School Assembly Episode 8: Building a school ethos and culture

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp. School Assembly is the podcast that explores what it takes to build a new school from the ground up. In Series 1 we’re following Principal Dr Ray Boyd and Associate Principal Rachael Lehr as they navigate the exciting and challenging journey. Each month, we touch base for updates and reflections on their progress in the newly developing suburb of Dayton, located in the eastern metropolitan city of Swan in Perth, Western Australia.

So far in this series we’ve covered setting short- and long-term goals, planning for the new school, connecting with the community, the physical build, what goes into creating a new school, building the foundation staff, and developing policies and processes. In Episode 8 we’ll be talking about the school ethos and culture, including the values and vision, and what those look like in practice. I hope you enjoy it.

Jo Earp: Hi, Ray. So, we're going to talk about building the school ethos and culture in this episode. It's just you and me for this one. We're going to look at the things that you've value at Dayton. So, I wanted to start off with this quote that I saw from you, you said: ‘Excellence is not an accident. It's something that we will work towards at Dayton’.

Ray Boyd: Yeah, if you look at all the successful schools, well, not just within Western Australia, but probably globally – and by that, I mean a school that sees students achieving in all domains, social, academic where the staff work together as a collective – what you tend to see in the background is a deliberate effort by the leadership team and all involved to ensure that high levels of consistency and clarity exist within the school around processes, around expectations, around everything.

So, nothing is actually left to chance, and excellence essentially requires effort and diligence to the finest detail, and it requires daily effort by everyone in that sense to be effective in what they do. So, it doesn't just happen, there's expectations that are set, there's built-in accountability, and then there's this feeling of ownership from both the students and the staff in bringing that excellence and that achievement about. So, it's not something that just happens serendipitously.

JE: Yeah, exactly. You've got to keep focused on that. And with that long-term vision then of building excellence, there are lots of tiny steps along the way that come together to make that a reality. In the last episode, we briefly mentioned the initial priority for staff was really creating that safe, welcoming environment for students and how that tied into your Vision Statement on creating a sense of belonging. I'm really interested then, it's a new school so you've got a blank canvas, there's no history there, there are no past memories – how have you gone about building a sense of belonging and pride?

RB: Yeah, great question. I guess to a larger extent it actually started with the school's Prospectus that we released in working with Rachael [Lehr] early in the year, that clearly articulated the things that we actually wanted to see in and across the school, as well as what we wanted to see staff contributing in that space if they were successful in becoming a part of the school.

So, in that sense, each staff member that's now at the school knows what it was that they were actually bringing to the table. And when they were selected, we actually told them the attributes we believe they had in adding to our community. So, quite simply because we told them that, they knew what they were actually bringing. When we got them all together and went through our vision and what we hoped the school would actually represent, again, they knew what it was that they were going to be bringing to the table to have that connection to the school.

The uniforms are unique to the area. I mean the colours that we've got for the school are also colours you can find within other schools, but not in this particular area. So, in doing that, it creates the sense of a community for the kids, and that sense of community and belonging to a group makes that broader connection for us. When we speak to the kids, we talk about being proud of the school that they're a part of.

And Rachael's done a great deal of work around establishing our 4 values of Respect, Perseverance, Enthusiasm and Excellence – so, we speak to that a lot. And when we speak to the community, we try and make those connections to the various cultures that exist across the school. So, we had a small Harmony Day the other day, all the kids came in dress in their cultures (which, again is something a lot of schools do), and in the classes the kids spoke about their cultures, and how all those cultures make connections to this actual community and how the school’s a part of that community.

So, everything that we do, we try to speak about excellence and about the kids holding the school and the things that they do in terms of representing us as a school and a community, and we always link it back to that. And we hope that that assists both our community, our staff and our students, and the sort of thing … ‘this is my school, and this is what I actually bring to it and make my contribution’.

JE: And as you go through and as you become more established, you'll have that sense of history and achievement won’t you, to draw on as well, which must make it a little bit a little bit easier I guess, but…

RB: Yeah, it does, and it will.

JE: Yeah, yeah. Okay then, so tell me more about setting expectations then. We know that setting high expectations – so that all students can make learning progress, whatever the starting point is – is so important, so tell me a little bit about that, about the expectations you set at the beginning of the school year.

