only way to school at that point was via boat, and obviously not a safe option. So the students couldn't get to school.

Mark Scott

So before we even get to COVID-19, how did you see the impact of, in a sense, those natural disasters on the students and on your teachers as well, the team you have there?

Deirdre Dorbis

For the students, it was quite interesting in terms of, I think with the fires, there was a little bit of excitement. You know, we could see the flames, we had the helicopters on our doorstep. So for them it was a little bit of excitement. But as it went on, we had events that we had to postpone. So we were starting to miss out on a few things. Floods, I had staff member that couldn't get to school due to the flooding.

Mark Scott

It's a disruption, right?

Deirdre Dorbis

Disruption, yeah.

Mark Scott

And then, COVID-19 lands. How did you respond to that immediate challenge? Are there issues with internet connectivity around Wisemans Ferry?

Deirdre Dorbis

There certainly is. With the floods, we had students that were away for about two weeks and just couldn't get to school. So we had already talked about how we're going to get some work to them. So we emailed out some work so that they could continue with their learning during the time of the flood. We looked at that one unit of work, the kids that could make it to school needed to do the same work as those students that couldn't make it to school.

So we'd sort of already had that system in place before COVID-19. So it was just a matter of refining our practice, learning from the floods to ensure that we could do it a little bit better, and to ensure that we were following our teaching and learning programs so that the students wouldn't miss out on the learning that we would miss delivering to them face-to-face.

Mark Scott

So Dwayne, when we hit that point in March, when the Premier said, be best that students stay at home, because at that point, we were having more than 200 new cases a day, on occasion, in NSW. What was your philosophy for student learning? I mean, massive disruption at a big school, so how did you go about taking on that challenge?

Dwayne Hopwood

Well, firstly, I can really confidently tell you there were no bushfires in Ashfield.

Mark Scott

Only metaphorical.

Dwayne Hopwood

Yeah, only metaphorically. What we did is what we normally do and we planned for the worst, but hoped for the best. And we'd anticipated that there was going to be some disruption. So what we did is we had a really comprehensive educational continuity plan in place before the Premier made the announcement.

Mark Scott

In anticipation an announcement might come?

Dwayne Hopwood

In anticipation that something would happen. We sat down as an executive and planned that. So as a staff, we are all on the same page ready to go. So what we did was, we had every class and every teacher had already organised at least a Google Classroom for that lesson. And when the Premier made her announcement at 8:00 on the Monday morning, we were pretty much ready to shut down our physical school and open up a digital school by the end of that day.

Mark Scott

Had you already set up an infrastructure where you're all using the same platform, be it Google Classroom or Microsoft or whatever, or were people using different platforms in the school?

Dwayne Hopwood

Lots of people were already using Google Classroom. A lot of our staff were already using Edmodo, but that wasn't as good as the department's Google Suite. We moved later on to Zoom, and we found that much better because the interactivity was better. The biggest challenge at the start, for us, was in terms of philosophy, was getting every kid onto Google Classroom. So the week before that, we bribed every boy with a Freddo Frog.

Mark Scott

A tried and true method.

Dwayne Hopwood

A tried and true method. Because it was easy for the teachers to create a Google Classroom, but we needed to know that the kids were actually logging on to it and could access it. The next big challenge we found was equity because, for us, it was not just important that the boys kept learning. It was that every boy kept learning and we're a hugely diverse community.

Mark Scott

How'd you go with the technology and the devices? And how good was your insight into the technology that students might have available at home?

Dwayne Hopwood

We're consciously and deliberately not a BYOD school and that has huge parent and community support.

Mark Scott

Why is that? What's been the thinking behind that?

Dwayne Hopwood

That's got to do with distraction, and that's got to do with us wanting to be able to have adult control of the devices. We did a study in 2016, I think it was, where we surveyed the parents. And we said, "What percentage of the day would you like your son on a device?" And they said about 25%. And we surveyed the staff and said, "What percentage of the day would you like to be using a device?" And they said about 25%. We surveyed the boys and said, "What percentage of the day would you like to be using a device?" And they said about 98%.

