Kylie Eggers, Principal of Mannum Community College in regional South Australia speaks with Education Matters about the importance of catering to the diverse needs of every student.
What is the philosophy of Mannum Community College and how does it guide you and your staff?
Being a community college, we really want to try and be everything to everyone. The main thing we hope for is to be able to develop well-rounded citizens that have a pathway for whatever it is they want to do after school.
The school caters to students from Reception to Year 12 and we help make sure that every student is successful with whatever they want to do. We also have a high proportion of students with disabilities and we try and help them achieve their best, however we can.
In the senior years, we have an Independent Learning Centre for students who are disengaged with mainstream learning. Rather than forcing those students down the track of fitting in with what we are doing, those that need a flexible way of achieving their certificate can do so.
We also run a program called The Mannum Way, with three waves of intervention: Play is the Way (Reception to Year 12) as our Wave 1, Drumbeat (Year 2 to 8), Seasons for Growth (Reception to Year 12) and individual mentors for Wave 2 and a range of targeted services (eg. Headspace) for highly complex cases in Wave 3.
The school is available to assist parents with whatever they need. Rather than an old school approach to service, we look at proactive ways of trying to help everyone.
For all of our students, it’s about providing a safe but challenging program that helps develop everyone to their capacity so they have respect for themselves, others and the environment.
How does Mannum Community College differ from other schools?
Mannum is an area school, meaning we cater to students from Reception to Year 12 and there aren’t many area schools where we are located. For our younger students, the role modelling from our older students really helps them to see something they can strive for and connect with. Our students are part of a community that genuinely cares for them. We try to offer as much help and support as we can, to cater to what each student needs at the time.
In what ways has the school evolved since you joined the school in 2017?
Putting The Mannum Way into practice means we have three clear waves of intervention. It is very clear in how we can help all of our students across all of the different sub-schools. This has also clearly helped teachers to collaborate with each other. There is an expectation that teachers will continue to collaborate and work together rather than in silos of practice. Our staff and leadership team need to use all of the support and advice we can get, from the experts we employ internally and externally.
Since joining the school, we have also been working to align the curriculum with assessment, making sure there is a common understanding of the standards, and making sure this is aligned to teacher performance planning.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
There’s an old cliché of always having an open door. I provide leadership by being approachable, visible, making sure I see staff and take an interest in them. I also work closely with the leadership team to see how they’re supporting and developing staff. It’s important to have professional trust by allowing staff to have the same accountability as leadership staff.
I need to make sure my leadership team has clear expectations of their aims and the school’s aims so they can follow that when talking to their staff.
How do you encourage wellbeing among staff and students?
With our students it’s about The Mannum Way and encouraging them to understand the language of Play is The Way. We teach them to treat others as they want to be treated, and encourage wellbeing so students feel happy, healthy and safe.
The school runs a breakfast club every day. The leadership team are the adults involved. This provides a chance to interact with students and provide them with a service, so they know we are human as well.
We encourage student wellbeing through Play is The Way, Drumbeat and Seasons for Growth.
For staff, it’s about ensuring they have the tools and facilities to do their job, so they don’t feel added pressure to do it all themselves.
The school also has a wellbeing leader, who works with staff as well as students, and is proactive in helping staff at whatever stage of life they are at. If they are closer to retirement and want to move through to part time work, our wellbeing leader can assist them through that process. For early career teachers, we are there to support them and ensure they have the training they need when they come out of university. At Mannum, we encourage openness and honesty.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
This year, I’m teaching Year 10 Science. That has enabled me to develop a closer relationship with those students. I take part in the breakfast clubs, do yard duty, walk-throughs (particularly when a subschool leader is away), and hold informal observations so I know what’s happening in classrooms. Day-to-day, I also sign off on budgets and any excursions, so I know all of the programs we offer and where students are.
Recently, we’ve increased our agriculture program and our robotics program.
I also try to learn every student’s name. I live locally, so I see the older students in their workplaces, and see many of the younger students at the footy ground when my kids are playing football on the weekend, so the students see me outside of the school too.
What sort of an emphasis does the school place on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)?
Mannum Community College was a STEM Works School so we were really fortunate as we received funding for a new STEM building which was opened earlier this year.