RB: Yep. And I think we’ve spoken briefly about this when we looked at some of our other, we spoke in some of the other episodes, but the very first thing was actually getting the behaviour in line and then making sure, on a really simple level, in the classroom, that when teachers were teaching the kids actually had to be sitting and paying attention. So, we went back to those engagement norms that we drew from the work of Dataworks and some of the stuff that John Fleming did with us many, many years ago at West Beechboro Primary School. But we made sure, things like when the teachers were speaking to the kids, if they asked the kids to do something, there’s that expectation that it was followed through, so that there was a lot of wait time to make sure everyone's on board.

We followed through with everything we're doing and we still are. We’re lot of doing a lot of groundwork in this space with the kids, when we say something we actually mean something – so, what we say to the staff is ‘if you say it mean it, and if you mean it say it’. So, things like, a simple example is just the teacher might say to the [students] ‘I need you to work silently’. And my response to the teacher in reflection when we have a conversation is ‘Did you mean you wanted the kids to work silently, as in not a sound? Or did you want the kids to work quietly? Because there's a big difference’.

And, again, that same example, because you asked them to work silently and there was still noise going on, so the expectation for these kids now is – when we work silently, we can still talk. So, when you say something, actually understand what it is you want to ask the kids and make sure that the question you're asking them or the standard that you're setting for them is something that you're actually going to hold them accountable to.

We look at pride in our schoolwork, so again the teachers have done a lot of work around setting up handwriting and just little things around ruling up. Pride in our uniform, so we'd spend a lot of work around making sure the kids are in their uniform. When we go out, and we had our seniors go out for interschool sport the other day, there was a conversation with them about ‘look, it's great to win, but at the moment when you go out there, it's also really important that you represent yourselves and these are the behaviours we expect of our students representing our school’.

So, everything that we get our kids to do, everything that we get our staff to do, we make sure that they understand the ground rules in terms of the expectations that we want from our students and from our staff. So again, our I expect my staff to engage kids and to provide materials and to provide lessons that actually not just engage them, but will move them forward academically.

So, I have to follow that up and make sure that they're doing it, and I don't mean with a big stick, but that I've got the support materials and the resources in place to enable them to do that and have those conversations about what they need to do that. So, the teacher knows what the expectation is. They know that we're going to support them. But, more importantly, they know we're following up on that, so that line that we set is actually a genuine line and we will work towards that regardless.

JE: And getting to that point of excellence, as I say, it's really about all students being able to progress academically isn’t it, and in terms of their wellbeing as well, whatever their starting point is. So, expectations around you know, you will make, you will make progress. If kids are sort of ‘well, I'm no good at this’. How do you go about setting those kinds of expectations without, without putting too much pressure on them or without being sort of pie in the sky type stuff?

RB: Yeah, and look, I mean excellence, when we look at excellence, often, we'll go to that sports person is an example of excellence – but yeah, that isn’t excellence for that particular individual. And you've just hit the nail on the head. Excellence for each individual is a different level, but as long as the kid knows that when we say we want excellence, we want you to exhibit excellence, we mean that you're going give it your best shot and you're going work to the highest standard that you as an individual are capable of.

So, the teachers are doing a lot of work in that space around encouragement. We have some kids with social-emotional needs that need to be met. So, again, the teacher's got to work in that space and make those kids feel like they're actually a part of the school and make that connection to the kid to understand that ‘what you do impacts me and what I do will impact you, but we'll work together to make a difference’. So, it's just ensuring that each child knows that we are there for them – and in some cases, that gets hard for teachers, where you've got a class of 27 or 28 in a Junior Primary, or 32 in a in a senior grade, and making those connections and just ensuring that the kids understand ‘if you can't do this, we will help you to do this. There's a way that we can work towards it, and it may not happen overnight, this may take weeks, it may take months, but at the end of the day we will get there’.

And we're already seeing, Jo, we're seeing huge growth in our students’ academic results. And we're also seeing huge growth in the students’ behaviours and the things in the way they interact with each other in the playground, again, because of the expectations that have been set. So, if I, one of our rules is a simple rule, a lot of schools have got it, is ‘don't run on the concrete’. Now, all my staff know that I expect everyone to follow that rule so that the kids know that it's consistent, it’s the same, it's just walk on the footpath. It's as simple as that, it's only a little thing but if someone lets that slip then there's that, we've lost that consistency and then in that instance we know that we're going to get a bit of a dip in that particular area.

