Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Kerry McMinn

2 June 2020

Transcript

Tim Bullard 

Welcome to the Teach Learn Live podcast. I’m your host, Tim Bullard, Secretary of the Department of Education. Through this podcast, we’re going to shed some light about how we are connecting students and young people right across the state to succeed every day in our classrooms. We’ve got teachers working hard to inspire our learners, and I see great school leaders making a real difference in many people’s lives. 

Kids Voices

Teach. Learn. Live. Tasmania! [giggles] 

Tim

Welcome to the first episode of the Teach Learn Live podcast. Today, my guest is Kerry McMinn, the Principal of Albuera Street Primary School.  

Kerry has had a varied and interesting career across schools and non-school positions and has taken up a number of opportunities in the Department of Education. She started her career as a teacher at Smithton Primary School in Tasmania’s North West, and she’s been in and out of school roles including at Dalton Street Special School as the Manager of State Support Service and the Manager of Disability Standards. Since 2009 Kerry has held the role of Principal at Albuera Street Primary School. In 2014, she was a state finalist for Principal of the Year in the Department of Education’s Awards for Excellence and in 2018 Kerry was the recipient of a Hardie fellowship.  

Welcome, Kerry.  

Kerry McMinn

Thank you for having me, Tim.  

Tim

Kerry do you just want to tell us a little bit about Albuera Street Primary School. 

Kerry

Albuera Street is an inner-city school in the centre of Hobart. We have just under 300 students, a staff of 35 including 20 teachers and 15 or so, non-teaching and support staff. I feel very grateful to be part of such an amazing school community. One of the really nice things about our school that I celebrate and often talk to people about is that it’s a very multicultural community, particularly in the Hobart and Tasmania context. Over 35 per cent of our students come from families where English is not the first language. So we feel very fortunate to have a community that’s rich and vibrant and brings a lot of special things to a school community. It’s a really inclusive school community. I think if the whole world could be like our school, it will be a much better place. 

Tim

So we’re still in the midst of the challenges around COVID-19, and for a number of weeks now we’ve had our students learning at home and in a couple of weeks on the 25th of May, our students are going to come back onsite to learn back at school. How have your staff responded to the challenges that have been presented by supporting students at home, and now coming back to the school site? 

Kerry

I think Tim when the announcement came last Friday, that school was going back and there was a date. I think that there was a universal sense of gratitude that we, we had a plan to move forward, I think. Teachers have embraced learning at home, amazingly. The goodwill out there from teachers and students and our parents, and the school community has just been awe-inspiring, and I think there’s a great, some great learning coming from that. The current environment that we all see ourselves in is one that’s shared, and everybody’s in it together. I think when we look at it from a whole department point of view, and a school perspective, and then an individual within our department perspective, you can see some really clear commonalities. I think there’s a really strong sense of community in the department at the moment and there’s a very strong sense of communication and sharing information and supporting each other, which, which comes from the top.  I think principals and people in the broader education community are really clear about and grateful for. I think within schools, there’s another community whereby we’re creating environments where teachers and children and parents can flourish and thrive despite the difficulties we find ourselves in. Teachers have amazing goodwill, and I think we’ve seen that come to the fore in the current situation. 

Tim

One of the themes that we’re looking at through these podcasts is the idea of partnerships and the fact that in a state that is small like ours, we can build those partnerships. What do you see as being the strength in building partnerships? 

Kerry

Within a school context, I would have said at Albuera Street, we’ve had really great collaborative teams and collaborative partnerships in the past through our professional learning teams and networks within a school. I think the current situation has created an opportunity where those teams and partnerships have been strengthened and extended in a way that will have ongoing positive consequences into the future. While we wouldn’t have looked for this opportunity, the collaboration, the work between teams and individual teachers, the work between schools is something that I think is a real silver lining to come out of this. I know that as we move into the future, our staff want to work in different ways that they wouldn’t have explored or been willing to try before this circumstance. One of the things that we’ve done in the school context to manage those students who are still coming to school because their parents are essential workers or unable to support their learning at home. 

So, we’ve collapsed some classes into, for example, a kinder/prep, prep/one cohort and those teachers have worked together. The privacy of practice that may be used to be evident in some classrooms or the concern some teachers might’ve felt around teaching in front of their colleagues has totally gone in the weeks that we’ve been working in this way because teachers have been sharing the planning, they’ve been co-teaching, they’ve been developing resources, online resources to go home together and it’s broken down all those barriers. And one of the things I think we’ll move forward with is the notion of teachers wanting to work in different ways. Teachers really seeing the benefits of collaborating, working together and team teaching and observing each other’s practice and learning from each other in ways that we wouldn’t have achieved even though we’ve been trying for a long time. This has created an authentic purpose for working in a different way that I don’t think we’ll go back from and teachers are seeing the benefits and celebrating and asking for opportunities, so at our school, we are genuinely talking already about how can we facilitate this. How can we have some more cross-grade groupings. How can we plan our timetable and change the structures and routines in our school to enable teachers to co-teach and work and plan together and do things differently. Those partnerships that I think have come from this unfortunate situation will change the way we provide education within the school. 

