A Strategic Approach to Professional Learning Development Has Results

Taitoko School Planning Session
Taitoko School Planning Session

Taitoko School is a school on the up and up. However, it hasn't always been easy and there have been many challenges. In particular, this decile 1 school in Levin has a history of low student achievement. Struggling schools often receive a lot of external interest and support and this in itself can be a challenge, with different interest groups making conflicting demands on the time and energy of staff. The key to success in this situation, according to Gillian Kissling, mathematics adviser for Accent Learning, is to focus on building a learning community with everyone on board, from the teachers and principal, to advisers, students and their families.

This is what is happening at Taitoko School where the last twelve months have seen a marked improvement in the achievement levels of the 180 pupils. There are three Accent Learning advisers working at the school - two mathematics advisers, and a literacy adviser. They work in collaboration with the principal, Rachel King, the deputy principal, Jenny Martin, staff members and Student Achievement Practitioner, Marion Fitchett. The Student Achievement Practitioner is a new role created by the Ministry of Education to target support in selected schools and Kura to accelerate learning and lift the achievement of all students, especially Māori and Pasifika and students with special educational needs.

Each person has a unique role to play in raising student achievement at Taitoko School. The principal is focused on embedding effective systems and monitoring school-wide progress, while the Accent Learning advisers work to raise teaching standards through ongoing professional development.  The Student Achievement Practitioner helps the school recognise its already notable achievements and works with school leaders to identify next steps.  Together they develop a plan that the school can implement that supports the focus to further accelerate the progress of students. But, as Giselle McCashin (literacy adviser) emphasises, no one is working in isolation. The group is in regular communication and they each seek to support the work of the others. This cohesive approach allows all those involved to work more productively, to quickly identify any issues or trends, and to develop a clear overview of progress being made. It also allows them to identify any barriers to change. 'We are facing obstacles everyday', says Gillian, ‘but everyone is passionate about making a difference. We care about the school and its students and want them to succeed.' This approach also means teachers are receiving the same consistent message and their already limited time can be used the most effectively.

Principal, Rachel King, points out, 'this is a learning process for everyone. All of the relationships in this learning community are built on trust and the understanding that it's good to try new things and it's OK to fail. We reflect on why, learn from it, and try again.' I like to see it as a journey we are all on together', says Rachel. 'This is just the beginning.' 

Raising Student Achievement in Taitoko School

Taitoko School has had reason to celebrate recently with the raising of student achievement.

'We started by asking the school what the strengths of the staff and students were', says Giselle 'then we asked where they thought development was needed.' Based on these discussions the first year was spent setting up good systems, raising expectations around planning, as well as supporting teachers to gather comprehensive data about each student. Teachers were then encouraged to use this evidence in their planning and to create individual professional development plans to support their own learning. Gillian says, 'this will be a living document, constantly revised in response to the changes and challenges the teachers face'.

This year the focus has been on developing strategies for the classroom. The advisers model effective strategies and the teachers are given the opportunity to observe and then ask questions and give feedback. For Rachel it has been the conversations and feedback sessions with staff that have been the most valuable. 'But also', she says, 'the fact that the advisers are not just all talk. They tell us how to do something, but then they demonstrate how to do it. They actually get in there and do it.' Gillian sees their jobs as coaches. 'We are there, on the sideline, to encourage and support the teachers deal with the everyday realities of the classroom.'

And they are seeing results, with literacy and mathematics levels up and truancy down. While working together has been the key to success, it is important not to underestimate the power of the individual to create change. Giselle points to the enthusiasm and hard work of the principal, Rachel, who has been with the school for two and a half years. Rachel says she couldn't do it without the support of her staff and the advisers. However, she believes the strength of the school lies in the students whose desire to learn motivates them all.

From left to right: Danielle Yager, numeracy adviser; Giselle Mccashin, literacy adviser; Gillian Kissling, numeracy adviser ; Marion Fitchett , SAF; Rachel King, Principal; Jenny Martin, Deputy Principal.