Every Student Podcast: Vicki Baczynskyj
Vicki Baczynskyj in conversation with Mark Scott on how relationships, consistency and consequences can change challenging student behaviour.
Vicki Baczynskyj in conversation with Mark Scott on how relationships, consistency and consequences can change challenging student behaviour.
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. And today I'm in conversation with Vicki Baczynskyj. Vicki works in one of our most specialised and challenging education settings as principal of Canterbury Vale School at Lakemba. Some of my colleagues here at the department visited Vicki's school and came back and said to me 'you've got to talk to Vicki on the Every Student Podcast', so here we are today.
Canterbury Vale is a school for secondary students with behaviour or emotional disorders. Now Vicki started off as a preschool teacher and then veered into special education and she's absolutely passionate about this work and her students.
Now Vicki welcome to the Every Student Podcast, we're going to talk about your career progression in a minute. But first of all paint a picture for us of Canterbury Vale School. What do we find when we visit there?
Well thanks for having me first of all Mark, it is an honour to be here. The picture of Canterbury Vale School is a really welcoming, comfortable setting for students that have experienced challenging behaviours as you've said or emotional disorders to come to a school where they feel supported, where they're encouraged to learn, where there is an expectation for behaviour and education. But it's a place where students for many of our students that for the first time in their schooling career that they can be successful. It's a very welcoming environment as I said as you walk in it is landscaped, it's beautifully well looked after because I am a big believer that if you are going somewhere every day that it needs to be an endearing place to go. It's full of very interesting and challenging kids and personalities.
It's a high school?
Yes 7 to 12.
How many students have you got?
28 students. We were originally only 21 students but a couple of years ago we felt the need to go to Years 11 and 12. We were finding with the changing of the School Certificate and the leaving age going up to seventeen many of our kids weren't able to reintegrate back to their home school so we applied to go to Stage 6. So some of our students stay on to do Years 11 and 12 or transition to work.
But it's a place where you see lots of different things happening each and every day but you also see very passionate teachers and you see students that once they have started engaging in our program that their behaviours change and really trying to engage in learning.
In the main students don't do the full six years at the school. How long would a student be there for?
Well the profile is twelve months. It is a reintegrating program so we try and gradually reintegrate them back to their home school and the profile as I said is twelve months but we work flexibly. If a student isn't ready to go back into that timeframe we want to set them up for as much success as we can so we might extend it for a term or a couple of terms. But then there's also some of the students especially in the emotional disorder cohort that find it very difficult to return to mainstream and so we offer different programs for those students as well.
So kids are presenting with different levels of complexity, different kinds of complexity, talk a little bit about what we see where students with behavioural issues and emotional disturbances.
With the behaviour it's interesting because sometimes the label of either behaviour disorder or emotional disturbance crosses over quite a bit. But predominantly the students that come to our school present with aggressive violent behaviour, that they're oppositional, they're non-compliant in school, they've had lots of histories of suspensions over and over again and this can sometimes in most cases go right back to primary school. So they have a lot of trouble self-regulating, they have a lot of trouble showing empathy for either themselves, their parents or their teachers. And they're sometimes very selfish so want their needs met straightaway.
These are the kids that are consistently getting suspended through the system because the schools have to impose consequences for them but they're also the kids that schools have tried everything humanly possible and that we're that final really intensive intervention. It's not just about coming for an hour or so here or there and talking it's about a really intensive intervention to change their behaviour.
So that's the behavioural issues, talk a little bit about the emotional.
As I said with the emotional disturbance class we are getting a lot of students that are presenting with anxiety, with suicidal ideations, very internalising behaviours and are just too I suppose fearful in big mainstream settings so they function much better in a smaller setting with a smaller classroom where they can feel comfortable.
Are there issues with bringing together kids? I appreciate there would be some crossover but bringing together kids who have behaviourally complex and kids who have emotional challenges including anxiety.
Yes absolutely and that was a bit of a fear of mine when I was asked to take an ED class so to speak but in saying that the students that I take fit the ED banner but they are also expressing anxiety and aggression.
When we look at what we call Access and Request Forms for placement into our school I tend to not take the real internalised ones I take the students that are experiencing emotional difficulties and anxiety and how they present is usually with some violence and aggression as well.