Tim

You’ve talked about partnerships and the strength within a school. What are your reflections on partnerships now with parents? So parents have been thrown into the fray really haven’t they in terms of having very little notice and an expectation that they’re going to pick up the support of the learning of their children at home. 

Kerry

Parents didn’t sign on really to be teachers, did they? And they’ve found themselves in this situation where they’re supporting learning at home. In our school context, I’m grateful and in awe of the work that parents have embraced. I think that’s happened in a fairly deliberate way. I think teachers have worked really hard to support teachers. And teachers didn’t have a lot of preparation either. Although that last week before the holidays was a great opportunity for teachers to be preparing. Teachers at school have done things like communicate with all our parents personally by phone to touch base to check in how they’re going. They’ve communicated by email. We’re using platforms like Seesaw and Canvas – Seesaw with early childhood classrooms, Canvas with primary classrooms – that provide opportunities for parents to actually be really actively engaged to see and support what their children are doing. Many of our parents have talked about, while there have been challenges, there’s actually also some gratitude around the opportunity to understand their children as learners, not just the children that they normally interact with and play with them, their parents too, but to see their children as learners and to see how they learn and what support they need to learn and to understand the curriculum. 

And many parents have said, while they’re quite pleased kids will be coming back to school they have actually had an opportunity to know and understand their children in a different way. We sent home a survey to all our parents on Monday of the second week, so children had essentially had five days of learning at home, and we sent out the survey on Monday afternoon and asked parents to have it back to us on the Wednesday morning so that we could tweak and inform our learning at home for the following fortnight. We got back amazing feedback from parents. We asked them just really simple questions like how is the quantity of work we’re sending home? What’s the level of difficulty? Are you happy with the amount of support you’re getting? What are the things that we’re doing well? What are the things that we could do better to support you? 

The other question we asked them was about the ICT platforms that we were using and the feedback we got generally from parents overwhelmingly was that we were probably sending a little bit too much work home, and that maybe what we needed to provide for them was a little clearer direction around what were the really important things that we would like them to do at home and what were the things that could be optional depending on their time and their capacity. The level of difficulty appeared to be pretty good, and that was really reassuring for teachers in terms of knowing their kids and knowing their cohort given that it’s a little bit more difficult to differentiate when you’re sending information home via an online platform. Parents talked about grappling with the IT initially, but that improved over time and we were able to provide some more support, but overwhelmingly parents were so grateful and supportive of the work that teachers were doing and the level of support they were getting through emails and Seesaw messages and personal telephone conversations. 

I think that actually it’s really strengthened the partnership between home and school. I think there is a greater understanding around what is involved in teaching and having a cohort of kids at school. While teachers don’t necessarily want parents to feel grateful for their work because we all chose to be teachers and we love being teachers, but I think there is an increased understanding around the curriculum requirements, around opportunities for teachers to model some pedagogy for parents that will benefit beyond now. So, when parents are working with their children around homework, knowing perhaps how to respond to that, ‘I can’t do this’ rather than leaping in to help how parents might ask probing questions or model some positive responses. Those things I think are going to be ongoing that will support kids learning. That partnership has certainly been enriched and developed, and I think that will go on as well. 

Tim

What was the barrier to that happening before? So, you have quite clearly articulated that the crisis bought around not a desire, it bought around a requirement for teachers to partner with each other and for teachers to partner closely with parents. What traditionally has been the reluctance to do that? 

Kerry

I’m not sure, Tim, that there’s been a reluctance. I think that for many things, necessity is the mother of invention and people had to put more time and effort into it. I think that we’ve always had good relationships with families, but the relationships had to shift because parents were taking on a different role that they hadn’t had to take on before. I think also for us to make learning at home happen, we had to free up teachers from face to face communication and while we’ve had a small proportion of our children still at school, teachers have had more time when they could actually make a phone call to every parent. They’ve had more time to be able to do those things. So, I think it’s the circumstance created an imperative that we did it. Our roles respectively changed a little bit. So parents, despite being busy and working and doing other things rose to the challenge and were willing to do that, and there was more time, but I think some of those benefits will be maintained. 