So we invested fairly heavily, and this sort of helped us with COVID. We invested very heavily in devices, I think it's at least having a third of the school on a device at any one time, because we've got laptops and iPads and that's how we met the equity issue with COVID. We monitored the boys who weren't logging on. We sent out information to parents and parents were coming in and borrowing laptops from us.

Mark Scott

So you loaned out the schools?

Dwayne Hopwood

I think in the end it was 161. Quite a massive enterprise.

Mark Scott

It’s quite an interesting debate for us to think through the kind of infrastructure we have in schools. I suspect we saw many schools loan out what they had, but of course easier to loan out a laptop and a tablet than it is to loan out a desktop computer.

Dwayne Hopwood

Yes. Then the next equity thing that we discovered, lots of the boys did have devices at home, but internet was sometimes patchy for different kids. So we loaned out dongles. We bought some and loaned them out. Then, with so many parents and siblings working at home, some of the families have one or two devices, but that's not enough for everybody. So we got through it, but it was a fairly mammoth effort.

Mark Scott

Deirdre, what was the feedback from your parents about having kids at home and learning? What were they saying to you about the partnership that this needed to create?

Deirdre Dorbis

Our parents were extremely supportive, given what they'd been through in the last 10 months with the natural disasters that we had faced, but extremely supportive. I think for them, they saw things a little differently. They learned more about what we do at school and our expectations of their children in terms of their teaching and their learning. We got some very positive feedback from our parents. Whilst they were happy for them to come back to school, we had a number of parents that said, "Oh, we're going to miss them," Because they've enjoyed interacting with them while they've been at home.

I had parents that took homeschooling to a new level, where they had the children out. The family built a new goat shelter. So they took the boys out and then the boys were responsible for measuring up the environment. They were responsible for collecting the data and they also did research. So they were watching a lot of the podcasts that the zoos were putting out and, "Oh, here's a new animal we don't know anything about. So let's go and find out a bit about that animal."

Mark Scott

So you found many of your parents were leaning in and very engaged in the partnership of this work?

Deirdre Dorbis

They certainly were. So while we provided a lot of the literacy and numeracy work and they followed that particular plan of work that we delivered as teachers, they engaged with their children in creative arts ventures or in the kitchen cooking, or certainly outdoor environmental education.

Mark Scott

That's the feedback from parents. What about your teachers, Dwayne? I mean, this is a kind of a level of disruption that none of them would really experience before. In effect, if you add in the school holidays, nine weeks that many students were out of class and a challenge to keep teaching and learning going through a lot of that time. So what do you think your teachers have learned through this?

Dwayne Hopwood

They're reporting that it was overwhelmingly a positive experience. It was a really difficult experience. It was really challenging to teach online. One of the things we discovered after about three or four days was that, because we were trying to teach an interactive lesson to every kid according to their timetables.

Mark Scott

So every period of the day was an interactive lesson?

Dwayne Hopwood

Yes.

Mark Scott

Was that too ambitious?

Dwayne Hopwood

Yes and no. We didn't want to just post work if we could interact with them. So what we did after, I think it was about the fourth day, we continued to teach according to the timetable, but we adjusted what we were calling the digital bell times, because it was just too intense for the teachers and too intense for the boys as well. So we reduced our normal lessons down to 30 minutes and after every 30 minutes there was a scheduled five-minute break. And we made the days a bit shorter to include reading time as well.

After we've come out of this now, the staff are reporting that they thought it was a challenging, but a really positive experience. It's reaffirmed for everybody the primacy and the importance of face-to-face teaching, that the digital world is a great tool, but it can't replace the relationship that happens and the magic that happens in a great classroom. But the teachers are reporting that they will be able to use the digital skills they've learned to enhance their teaching going forward. The level of collaboration between them, helping each other out, was fantastic to watch.