So, it's just about the teachers being consistent, the teachers being supportive of the kids and the kids understanding it will help them get there regardless.

JE: Yeah. Now Rachael mentioned in the previous episode about work with staff on expectations around key values. You mentioned them briefly earlier in today's episode. Can you take us through those 4 values again and what that actually looks like in practice?

RB: Yeah. So, we put this out to the staff, we put it out to the community, we put it out to our kids, and we came down to 4 things – Respect, Enthusiasm, Perseverance and Excellence. So, when we when we talk to kids about behaviours, about the things they do in the school – a thing might be, ‘was that respectful?’. So, I had 2 boys with Lego the other day and one of the boys was snatching Lego off the other. And the conversation was: ‘Were you displaying respect to your classmate when you snatched...’ ‘No, I wasn't’, ‘So, how can you actually display respect? What would be …’

So we talk about that value in a sense of what we actually see the kids doing and how we engage with each other. If I'm talking to a child and they probably (for want of a better description) get a little bit heated, I go ‘well, hang on a sec, is that being respectful to me at the moment? I'm actually talking to you in a very calm manner. We're having a conversation and you're shouting at me. Is that being respectful?’ ‘No’. And it brings it back to that value that we have around respect within the school.

Again, perseverance – we saw that our Interschool Carnival, our volleyball team was getting absolutely smashed and then the teacher brought them in, he spoke to them about ‘we’ve got to hang in there, keep working. What's one of our values?’ and the kids said ‘oh, it's perseverance. So yeah, we just keep digging away’. So the teachers actually unpack those things in the classroom.

Enthusiasm. Yeah, there’s subjects and things that we can't be enthusiastic, we don't want to be enthusiastic about, maybe because we don't enjoy it, but you can still get in there and muck in and have a go. It’s that sense of ‘let's just jump in there, let's give this our best shot’.

And that ties in again with enthusiasm, and that then links to that notion of excellence. So, each teacher unpacked that – if they’re holding up work ‘is this an example of excellence? Great’, Or ‘Johnno, fantastic work mate, I'm really pleased with what you've done there. That's displayed our virtue of excellence’. We've got little passes that we give out now. We did our first draw yesterday around our values and 5 kids would be coming and doing Minecraft, they can wear what they want today. So, we build in that sort of stuff.

So, we spend a lot of time trying to bring everything back to those 4 values that we run across the school and we speak to them to the community. And again, Rachael does a great deal of work in that space, Jo.

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JE: So, I wanted to take a few a few steps back then for a moment. How do you go about making these decisions in terms of vision and expectations and the values there? I know you do a lot of reading there, were there any particular texts that inform that process?

RB: Oh, look, there’s a lot of work out there. The vision, the Vision's probably an easy one in the sense that you just create a direction for the school. But we looked at James Nottingham's work around … the vision and how everything you do in the school should link back to the vision – if it's not supporting the vision or working towards the vision (and bearing in mind many schools may never achieve their vision, you're always working towards it) everything that we do has to be aligned to that vision, and work towards creating that sense of belonging that promotes success, engagement and wellbeing for all.

So, we put that out. What I just quoted there was from our prospectus, but we put that out to the community. They were happy with it. We put it to our staff, we had an open conversation around it and it came back to ‘no, let's just stay with that one’, it was the one that Rachael and I created in the initial things, but everyone was happy with that because it encapsulated what it is we wanted to actually do. And then as a result of that, what we did was then go ‘right, what works have we got? … Peter DeWitt was another good example. He talks about de-implementation and implementation. What programs have we got that will support this achievement of our vision? … The 4 values, how do they link back to our vision. So everything comes back to the to the vision.

We look at ‘here's our values, do they support the vision? Yes, they do. Great, they stay in. Here's a program, does it support that sense of belonging, or more importantly, does it promote success and engagement for our students? Yes, it does. Right, the program stays in.’

Who else's work? Rachael's just joined us too, Jo, so she can input to this at some stage. But there's other works around effective teaching. We did a lot of stuff with Professor Steve Dinham’s work around teaching and leading teaching and ensuring that we had high levels of consistency across the classrooms, which then bring in linking back to our vision about promoting success, because it enabled us to fill the gaps of learning.

