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Wellbeing and connectedness
Safe schools and the smell of hot coffee
Sandra Craig describes the process behind the Safe Schools are Effective Schools resource, prepared for the Department of Education and Training in Victoria, and canvasses some of its findings.
I made my decision to leave teaching somewhere between Apollo Bay and Lorne. I was on the 2004 Great Victorian Bike Ride and perhaps it was something about the pedals’ regular rhythm, or the sun on the water, or the coffee stop at Wye River—or maybe it was just time to go.
I was lecturing part-time at Deakin University when it was suggested to me that there might be a position for a researcher on a Department of Education and Training (DE&T) team project ‘Review of Anti-Bullying Policies and Practice’, a joint venture of Deakin University and The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a children’s charity with the mission ‘Taking care of the little things’.
At the beginning of 2005, this erstwhile senior school coordinator found herself in a room with a computer and heaps of books, plus absolute access to coffee, thinking time and toilet breaks. Nobody came to the door making unreasonable or ridiculous demands, or presenting intractable or insoluble problems. It was a revelation. But was it work?
The team’s job was to identify and analyse policies and practices that contribute to the effective prevention and management of bullying and create safe environments for students. We looked at how different groups in school communities understand and assess levels of safety and respect, as well as bullying with its related issues. One hundred and fifty schools across Victoria were randomly selected. In the end, 83 agreed to participate and 22,000 surveys were sent out. Nearly 12,000 were completed.
Developing the survey instruments was an enormous task. We decided that the student surveys should be in six levels, from prep to year 12, to recognise different development ages and the changing nature of bullying across the stages of schooling. Data was analysed to identify frequency and strength of responses. Fortunately, the bulk of this—checking, scanning and running the statistics on the 12,000 multiple sheets—took place at the university’s Consultancy and Development Unit. Then it was up to us to identify patterns, relationships and trends. We set off to visit schools in country Victoria, as well as metropolitan schools.
We conducted intensive interviews and focus group discussions with students, teachers, parents and leaders in six primary schools and five secondary schools identified by DE&T as schools with strong wellbeing outcomes. These schools already had successful anti-bullying strategies and programs in place. Of course, these strategies weren’t the same in every school, but this was an advantage. Success in dealing with bullying is ‘the sum of many small moves’ (Cross 2004).
Schools differ widely—poor, wealthy, small, big, mixed or single gender—so selecting components to suit the school is vital. The commitment of leaders and teachers to consistently and effectively implement anti-bullying plans and strategies is also central to success.
Our work took place in 2005, late February until the end of June. It included an extensive review of the literature, an overview of what professional development for teachers might look like and a series of recommendations for the creation of safe schools. And there it rested until the beginning of May 2006, when a phone call from DE&T informed us that the State Government was about to launch its Safe Schools are Effective Schools strategy. Our primary research was used to create this document that informs safe school initiatives in very practical ways.
Every student has the right to feel safe at school, and safe environments start with leaders who have a clear vision of how a safe, friendly school looks and feels. They model this, show it to staff in practical ways and encourage staff efforts. One secondary principal explained to us that he planted the seeds of ideas among staff and watched as they grew and spread. He was talking about how collaborative group work helps create supportive and friendly classrooms, and was proud to show us such classrooms. Another said, ‘We should throw away the curriculum and concentrate on kids’ wellbeing!’
Safe schools are built on strong relationships, not just the familiar rhetoric of relationships. Students are taught and given opportunities to practise the values and social skills that underpin successful relationships. Teachers and school leaders demonstrate respect in dealing with each other and students. The surveys showed that a decline in respect is accompanied by a rise in unacceptable behaviour of all kinds. However, the case study schools had developed genuine strategies in which students worked with, helped and supported each other. Teachers were valued and loved coming to work.
Exemplary schools were always looking for ways to improve. A teacher in one such school remarked that their success was ‘a work in progress’. Behaviour management was based on pro-social values and these were strongly reinforced through the curriculum and structures such as reward systems, student leadership, peer systems, committees and assemblies. Teachers were strongly committed to involving parents, and parents worked in enthusiastic partnership on wellbeing and safety issues. The parents we interviewed said they felt genuinely welcome in the school, as did we researchers.
Another strong feature of safe schools was the sense of collegiality demonstrated among staff. Recently, I quipped that one of the success factors seemed to us to be the presence of brewed coffee! But in a sense, I was being serious. In some of the case study schools, the administration’s respect and support for staff took the form of shared food, or the provision of quality facilities—the smell of fresh coffee, provided by the principal for the staff’s enjoyment, seemed to typify this. Teachers at one school had decided to pool their student-teacher supervision money and use it to provide truly delicious morning teas throughout the year.
Through the research, we discovered many misconceptions about bullying and, in some places, a lack of a clear definition. The resource provides an easily understood explanation of what bullying is (and is not), and explains why it’s important for schools to forge definitions in collaboration with all members of the school community. It highlights the central importance of leaders to safe schools.
There are many ways in which schools can rise to the challenge of making their environments safer for students and more enjoyable workplaces for staff.
My experience on the project turned out to be work after all, but work of a different, exhilarating kind. It was a startling and often humbling experience to visit schools where wellbeing defines and directs what is being done. The Safe Schools are Effective Schools resource available at www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/wellbeing/safeschools/bullying/ shows how.
Cross, D (December 2004). Presentation to the National Coalition Against Bullying Conference, Melbourne.
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, www.amf.org.au/
National Coalition Against Bullying, www.ncab.org.au/
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