Mark Scott

I want to come back and explore a bit what the legacy of this is for us. Just on those students who are online and the expectation that they'd be online each day, and you talked about how you went out of your way to ensure that they had the opportunity to be online, did you have many students who went missing, that you couldn't find?

Dwayne Hopwood

We did. We were marking the roll. The teachers were electronically marking the roll each lesson. So in Google Classroom they'd post a question that the boys had to answer to show that they were there. Teenage boys will always find a way. So there was some really interesting things. You'd see boys who would answer the question and then suddenly digitally disappear. And we were calling them digital truants or ‘cyber-jiggers’ to the boys. The deputies and I were trying our best to follow them up. We'd put in a call home and say, "Your son hasn't logged on," and speak to parents.

There was a couple of other ingenious things of when we're on Zoom, and we had video chats going on, some of the boys record themselves and somehow work it out as a loop, so it looked like they were in the classroom, but they actually weren't. They're enterprising.

But there was certainly a percentage of them that didn't engage.

Mark Scott

Deirdre, quite a lot of discussion as to what the level of disruption means to the progress of students. You've had students back in now for a week or so, a chance to have a look at them and then a more staged return before that. What's your assessment about progress while students have been away?

Deirdre Dorbis

Our students, in particular, are quite resilient. They're happy to be back at school. They're happy to be learning. From our point of view, I don't think that they've been too disadvantaged by the disruptions that they've faced. We've been fortunate to have a casual through the casual employment program. That has allowed our teachers to work one-on-one with our students to see if they're missing anything and also to provide targeted support to those students that may have fallen behind a little. But in the main, they've come back. They're learning. They're happy. We're not seeing that it's made too much of a difference to them.

Mark Scott

Dwayne, have you thought through assessment and monitoring progress and gaps that may have emerged?

Dwayne Hopwood

We had a conversation about this as an executive and as an entire staff last week. So we've already done an assessment of Year 12, obviously, because there's a priority there with the HSC learning. But with the rest of the kids, what we're doing is each of the teachers is looking at what's been completed online, where they think the gaps are, especially for those boys who didn't engage at all. And rather than trying to get them to complete everything, which is not possible, we talked about getting them to look at the most important big ticket items, and trying to catch them up, make an assessment of what the deficit is, and catch those big things up. So we can hopefully go into Term 3 with everybody on an even heel again.

Mark Scott

It's interesting. I was talking to John Hattie on this Every Student podcast. John was talking about the research that's come out of Christchurch following the earthquake and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and how they didn't see a short-term drop in learning outcomes because, I think, of what you've just outlined there, that when everyone comes back, there's a real focus around what's important, what the priority is. And some of those other activities where we may have done in a normal year fall by the wayside as we drive in on what's really essential in the classroom at the moment.

Dwayne Hopwood

It really is about focusing on the big ticket items and the things that the kids are going to need to go forward with. Schooling is a very varied thing, and there are lots of facets to it. But at this stage, what we're doing is concentrating on the main assessment items that the boys need to continue and making sure that there are no deficits for anybody as much as possible.

Mark Scott

What is it that you really want to ramp up now that the boys are back and school feels more normal? It's not absolutely normal yet, but it is more normal than it has been in recent months. What are your priorities about the things you really want to focus on now that the boys are back?

Dwayne Hopwood

It's great to have them back. It's been nice to watch their enthusiasm to come back.

Mark Scott

It's interesting. I think, that kids miss school, didn't they?

Dwayne Hopwood

They did.

Mark Scott

I think, this is kind of an interesting insight. There's a perception that, at the first available opportunity kids will run away from school but they seem to be running back into school.

Dwayne Hopwood

They literally did run back into school.

