Allendale East School Principal Kylie Smith speaks to Education Matters about receiving the R U OK? Education Award at the 2023 Barbara Hocking Memorial Awards in recognition of the school’s outstanding wellbeing and support initiatives. She also touches on her core leadership principles that guide the school’s students, staff, and community.
CAN YOU PROVIDE AN OVERVIEW OF ALLENDALE EAST SCHOOL?
Our school caters for a wide range of students from a rural and fishing community. If one
is lucky enough to find themselves in the Limestone Coast area, southeast of South Australia, and just a short drive south of the picturesque Blue Lake, one can discover the peaceful, kind, and caring hidden treasure that we call: Allendale East Area School (AEAS).
At AEAS we endeavour to build strong, diverse futures for all of our young people by providing quality education driven by students’ needs, skills and aspirations. We pride ourselves on supporting young people in developing enterprising skills and confidence, by taking an innovative, resilient, and outward looking approach to their lives. AEAS values of Courage, Excellence and Respect are promoted by staff and reflected by students in the school culture and work ethic.
Our emphasis is on quality teaching and learning within a family atmosphere, with students from Foundation to Year 12 working cooperatively with committed and caring staff. Our teachers are dedicated to their own skill development and undertake professional learning that enhances their understanding of ways to develop students’ engagement in learning and building relationships.
In recent years, there has been an even larger emphasis on community relationships and how we as educators can work with our young people to lead with positive and proactive messages of hope and caring for others in a genuine and memorable way, despite current challenges in the world.
HOW DOES ALLENDALE EAST SCHOOL SUPPORT STUDENT WELLBEING?
Allendale East Area School lives, eats and breathes student wellbeing. In 2020, after staff engaged in a number of professional learning activities, we created and formalised a wellbeing team. Initially, the team consisted of the Youth Worker, our Aboriginal Community Education Officer, our Pastoral Care Worker and a Teacher. The team was also comprised of and consulted with our School Captains and Vice Captains.
Following the establishment of this team, we allocated a regular meeting time each week to dig deeper into data that had been collected through several wellbeing surveys, and parent surveys to analyse, consider, and make recommendations on how we collectively could make our school community a positive partnership between staff, students, families and community members.
What we concluded from these meetings was that the most important voices in our school community needed to be louder. So, in 2021, we put a call out to students from Years 3-12, inviting them to apply to join the wellbeing team. After much consultation, students and staff agreed that there were three main foci that young people wanted to be more involved and proactive within a school and community perspective. These three focus areas were: The Environment, Community, and Mental Health and Wellbeing.
ALLENDALE EAST SCHOOL RECENTLY RECEIVED THE R U OK? EDUCATION AWARD AT THE 2023 BARBARA HOCKING MEMORIAL AWARDS. CAN YOU SHARE THE STORY BEHIND THIS?
For a reasonable period of time, we have worked with Tracey Wanganeen from StandBy – a South Australian support service. Tracey is a wonderful person and her superpower is to find schools that are interested and passionate about spreading the message about her services in a real and personable way. She is connected with a number of organisations that are passionate about working with schools and young people to spread the word that, despite all the barriers that can be presented to you, there is an avenue of hope, support and a future to look forward to. What I love about Tracey is that she will always seek guest speakers that are of the best quality to speak with young people.
As a school site, we always promote significant days and celebratory weeks. Our student voice team are always looking for opportunities to promote opportunities to spread the positive messages that every young person, staff member and community needs to hear, to keep them motivated to be present, a good role model and to seek help and support when things become overwhelming and too much to handle. But whilst we promote these support networks, we are acutely aware that sometimes our words are not enough, our promotions to our community can go unnoticed and our most vulnerable people may not know that we are there for them.
Part of our work as a school community is to break down the stigma of needing help, and promote the message that being vulnerable is okay, despite the challenges, and that we can provide not just one option for support, but multiple avenues to access support if needed.
A simple ‘are you okay?’ is a good start, however, unlikely to make a significant difference. We pride ourselves at AEAS by asking more than once, following up with young people, parents and community groups to normalise the challenges and direct our young people and parents to seek professional help and support, and provide our community with the best resources available.
