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Creating a culture of excellence

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Alec Solomon, subject specialist leader of physical, health and outdoor education at Albany Senior High School, discusses how he supports students to excel by creating "a culture of excellence".


A culture of excellence is when the expectation of the staff, of the students and buying in the parents too - so you’ve got the holy trinity of all three stakeholders - is that they expect to be excellent and achieving for many students is really not that much of an achievement. So we set up this idea of quality credits and that merit would be par and that we’d strive and explicitly get the students to want to excel. And the staff to want them to excel and for our staff to excel as well.
We thought the subject endorsements were a great opportunity to increase student outcomes for our guys. So we explicitly told them how an endorsement worked and what they’d need. We also told them the expectation was that they’d get a merit endorsement which was a big step up - not in the extra work they needed to do - just in the mindshift of expectation. And then we asked students to sign up for either a merit or excellent endorsement after explicitly telling them what was involved. Probably two thirds of our classes or three quarters signed up for them. We then involved the parents by writing letters home, congratulating their student on wanting to take this challenge and we hope that home would support us in supporting their student (their child) to meet their goals. And then from there, it’s just been a flow on effect and the students have got very involved in it.

To get staff on board, we just looked at the job we were doing and we reflected on that ourselves. And we also get the students to do a survey after each unit. Which can be quite brutal but if you don’t put yourself out there you never know. And we’re lucky we’ve created a culture where staff don’t mind putting themselves out there. If we’re doing something great we want to know it’s great so we can replicate it and become even better. And if we’re doing something that’s not great, it’s great to know that because then we can modify it.

In the classroom the students know exactly the expectations, my expectations of them. They know exactly what they need to be doing and why. And I think understanding why they need to do things gives it more authenticity and more value to the students. If your teaching is explicit and the students know what is expected and why, they’re handing in assignments and it’s no longer a lottery. They can hand it in and say, ‘Sir, that’s an excellence.’ And that’s really important, we don’t want students investing a huge amount of time and energy and then almost like they’re handing in a raffle ticket that they hope might come up. They should know the expectations, know why we expect that and take ownership for it and hand in something that they’re proud of and we’re proud of them handing in.

We’re currently doing training programmes in Level 3 PE. The students have all set up their training programmes and we’re training for a 12km endurance ‘tough guy’ event which will be a huge challenge for the students. The students have decided what components of fitness they need to work on and the principles they should use. At the lesson what we’ll do; we’ll come down to this weights room and some of them will be working on muscular strength or muscular endurance. They’ve given us all a map, and we’ve got permission from home, they go for a run, they come back in, sign in when they come back in time in and they tick off where they’ve got a heart rate monitor. You can see on the board yesterday some guys ran for half an hour and some guys ran for an hour 27 and it’s up to them. They know what they have to do for them and they’ll get the return on that investment however big or small that will look.

We measure the effectiveness of change in a number of ways. We look at our results, we look at engagement, student attendance in class. Previously, before these measures we had issues with students possibly not overly participating in lessons, especially practicals. And the things. like the bane of every physed teacher’s life is people turning up without physed gear. Those numbers have dropped so much now that everyone just turns up with PE gear.

Spin off for teachers - we’re just like students. We like to be successful. We like, for us, I’m lucky I’ve got a very passionate group, very talented staff and as the students achieve more not just in the excellence, merits, and achieveds but they’re engaged more and they’re taking ownership of it. That’s really rewarding. And the more, that just creates a vicious circle of the teacher puts more into it, the kid gets more out of it, the kids putting more into it, the teacher gets more out of it, that’s been wonderful.

The advice I’d give to other middle leaders is start with some honest reflection and sometimes it can be brutal. But I think that’s key. And from all stakeholders. From, look at yourself, look at your team, ask your team to look at themselves, ask the students and ask the parents as well. And then don’t be afraid to touch the wet paint and walk a bit close to the line and make a few mistakes because it’s never going to be perfect. And we’ve made our mistakes I assure you - but as long as you learn from them and try to make them once and not over and over it can only be a good thing for the students. 

Published on: 14 Oct 2011