Reward for effort


28 July 2020

Phoebe Morris

Camira State School, QLD

Micro-skills in the spotlight

New educator Phoebe Morris, who teaches Year 6 at Camira State School in Ipswich, Queensland, has been focusing on literacy and numeracy micro-skills.

Morris and the other Year 6 teachers use a cycle-of-inquiry approach to continually assess students’ reading data.

“We noticed some kids were nearly at year level and wanted to know what was holding them back. That’s how we figured out which micro-skills to work on,” says Morris.

She doesn’t ask her students to check a “random word” in the dictionary or use it in a sentence. Instead, she teaches vocabulary, grammar and spelling.

“We make sure the word is in context. When we come upon an unknown word in a novel I’m reading to them, we do a bit of inferencing. Then we discuss their understanding of what the word is and isn’t. Like ‘aquarium’ – that’s a glass tank for fish, but you won’t find it in nature.”

She’s also been finessing her teaching method for spelling, which she finds difficult as kids get older because of the intricacies of the Latin and Greek roots of words.

The cube approach

School-wide, there’s a focus on explicitly teaching problem solving in maths. At Camira State School, educators explain the “cubes” approach in which students circle keywords, underline the question, box the action word, then evaluate and solve the problem.

Morris encourages her class to apply that knowledge in groups.

“It’s particularly good for my students who are below Year 6 level. Maybe they can’t answer the question themselves, but contributing as a group means they all have success.”

Morris is happy with the way her students have learned to work together, having taught about two-thirds of them last year in Year 5.

“Some of the students from last year have really stepped up. If they see a peer needs help, they support them.”

Her class includes high-performing students who are working at Year 7 and 8 levels. Morris has been differentiating her lessons for all students and exploring their learning progressions, which she says helps build connections.

“Having a good relationship with my class means they know I have their back. The classroom is a safe space. It means that, with behaviour management, they can be honest with me and own their behaviour. But if you don’t have the relationship, they’ll get into trouble and they won’t feel they can talk to you about it.”

Out of the classroom

Morris represented her local union branch at last term’s state council.

“I was probably the youngest person there because beginning teachers aren’t usually involved,” she says.

A key topic was how to engage Generation Z to want to become teachers and keep working in the profession.

“I have some ideas about ways to engage young teachers at our school. We love our tech and social media.”

Morris remains a keen AFL player and took part in a regional derby match last term. In June, she’s going for her first Dan – or stripe – in taekwondo.

Colin Kiel

Alekarenge School, NT

Boosting attendance

The remote Alekarenge School – four hours’ drive north of Alice Springs – has made significant progress in increasing attendance by building relationships and partnerships with the school community, says new principal Colin Kiel.

Kiel, who has been teaching for six years, was appointed to the position at the beginning of 2019.

He says attendance had been as low as 40 and is now just over 130.

“Three staff members work three hours a day either on the bus with me or helping get brekkie for the kids and getting them into the class,” says Kiel.

“I did a million different things to follow up kids as they were coming back into the community.” Kiel says he has even encouraged visitors to the region to bring their children to the school, sometimes for just a couple of days.

He also updated the school’s attendance data to avoid parents “getting in trouble when their kids aren’t at school for funerals or cultural reasons”.

“It was a lot of hard work but having accurate attendance figures will pay off in a big way,” says Kiel, who estimates Alekarenge will receive an extra $100,000 a year as a result.

Another reward for “a lot of hard work” is the students’ engagement with the Read Writing phonics program.

Kiel says it was quite an effort set it up, particularly the data files needed for the program, but the results have been well worth it.

The value of mentoring

He puts a lot of store in the value of mentoring and has begun a prestigious Leadership for School Improvement Emerging Principals’ Program run by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership.

Meanwhile, he is mentoring graduate teachers in his team. “I have a meeting with those teachers every week. I don’t want to teach them to be like me, but to be the best teacher they can be,” he says.

Emotional health and wellbeing is on the agenda in every staff meeting.

“This is especially needed in a remote school. When teachers in towns or cities have a hard day, they can go to a movie or a restaurant, but my staff can’t do that – the pub is an hour’s drive up the road. And when we come home, when there’s an issue in the community, it can keep my staff up all night.

“We have to look out for each other, ask each other how we’re going. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and, as a principal, I need to be able to offer support.”

That means Kiel has an open-door policy with his staff. He has been able to shoehorn that time into his day by keeping a tight rein on administration tasks, which he says have become “almost automatic”.

Weekends for family time

Despite all this, Kiel is managing to keep his workload to weekdays.

He lives near the school during the week and returns to his wife and newborn daughter in Alice Springs each weekend.

“I couldn’t bring myself not to be at school for the start of the year (just after his daughter was born). It’s when you set the tone, so I took four weeks’ leave at the start of second term.”

Ashleigh Leaver

Aveley Secondary College, WA

Putting the pieces together

It’s mid-year, and new Home Economics teacher Ashleigh Leaver has her student behaviour management down pat.

