The HATs (highly accomplished teachers) program is a NSW education success story. Pity no-one talks about it says Maxine McKew, though it has been good to hear Radio National interview innovative teacher Greg Whitby about his book, ‘Educating Gen Wi-Fi: how we can make schools relevant for 21st century learners’ and to read the Grattan Institute’s article by Ben Jensen ‘Wrong Fix For Failing Schools’ in the Weekend Australian.
Education, or the schools debate, in Australia focusses on money, but after a year’s research into our schools Ben Jensen believes raising teachers’ classroom skills is far more important than raising money. He says the world’s best school systems – in Finland, Ontario, Singapore and Shanghai – focus relentlessly on what happens in the classroom. He says:
“The role of teachers is essential: they are partners in reform…In Singapore all teachers have mentors. New teachers have district-based mentors and two in-school mentors (one on classroom management, the other on subject content). In Hong Kong, classroom observations aim to change teacher culture and improve pedagogy. The focus is on openness to new ideas and career-long teacher learning. These four systems are not afraid to make difficult trade-offs to achieve their goals. Shanghai, for
example, has larger class sizes to give teachers more time for school-based research to improve learning and teaching. These systems are neither perfect nor universally popular.” Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia
The principal of Holroyd High in western Sydney since 1995, Dorothy Hoddinott AO, has received many awards for her service to education. Ben Jensen acknowledges this as does Maxine McKew in a wonderful article about Dorothy’s teaching prowess ‘Yellow Brick Road To Success’.
“With all the emphasis now on continuous improvement, we are still seeing too much rhetoric and not enough action. Too much blah. Unfortunately the system is just not set up to replicate best practice.”
Following is my shortened version of Maxine’s story (with my emphases).
There is nothing flash about this school..Dorothy knows that her school, like many others needs a massive capital investment (remember the BER was directed at primary schools) but her priorities are clear.
“With any extra funding that comes my way, I invest in people, not in stuff.”
That approach has paid off in spades. Holroyd punches above its weight and sends an average of 45% of graduating students to universities. Many more make successful transitions into training or work. This from a school where a large percentage of students start high school with little or no English. Holroyd’s value added results for ESL students are above the state average..
A big effort is placed on ‘experiential excursions’ – small day trips organised by teachers to help expose students to the wider world of city life and its complexities.
For new arrivals, it can be something as simple as how to ride on an escalator, how to fill out forms at Medicare, how to use public transport…
A bright young female student from Afghanistan [was taken] on a trip to Watson’s Bay – home of our great novelist Christina Stead who knew a thing or two about families and culture – and all was going well until the young girl hit Dorothy with a question she never expected.
“How do these boats stay in the water?”
The twenty footers and the luxury cruisers weren’t part of this girl’s life experience but that question kicked off an extended tutorial that ranged over everything from water displacement, the design of hulls, modern shipping routes, and eventually took in the journeys of the great explorers of the 18th century, and eventually got around to the international law of the sea and the obligation of mariners to help those in distress.
Not a bad lesson and with no electronic whiteboard in sight.
We all start to learn this way. As youngsters we are curious. We drive our parents nuts by constantly asking ‘why’.
The best teachers understand this. They encourage the curiosity of their students, they fire them up about possibilities and a sense of wonder, and it’s precisely this that Dorothy Hoddinott is embedding as best practice at Holroyd.
“We put students at the centre of everything. We consciously evaluate everything we do. Above all I want teachers here to think positively and expect the best. I certainly do. I’m constantly saying to students – you are intelligent, you have a gift. I expect you to finish your HSC. I expect you to go to university.”
In 1995, Dorothy Hoddinott took on the stewardship of a school that she says had a ‘negative culture and was balkanised’.
The school was known locally as ‘Import High’ a label helpfully reinforced by a group of teachers who referred to newly arrived migrant or refugee youngsters as ‘imports’ and actively excluded them from any of the schools specialist classes. Those unfortunate enough to be tagged in this way were not allowed near the Art room. Discrimination was overt and the right of all students to a comprehensive education was a notion that was simply trashed.
That’s just the way things were at Holroyd High until Dorothy Hoddinott walked in the door and started her very own education revolution.
She put new structures in place, executed some significant HR change, tore up the school rule book (full of ‘thou shall nots’) insisted on transparency and evaluation, and set about writing a new code of behaviour around the concept of respect.
“Schools in areas of significant disadvantage need leaders who have the intellectual capacity to look deeply at the culture of a school, and to work hard on the issues that will bring about change.”
Biting the bullet on the hard decisions, and doing it early in her tenure as a new Principal, has yielded big benefits. Staff morale has turned around, absenteeism is low, and there is now a stability at the school that was absent before.
Along with improved and measurable achievement for students, Dorothy also points to the non numerical indicators.
“We have seen a decline in littering, in petty vandalism, in graffiti, and we now have a very low suspension rate. This is a respectful place. Above all teachers and students have learnt how to negotiate.”
And yes, the Art Room is now open to all comers..
The key levers for achieving change revolve around:
Courtesy of the final round of the National Partnership funding, Holroyd now has a HAT (Highly Accomplished Teacher) who works in an intensive way with classroom teachers to help with pedagogy and innovative learning approaches. Rebecca Mahon has taken on this role at Holroyd and is one of the reasons that the HATs are a major NSW success story. Pity no-one talks about them.
So is this a story of one gutsy woman defying the system? In part, yes.
But there is nothing magical about what has happened at Holroyd. It’s taken a lot of time, a lot of smarts, a fair bit of heartburn and it’s probably even taken a few years off Dorothy.
But Dorothy and her teachers have got the important things right at Holroyd.
They understand the power of ideas.
They dream big dreams.
And most critical of all, they know that you have to take the time to listen to young people and answer them honestly when they ask “how do boats stay on water?”
An age-old model. Isn’t leadership in education – at all levels – about understanding human behaviour?