Open-to-Learning (OTL™) Conversations

Tony Fowler

Principal, Warracknabeal Secondary College

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.



Open-to-Learning (OTL™) Conversations at Bastow InstitutepV5KmINdTWY (OTL™) Conversations at Bastow InstituteThe powerful positive effects of a culture of trust and support in school communities./captions/pV5KmINdTWY.vtt<div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><span style="color:#484749;font-family:"open sans", sans-serif;font-size:15px;"></span>My name's Tony Fowler, and I've been Principal at Warracknabeal Secondary College for nearly eight years.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>And it was 2013 that I first became interested in open to learning conversations as a way of building relational trust across an organisation. And Bastow offered the course, and I was accepted into it. And by November, I'd got through the nine days. And now I'm a trained facilitator.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>Since doing the course, I've become much more aware of listening to the views of other people and being prepared to challenge my own assumptions and beliefs. Because believe it or not, I'm not always right.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>But I think as teachers in general, educators in general, we're pretty successful people. And we haven't had to challenge the fact whether we're right and wrong too much in our lives. We've generally been right.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>In terms of what we're asking the teachers to do, we're asking them to look at themselves, and look at their own practice really carefully so that we can improve.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>So how is that impacting on us? Well, all teachers now get student voice feedback from a survey that we run across the whole school. And we're able to sit down now with the results of that survey in small groups, and discuss it. I think three or four years ago we couldn't have done that because there wasn't the trust amongst the staff.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>We go into conversations now, and we're much more willing to really listen to the other person and be prepared to take their views on board. And if we do that, then the other person is more likely to walk away from a discussion. One, feeling like they've been heard. But two, that their views are really valued as well. And together, you can co-collaborate on some sort of solution to a problem at hand.<br>Viviane took us on a journey where even in the first step we're out of our comfort zone. And it seemed to be, as soon as we got into any area of comfort zone, she'd shift the goalposts. And we'd all be pulling our hair out just wondering, are we ever going to get this? And that was tough.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>And I've done lots of courses in my life. And I'm currently studying a master's, and it's way tougher than that because I think it was asking me to change not who I am - but certainly my thought processes, and really challenge those, and asked myself for the first time, in every situation, how am I contributing to a problem where I don't think I've done that very well in the past. And so it was really tough. But it's like anything in life. If it's not tough. It's not challenging you, and you're probably not going to get the best out of it.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>In terms of recommending the course, I would recommend it to anybody. Because as a Principal or a leader in a school, you're always going to have tough conversations.</div><div class="ExternalClassD2FEE85ECC6540D78770FD546772E4A1"><br>And the model is, it's there for tough conversations, but it's there for every conversation too. I mean, it's helped me in my personal life.​</div>

“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: Open-to-Learning (OTL™) Conversation