Obviously, the boys are keen to get back into sport. We've got sport going, but it has to be restricted and only certain types. I'm very keen to get the boys back doing lots of the extracurricular activities that we run. So schooling is really varied, and we want all of the kids to finish school with a really broad, rich experience. So we offer lots of things outside of the classroom and outside of sports, such as debating, theatresports, science clubs and a whole lot of things. There's always something happening before school, recess, lunchtime or afterwards.

One of the big things that I'm very keen for the boys to get back to is our volunteering program. I was with a group yesterday and handing out certificates, they’ve just won the Inner West Council volunteering award. And they've been nominated by the council to go to the State awards. We have a really high rate of volunteering in the school. It's a really beneficial thing for the community, but I think what's understated is how beneficial it is for the leadership skills of the boys, especially lots of the work that they're doing with senior citizens. So the awards that I was giving out yesterday are for a group of boys who have been working with senior citizens, in the council, and they've been doing Cyber Seniors, it's called, and they've been teaching people from the local nursing home to use their iPads and phones. They also do shopping, as well.

Mark Scott

Fantastic. You have a big focus on reading. And you're a very strong performer when we track value-add, Years 7 through 12 in reading. Tell us a bit about the reading program, the reading strategy you've got underway.

Dwayne Hopwood

Going back, I've been there five years now. Going back and looking at the reading data of the boys, we were concerned about what was happening with us. But if you look at the global trends, lots of boys, their reading stagnates or goes backwards even in early high school. We were determined that that wasn't going to happen.

So what we've got is a reading program, starts in Year 7 and Year 8, but it goes now from 7 to 10. And it's a completely individualised, differentiated program for every boy. Basically in Year 7 and Year 8, the boys have a reading lesson with the librarian.

We assess their reading every six months with their reading age. They set a target – we use a particular program to do this – they’re set a target each term by the librarian that we expect them to meet because it's individualised, so it's something that everybody can meet. This is not a remedial reading program, it's about everybody being the best that they can be.

They go to the library, they borrow, and all the books in our library are coded into this program. The library is actually re-shelved in book levels. The staff came in one Christmas holidays to do this. So if you know that your book level was 5.6, you've got a particular shelf to go to. They read, and they borrow. At the end of the book, they do a quiz online. So we know that they've read it and it's almost uncheatable. That gives us ongoing information, as teachers, about the boys' reading levels. They accrue points for their reading if they meet their target and I would love to believe, as an English teacher, that the boys are reading for the beauty of literature and their own self-benefit. But this is a whole of community thing, and the P&C are fantastic. So they support this financially and if you meet your target at the end of term, you are in the running to get a gift voucher for $30 supplied by the P&C. The program also counts the number of words that the boys have read.

So if you read Harry Potter, it knows it's 350,000 words or whatever. We run a competition called The Million Word Man, to see if somebody can get to a million words, because competition tends to work with teenage boys and they get a big prize at the end of the year. Last year, we had 62 Million Word Men.

Mark Scott

Wow. Extraordinary, it's fantastic.

Dwayne Hopwood

The boys' reading ages are going up. It's good, we're seeing it in the data.

Mark Scott

Deirdre, what did you miss? What have you looked forward to getting back into action again at Wisemans Ferry?

Deirdre Dorbis

We're really looking forward to physically engaging with our community again, welcoming our families back onto site so that they can celebrate in the student learning, at assemblies, at sporting events, at book week parades. So getting them back on site to participate in the children's learning with us.

We connect with our wider community and the students go down and meet with a senior citizens group, which unfortunately we can't do at this point. They go down, they have morning tea. They play games and interact with the senior citizens. They laugh and they learn their stories. So sort of getting back to being able to do this. Also connecting with our community of schools. So we have lots of events that we participate in with the small schools across the Hawkesbury and Windsor networks. We have four small schools in our immediate area that we work together with, taking the students on combined excursions, incursions, academic challenge days. So looking forward to participating in the inter-school events again.

