Tim Morgan, Principal at Karama School in Darwin talks to Education Matters about the importance of creating a supportive and inclusive environment, where every student is given the opportunity to thrive.
What is Karama School’s philosophy and how does it guide you and your staff?
‘Together We Achieve’ is our overarching motto here at Karama School. Within this we, the entire staff, believe that all students can and will achieve and be supported with this goal. To accomplish this we continue to develop and demonstrate a positive approach to learning to incorporate all students, staff, our community and partners (Department of Education, The Smith Family, Save the Children, Balanced Choice).
Our four whole school values underpin our motto. These are integral to all interactions school-wide to include setting goals, talking about wellbeing and as an expectation as the ‘code’ at our school. These values are The 4Rs – Relationships, Responsibility, Respect and Resilience. The values are at the forefront of communication and contact between students, staff and the community. They are specifically taught across the school, are visible within the school and understood by the community.
When developing school strategic plans or further reviewing approaches, we include the staff knowledge, families of students and our school council in the development of these directions, to give us an informed understanding of the community.
In developing strategic plans, there is consultation with students, current staff, the community and the directions of the Department of Education, to ensure these plans have a sharp and narrow focus.
How does Karama School differ from other schools?
Karama School is located in the Northern suburbs of Darwin. Our current enrolment sits at 200 students. Although a small cohort of students, there are many complexities and challenges that we continually review to ensure best practice approaches. Our student demography in 2018 includes 49.9 per cent Indigenous and 67 per cent English as a Second Language (ESL). Our Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) is 837. There are 23 different cultures represented across the school. Karama School takes a holistic approach based on supportive wellbeing, social, emotional and academic approaches to support all students to succeed.
Karama School has established and continues to maintain a sister school relationship with Fomento School in Dili, Timor Leste for the past three years. This relationship is built on developing cultural knowledge, educational and development support and practices two ways.
What is the history of the school?
Karama School celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2017. The school has a solid foundation in supporting similar cohorts to today, with many Indigenous and ESL students.
When established, Karama was a new suburb, with many young families. Although the families in the area have grown up, we still have a consistent enrolment of 200 students. Many students today are either children or grandchildren of previous student cohorts. This builds on the close links the school has with the wider community.
Due to many schools in the immediate area, we’ve had to change our approach and strategies to support and focus on improved attendance rates of our students. Thus, our focus is not so much about growing the school’s numbers but about what we can do to best support our current students’ needs. We have invested a lot of time in developing and improving the infrastructure across the school and also redeveloping and designing curriculum approaches to continually meet the needs of our students.
In what ways has Karama School evolved since it was established in 1982?
Further, over the last four years, Karama School has been fortunate through many applications and assigned grants to be able to modernise the infrastructure. We are very proud of our learning spaces, specialist areas and school grounds that are functional and engaging. To further complement this our classes now boast a variety of learning configurations with stand up desks, low tables, fit balls, wobble boards, couches and group work desk configurations with different seating arrangements.
In the last few years, Karama School has evolved to look at whole school programs that encompass a focus on wellbeing and support for students to be regulated and then able to access at level whole school learning programs.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
At Karama School we have an enthusiastic leadership team that continually monitors and reviews practice school-wide. We do not look for the shiny bauble; instead we look for areas of improvement where we can make an impact to support our staff to deliver quality education across the school.
This year we are working on new curriculum documentation to further tailor programs for students and to support our staff. This Pathways approach looks at students’ academic levels (triangulated data) combined with social emotional maturity, utilising Neurosequential data, to establish classes and inform learning goals.
We were also recently successful in winning a collaborative grant among four schools for innovation to further support our students to be able to focus on learning in their classes with wrap-around support. This work is based on the Berry Street Education Model that is a pedagogy that we are embedding at Karama School. Working in the focus areas of:
• Healing: Trauma informed
• Strengths: Character and wellbeing
• Growth: To promote academic rigour
This will be measurable with ongoing academic assessments and the Bruce Perry NME profiling tool.
Fundamental to the success of these programs and initiatives is the ongoing delivery of quality professional learning that is integrated across the school to ensure success and continued review cycles to monitor our impact. The welfare and wellbeing of all staff is also checked to safeguard against professional and personal fatigue.
How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?