There are other settings for kids that are more suicidal, that are more internalising as well so we're very good at fitting the students to the environment. But yes it is and we have a different classroom setting and how we work with the ED kids is very different to how we work with the BD kids.
You still teach the core curriculum?
Absolutely. Absolutely. When I first started the school in 2006 as a very naïve first time principal I thought I didn't know what I was really doing to start with and we enrolled in Distance Education thinking that would be the way for these kids to access the curriculum. But I found that just wasn't appropriate for these students getting pages and pages of work was just quite frustrating for them and for us as well because I sort of thought that we needed to develop those teaching skills as well with our staff.
We do the curriculum, however in saying that we obviously can't in a year with these students who are integrating back to their mainstream settings and have had a long history of suspensions many of them are below stage average so we have to start looking at the basics as well but we do the core curriculum and we choose the outcomes and contents and units that are the most worthwhile for those students, more functional parts of the curriculum.
One of the things describing these young peoples learning experiences, they haven't been happy at school and they haven't flourished at school and so now they come to a more specialist setting, it's a different kind of school how do you deal with their mindset when they arrive to help them think through that this might be a change for them and a more successful setting than all the other schools they have been to before?
I think we have that down pat, it starts on their first ever visit to the school where they see a really beautiful place. I really preach to them that 'look at this purpose built wonderful setting for you', 'you have made really bad decisions and engaged really poorly in schools yet the Department of Education still believes in you and we've built this beautiful setting for you, you are worth it', so that's one of the first things that we discuss at enrolment.
The second thing I say is 'I picked you to come here', 'I want you to be here, I picked you, I looked at your records, I looked at the information about you and I believe that we can help you here'.
Right from the word go they know it's an opportunity and not a punishment, we really stress that. You're not being sent to Canterbury Vale as a punishment for your behaviour but you're sent to Canterbury Vale as an opportunity to change. Right from the word go the relationship building is starting from the moment that they walk into the setting and I think that's really important and that's the same with any teacher that comes in contact with that student even on the first day when they're even just for a visit a teacher will go out of their way to say hello to introduce themselves and say to them 'I hope you get to come here because this is an awesome place to be'.
It's comfortable and I think that is really important for the parents to hear that too. Some parents will either say 'no my student doesn't need to be in a behaviour setting' and that terminology a behaviour school in itself has some connotations for parents and for students. But once they see that very welcoming and look what we can do and that affirmation that you will be doing core curriculum it's not purely a welfare setting but we are educators. I am a big believer that education changes students' lives regardless of what situation that they're in.
One of the things you do I understand is structure the learning so kids are experiencing success in a way that they may never have experienced success at school.
Absolutely, absolutely. Obviously basic testing to start with placement of the students into classroom is very important. We don't have a straight Year 7 class, 8 class, 9 class, they are mixed but they are based on ability so that they can get comfortable knowing that it's ok in this setting to say I need help. Small numbers, good relationships with teachers, allow these students to feel comfortable in saying 'can you please help me?' Whereas in mainstream they might be in a classroom with twenty-four other kids especially Year 9 boys don't want to put their hands up or don't want to say 'I can't do this' whereas we develop an environment where they're comfortable in saying 'help'. In fact sometimes that's the biggest problem because all of the kids in the class then want help, they're confident in saying and I think that's really important.
One of the things that poor behaviour in school is often seeking attention, to stand out in a crowded classroom. How do you go about rewarding positive behaviour?
We have and it's really funny but when I first started this school I was thinking how am I going to reward these kids that for years and years have been acting out? They're violent, they've been suspended, they've been aggressive, some of them have police records, what am I going to give them that is going to be meaningful to them apart from an education because that is what we always talk about. The biggest thing about your change in behaviour is that you are going to get an education and that's going to open doors for you. We started a system of teaching certificates and they're just little bits of cardboard and when we see students acting safely, following instructions, co-operating with others and staying on task they receive tally points. The tally points equal teaching certificates and a progression. We have teaching certificates, bronze, silver, gold and then we have principal's awards. And it's amazing that sometimes very tough, very out there kids melt and smile and shake your hand and thank you when you give them a teaching certificate.
