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Case Study - Casuarina Street Primary School, NT




Transcript

Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Hello, I'm Leigh Hatcher with the Growth Coaching International Case Study podcast series. It's a range of great stories and inspiring experiences, about the significant difference that GCI is making in a wide variety of schools and school systems.

I'm in a Skype conversation with John Cleary, Principal of the Casuarina Street Primary School, at Katherine in the Northern Territory. John qualified as a teacher in the UK, came to Australia in 2007, then to the Northern Territory in 2008.

So why the move? And why ... as you'll no doubt hear ... the passion for education in the top end?


John Cleary:
My initial sort of experience I guess ... I was a teacher in the London borough Redbridge, in a school in Goodmayes, in East London, and having a great time and really hadn't anticipated moving to Australia. It wasn't on the cards for us. My wife Bronwyn is a teacher also as well. So we met in London, as many people have, and her time and finished there and we came back to Australia together.

Initially we had friends right across the country, and a friend particularly up here in Katherine who then we had spoken with and travelled up to the region, and actually travelled out to a place called Nooka, which is a large community south east of Katherine itself, on the Gulf of Carpentaria. And had taken a position there for what really was going to be two to three months and then turned into ten years. So, as with many people who come to the Northern Territory for a short time, it really got under our skin. But also the urgency I guess around some of the work initially. The disparity in terms of access to education for some of the students that we were working with, in a very remote and obviously Indigenous community.

Nooka was a school, essentially at the time I suppose, where it was in a real stage of transition, there were a number of teachers who'd stepped out of the school and obviously, we had come in, but for students, low attendance rates ... for staff often as well ... and retention of staff which was a real difficulty in the school, but also just the remoteness. It was a privilege also as well. We got to be part of a real transformational period in that school, and both in terms of the growth of the school and the success that was achieved, was a great time for us. So after leaving Nooka, then we moved into Katherine itself I became part of the regional team. So initially those three months then really extended out for us.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Yes. So now you're the Principal of Casuarina Street Primary School. Give us a brief sketch John, of the school and its context there.

John Cleary:
Yes, so prior to becoming the Principal here I was a regional advisor, so working with the 27 schools across the region, spread across about 800 000 square kilometres. So you can imagine in a coaching capacity working with new principals in small remote schools to large remote schools, some with 14 students, some with 400 students. That gave me an opportunity to really work right across the region, and Casuarina Street Primary School had been a school that I had managed to work with as a coach, and the opportunity to become Principal here I think was an exciting one.

We're a growing school, so we've had to certainly grow from about 230 students back in 2013 when I joined as Principal, to a high of 390 students this year. So, significant growth in the school ... about 40% of our students here at this school are defence students, who are based at and obviously live out at RAAF base Tindal. We tend to see those students coming into town here for around three years is the placement at the school, and so there's another element of transiency. As there was with some of our Indigenous students working at Nooka, when there was movement ... was obviously part of life for those students too. Around 17% of our students are Indigenous and about 42 staff here at the school. So we're certainly a growing school and Katherine itself as a town is a pretty exciting and growing town too.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
So what sparked your interest in the first place? In introducing a coaching intervention to your particular context and the Territory job?

John Cleary:
It goes back to that experience as an advisor and too in that coaching capacity, when you're working across schools that are so remote, and your work with those schools has to be really purposeful, and the time that you spend with those schools really needs to be as directed and beneficial as it possibly can be. When you are so limited both in accessing these schools physically, but also the time that you can connect with people remotely, and using different technology.

So, my work within that previous advisory role had become very focused around ensuring that through our service agreements and the ways in which we were working with those schools, was really clear negotiated outcomes around what success might look like. But also, defining what that existing state for the schools might be in, and really starting to dig into ‘okay, what's achievable in the time we have in the work together’? And being able to articulate what that success might be for those schools. Really allow them to celebrate when they had achieved that success and then obviously improve the relationship that we had and the trust within that coaching relationship when people are seeing some movements and growth.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Fantastic.

John Cleary:
Yeah when I came into Casuarina Street Primary School we worked in a different way. Our leadership team structure was a traditional model. A senior teacher model and moving into an assistant Principal and Principal model. And so we wanted to look at how we could redefine the purpose of those roles. Not to be clerical, not to be the person who completes the risk assessment or organises the sports day, but really coaches who are working to support others to articulate and understand the impact that they are having in their practise.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
What sort of things was it developing in Principals and in schools, John?