I think that's pretty much covered most of the stuff. There's so much work that we could actually relate to in that space. Again, Rachael has done a lot of work around running the room, when we look at behaviours, and she's working on that again at the moment with the behavioural playbook. That will then come back to how we will promote success and engagement and wellbeing for all.

JE: Hey, Rachael, how are you going?

Rachael Lehr: Hi, Jo. Sorry, it's been a morning. One book that I've really enjoyed over the last year. I think that's what you've been talking about, has been the Tools for Teachers (Ollie Lovell). I'm actually not sure if that's the exact name of the title, but he has put together research from a whole range of educators that's based on his Education Research Reading Room podcast. And it just it's just a really succinct summary of some really effective research around classroom instruction and behaviour. So, I've been using that in a lot of the documents.

Ray was mentioning behaviour – so, I'm working on a behaviour and engagement policy at the moment, bringing together some of that work, the Tom Bennett work and Bill Rogers’ work around classroom management as well as restorative practices, so, a playbook that I've just purchased. So, lots of reading and lots of research going into everything that we're doing here at Dayton.

RB: And you possibly saw Jo, a tweet that we did a few weeks ago of the books that have actually influenced the things we do. And there's some non-educational books in there – Legacy played a big role in some of the stuff we've done. I encouraged the staff to read that and just little things like ‘sweeping the sheds’ or ‘everyone pitching in’. Atomic Habits is another work that I loved in that space. So, there's so much material to be able to draw from, it's hard to explain all of them or list all of them.

JE: We're going to talk about research and reading in the next episode, so we'll be able to dig into some of that stuff as well. You've put all those things in place in terms of vision then and values and we've spoken about how they link to each other. You've got all that in place. You're trying to build this sense of belonging and pride. You've worked with staff to make sure everyone's on the same page. What about communicating all that with the parents then and then with the students? How do you go about doing that and making sure they're on the same page?

RL: Well, we've actually mentioned in previous episodes the app called Seesaw that we use. So that's the way that we've been sharing everything we're doing in the school with our families. So, we'll send home documents around, so, homework, we've sent a lot of information around our expectations around homework and even small things like taking holidays during school terms and our expectations, our values, all of that has gone home through Seesaw. And that's a platform where the parents can respond to us.

The other way that we're communicating with our families is when kids are doing wonderful things, they're showing values – we've given them a values token – we'll let the families know and they are always really happy to hear that their child's doing amazing things. Just yesterday, we drew out [tokens] for 5 students who have got a prize today. So, the families have been communicated that, so they're really happy to hear that we have high expectations, that we're reinforcing them and that their [children] are being acknowledged. So that's a really great way to keep that open line of communication with the families.

RB: It's a really powerful tool, Jo. We literally communicate everything and some of the feedback, in fact a lot of the feedback we've got from families, is the level of communication that exists. And there's also the thing, the fact that Rachael and I are at the gates every morning and every afternoon, so there's the verbal and the face-to-face contact that we're having with the families as they enter the school and as they leave each day. So those little things as well, there's the occasional phone call.

But Rachael's pretty much covered it with the Seesaw – that's our biggest communication platform. Our staff use that, we've run sessions for them (and when I say ‘we’ I mean Rachael), we run sessions for that, the staff and how they can use that tool effectively. It creates a really strong link between what the kids are doing in the classroom and at home. So, we've got a very big Indian population here. It enables the families to share that with other family members if they're connected. So, it just it just links everything together.

JE: How much, in terms of detail, do you go into though, you know, in terms of ‘this is why we're doing this’. Is it just a case of ‘look, this is our vision and these are the values and this is how it links back …’ or do you put in those links to reading if they want to find out more, or … how much information do you give?

RB: That a really good question. We give them a lot and we're going to be giving them more, we will be running some sessions around why we do what we do at the school and then how we do it.

RL: And even an example, when we sent home information about homework, included in that ‘here is a link if you wish to read more about the value of homework, or not doing homework in primary school’. So that way, those that are interested can do further reading. Like Ray said, we really want to delve more into our instructional framework, because the way we teach students, particularly in the early years, around printing and writing their name and learning letters and sounds, is quite different to a way that parents think that should happen. So, we've been sending messages home in our early years’ classrooms in particular, around how we expect students to learn.