Once a term we have a Principal's Award ceremony where we invite all of the parents, we also invite anyone that's involved with the students it can be counsellors, external counsellors, we have police officers come, we have JJ officers come and we celebrate the success of the students. It's a formal assembly, the students run the assembly so we still keep those skilled based things in place so that the students still know that they are part of a regular school, just a small school. They showcase the work they're doing and they receive the awards and it is just amazing that these kids are so happy with these certificates.
It's wonderful hearing you in a sense report on the strategies in place and the great work that you're doing but it's a complex setting.
And these are really complex demanding kids and some have traumatic backgrounds and still are surrounded by trauma and so I imagine it's a pretty tough setting for teachers too.
Look it is, it's very tough and I won't deny that and we can have days where everything runs smoothly and it's absolutely beautiful and then we have other days where it's just, you think what the hell am I doing in this situation. My staff and I think the beauty of our school is that we are very well with systems and procedures and risk assessments.
My staff all wear emergency duress buttons so that says to them straightaway that you are not alone, you are in a classroom and if there is a problem press the buttons we are there immediately. It is generally an immediate response from myself, executive or any teacher that's off class. They know that they're backed up all the time. There are also phones in every classroom so once we get through the systems for behaviour they can ring if they need assistance there.
I am very lucky I always say to anyone that I meet that I am the luckiest principal because I have staff that believe in these students and are passionate about helping these kids change. If you don't have that passion you can't work in these environments.
So how do you choose them? When you're selecting staff what are you looking for in a potential staff member that gives you confidence that they will be able to flourish in this setting but they will be resilient enough for this setting?
I've been very fortunate in the thirteen years that I have been principal that I start them as casuals first to try them out. Because it's not a setting for everyone, it's definitely not. Lots of teachers retrain into special education but special education is such a huge spectrum as well. My type of school is a very different type of school than a special education setting with kids with disabilities and physical disabilities.
The first thing that has to be is passion, I have to see that there's passion there. I also have to see that they like kids, I think that is one of the most important things there. They can't take things personally and they can't hold a grudge. Because they are in an environment where you may get abused and it happens. We get called some dreadful names, we get threatened, sometimes our families get threatened but because of our systems and the way we operate they know I think that most of my staff and in the thirteen years that I have been there all of the staff know that there will always be a consequence for that behaviour. They will understand that it's not personal and that the student is acting out for a reason. They know they are supported by executives so that we can impose a consequence and when the consequence is finished the students come back and they're welcomed back, they don't hold grudges.
Talk about your behaviour management program and what in a sense other schools can learn from that. That pressure on the staff- how do you make sure they don't get and how do you make sure that you don't just get burnt out by this or just ground down by that pressure? At the end of a busy day or an overwhelming day what are you doing to take the pressure out?
We debrief every afternoon regardless of whether there has been a critical incident or not, every afternoon is an opportunity to debrief.
What does that look like? How does that work?
We all come to the table, the students finish at two-thirty and at three o'clock we all come to our staffroom table and I just simply sit down and say are there any debriefing issues today and that can open up a can of worms. Usually most parts it says 'I had a really good day' or 'wow that was really difficult when so and so went off'. I understand that the student got suspended and we talk about those sorts of things but we also talk about what support the teachers need.
It's really interesting to say that for the thirteen years I haven't had a lot of staff changeover because most of the teachers that have come here want to stay and I think it's because they see the results in the kids, they know they're supported, they know that we have really good systems in place to protect their safety and the safety of others and they know that there?s really good systems in place for their mental well-being as well.
If it's a particularly bad day we have a system, a school based system so I can actually read what's going on in classrooms so the teachers' aides, the SLSOs are reporting what kids are doing in the classroom so I can actually tap in to see if one particular student is really starting to escalate so in that case I will withdraw them for a conversation then so it doesn't get to that stage. Staff know that I'm watching in the office but they use the system and our system which I know we will talk about shortly is the Making Choices Framework they see that as a really supportive system of them.
