Recent research has revealed that a culture of trust and support in school communities, particularly among staff, is one of the most powerful ways to make a positive difference to the learning and wellbeing of students.
Tony Fowler, Principal at Warracknabeal Secondary College, is a keen advocate of this approach. As a small rural school with students from predominantly low-socioeconomic backgrounds and declining levels of literacy and numeracy, Tony believes that respectful, open and considerate relationships – referred to as relational trust - are central to achieving reform and improvement.
“I have always felt that relational trust is more important than the attention it gets, and that it is at the core of all strong organisational cultures,” says Tony.
To provide him with the evidence, confidence and ability to demonstrate the positive impact on student outcomes, Tony enrolled in the Open-to-Learning™ (OTL) Conversation Accreditation Program at Bastow in 2013.
OTL is a method for dealing with difficult issues, interactions and conversations with others in respectful ways. The central tenants are based on listening to others’ views, challenging your own assumptions, considering alternative views, and dealing constructively with negative feedback and conflict.
Prior to enrolling in the course, Tony was aware that he was often avoiding difficult conversations and making incorrect judgements and assumptions about others and their behaviours.
“OTL has given me a skill set and a framework to use in these situations,” explains Tony. “I am now more confident in stating my concerns and providing the evidence used as the basis for my assumptions and beliefs. More importantly, and central to OTL, I now invite the other person to offer their views and use this information to test my own values and beliefs. It is only through truly considering all the relevant information that I am able to truly understand what is impacting on and causing their behaviour.”
Changing the way you interact with others is not a simple process, and even though Tony was open to the idea, he still found the course extremely challenging.
“It was really tough - I’m currently studying my masters and it was far more challenging than that,” he says. “Actually putting theory into practice in a group situation, and being assessed in front of your peers was really difficult - I was constantly out of my comfort zone.”
Tony’s hard work is already starting to pay off. Since completing the course, he has implemented key theories and practice with his staff and students around relational trust, including teaching observations, meaningful and challenging conversations, and feedback.
His efforts were also acknowledged when earlier this year Tony and his School Improvement Team were awarded the 2014 Victorian Education Excellence Awards - Teachers Health Fund School Leadership Team of the Year for their commitment to raising the motivation and expectations of students.
“Whilst the award focused on the amazing efforts of our staff in improving teaching practices, the development of high levels of relational trust was a key element in the development of a strong organisational climate. We are now seeing the results of our strategy in improved student outcomes.”
A fundamental part of the program is being available to instruct and support staff so they can use the framework to have positive interactions and build relationships with students, other staff and parents.
“In the past there was an expectation that the principal would have all the hard conversations,” explains Tony. “After considerable effort to improve leadership capacity and build relational trust, I am now finding that other leaders are more willing to contribute to this difficult aspect of our work.”
With all eight members of the leadership team at the school enrolled in the next intake of the course, Tony sees a real opportunity to develop policy around the way that everyone interacts with each other.
“Even though we are right at the start of the journey, the difference I can already see on the ground is huge and the relational trust we have already developed is overwhelming.”
For more information on Open-to-Learning (OTL™) Conversation Accreditation Program, see:www.bastow.vic.edu.au/courses/open-to-learning-conversations