WHAT DID THE AWARD SIGNIFY FOR YOU PERSONALLY? HOW DID IT FEEL TO RECEIVE THE AWARD?
Receiving this award is absolutely heart-warming. We as a community have had a considerable amount of trauma for a number of years. Despite this, we appreciate that there are people looking out for us, acknowledging that we are doing a good job at providing support and opportunities and wrapping our arms around the community that we live in, work in, and love.
WHAT IS THE SCHOOL’S APPROACH TO LEVERAGING NEW TECHNOLOGIES?
We are so grateful that most of our young people and parents support us in enacting the South Australian Mobile Phone policy and the willingness of our young people choosing to abide by this policy. At our site, we have very little challenges regarding technological overuse and abuse and for this, I am grateful for. Most of our young people are very respectful and compliant about the use of technology, and for those who struggle, we are supportive of finding ways to respectfully challenge them and their families on how to live technology free, wherever possible.
ChatGPT has not been a challenge at this point in time, however, I would attribute this to our proactive attention to detail regarding the case management processes that we have in place for all of our Secondary students.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS IN YOUR CAREER IN EDUCATION?
I was employed at AEAS in the late 1990s as a Middle School Coordinator. I absolutely loved the opportunity to work in a school that catered for students from Foundation to Year 12. I have had awesome opportunities to work with much young primary aged students, however, my preference is working with middle school students and teenagers. My time at AEAS has consolidated my thinking about my focus in education, and I love working with students between the age of 10 and 16 and feel that I am well-equipped and in sync with this age group.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?
Firm, fair and inclusive. There are always two sides of every story. I think that I listen, listen and then listen again so that I can make an appropriate assessment of any situation. I realise that many people and parents have an opinion about how everything is decided on and how it pans out. My experience has always been that 99 percent of the time, most young people, parents and teachers find that we make decisions in the best interest of the young people at all times. I work extremely hard to advocate for the best conditions for learning in life for every child at our school, and beyond, if students should relocate. Every child that attends our school are on our ‘destination data journey radar’ and we want the best educational outcome for them.
WHAT LEADERSHIP STRATEGIES HAVE YOU ADOPTED IN YOUR TIME AS A PRINCIPAL?
A case management approach. I am always interested in every young person that attends our site. There are so many people that have opinions and ideas about young people that can get in the way of how a young person progresses through school. I pride myself and my leadership team on looking for the best, despite any shortcomings. I feel that one of my strengths is finding the strength and honesty in my students, staff, and families to determine the best learning conditions that will provide an opportunity for children to thrive.
WHAT TRAITS MAKE FOR AN EFFECTIVE AND SUCCESSFUL LEADER IN EDUCATION TODAY?
Be approachable, thoughtful, understanding, firm, fair, and educated about changes that occur in the world and be okay with making a mistake. Being a good leader is really challenging. To be agile, adaptable, respectful, approachable, kind, fun, and calm all at once, can be a tough gig. Most of the time it is okay, but every now and then I do make mistakes, and when I do, I have some stern words with myself.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON SOME OF THE CHALLENGES THAT MODERN PRINCIPALS FACE IN THE CURRENT EDUCATION CLIMATE?
My advice to Principals is ‘be kind to yourself’ and find self-management opportunities to keep safe, calm, respectful and upskilled. Take time to network with other Principals and do not be afraid to reach out to them, or line managers. There are so many experienced people that can provide help and support, if one is willing to reach out. Also, it is okay to be not okay as a leader. If someone’s network is not wide enough, I would encourage them to search wider, reach out further, there is always someone out there that can help. My advice to both educators and students is that the best advice isn’t always the advice that comes from the first person that offers help and support. The best advice and help might come from the 4th or 5th contact. Keep trying.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVING FOR TEACHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BECOME PRINCIPALS SOME DAY?
Be prepared to work very hard, enjoy what you are passionate about, and don’t second guess every decision you make. Principals usually want the very best for the young people that they are responsible for, and it’s okay to share this intention with the wider community.
To learn more about the Barbara Hocking R U OK? Education Awards, please go here: https://www.ruok.org.au/barbara-hocking-memorial-award
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