Tim

Let’s talk a bit about communication because, in the midst of chaos, regular and clear communication has seemed to me to be one of the delineators of success. Can you talk a little bit around what you found works for you in terms of communicating with students and families? 

Kerry

I think for from a school perspective, we’ve continued to use SchoolZine as the platform for our school newsletters, for sharing formal information from the department and those things. So that’s been our formal platform. Teachers have used email, phone calls for students and families. We’ve used Seesaw and Canvas. And parents and students have all been able to access those platforms. The quality of the communication is really important. One of the things that that has been really special I think is that the teachers every day have videoed themselves. What kids access every day when they log on has been a video of their teacher or teachers, because some of that’s been shared now, and so children are seeing two teachers rather than just their own but are welcoming, positive visual of their teacher. Hearing the teacher’s voice every day has been a way children have been able to start. 

We’ve been really conscious of parent’s flexibility, so it doesn’t mean that at 9:00 AM you have to log on and see somebody, but when you can log on, what you’ll get for the day is your teacher or teachers happily welcoming you to school for the day, outlining the learning for the day and being positive and welcoming and reminding kids that we care about their wellbeing and that we wish they were at school, but they’re not now, but we’re still there for them. Teachers are videoing things in different places in the school, so sometimes it will be in the foyer, so the kids are still seeing the school. There’s still that sense of belonging. Familiar places in the school, outside the front door with our beautiful bird tree or in the foyer or in the classroom or panning around the classroom and feeding the fish with the kids in the morning. Some of those routines and things that we would normally do because we know that routines and positive messages and explicit acknowledgement of wellbeing are really important to kids’ wellbeing and to make them remain connected and feel like they’re belonging even though they’re not with us. 

Tim

In moving children and in some cases staff off-site. I think it’s focused our minds about a whole lot of things that schools provide that are just taken as givens. And one of the things I’m hearing from you is the importance of human connection and connection to place. Do you want to talk a little bit around in a normal school world how those things interact to support learning? 

Kerry

I think for me that we talk about schools as places where children go and they access curriculum, but equally important is schools are places of social engagement for children and families and very important places. You know, schools are for many people, the place where they go every day, where parents meet other parents and develop friendships where children go. And what we’ve seen and heard through learning at home is that what children miss often is their friends and access to those people. Sometimes people say, oh it’s, you know, they only want to go to school for their friends. That’s a really legitimate part of going to school. All of us, we go to work, and we want to talk to our colleagues, meet with our colleagues, talk about what we’ve been doing and I think for adults and children, that lack of social connection is what’s been most difficult. 

And it’s what’s also concerning for our children and our adults, when we think about their wellbeing. And we’ve had some children come back to school, not because they couldn’t manage the curriculum and not necessarily because their parents couldn’t support them, but their wellbeing was being significantly affected by being away from school. And in that case, you want those children to be at school. So normally in a school situation we’re addressing kids’ social and emotional needs through the routines and the habits that we had in schools through the sense of belonging through those morning circles where every child gets welcomed every day when they come to school and acknowledged. We’re talking about the relationships they have with classroom teachers, with each other, with other people in the school. Those are the things that build a community and a sense of belonging that support kids’ wellbeing. 

Tim

So, wellbeing has certainly been front and centre of the department’s focus over the past 12 or 18 months. And I know that you in 2018 went on a Hardie Fellowship to America to look at aspects of child wellbeing. Do you want to tell me a little bit about that? 

Kerry

We were very fortunate essentially in 2016 I went to a Principal’s Association conference here in Hobart, and it was a national conference. One of the keynote speakers was Professor Lee Walters, who was then the director of positive education at Melbourne University. One of the things that Lee talked about was that traditional psychology has always dealt with ill-being, and when people weren’t well. The body of science now called positive psychology recognises that it’s not just around making people not be ill in terms of their being, but to be what she called North of neutral. So, what we need to be aiming for is not just to be not unwell, we need to be thriving and flourishing. And that notion of building wellbeing just struck a chord with me. The following year, I noticed coaching was something on my PDP, and I noticed that a conference in Sydney around coaching and positive psychology and Lee Waters was a keynote speaker at that again. 

So I talked to another colleague, and we went off to the conference. And as part of that, we talked to Lee Waters about whether or not she would come and work with our schools around building wellbeing for our school population. When we look at our young people now, we look at suicide rates, we look at youth mental health rates and it’s clearly a huge problem. And we know that kids will learn better when they are well and happy. It’s a prerequisite for all of us. The definition of wellbeing we talk about is that you feel good in yourself, so you feel happy, good and positive, and that you’re functioning well. So you’re able to do your daily tasks well, and in that state, you can also do good for other people. So that notion of feeling good, functioning well and doing good is what we think about in terms of wellbeing. 