“I thought it was going to be more of a problem because I worked at the school late last year. But it’s only low-level behaviour. I just give a little tap on the desk and they’ll stop what they’re doing,” says the Perth high school teacher.

Her state’s mobile phone ban at schools has been a “massive help”, too. She has only had to tell two students to “put them away” and found they obeyed.

High expectations

From the “get-go”, Leaver has set her expectations high. She teaches Years 7 and 9 food technology and textiles.

“I still remember my first year as a high school student in home economics. We made a fruit kebab and some awful rockmelon smoothie. As a teacher, I’ll never do that to my class.”

She hit on a winner with her Year 7 classes when she asked them to design their toppings and make a pizza. Every student passed.

“All these kids, just 12 years old, were really rocking in the kitchen. I was proud of training them up well,” she says.

Fine-tuning lesson plans

The signature pedagogy at Aveley Secondary College is Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI).

“The way I write my lessons has changed so my practice is more suited to EDI. We aren’t expected to be EDI experts straight away. I have good support – my mentor helps me add engagement strategies and elements including checking for understanding to make my lessons stronger.”

And she appreciates how tenuous knowledge retention can be among her students.

“I thought the Year 9 students would remember little things from Year 7 food technology such as which coloured chopping boards to use for what, how to use measuring cups and spoons, etc.

“I had assumed it was common knowledge, so I learned I had to do some revision for the older year groups.”

Upskilling with tech

What about her own learning? She’ll strengthen her textiles knowledge and explore using OneNote. Other teachers have recommended it for “storing everything” relevant for teaching.

Leaver also wants to nominate to run an academy in which students would opt to learn macramé or to sew teddy bears to donate to the children’s hospital, in sessions before or after school. She put off volunteering for that in semester one because of her workload.

“I definitely have more work on my plate than social activities. Maybe it was unrealistic for me to think I was going to be able to do all my work at school, so I’m still taking work home with me.”

Creating new resources

Because the school is new, there weren’t resources or programs, so Leaver made some from scratch. Down the track, she can re-use them, so she won’t always need to work 50 hours a week.

Her biggest takeaway from a fellow teacher was not to stress about the small stuff. He advised her not to deck out her new, bare classroom immediately. Instead, he said she should focus on assessments that were due earlier than expected.

“Week by week, I feel like I’m getting on top of work more,” says Leaver.

COVID-19 Update

We spoke to our new educators before the COVID-19 crisis emerged so their stories reflect a different time. More recently, we checked in with them for a quick update.

Phoebe Morris

Camira State School, QLD

“We’ve had lots of questions and confusion from parents.

Initially only 40 parents requested hardcopies, then it went up to 150, which took time to organise.

Overall, however, the school community has been very supportive of the move to remote learning.

Parents were concerned about whether the work that kids do now will be revised when they return to school.

I said ‘yes’, because they’ll be at different stages. How can we assess our students when we haven’t seen some of them for eight weeks?

Since the last week of term 1, our school is open only to children of essential workers or from vulnerable homes until at least week 5. I’m the only one of three year 6 teachers supervising students. The strangest thing is there are no real behaviour issues at all.

Students are emailed work or have the hard copy. It’s quite onerous emailing feedback for each student every day. It feels like an office job doing admin rather than being in front of the kids teaching.

All my hobbies have ground to a halt. It’s had the biggest impact on my life and taken a toll on my mental wellbeing.”

Colin Kiel

Alekarenge school, NT

“We were told at 4pm we’d be locked in our remote community from midnight. That was two weeks before the end of term 1. Then, we didn’t really know what school would be like.

I’d already been in isolation for two weeks with another illness and had to work out how to get a work/emergency exemption to travel. It meant that, for a month, I couldn’t see my wife and baby daughter who live in Alice Springs.

We didn’t close the school but, in case we had to, we’d made home packs with worksheets, playdough and games.

Two teachers had to leave the community and another teaches from home via Skype. Student attendance has been low. I’ve had to drive past family homes where they had no phone to tell them the school was still open.

We’ve got the only loudspeaker in the community, so we broadcast a COVID-19 update every Monday.

Our school Wi-Fi is better than in Alice Springs, so now it’s business as usual with social distancing. We got funding for more cleaning during the day.

And they’ve slammed the brakes on my principal leadership program, but I sort of feel on top of things.”

Ashleigh Leaver

Aveley Secondary College, WA

“The final week of term 1, our state government said schools should only open in term 2 for children of essential workers. So, we all created websites for our classes from scratch with online learning resources. I spent hours on that, including videos.

Then the government said that this term we should prioritise face-to-face teaching.

Now, we’ve got 60 per cent of the kids at school and we aren’t expected to be teaching both online as well as face to face, but students at home have access to the resources online or paper.

We haven’t been able to cook in my home economics classes. The principal didn’t want the kids sharing the same equipment. Plus, the assistant was getting grief at the supermarket buying supplies. People assumed she was stockpiling.

One girl emailed me to say she had a lot going on in her life. Family members were losing their jobs, but my student was looking forward to returning to school. I think that email is proof teachers have a massive impact.”

By Margaret Paton

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Winter 2020