So at the end of the day when we talk we always finish on a laugh, I don't think in thirteen years we've ever left the school grounds without laughing about some of the things. Some of the things are horrific that we've had but I feel it's really important that when they leave the school grounds that we need to I'm a big believer in a balanced life, I don't want my staff to be at school for hours and hours afterwards because not the pressure on them but the commitment to these type of students is full on from the moment the students arrive to the moment that they leave, it's very active supervision. You've got to see and you've got to hear everything. So I believe that we don't have to stay and do things for hours and hours and we support them through that.
So consistency around behaviour management is a hallmark of what you do. Tell us about that Making Choices Framework that you referred to and how does that work?
And again, when I started the school in 2006, thirteen years ago, I wondered how can we change students behaviour, how can we stop these kids from being the type of students that they are in there, so that they can be successful in the mainstream? My assistant principal Dave Hobson and I who Dave Hobson is now the principal of Cook School so another behaviour setting, we came up with what we call the Making Choice Framework.
Because we believe that it's not rocket science, we cannot make students' behaviour change, we can support them through a change process but we don't have any magic wands to say that you're going to be a better student now. We had to devise a way for students to start taking ownership of their behaviour, recognising the purpose of behaviour as you talk about kids wanting to act out, show off etc and then changing their behaviour.
So we came up with the Making Choice Framework. When I explain it to students or parents or teachers or deputies from home schools, we talk about teaching the kids to realise that their behaviour belongs to them. Because in so many cases the kids want to blame the teachers, they want to blame the other kids, they want to blame their parents, they want to blame computer glitches, all these sorts of things. So, I say in order to change a kid's behaviour it starts with me, as the leader of the school I have to ensure that the education that they're being provided with is meaningful and engaging. It starts with me by having the right teachers, people that want to teach these kids that are passionate so that's where it starts. Then I always say my teachers and staff are universally trained so they have a knowledge of how kids learn, they have common sense, they're adults and so that's the next stage down.
So when a student goes into class and they are not doing the right thing and it can range from walking around the classroom, it could be trying to destroy property or it just could be simply refusing to do any work, then teachers have to do what they're trained to do, teach, try and engage, try and convince. But if all of those things fail then we go into our formal Making Choices Framework and it's a visual in every classroom and the students names are beside the Making Choices Framework in every classroom, so the teacher will just simply say 'Tom, chance to think' and they will put that student's name beside the visual of chance to think but they will move away from the student and that's the important thing. Because we want students to think about what they're doing. Then after a few minutes if they're still not doing the right thing they will say 'Tom think again make a choice'. Again, we're saying to that student you need to think about it and you need to decide what you are going to do.
The next phase is to reflection. They'll say 'Tom you need to go to reflection'. And in every classroom there is a reflection desk and a reflection log. So they've got to sit there and there are some prompts in the reflection desk about what you were doing, what responsibilities weren't you following and what was the purpose of your behaviour. At that stage they can sort of see that it could be about trying to be the class clown and getting attention, trying to take power away from the teacher and that's a really big one in any school, the kids want to be in control. Work avoidance etc. If they fill out the reflection sheet they put their hand up and the teacher or a school learning support officer will come and talk to them about it there and then in the classroom and they will then go to class. If they refuse to do the reflection or they don't do it properly then it's working it out with the principal and that's the next visual working it out with the principal.
Phones in every classroom the teacher will just ring and say Tom needs a 'working it out' and so myself or the assistant principal will go over and get the student and we'll ask them to bring the reflection sheet over and we will always first of all base it around education. We will say what subject are you in and why isn't that important for you? What are your goals and we will also sometimes tap it back if they want to be a carpenter or if you are in maths and you're acting out we talk about the importance of education for them and their goals. Then we will say 'did the teacher give you a chance to think'? and they will have to say yes, what were you thinking about at that time? So we're constantly trying to get them to talk about what they're doing.
Then we work it out and I say to them the teachers want you in that classroom by giving you a chance to think, think again and reflect, they're saying we really want you in this classroom, don't leave, start thinking about your behaviour which is very important because for many of these kids the first instance of inappropriate behaviour, they're sent out. It's good for them to know that they want them in the classroom and the terminology is really important. We don't use warning one, warning two, we don't use time out, we use it because we say that every problem has a solution and we can work it out.
Do you think we are good enough with this in regular school settings?