As a result of that, we were fortunate – we and three other primary schools, Goulburn Street, Lindisfarne North and Cambridge Primary Schools – worked with Professor Walters around implementing visible wellbeing in our schools through 2017 and 2018. We were four of ten foundational schools across the country implementing the search framework, which is basically a framework which identifies six pathways that if you address, you can enhance children’s wellbeing. Things like strengths, emotional management, awareness, relationships, coping and habits and goals. So if you explicitly address those areas, you can enhance people’s wellbeing, and it works for staff and students. And when we started working in this way, teachers talked about how, how it enhanced their wellbeing, and they’re things that you can teach. It’s a teaching and learning thing. Like anything else, you can teach children strategies and ways to support their wellbeing. Really, we then wanted to explore the notion of wellbeing and how wellbeing can improve student learning outcomes for students, but also for staff. 

And as a result, we applied for a Hardie, and three of us were very fortunate to go off to the States in 2018 and spend six weeks looking further at the notion of wellbeing and how we could use explicit teaching around wellbeing to support students’ learning. Having said that, enhancing wellbeing is a legitimate goal in its own. While we know, it has an impact on learning, when we look at our society, enhancing all beings a really important thing.  

Tim 

So you’ve talked about your journey to getting to the Hardie. When you got to America, what did you do?  

Kerry

We were fortunate to participate in a number of short courses while we were there. First of all, we went to Austin, Texas and participated in a positive education certificate course that was run by the Flourishing Centre, which is based in New York. It’s the first time Flourishing Centre had run the course as a five-day super intensive and it was a very small group. So we were very fortunate to participate in that. What we learned from that course complemented the work we’d done with, with Professor Waters around visible wellbeing or that was structured in slightly different ways. One of the positive things that came out of that was that we were able, when we came back to Tasmania, the Department’s Professional Learning Institute offered that course here in Hobart. So Amelia who had run the course and the director of the Flourishing Centre in New York came to Hobart and ran that course in January, 2019 at the PLI and 30 educators from all around Tasmania gave up a week of their school holidays to participate in that positive education certificate course. So that was a really nice thing that we were able to share as a result of our Hardie. We also spent some time at Harvard. We went and did a week-long course at Harvard. 

We spent some time at different universities talking to people around their approaches to wellbeing and things that they were doing. We met with colleagues from all over the US to talk about innovative things that they were doing in schools. But as often happens, we learned a lot, and it was an amazing opportunity to focus on something that you feel really passionate about. But we were also really mindful that we have great resources in Australia and great things happening and a Department that’s valuing and recognising wellbeing as a priority. The opportunity to just focus on one thing without the daily other interruptions is just an absolute gift. And to be able to bring something back and incorporate it into your program and still work with other schools about that wellbeing and to talk to colleagues. 

Tim

So, you came to the COVID crisis with some expertise and strategies in place at your school around wellbeing. How has that learning informed what you’ve done as children have learned from home? But also, how have you had your thinking extended? 

Kerry

When I think about what’s been happening in our school over recent weeks, and as we talk to staff we are talking around what are the things that we want to hold on to, and what are the things that we’re moving forward with. One of the things that I’ve done over recent weeks, as children have been learning online, has been to ask all the class teachers to invite me to be a teacher on their Seesaw or Canvas pages so that every day I can look at what’s happening across the classes. I can comment and provide feedback to kids and keep interacting with children as I might normally do in a walkthrough through the classroom.  

One of the things I’ve really noticed across all our classrooms when I look at the work that’s sent home every day is that there’s a wellbeing activity for every class, every kid, every day alongside the English and the maths, every day there is a wellbeing activity. It might be the teacher asking the students to identify which character strengths they’re using to get through today. Whether it’s, ‘I’m using perseverance cause this math is really hard’. ‘I’m using my strength of creativity to do this piece of artwork that the art teacher sent me’, or it might be ‘what mindful activity would you like to choose from this little menu of activities?’ ‘Are you going to do some belly breathing or some square breathing and how does that make you feel?’ So every day, as an automatic part of our curriculum, there is a mindfulness or a strengths-based activity, or an activity that asks them to talk about how they’re coping.  

Wellbeing is actually embedded in what we do, and it really struck me when I looked at the work that was going home every day that wellbeing was up front and centre alongside an inquiry unit or the PE activity that might have gone home or the Chinese activity. There was always a wellbeing activity front and centre for every child. Listening to the children going into the early childhood classes and the Seesaw activities, hearing the children playing back their little videos about what mindful activity that did that day, and how it made them feel calm and centred and ready to learn – it’s the language when children telling us back that that works for them confirms the value of that approach, but I think its embedded in our school. 