Karama School runs a number of wellbeing programs to support students; whether it be boys’ or girls’ groups, self-regulation in our engine room, robotics, our cooking and gardening program or the life-skills program. We incorporate a number of evidence-based programs to support students to be ready to learn. This supports all students to achieve success against set goals.
Our entire staff is extremely dedicated to supporting the lives of our young primary school students. In turn this promotes the potential of a life choice for their future. This process is supported by all staff at Karama School through the lens of supporting students to regulate (bodies for learning), relate (develop relationships with our students and clear expectations), and then reason to achieve.
Karama School has a very collegial team that looks out for each other and supports each other. We have a wellbeing group that focuses on the welfare of both students and staff. Wellbeing is not about a social gathering each Friday or once a term, it’s about staff being happy, comfortable and supported to come to school all day, every day. The obvious result of this is a reduction in absenteeism and an increase in achievement through professional pride.
Although as a staff we do get together and socialise at times, I believe it is easy to get mixed up in a social club approach to wellbeing – rather than nurturing our staff’s professionalism and ability to deliver on our school’s, our parents’ and Department’s expectations.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of your students?
My day-to-day activities include interactions through my presence in the schoolyard, regular classroom visits, walk-throughs and more formal observations.
I am in the yard in the morning to welcome students and engage with parents and there at the end of the day to say goodbye. I work with the boys’ group across the school, and am involved with interactions with staff about the curriculum and other aligned initiatives and how these are delivered to our students. My focus is strongly centred on the wellbeing and support for students’ achievement through the delivery of quality, engaging learning programs.
My interactions with students are many and varied – from engaging with children in the yard, to taking them to our oval during lunch breaks. There are many student engagement activities across our school. The school even has a nine-hole Putt Putt golf course. The deeper the engagement we can develop with our children, the more focused and engaged they will be to not only achieve their goals but enjoy our school environment.
Community/student interactions across the school are couched in academic and emotional goals that are set by students, together with their teachers. Goals are set in English, Maths and Social Emotional development. These are also communicated with the students’ families. We discuss what we believe the students will achieve each year and develop check-points to monitor the progress. All students have a PLP (personal learning plan) and these are the focus of our parent-student-teacher semester meetings.
We partner with a number of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) such as The Smith Family and the NT Music School to expand on our positive engagement.
What are some of the challenges faced by teachers in the primary sector?
In the Darwin area, we have a lower ICSEA rating and 65 per cent of our families are in the lower quartile. However, we have a strong belief across the school that we have no excuses. We understand where our children are at, what they need and we work together with all support bases as teaching groups and leadership teams, to deliver the best education for our students to succeed with gaining a quality education. And we enjoy it and encourage a bit of fun around the place too. In saying that, we take our jobs very seriously as through being entrusted to teach our students by our community we can invest our time to ensure students have a choice when making informed decisions.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
I have been lucky to work in both very remote (West and Central Arhnem Land) and urban schools in the Northern Territory for many years now.
One of my memorable roles was working in a very remote school on Goulburn Island called Warruwi School, which at the time only had three teachers, 35 enrolments and a low attendance rate. When I joined the school, it was not very engaged with the community. However, four and a half years later, after considerable work building relationships within the community, the school grew to 120 students, with a consistent attendance rate for a community school of 85 per cent. I was very proud of that achievement and proud to know that through a lot of hard work from myself and the great staff, we had a big impact on the education of students in the Goulburn Island community. It’s all about the team – this is paramount.
More recently in 2017, I received a John Laing Professional Development Award. I was very humbled to be recognised by the staff here at my current school in being nominated for this.
At Karama School we have been able to build an incredibly committed team over the past few years. We believe now that we have introduced and embedded the corner stones required to be able to significantly build on students’ learning to make a considerable shift in our student data. This will be further supported with our new Pathways approach across the school in 2019.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
We use NAPLAN data here as a snapshot of our Year 3 and Year 5 cohorts each year, a measure for improvements over a two year cycle and as a longitudinal monitor of ongoing whole school programs. However, this is heavily supported with other parallel assessments to triangulate data and make informed decisions about the delivery of the curriculum to our students.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
Effective and successful leaders need to build good relationships across the school and community. This includes students and their families as partners in education.
A school’s staff is the driver of making improvements for students. Support for teachers is imperative. A successful and effective leader needs to understand educational trends but stay true to the goals and directions that are set within the school. They need to be data informed and flexible and brave to make changes to address the needs of students year after year.