I think there are a lot of teachers that are very good with it but there are some that aren't and unfortunately the ones that aren't set their colleagues up for difficulties as well and that's what we talk about with the consistency across all of our classrooms. The expectations for behaviour and the expectations for academic learning are the same in every classroom. The student when they move because it is a high school, they move for period to period, they know the system in every classroom, they can't play teachers off one another.
In mainstream schools sometimes they're allowed to wear their hat in some classes, sometimes they're not and that just sets your colleagues up. I think there's a lack of consistency with some teachers. It's very difficult, mainstream schools if you've got three or four kids that are acting up it is very difficult when you have got 26 or 27 but it's a great strategy that I think could be incorporated.
And your approach that says but here we do it this way and consistency in application of strategy irrespective of the setting.
Absolutely and it's about systems and following systems and following procedures. I think we're very very lucky in the department that we do have good systems and procedures and policies to support teachers and mobile phone policies and all of those sorts of things.
You have a number of students there who have high emotional needs, emotionally disturbed if you like, you are seeing an increase in mental health referrals what is driving that?
It's really interesting and could open up a can of worms. I think and it's a topic of conversation but I think social media has a lot to answer for in some respects especially with our students. We talk to the students about bullying and harassment and threatening behaviour and we label those sorts of behaviours but unfortunately kids can go home and it can be done online where the young people don't actually get to see their responses, they don't get to see the hurt, they don't get to see how it is affecting them. We talk about putting kids over the edge sometimes by those sorts of things.
I think parents are really busy and I know over the course of time that I have been at Canterbury Vale there are more kids coming through with mental health needs but parents sometimes are just too busy to get them the support or don't want to get them the support because they have got the issues themselves.
Do you feel that you need to invest in working with families more?
Yes absolutely but if I am really honest it's very difficult in our setting because for many of our parents they love coming to the Principal's Awards Ceremony and celebrating that success because for the first time as a parent celebrating which is great, but it is very difficult to engage parents in even getting kids to mental health referrals.
We've got a great school counsellor who has got great contacts but we do all the ground work but then actually getting them to get help or consistently I think sometimes parents want a quick fix and they don't know that it is going to take a long time so if the student goes for the first counselling session and doesn't like it or doesn't see results then they give up or they shop around to go to different people. Lots of our parents have trauma backgrounds themselves as well or mental health illnesses themselves so yes it is very difficult.
As you just suggested there you're not operating in isolation.
These kids have a family context and of course many of them have schools that they've come from and will return to so they may have a happy stint with you, they may grow a lot but then they've got to go back to a mainstream setting. Talk about that journey and I imagine that is a pretty challenging journey for some of these kids.
One of our biggest challenge sometimes is for the students to want to go back to their mainstream because for the first time in their lives they're being successful at school, they're happy at school, they're learning and they're comfortable, their self esteem is building. But in saying that, two reasons we operate an integrating program where we do try and get as many kids back as we possibly can because it allows for other kids to have the opportunity of our intervention. I am also a believer that students belong in their local schools, in their local community so that they can walk home from school with their friends etc.
Re-integrating the students is a challenge and it's a challenge because for many of the teachers that have dealt with these students they've got a long history where they're the ones that have been on the receiving end of horrible abusive behaviour. Again I also have to remind teachers that they're kids and we're adults and that it's not personal and that we can't hold grudges. We are working more and more towards supporting mainstream school teachers to help these students when they come back because our school is based on relationships, consistency and consequences. These kids work really really well within boundaries. They know that this behaviour both positive and negative will lead to this. It needs to be really well supported when they do go back to their mainstream settings. Unfortunately if they get put with a teacher that's not driven by that sort of belief then it does fall apart. Then because it falls apart then we get sceptics saying an integration model doesn't work.
An integration model work can be very successful if mainstream schools want it to work and support it by putting the right teachers following their school procedures because that's what it is. It is working within your guidelines and your boundaries and all schools have procedures in place. I say to executive of mainstream schools pick your teachers for these kids, pick those ones that you know will give them a chance and not just think that their past has to be their future.
I take from that that some kids will struggle when they have gone back into a mainstream setting. You will have some great success stories as well.
