Tintern Grammar: A Victorian Principal reflects on 2020
By Emma Westwood
Writer | Editor | Content & Digital Strategist
Situated in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, Tintern Grammar is home to almost 900 students ranging from Early Learning Centre age to Year 12.
In a year dominated by the unparalleled shift to remote learning, Tintern’s Principal, Bradley Fry, tells EdSmart about some of the challenges and successes the school – and its community – have experienced during the 2020 pandemic.
Specifically, he shares his experiences as a school in Victoria, Australia, having undergone one of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world to date.
EdSmart: What have been the challenges that are unique to Victorian schools in Australia, especially at Tintern, during this extended lockdown?
Bradley Fry: “The challenges we’ve dealt with have been multi-dimensional. Some of them have been driven by external forces, over which we have no control, some of them driven by internal forces, over which we have no control, and then some of them have been driven by internal forces over which we've had some reasonable measure of control.”
“External challenges have been due to it being a movable feast – the landscape of expectation, and the landscape of operational management and execution. At times, information has come from the government on very short timelines. Some has come out on a Thursday or a Friday afternoon to be implemented on the Monday. Steadily, the government’s become more strategic in the way they have gone about it, and hence the school's operations guides have been produced progressively. The guidelines went from being advisory, to being required, and then legally enforceable. Some of the things they required, we were not set up to do. It required us to be very agile.”
“The vast majority of our staff have not been on campus for most of the last six months. Through the course of last term, we had, on any given day, maintenance and operation staff – which is five or six people – plus six or seven others in total, out of a workforce of 200. And you have got to trust that people will do the right thing. We did a lot of training and so on but there’s no doubt that the complexity of managing internal needs has also been really significant.”
“As well as this, you need to be able to communicate with parents when you can't hold meetings or invite people into school. You cannot keep sending out emails repeatedly, and people have only a limited appetite for videos. So how you bind your community together and bring them on a journey towards a set of destinations – and a final destination – has been another challenge.”
“Then there is what is our ‘core business’: educating, supporting and growing young people. To be able to pivot to remote learning, we trialled a number of different things in the very last week of Term One. We made some adjustments and then we had a professional learning week for staff in the first week of Term Two, so we felt we were well prepared. The students had to adjust to all these changes with even less warning than the teachers and school leaders did. I think we could have been more effective for the students with the process, if we had more warning.”
“In many ways, it’s felt like we were constantly watching out for landmines because you need to retain the confidence and faith of your staff and your community. We needed to maintain the confidence and the trust of our parents and your students, and we also had to fulfil the government's expectations because, if we failed to, it's a nearly $100,000 fine for an organisation. And that is a large landmine! So yes, there've been a lot of different challenges that have come from different sources.”
How has Tintern used technology to overcome roadblocks?
BF: “Probably it’s easier to answer, ‘Can you list the ways in which technology has not helped?’ We've been both forced to, and very much chosen to, utilise technology to support a whole range of different things.”
“We use Teams as our in-school community meeting and in-class teaching tool, and we tend to use Zoom for our external meetings because it’s more flexible for that. We’ve done everything that way – we still have staff briefings, we still have assemblies, we still have parent/teacher/student conferences and we still teach, obviously. We have ‘touch base’ calls with students across all year levels in the school, and they are all performed through that medium.”
“I think we probably brought the average staff member forward two or three years in ICT-based professional learning, and in getting them to consider how teaching can be done differently. We essentially did that in about a week-and-a-half, which is remarkable. And the appetite that the staff have had for the change… well, they certainly have not shied away from it. They've taken it up and brought the students and the parents along with them.”
“We didn't want to overload parents but we also wanted to make sure they knew we were focused on the academics and on the wellbeing and social welfare of their kids – and that we're continuing to do co-curricular things. The challenge was: how do we get that across without flooding their inboxes but also making them feel they get enough information? Technology has played an important role in tackling this challenge.”“Stability within families was one of the goals of our communication strategy; to ensure that we gave parents sufficient information, understanding and empathy, and they didn't have to worry about whether school was working for their children. We listened when parents came back and said, ‘Look, this is great – but what would be even better would be if you could do this or something like it. Within the context of what was possible, the feedback that we got was that it was a fabulous, if very different, school experience.”
“What has been absolutely invaluable has been EdSmart. EdSmart has been the most fantastic tool for us to use ever since we started it. It's reduced workload for us, it's given us much greater accuracy, parents have reported it's so easy for them… and never more so than during the various stages of lockdown because it's allowed us to manage the transition from on-campus to off-campus, or off-campus to on-campus. For instance, our Year 10s are on-campus three days and off-campus two days. EdSmart has enabled us to manage which kids have still got to come on the other two days and which kids are going to need additional support and facilities on the days they are here. The flexibility of EdSmart has been brilliant.” How important has community been for your school during the pandemic?
“Our goal through all of this has been to try and make it really clear to the community that, like the phrase ‘we’re all in this together’, we really are all in this together. And I think what has come back from the community is we, and they, actually do feel like we have had a common set of aims and goals, and we're walking a common pathway together. That has been authentically effective in promoting trust and confidence between the parents, staff and students in the school.”