Mark Scott

So we're back, but it's not quite normal yet, and lots of restrictions still apply. I suppose we're just going to continue to work closely with NSW Health and the national advice. As soon as it's possible to ease some of those restrictions, we will to get things more back to normal. But I suppose it's fair to say that this will have changed us, this massive level of disruption, this massive investment in professional development and the work that's been done to encourage students to learn from home. What do you want to hold on to, Dwayne? What have you learned and what have you taken from it that you think will reshape how you lead the school and how teaching and learning takes place in the school?

Dwayne Hopwood

I think one of the things that I think this experience has done, and it's not changed us, I think it's heightened what we already had, and that's a sense of direction and purpose and unity of everybody working together. Coming back this last week with all the boys back on site, one of the things that we've had to stress to them, there were certain things that we just need to do together to keep us all safe and to make sure that we continue to function in the best way we can.

The boys always work well with us, but it's heightened. They've worked even better with us and I think the staff have worked in an even more coordinated way than they always did. It was always there, but I think this has strengthened what we already had.

Mark Scott

Do you think your staff are more confident now around using technology and thinking through how they can apply technology to teaching and learning?

Dwayne Hopwood

I think so. Once again, I think that was already there, but I think this has heightened what was already there.

Mark Scott

Do you think it'll change how we think through concepts like homework? What work can best take place with students at home and how best we use the time being together in the classrooms?

Dwayne Hopwood

Yes. One of the things that we had already done was, as I said before, we're not a BYOD school, but we were very keen that the boys have a device at home, because we were delivering a lot of homework digitally already of things like repetition and that kind of practice exercises that you give for homework. And I think Google Classroom will be able to heighten that. A lot of this, we'll be able to set ahead of time. We've also thought that this is going to really improve what happens when teachers are absent. The standard thing is, in high school, if you're absent and you're able, and you're not too unwell, you call your head teacher and call in your lessons. Now, this will be able to be put on Google Classroom. It'll make that more efficient for the kids and for the teachers.

Mark Scott

Deirdre, just coming to you again, bushfires, floods, COVID-19. Unprecedented disruption. How do you see the resilience and the wellbeing of your students, but also your staff who've had to lead the school community through all this?

Deirdre Dorbis

Our students are very resilient. All they wanted to do was come back to school, engage with their teachers, play with their friends. We tried along the way to keep them informed about what was happening, that our priority was their safety in each situation, why we're now sitting at our own desk and why you have your little tin with all your pencils and your stationery and your ruler and why we go to the bathroom and sing happy birthday when we wash our hands, even when it's nobody's birthday at school, but we do say somebody in the world is celebrating a birthday so stand there and sing happy birthday to them.

So it's just keeping them informed of why we're doing this. The big thing is about keeping them safe, making sure that they're happy. Our kids want to be at school. It was lovely when they all came back, it was like the first day of school all over again. So to have two first days in the one year was fantastic. They came back and said, "Well, we can't hug you or we can't high five you," I just say, "Well, that's okay. We can greet one another and show that we're happy to have you back in different ways."

For staff, I think it's working together and, again, reassuring each other that with a small staff, we're there for each other all the time. The hardest thing I think for the small staff is, that you are together all the time and we've got to remember that we still have to social distance. For us, that's the hard part. It's just working together and pushing on and knowing that the kids are our focus.

Mark Scott

Well, it's been a remarkable time, an unprecedented time. I think at the beginning of the year, we would have all thought the bushfires were going to be the big story for the year. The fact that we've all been so affected by COVID-19 has been unprecedented and remarkable. But what a great job all our schools have done in dealing with the disruption and keeping students learning, and now, being able to reorientate how we work to bring everyone back together again.

Thanks for your leadership, Deirdre and Dwayne, and thanks to the leadership of your teams as well, and doing great work at Ashfield Boys' and also at Wisemans Ferry. And thanks for joining us today on the Every Student podcast.

Dwayne Hopwood

Thank you.

Deirdre Dorbis

Thank you.

Mark Scott

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 our website at 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 @NSWeducation, on 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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