Absolutely. Going from we've had students finish university with degrees, we've got an ex student that runs his own transport business, we've got plumbers, we've got carpenters, we've got kids that have tried to go back to finish the HSC but have bombed out and I don't call them the real success stories they're the success stories but we've also got students that they're not perfect back in the mainstream but they're a darn side better than what they were before and that is where you think there is a really supportive schools or if the school wants them to come back completely cured so to speak or perfect then that's not realistic.
I just love that some schools are happy that these students that used to climb on roofs are coming to school every day, they're not climbing on roofs, they might be truanting a period but that's a fantastic result compared to climbing on roofs every day so that change needs to be supported no matter how big it is. I will not send a student back if I don't think it's going to be successful when supported.
Vicki we're just about out of time but one final question and that is you are so passionate about this work, you bring such expertise and insight in this work but you didn't train in this work, you're an early childhood education teacher, your first degree was about educating nought to eight year old's how did you end up here?
It's interesting, I was always going to be an English/history teacher, high school teacher but in Year 11 I got an English teacher that I just didn't connect with so I changed from English/history to Early Childhood and loved it, absolutely loved being a preschool teacher and I started off at a Jack and Jill preschool in Bexley but again I was on the waiting list for a department position. I was a preschool teacher for three years and then I became the Director of the preschool and that's when I got my permanency with the department and I was appointment to Hilltop Road Public School out in Merrylands and realistically I could only teach Kindy, Year 1 and Year 2 because of my training. Everything was great, I always seemed to be as my years progressed I always seemed to be topped up with so called naughty boys' in my class so always had a real love of helping those challenging kids.
But then in those days, we didn't get as great advice - women, in particular, didn't get as good advice - and I resigned when I fell pregnant thinking that life was going to be rosy, it absolutely was, but then, unfortunately, got divorced and became a single mum and had to go back to work. I went back as a casual so I lost my permanency, so that was a bit of a problem but the principal was very supportive in giving me work all the time. For about six years I was a casual at Hilltop Road Primary School but I always had classes, I wasn't a bits and pieces casual. They used my strength for that and then I ended up in the primary school sector.
One year after the Christmas holidays I came back and yet another person had been appointed to Hilltop Road and I had a bit of a dummy spit and I said that's it I'm not doing this anymore and the principal there was very worried about me knowing that I had three children and a single parent but I just said I believe I will do anything to support my kids but I am not going to have people appointed around me when I am such a good educator.
He graciously said I want you to see EAPs and I will pay you for two weeks to really think about this sort of stuff and I did. I think it was on the third day that I was off I got a phone call from a gentleman called Pat Kelly who was the deputy principal of Rowland Hassall School and he said to me 'I hear you're a casual that likes a challenge' and to this day Pat and I are still friends and he still won't tell me how he got my name. I went along to Rowland Hassall School in Parramatta and they put me on what was called the peak class, the seventeen and eighteen-year-old students and I had no idea what I was doing and they just gave me the program, in I went and that was it, I just fell in love with special ed I suppose and these kids were very very challenging. I was working there casually for a while and then applied for a special ed cadetship. I went back to uni, I was really lucky to get the cadetship which meant that I went to uni for a year and got paid casual rate of pay for the year and retrained into special ed and then I was bonded to the department so to speak for three years. Having that dummy spit as far as I am concerned was the best thing that ever happened to me. Even though I always loved all my teaching but then I got appointed to Chifley College Dunheved Campus out at Mount. Druitt, into the support unit there. I was a teacher in the support unit out there and that was just fantastic, the Mount Druitt community was just an awesome place to work.
I look at our strategic plan two lines stand out - one is that every student is known and valued and cared for and that's clearly the place of every student at Canterbury Vale and the work that you are doing.
But also that commitment to improvement that you are not just there to mind their time but you are committed to improve their learning but improve their life opportunities and the mastery you give them over themselves and their environment. I really think you embody that 'every student commitment' and you embody what we have tried to do with this Every Student Podcast and that is to get to know great educators working in different settings around New South Wales and around Australia. I had that strong sense that even though you work in a very specialist setting the lessons that you can draw from your work at Canterbury Vale apply it to schools all around Australia.
Thank you so much for your time today, we've learnt so much and have really enjoyed the conversation.
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 who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter at NSW Education on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.
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