“One of the other things that's been really important has been to find a way to maintain student leadership and student voice. We make it very clear that, in times of pressure, we seek leadership across the school – it's not just about the Principal standing up and telling everybody what they should do. So, we are still running mentoring and buddy programs – for example, where secondary students are reading to our primary school students online across lockdown time.”
“We've created a number of amazing choir productions and posted them to YouTube and LinkedIn, and some of them have been just remarkable. We asked the community to send in photos and videos of ‘A Day in the Life of Tintern’. We had over 150 people contribute. We then created this amazing video with a student choral piece embedded underneath and so forth. We've done a lot of wonderful projects like that.”
“All of our leaders – senior, middle and junior – have written emails to the student body around things that are important to them, a song that matters to them, and about why it matters. So, it is about the exposure of vulnerability and encouraging young people through that. That's been really successful at a time when a lot of students are under real pressure because some found this off-campus period really difficult.”
How have you – and Tintern, in general – handled the wellbeing of staff?
BF: “In terms of staff pastoral support, we have two staff – one is the Chaplain, and one is the Director of Staff Development. It is formalised to the extent that, if you have anything you need support with, you can go to other people, like a counsellor, but we have these two people available too. We have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that operates above that, and that’s for people that need a more formal response, and sometimes the first leads to the second.”
“When we first moved off-campus in March, our Emergency Management Group (EMG) initiated and maintained a list of students at-risk, as well as staff at-risk. So, when we created the student at-risk list, that was essentially something that Heads of School delivered down to Year Level Coordinators and Pastoral Mentors (who are like home group/room teachers). The at-risk staff list began as a list of people that we thought were likely to be at-risk because of past behaviours, past events, known mental health vulnerabilities – whatever they might be. We added onto that people that lived alone, people we knew were in home situations that were less than ideal for a range of reasons – whether because they had challenges with kids with additional needs themselves, or relationships and so on. All of those people became a list of people that the welfare group would touch base with regularly, so that each time we had an EMT meeting – and they were essentially weekly most of the time that we've been off-campus – that list would be discussed and updated.”
“We also offered, and reinforced, the availability of EAP for people that needed it. It hasn't been accessed by anybody to this point. We have had some people that have not been in a great way, and we have set up informal relationships with other people where they will meet over Zoom for a coffee or a conversation. Other times, we connected people up with people we've known have been their friends, and we've asked the at-risk person if it was OK for us to disclose their situation with this person so they have the opportunity to help them.” What have been the pleasant surprises that have emerged from your school community across this pandemic?
“There have been numerous capabilities that have developed in staff, students and parents. In parents, what we have seen are a few things; first is a really strong demonstration of trust in what our staff are doing, even though it's very different to what schooling looked like for them in their time. That’s been great. Also, there has been a shift in parents around how education actually doesn't need to look like it looked when I was taught. Perhaps education can go forward, and it can be different.”
“The further extension of that is a realisation that what we really need to develop is resilience in young people, and an ability to be agile and adaptable in an unstable world, because it's going to be an unstable world for a while. COVID has shown parents how quickly your accepted norm can be turned on its head. I also believe that there is a much greater appetite now amongst parents to move away from this idea that the Australian Tertiary Admission Ranking [ATAR] is all that matters. I think they understand there's a broader educational purpose here, in a way that is unlike ever before.”
“For the students, it is certainly the embracing of technology but also the demonstrations of independence and the development of self-management and personal organisation. We see children at prep age making videos and posting them to our portal – it is not their parents doing it, it is them doing it. They are participating in group meetings where there are 26 people in the meeting, and they leave their microphones off until they want to speak. This is happening with six- and seven-year-old children, which is astounding to me! They are developing skills but they are also developing an awareness and an understanding. They empathise with other children by putting their thumbs up on the screen when a child tells a funny story or, when someone is sad, they type empathetic messages into the chat. They'll say, ‘I hope you feel better soon’ and so on – and these are very young kids. Older students have certainly developed and amplified these attributes as well.”
“In terms of staff, our school is a relatively conservative school, and many of our staff have historically taught in a largely conservative way. But now they have had to move away from that dramatically, and in a short period of time. We've had lots and lots of peer teaching as a continuation of our professional learning program but it has mostly been centered around peer teaching to amplify capability.”“The things that staff have taught themselves to do, that they've had the appetite to embrace, and the willingness to try, has been amazing. This appetite for change in teachers has appeared very quickly – a willingness to get out of their comfort zone and do something that is very different to what they did before, and to manage it all through technology. We've got teachers on our staff in their late sixties, a couple in their seventies, and yet they are empowered by all this.”
“In terms of leadership development, this has been the best piece of professional learning I have ever had – it’s been much, much more effective than my Masters degree. Sure, we’ve bumbled along at times, we've made some mistakes, and probably there are things that we could have done differently and better when we look back at them but the idea of the vulnerability expressed in leadership was something that, I guess, I had never considered before. I'd always thought that the traditional leadership role model as the principals I had at school, and most of the ones I've worked with since I left, have not expressed vulnerability, and they left an impression. I always thought that was the impression you had to present as a school principal, and I haven't done that through COVID. I couldn't have sustained it, I don't think.”
“Opening myself to people – being able to model that to my staff and talk about that a little bit with them, especially senior executive staff and heads of school, has led to some of our staff being more willing to open up. I think that's been a really palpable change in the adults in this school.”