But, like Ray said, we need to get the parents in and see it in action. We even want to start sending home some videos of ‘this is what classroom instruction looks like’, ‘when we talk about a review, this is what a review is’. Because we've been trying to get set up over Term 1, we haven't got there yet. We also haven't had our whole school and a great space to do that, but it’s something we're going to do as we move forward. Even around the holidays – so, absences from school, we've had a lot of that, so we've been sending home a lot of information about how that impacts on student achievement and social and emotional development and etcetera. So, there is a lot of communication going home to families, so … probably for them, at times, maybe too much, but at least we can say we've done our part in sharing what's happening in the school.

JE: Yeah because, as adults, you know, I mean, even when we … well, whatever we do, go to PD or whatever, or whatever we do in life – if somebody says ‘oh, we're doing this’ or if somebody says ‘we're doing this because … because this is why’ it's kind of, it's a lot easier to get on board with that isn't it. But yeah, that sounds great.

RB: And that links back to where you spoke about books and a few questions ago, that links back to Simon Sinek’s thing around ‘why’. Explain this is what we're doing and this is why we do it, it's really important.

JE: Yeah, that's great. Well, that's been another fascinating little insight there. Thank you to both of you. And as usual then before we go, what's been the key learning, the biggest hurdle and the proudest achievement since the last episode?

RB: A key learning for me is the importance of consistency and how I'm seeing that in my school with my staff. As more of them are gaining a better understanding, we're starting to see a really big jump in student achievement, even though it's still very early days. Key learning for me is patience. I need to develop a lot of patience. The biggest hurdle is still the fact we haven't got our entire school yet.

RL: And adding to that, this is just something I've only recently discovered, I think I was living in a bit of a bubble, but, I've discovered that the leadership that we have at Dayton through Ray, so I'm sort of blowing Ray’s horn, it's not the norm. I've always known that style of leadership where, you know, he brings the team together and we are all talking about why we're doing things and he's empowering the staff. And I just thought that's how schools were run. But, from many conversations from our staff, [staff being] outside the school that is, that is not the norm. So, I feel really that is also that we're very privileged to have such a wise leadership. And I'm sure Ray is just cringing here. But it's true. I think Dayton is on a pathway to excellent and amazing things and that's due to wise leadership. So that's my learning.

RB: I’m not going to be able to get out of the office.

RL: My proudest achievement? Just a small thing over the last few weeks I bought all of our staff The Writing Revolution. It's a writing sort of ‘handbook’ around a process for sentence-based writing, effective writing. And, anyway, I gave each one and I just put out for a voluntary book club that you can come if you want, and we actually had all of our teachers that could come along to that, and they were so engaged in learning. And I was just feeling so proud that we brought together a staff that are just so keen to continue learning, they’re so engaged in it, and they really just want to do the best for the students. So, for me, that was a real highlight of the last few weeks since we've spoken. And like Ray said, the hurdle for us at the moment is just waiting to get the rest of the school. And we've got a lot of shifts and changes of rooms, we've got a new class being added, a new teacher, teachers shifting, students moving. So, there's lots happening in that space. And, so, hence me not being very organised to get here for the start of the podcast this morning. I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment!

JE: We could have just put it down to commuter issues.

RL: No, that was just a brain issue, not a …

JE: Okay! Well, I got a bit thrown by the time change, so I was like ‘Okay, I've got a podcast in an hour – oh it's right now!’ So, it happens to us all. Well, we're about to head into the Easter holiday (one more day to go). So, enjoy the break both of you, we’ll do it all again in May and, as I said, we'll be chatting more about research and reading. So, I'm looking forward to that one, but have a good break both of you.

RB & RL: Yeah, you too. Thank you, Jo, lovely talking to you as always.

That’s all for this episode of School Assembly, thanks for listening. As I mentioned, next time we’ll be chatting with Ray and Rachael about educational research and reading. In the meantime, you can follow Ray and Rachael’s socials for updates in between episodes by following the links at the podcast transcript over on our website,

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Other episodes in this series:

How do you work with students, your colleagues and families to create a sense of belonging and pride in the school community?

When you speak to parents and families about school policies, programs or what’s happening in the classroom, how often do you explain the ‘why’?