Culture is everything

The culture of the school has to be in place first, says Donal McLean, president of the West Auckland Principals Association. At Fruitvale School where he is principal, culture encompass delivery of curriculum as well as extra-curricular activities.

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“We’ve done more training than ever in terms of clarifying their roles and being really explicit about what their interactions should look like with the children and discussing that with them” 

Hine Viskovich.

The culture of the school has to be in place first, says Donal McLean, president of the West Auckland Principals Association. At Fruitvale School where he is principal, culture encompass delivery of curriculum as well as extra-curricular activities.

Sharing the discussion are deputy-principal and Special Education Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) Hine Viskovich and teacher aide/learning support professional Heather Bodley who is the longest serving staff member with 30 years at Fruitvale School.

The first two weeks of the year the whole school focuses on values and culture.

Says Bodley: “We bring it into all our interactions, it’s part of the way we talk to each other particularly how we talk to children in terms of behaviour and expectations.”

Fruitvale’s culture is based on John Hattie’s principles of Visible Learning and Teaching – when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and help them become their own teachers.

When they talk about how best to deliver the curriculum it means to all students. They do not talk of children with additional learning needs separately.  In practice, what does that mean for children with extra learning and behaviour needs? And how can it be done well?

Best practice, says McLean, comes down to managing culture and teaching support. It’s based on curriculum knowledge and behavioural management skills. It’s about collegiality and collaboration.

Says Viskovich: “All those things feed into a teacher with great practice. Sometimes it’s respite. I often say to teachers, if you just want to do something really exciting with the class and not worry, we’ll arrange a parallel alternative activity so you have the opportunity to do that.”

Best practice rests on the teacher knowing how best to engage with a teacher aide in class.

“And it’s having a support person who knows what to do, not the teacher having to tell them or support them, or say ‘please don’t clean my art cupboards, can you sit with someone instead’. That’s experience and personality as well as training,” says Brodley.

“We’ve done more training than ever in terms of clarifying their roles and being really explicit about what their interactions should look like with the children and discussing that with them,” says Viskovich.

Training is done by the Viskovich who is the lead coach, by Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour or at outside training workshops. Among support staff, there are some specialist roles such as ESOL, for children for whom English is a second language.

“Building the relationship is number one because no matter how many key interventions I might know about, I first need a good relationship or a warm relationship with my high-needs child.” She is talking about a professional not a friendship relationship. “It’s creating that nurturing bond though, it’s creating a family-like context in your classroom for trusting relationship,” says Viskovich.

Boundaries have to be clear: how far the child can go and consequences so it’s predictable, safe and everything’s visible to the child. “That’s the first thing a teacher needs to establish. Then build the relationship so there’s trust and they can look to you to ask questions or seek comfort or whatever. Then you bring in your skills and your pedagogies.”

Children with emotional-behavioural spectrum conditions need a learning support professional like Bodley in class.

For Bodley to work effectively she needs to establish the child’s trust.  But well-being of staff is the school’s current focus – manage yourself first, put on your own life jacket before you help the kids into theirs.

And the management team is vital to that, management support is the life jacket.

Best practice when for teaching children with additional learning means working cohesively as a school.

“Visibility is very important to us so that people who are learning support professionals, or kids, parents or teachers or anybody understands why we are doing what we are doing, and how we do it.”

Over the past eight years it’s meant constantly renewing, expanding and embedding the school culture – which means inviting parents in to celebrate the children, a rewards system with badges for the children, mentoring new teachers, coaching staff, talking to teachers about their own well-being in safe and confidential ways.

Teacher practice sits inside the culture and rests on collegiality between all staff.

“It’s people supporting each other to do the best for the children. There’s a lot of pre-conditions to the child’s needs being met,” says McLean.

“We do a lot around coaching, we respect teacher voice, we want teacher feedback. When they say things aren’t working we’ve got to listen to that. We can’t just think things are happening.”

Sometimes that involves outsiders coming in to get authentic feedback through anonymous surveys. But mostly, says Viskovich, it’s based on relational trust, having a culture where you can make mistakes, ask for help, “all the things we want our children to feel we want our teachers to feel as well.”

With a roll of 300, there are five learning support professionals.  

“Spread within an inch of their lives,” says McLean. “We could do with a couple more and for these guys to be paid properly. But our school continues to run pretty well, but that’s only because of the things we talk about around culture and relationships, managing the stresses.”

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