We are trying to increase our emphasis around STEM. The employment prospects in our area are racing ahead in the STEM fields. Many of the traditional sorts of jobs won’t be around when our younger students finish school. Rather than placing a focus on developing only the skills, we are also teaching our students to focus on the problem and an understanding of the problem, so they can determine how to fix it. They can then develop a prototype and see how it went. It’s that sort of thinking that will be needed later on, for those jobs that don’t yet exist. It’s being able to think about how to do things that will be really important.
Our primary students have full access to the new STEM building, including a laser cutter and 3D printer. That’s the beauty of being an area school – whatever tools the older students have, the younger ones get to use too.
Primary students can also use the full range of coding equipment. Younger students are learning to program their robots to move forwards and backwards, and left and right. Students in our Gifted and Talented program are also creating prototypes and problem-solving using algorithmic thinking. Coding can be used across all learning areas, not just robotics. It’s amazing to see the excitement in their faces when they see something they’ve programmed doing something they’ve ordered it do.
How is the newly opened STEM building being used to support and enhance student learning?
For our primary students, part of the STEM building is being used as a makerspace, which encourages problem solving. The main STEM area is made up of three STEM classrooms with concertinas, but they can be opened into one big space. Students can come into the space that’s been booked and move around freely. It’s quite a flexible space. Some of the older students are teaching younger students how to use and discover the equipment. The flexibility of the new STEM building has been amazing.
What do you identify as some of the biggest challenges currently facing the primary education sector?
Within the STEM space, there are two major challenges. The first is that traditionally technology has been discreet or a side component, and there were specialist teachers to teach it. Now we are expecting technology to be integrated into classroom learning, while still teaching the Australian Curriculum.
The second challenge is, how do we know what to prepare our students for, when we don’t know what the outcome is going to be? We don’t know what sorts of jobs will exist in the future. That’s why we are trying to teach our students about the processes. Technology is not just for play, it’s about learning and applying our knowledge.
Being in a rural area, sometimes students aren’t exposed to the same localities and facilities as metro students. In relation to STEM, it’s about creating knowledge and ensuring they have access to the right sorts of tools and facilities.
As well as the challenges of STEM, the strong focus on data is another challenge. Teaching has become quite data driven and there are a lot of teachers who see this as not having as much trust put into their judgement. However, I’m confident my teachers use the data they are given to inform where their students’ learning is, and that’s all we can ask of them.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
NAPLAN is a snapshot of how students are going. I use it to look at broadscale trends about how students are going firstly against national average, and then we narrow it down right into the questions. We know that if it’s on the page, students can extract it from the text and tell you the answer, but they have to be able to read between the lines too.
Sometimes it seems that it’s almost the only dataset our system uses to judge our progress and that’s not ideal. It needs to be looked at as a dataset, and it’s probably more effective for our students when it is used as intended.
We were among the schools that undertook NAPLAN online this year. We had some issues on the first day, but our students were patient and waited.
Students do the test in May but we don’t get the results until September and by then teachers have generally moved on from what they were teaching when the testing took place.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
As a teacher, one of my students got the highest grade they can get for their subject, a merit. It was all through their own hard work. I was there as a teacher and facilitator, but they did the work and got there, and that was really great to see.
At our recent SACE information night it was a very proud moment where every student present had a pathway – whether they were going on to pursue a career in engineering or an apprenticeship or a construction course. There is so much diversity at Mannum Community College and it’s fulfilling to know that we can provide for every student. This is achieved through creating relationships to better understand where students are and where they want to go. It’s not about saying these are the options you’ve got, so you have to pick one. We have to be everything to everyone, depending on what they want to achieve.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
The leaders I respect the most are those that can talk efficiently and build relationships, not those who take a ‘softly softly’ approach or dictate this is how it’s going to be. By building a relational trust, successful leaders can use that when they need to. A principal needs to know education and the curriculum, and have done some time teaching. The teachers they directly report to need to know that their principal knows the curriculum and pedagogical directions.
Unfortunately, a lot of what we do is about managing the organisational and logistical components, but the relationships are what gets me through. It’s important to be open and honest and act on feedback.