Family connections: Waimea Heights Primary School
Sally Gill, Principal of Waimea Heights Primary School in Hobart, Tasmania, speaks to Education Matters about the school’s core values.
How long have you been Waimea Heights Primary School?
This is my eighth year as Principal of Waimea. During that time, we have raised the school’s profile as a beacon in public education in Tasmania. As a result of the high-quality teaching, our enrolments have doubled over the past six years. During my tenure, the school has also had a significant input in funding from the Tasmanian Department of Education with additional fundraising by our parents, to improve the facilities and playground. We have built a new library, staffroom, a new kindergarten and four new classroom and unisex toilets, and there has been a major upgrade of all other learning areas and administration spaces.
How does the school’s philosophy and ethos guide it today?
Four core values – Learning and Achievement, Integrity, Diversity, Social Responsibility – underpin our approach to learning and the programs we run to develop our students as socially responsible citizens of the world. We are a ‘can do’ school as our students are empowered to be active and engaged citizens. As an example of this, our students have spread their knowledge to the wider community. Our year 6 students shared their research into the threat of a myrtle rust invasion to our native trees, and our younger children developed a plan to build a new sandpit, researching the cost and developing a persuasive plan supported by the skills and knowledge of our families. They are actively involved in their own learning
How does Waimea Heights differ from other schools?
Waimea is situated on a magnificent expansive campus. The school is framed by Mount Wellington/Kunanyi, is bordered by MacAulay’s Bush Reserve and is within walking distance of the River Derwent. It has formal and informal playgrounds that are expansive and diverse. Its bush playground allows for cubby building and tree climbing. This is a place where, in a natural setting, our children’s emotional and social skills are strengthened. They can take risks as they explore the mud pie kitchen or creek bed, negotiate rules of a game or care for one another when they have the inevitable bumps and scratches. It is a natural environment that encourages a variety of outdoor play to suit all students.
Another point of difference in our school is that 25 per cent of our families have an international background. This brings a richness in diversity and a natural opportunity to develop understanding and respect for all people. Added to this, many ‘mainlanders’ are now choosing Hobart as their sea change destination as it’s a wonderful, safe, clean, and uncrowded place to raise a family. Our school prides itself on welcoming families and developing strong family connections during their time with us.
In what ways has the school evolved over the past 10 to 20 years?
Ten years ago, Waimea was under threat of closure with declining numbers. Now with more than 400 pupils, it has a strong reputation for academic excellence as a kind, inclusive and caring school. The school has focused on developing the leaders of tomorrow – confident, articulate young people who have a strong ethical approach to their world. Waimea was selected to participate in the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning Project in 2012, a Michael Fullan global undertaking, and over the following three years our school has transformed its use of digital technologies in the learning context. Twenty schools in Tasmania, over 100 in Victoria and thousands globally joined this project to define what 21st Century learning should look like in our classrooms. At Waimea, our focus has been to develop our students as problem solvers, finding ways to ensure strong student voice and authentic learning experiences.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
My ‘class’ is the staff of Waimea. Providing strong pastoral support and an environment of continuous improvement is my aim. Together we develop individual professional development plans which give each staff member a chance to strengthen their practice, and opportunities to contribute to the development and implementation of our school improvement plan. With a strong leadership team consisting of an assistant principal, three advanced skills teachers and the school business manager, the expertise on the staff provides those middle-tier leaders great opportunity for growth and reflection of their practice, under my mentorship. Their support of an outstanding staff has contributed to Waimea successes.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
Knowing every child and their family is my aim as we develop a strong connected community. Before and after school and during many break times I walk, talk and support a child’s social situation and development. I ensure I do a duty in the kindergarten playground to get to know our newest members of the Waimea community too. A high level of visibility means those incidental conversations can build wonderful bridges with our families and support them as together we are involved in the growth and learning of their child. Each morning I visit every classroom as I build strong and effective relationships with teachers and support staff. I witness highly engaging teaching and learning programs and with this knowledge and the expertise of the leadership team, can ensure we continue to strengthen teaching practices.
What are some of the critical issues faced by educators in the primary sector?
The role of a teacher is ever increasing. High levels of accountability are expected but teacher stress and wellbeing is of concern.
Our families too are under social and financial pressure, to be ‘the perfect parent’, purchasing their own homes if they can. Often with two working parents, families are time-poor and can place high expectations on their child, which also results in children finding it difficult to cope with the worries of the world.
We focus on empowering our children to make a difference, developing resilience to cope with disappointment, and to celebrate others’ successes. The ‘lawnmower’ parent is not a helpful model for children. We work with some of parents to understand that disappointment, challenge and the word “no” are very important in a child’s development. Clearing the way so that there are no obstacles to conquer is not in the best long term interests of any child.
As an eSmart school we are also working hard to ensure our students are fully prepared for the ever-changing cyber world. To be safe and courteous online is another focus of our class programs.
What has been your most memorable moment, either as a teacher or specifically in the role of Principal?
My career has spanned 40 years teaching in the remote west coast of Tasmania in a Hydro construction village, many different demographics of Hobart and the beautiful Huon valley. In each school, I’ve delighted in the opportunity to work with families and seen it as an honour and privilege. To chat to the prep child who on day one said at lunch time, “Can I go home now, I know everything and I can see my house?’ or the Year 6 student who I heard checking on a much younger student whose head was hanging low, asking, “Are you OK?’, warms my heart daily. The opportunity to see the growth and development in our students is pure pleasure. As principal, I feel like the Mayor of the Village, supporting the students, staff and community to grow and prosper. I love this job!
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
The ability to listen, think strategically and work towards the agreed vision, values and direction of the school keeping it clearly front and centre of what you do, are very important traits and skills for a principal. So often we can be overtaken by events or programs and ensuring that this is part of the agreed direction of the school supported by staff takes a high level of emotional intelligence and strong ability to communicate. The ability to develop strong trusting relationships with staff and your community is also an important attribute for a leader.
Can you describe any specific ways in which the digital era is beginning to disrupt the education field?
Ensuring our students are safe online and also behave in courteous and polite manner is part of our eSmart focus. It is a challenging world for our young people to navigate but is a critical part of how they communicate and engage in their world and their learning. The digital technologies underpin much of our learning and we model and teach the power of technologies as they learn to code, make short movies and communicate with the wider world.
One way we model the positive use of digital technologies is the KIVA online project which uses technology that allows our students to connect people from very different backgrounds. The platform allows them to research individuals from developing countries wishing to gain a small microfinance loan. Students developed criteria to rank borrowers (is it more important to support children’s education, or adult health, or projects that will affect a whole village?), and finally loan their funds to people from developing countries to facilitate life-changing projects. This global interaction would be almost impossible without the power of digital technology to connect and communicate.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
NAPLAN is one form of assessment that gives us longitudinal information about our school’s academic success in literacy and numeracy and the effectiveness of some of our professional learning focus in identified targeted areas. It provides detailed information for teachers to compare with the other ways we assess our students during the year and ensure that both enrichment and support are developed where needed. I would be disappointed if it was a major focus in comparing schools as a child’s education is so much broader that these tests and our contexts so different. A child’s emotional and social development, sense of wellbeing and the creative arts are also important in the development of the whole child and an important part of a child’s education, areas that are not ‘tested’.