John Cleary:
Self-reflection, I think is one of the key things. When you have that culture of self-reflection around, not only being able to identify that professional development isn't something that you head away to and have a couple of days out of your school, but actually that professional development in an opportunity that's always ongoing. There's a culture around self-reflection and professional development. So for those Principals where some of the real tangible things around the coaching model ... in particular I worked with Growth Coaching International with Grant O'Sullivan initially, was the ability to have some of those more difficult conversations successfully. The ability to support people in taking responsibility for what growth might look like and what was achievable, and I think that's a really important part. But also there were habits and just ways of working in a coaching model, and that extend beyond normal coaching conversations and just become the way in which that you do your business. So some of those habits, both as a school, and for me as a coach and then as a Principal, were some of the more powerful parts of our work.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
You're listening to the Growth Coaching International Case Study podcast series. I'm in conversation with John Cleary from Katherine in the Northern Territory, and there's been quite a range of very tangible and measurable impacts on both staff and students thanks to this work.

John Cleary:
Yeah, so as I shared, we decided that we would move away from a more traditional leadership model. As it happened Professor John Hattie in the Visible Learning team were working right across the Northern Territory and with ourselves as a school here also, and that provided the opportunity for what was an impact coach position, to really take the place of those more established leadership positions within our school. We worked also very closely with AITSL and our teacher registration board here in the Northern Territory, for a number of our teachers who were really keen to become coaches to have their practise recognised and accredited. So, we have a number of highly accomplished and lead nationally accredited teachers now to those professional standards, who as part of their work as a coach, gathered the evidence they needed for that formal accreditation, which was exciting.

So, one of the key things for us has been retention. As a school we're a remote school, we're 300 kilometres south of Darwin, and traditionally in schools like ours retention is really tricky and is something that can be a barrier to success, where you do have that regular turnover of staff. So when I first joined the school here, 68% I think was our key retention rate that first year of teaching staff. Last year we had a retention rate of 93%, which makes such a significant difference I think, when you are beginning the year and supporting new people who are coming to school ... we still had new teachers joining us, but actually this year is a continuation of the work and the structures and the culture of last year, rather than a need to reinvent or re-support others coming into the school when you have a large retention rate.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
And I think that difference has happened over about three or four years ...

John Cleary:
Yes it has, it's certainly taken that period for us and we've just seen that gradual growth. So the retention for our team ... people are tending to stay at least one to two years longer, which has really been exciting for us when we have exceptional people coming. We're looking for really exceptional people, we're looking for highly qualified people who have the sense of urgency and obviously a strong moral imperative around their work. Coaching conversations and structures give people the chance to recognise and realise that imperative which is really important for us. We do acknowledge that we're going to lose good people. Our coaches have become Principals, have also become regional advisors, have also become part of our student support team in the region and go on to greater and greater things we're sure.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Good for education generally though ...

John Cleary:
Yeah, definitely. We have to be more region centric, in terms of we are one of 27 schools in our region, we are one of 154 public schools in the Northern Territory. We're an independent public school, so one of only 14 in the NT, but this retention of excellence and expertise in our system benefits our system beyond our school, and that can only be good.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Yes, what about students John, do you perhaps have a story that illustrates the kind of impact that GCI Coaching has had on them?

John Cleary:
We've certainly seen really pleasing growth, in terms of as a school I think we've come from a significant distance away from that national mean, both in reading, writing and numeracy, to last year our Year 3 students achieving that mean or exceeding it, which has been a real significant growth over the last four ... this is my fifth year as Principal, which is really exciting.

So some of the work around building assessment culture, building a culture where we can identify growth, our students are really taking that on too. Part of our work last year was that we led something called the Northern Territory Learning Commission. So our students are actually leading work across the region, across a number of schools who are part of that commission in terms of students taking ownership, not just of student voice but of student agency in actually identifying and now taking responsibility and agency for the improvements in their school they'd like to see. And one of our commissioners Renez Lammon, who's also one of our impact coaches and a Growth Coaching trained coach here at the school as well, was last year named the Northern Territory Indigenous Educator of the Year, which was really exciting and I guess an affirmation also for her in her work as a coach, but also in as an educator.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
How inspiring. Any notes of caution John, about coaching with GCI? Especially in the context of the Northern Territory?

