Josh Counsel, Principal of Discovery Christian College in Agnes Water, Queensland speaks to Education Matters about how strong relationships, community and belonging provide an environment that allows their students to push their boundaries.
What is the School’s philosophy and how does it guide you and your staff?
We talk a lot about being in the business of growing people and this guides all that we do at the college. This philosophy is nestled within the context of strong relationships, and we are continually striving to make our community a place where students know that they belong. Our view is that from this strong sense of belonging students are able to take more risks and push their own boundaries, enabling them to reimagine what their journey ahead may look like.
As educators, we want our students to love learning, to develop their passions and to find that deep intrinsic sense that they are capable of more than they think. For us, school should be a place where our students and staff walk away each day a little more inspired to pursue their dreams.
How does the school differ from other schools?
Although research would say that schools are more similar than they are different, there are some unique aspects to our college community. Firstly, we are located in a small town in Central Queensland, about 90 minutes’ drive from the next major regional centre. This geographical distance creates a very strong sense of community identity, something which we feel permeates our college.
Students are known by staff, but so are their families and there is strong essence that we are walking together to support the learning journey of each child. One practical way that we build our community identity is through our weekly pancake breakfast. This is an open invitation event where we encourage parents to come along and connect with each other and with staff. We also run a number of clubs and activities that span the spectrum of P-12 which enables our students to connect with others outside of their immediate friendship and year level groups. We have a surf academy that runs three times a week and a growing connection with our local skateboarding academy who run workshops at school every fortnight.
As one of Queensland’s most improved schools in writing for years 7 and 9 in the recent NAPLAN results, what do you attribute to your success?
The gains in NAPLAN scores have been a great affirmation of the work of our staff and
the broader direction of our school over the last three years. The key drivers of success have been the depth of collaboration and trust that exist across the teaching team. It is our belief that teachers are the best placed people in any school to make decisions that affect student learning. Building their capacity, allowing them time and trusting them to make these decisions has had tremendous benefit on the learning of our young people and underpins our improved results.
As a teaching team we are deeply committed to improving our practice. Our staff meetings are underpinned by Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’Connor’s work on collaborative professionalism. We utilise the collective wisdom of our staff and intentionally build in opportunities for professional conversations and reflection into our professional learning sessions. In all aspects of our work, we are striving to create stronger professional practice together.
Practically we haven’t focused specifically on improving NAPLAN results but rather trying to focus on getting to know each of our students and customising their learning programs to meet their individualised learning goals. We strongly believe that our enhanced writing results go hand-in-hand with a love of reading. We have sought to develop this through focused reading groups and allowing students opportunities to read for pleasure. Our primary team do an exceptional job at fostering this enjoyment and we are certainly reaping the rewards in secondary.
What do the results mean to you and your staff and students?
To say that our journey as a college over the last few years has been challenging would be
an understatement. To receive the news of our improved results has been a real encouragement to the work of our team.
We are incredibly proud of the work of our staff and this external recognition should encourage them that what they are doing works, but it should also buoy them on to continue to strive for excellence in their classrooms. We will often talk to students about how school does not reward their intelligence, but it does reward their effort. To see such great improvement across almost all areas of NAPLAN speaks volumes about the commitment of our students and their effort and dedication to improve should be commended.
In what ways has the school evolved since it was established?
The college commenced in 2015, making this our eighth year of operation. Whilst our history is somewhat brief it certainly hasn’t been without its challenges. The college commenced as a response to the growing need for a high school in Agnes Water. Opening its doors as a year 3-10 school, the college expanded from 90 students in 2015 to 160 students at the end of 2017 across Prep – Year 12. Following a period of instability, enrolments dropped to 88 students at the end of 2019 and the college faced the very real prospect of closing our doors. Today, we have just over 250 students, with waitlists on several classes across the college, we have established external partnerships to enhance our subject offerings and are excited about several planned constructions over the next few years.
Our history speaks to the importance of knowing your community, of building connection, exploring ways to innovate practice and the need to continually evolve learning programs. We are deeply committed to ensuring that our students can access and engage with the same opportunities that students in metropolitan centres have.
In 2021 we launched our new strategic plan which encapsulates a reimagined future
for our learning community. As part of this re-imagination, we have recently completed
the development of our Teaching & Learning Framework. Developed in conjunction with teachers and learning support staff, this document captures the essential pedagogical approaches which we felt would enhance our students learning. Getting our pedagogy and practice right is a critical part of our continued pursuit of excellence and is a core element of our continued evolution as a learning community.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
Relationship is critical. It is my utmost priority to ensure that we are striving to make our college a place where our staff are inspired to do great work. Being an educator is a privilege that can at times be overlooked by the tyranny of the urgent and the pressures of the job. Leadership within a school context for me is about helping staff to keep the main things as the priority.
Our leadership team still regularly take classes. Firstly, this is because teaching is still our passion, but also because it is important to walk the journey alongside staff.
On a practical level, I really value the collective wisdom and understanding of our staff and look for opportunities to include them in conversations and decision-making processes. Our teaching and learning framework for example was something that we workshopped with all teaching and support staff; this collective buy in and contribution was pivotal to ensuring that the framework met the needs of our students.
How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?
This is certainly a joint effort and I am really thankful for the work that our leadership team does in this space. At the heart of almost all staff working in a school is a passion to make a difference. Keeping staff connected to this purpose is a pivotal part of supporting the wellbeing of our team. Working in education can at times can feel like a bit of a rat wheel; the harder you try to keep up the faster the wheel seems to spin.
We regularly remind our staff that work isn’t their main priority and encourage them to leave a little earlier when they can to take time for themselves. We advise staff that there isn’t an expectation to respond to emails between 6pm and 6am (this is a tough one). We have a personal trainer who comes in on site to run sessions free of charge for staff once a week. Two years ago, we also increased our preparation and correction time for teaching staff.
At least once a term we will have some form of social activity outside of school, be it a BBQ or barefoot bowls where staff bring their families and connect outside of the work context. We feel that this adds depth to our connections and there is a greater connectivity between our staff because of it. There will often be a sheet on the staffroom table where staff are volunteering to cook meals for others who are unwell or moving house and this speaks volumes to the connection and care of our community.
Our pastoral care program encapsulates our approach to student wellbeing and all staff have a responsibility in this space, irrespective of whether they have a year level class that they are responsible for. We hold regular support meetings to discuss any issues that have been noted by staff and have a College Chaplain who spends a significant amount of time chatting with and supporting students.
This is an ever-changing space and something that we are continually looking to enhance.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of your students?
I love connecting with the day-to-day activities of our students. Whether that
is playing basketball or handball at lunch time, joining in races at athletics carnival or getting students to show me what they are working on when visiting classes. I will often spend time wandering the grounds chatting with students and checking in on how they are going. Making a difference in the lives of students is why I got into education; for me this purpose hasn’t changed.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
I love the thought presented by the early Jesuit leaders who argued that all great leadership starts with self-leadership. To that end, a successful leader in education today must be relentlessly committed to self-improvement, critiquing our biases, evaluating our practices, and ensuring that we are surrounded by people who can highlight our blind spots.
I think it is important to remember that we are all leading all the time. The well documented tenets of building trust and relationship with your team, of being compassionate, being interested in your staff beyond their roles as professionals, celebrating success, ensuring that the right people are in the right positions will all continue to hold true as pillars that guide exemplary practice.
For more information visit: https://www.discovery.qld.edu.au/