Tim

So coming back on-site, what are you going to save? You know, what are you going to salvage? What are you going to cherish? 

Kerry

When we come back to school, teachers will not let us get away with not having different ways of collaborating and organising. We’ll need to think about how we can reorganise some timetables, how we can make it possible for teachers to not just meet every Monday morning in school time for their PLTs, which we’ve been doing for the last 18 months or so. They want more time for collaboration across the curriculum. Teachers also want to be able to continue to use technology in ways they haven’t done before, which they realise are really valuable for learning. So we’ll be looking at what that means for our devices at school and how we can organise to make sure that all teachers can still have access and students have enough devices and how they can embed that in their classroom practice in a way that they probably didn’t do before. I think the relationships between home and school will continue to be enhanced by what has happened and the relationship and communication between parents and teachers will be more, there’s a greater degree of understanding around what’s involved for everyone and incredible respect from both sides. I think teachers respect the work that parents have done, and parents respect the work that teachers do. So I think there’s been a shift in those relationships. 

Tim

I am interested to hear from you as a respected leader in the Department around what’s been the biggest learning for you in your leadership journey. 

Kerry

I think there’s probably a number of things I would say. I think that, while I have great respect for teachers and staff in our schools, that the goodwill and willingness to go the extra mile has been amazing. And I think that’s something that, while you know it’s there, when push comes to shove for the work that people do, it’s been incredible. And I think that comes down to, to relationships and cultures. So the importance of really nurturing school cultures where people are valued and supported and their wellbeing as explicitly addressed is something that’s been reaffirmed for me. And, and I think that’s a core thing around leadership that we need to maintain. I think the situation has led to a place where people have needed to be able to be innovative. We talked in a staff meeting yesterday about that notion of what’s tight and what’s loose and in our school, there are a number of things that, that are tight and that we know we do in this way. 

But the opportunity also for people to have the flexibility and professional judgment around things is something that teachers talked about really appreciating and that it’s okay not to get it right. That failure isn’t a bad thing. You try it, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else and to know that that’s okay in a school culture. I feel very fortunate that I have colleague principals that I can talk to and run things by and that notion of supportive relationships I think has been really important. I think communication at a departmental level. I think the communication during this stage has been something that’s unprecedented and has been really valued and appreciated. The access to you Tim, and your willingness to engage with people regularly in a busy timetable, and that people have had the information; they feel trusted and valued and supported. I think it has taught us something around communication in a department as big as ours that I think has never happened before. 

Tim 

You’ve talked about the test and try. So moving from an environment where we used to strive for perfection and until we had that we wouldn’t implement anything, to cycling through ideas and concepts and approaches and keeping what’s working and discarding what’s not. Do you think that’s something we can take forward into the future? 

Kerry

I think we almost have to because the future is going to be uncertain for a while to come. I think that’s one of the things that we’ve learned through this process, and it would be really forced to let that go. 

Tim

Kerry, I’ve heard you talk a lot around collaboration and the importance of teams. I’ve heard you talk a lot about wellbeing and the importance of supporting wellbeing for learning. And I’ve also heard you talk a lot around communication. I think they are all really great take outs from today’s discussion. But if I’m sitting down here with you in 15 years’ time, and we’re close to retirement, if we ever get there, what would be the thing that’s touched you the most from the past six weeks? 

Kerry

I think it always comes back to a focus on students. I think what we’ve all done through this stage from a departmental level to a school level and individual teacher level has been a focus on how we support our learners to have positive wellbeing and to be able to learn and feel like they’re confident, engaged, curious young people engaging in education despite the fact that they may or may not be at school. And it’s our core business, it is what we do and it’s around children and learners. What I’ve seen everybody do through this time, be it parents and teachers, teacher assistants and people all through the department, has been their core focus on our learners and that that for me is what it’s all about. That’s what we’re here for. And it will be really nice when it’s safe in a couple of weeks to have our learners back at school. 

Tim 

Kerry McMinn, Principal of Albuera Street, thank you so much for sharing your experiences of teaching, learning and living in Tasmania.  

I hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast to hear more about those that teach, learn and live in Tasmania. Join us at www.anchor.fm/teachlearnlive or wherever you download your podcasts. Why not subscribe so that you can keep up to date with what we’re doing? If you have a story about an inspiring teacher or student, get in touch and tell us about it at teachlearnlive@education.tas.gov.au or join us on Facebook. 

Kids Voices

Teach. Learn. Live. Tasmania! [giggles]