John Cleary:
Yeah, I think any model like this and any work that you might do, it needs to be future proof. And thinking about how will this be sustainable beyond those currently engaged in the model.

So one of the conversations that we always have with our coaches, is how can they start to identify who might be them in the future? So you know, they're usually working themselves out of a job I think, and that's part of what we accept to be the reality of working in a remote context too.

So succession planning is obviously really important. There needs to be a deep trust and a mutual trust in that relationship, when that investment has been made by the school, that it takes time, and coaching conversations and journeys and investment take time.

So for our coaches to see that, that won't happen overnight, both in terms of their work, but also the achievements of those they're working with. To make that commitment of time and investment around it, I think is important. As we've seen with people who have been coaches here and now have become leaders in our region and leaders in our system, to know that those people will move on and that's okay. And to be planning for the succession coming behind them.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
It wouldn't surprise me if you haven't given thought to what's next? How do you see the model of coaching being sustained and developing in the context of the Northern Territory? Which I wouldn't be surprised if some people listening think "oh what an outpost, I'd never go there."

John Cleary:
I think one of the things that is not necessarily readily known, of 300 plus highly competent lead teachers accredited nationally, the highest ratio of highly competent lead teachers actually reside in Northern Territory.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
There you go ...

John Cleary:
We're pretty proud of that. You bet.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Well done.

John Cleary:
One of the key things for us is around, we want this to build, not just at a school or even a regional level now ... The potential for the model that we're looking at ... but accreditation nationally.

People who are working in a proficient standard and are excellent in their work as a teacher and are doing fantastic things, often we assume that they have the structures or ways of working to support others to also become excellent. I think what is extraordinary to others is often quite ordinary to people who don't recognise that. What's ordinary to you, is extraordinary to others.

So the coaching process in supporting people to move from proficient to highly accomplished and lead in their practise, those standards really talk about what is your impact on other people? We know you're impact on your students is significant and that you're a wonderful educator. What is your impact look like on others?

I'm heading down to Victoria and all over the place, and New South Wales, and meeting teachers in the next few weeks to encourage them to consider not just leading in the Northern Territory but staying in the Northern Territory. And I won't be talking about tourism.

So the opportunity I think in the Northern Territory, and the potential for us to not only become to be, but continue to be, a system which really invests in people's ability to understand, demonstrate and articulate their own impact on themselves and others. It's a really exciting way forward. And they're certainly the kind of people we're looking for at Casuarina Street Primary School in the Katherine region and the system as a whole.

I think this Growth Coaching has provided for our team, and for those that we're working with, a gateway into celebrations of the achievements within their own practise and that's always going to be something which leads people to stay longer in their work. The conversations that I have with people from all over the country in different States and Territories, there are a number of people out there who are really looking for that opportunity to lead.

One of the things we have here at the school, you don't need a badge to lead for our Student Representative Council but you also don't need permission to lead. That was certainly one of the things we talked about.

Nationally, we shared our story recently in Sydney with a number of highly accomplished and lead teachers from across the country, is that if you want to lead - lead. Not only just in terms of the distance, the complexity of the work that we do, we have to think differently in terms of how we do the work that we do. We need to innovate, and innovation and thinking about new ways to work in ways that will really maximise, not only the time that we have with our students but with each other. I think there is that need to innovate, which we do very well. So if there are people who are looking for that opportunity to innovate and the opportunity to lead, the Northern Territory provides that in many many different ways.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Yeah. So if you teach around Australia, look out, John Cleary's after you!

John Cleary:
Oh you bet! Absolutely. I'm a west coast of Ireland boy, who went to London, who came to Australia, and ten years in I certainly consider myself to be a Territorian and I'm proud to be.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
What a great story. John Cleary, thank you so much indeed for joining us.

John Cleary:
Thank you.
Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
You've been listening to the Growth Coaching International Case Study podcast series. There are many more great stories in this series of real change. Have a listen to them at www.growthcoaching.com.au

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