Every Student Podcast: Jennie Wilson
Mark Scott sits down with Moulamein Public School Principal Jennie Wilson to ask why she fell in love with teaching in small schools.
Mark Scott sits down with Moulamein Public School Principal Jennie Wilson to ask why she fell in love with teaching in small schools.
Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Down in south-western NSW, you find the small town of Moulamein. You find it where the Edward River meets up with Billabong Creek. In that town there is one school, and the principal of that school is Jennie Wilson and Jennie is our guest here today. Jennie where do we find Moulamein?
Moulamein is on the Edward River. If you were to drive to Wagga you would have to keep driving another 400kms. We are about an hour and a half from Hay and an hour from Deniliquin and an hour from Balranald. We are a crossroads where you get to cross the river and it is a small town of just 300 people.
Why are you in Moulamein?
I have always loved small schools, I started teaching in small schools around Bathurst. I also needed to get a permanent position. I went to the outback and I went to Hillston Central School for about four years. Living remotely and teaching remotely was something that wasn’t new to me but I absolutely loved small schools because I like the connection that you can have with students, the connections you can have with the community and staff as well. You also have a sense of freedom in a small school. You get to try different things because you don’t have such a large group of students and you can build really strong connections to the community.
Did you go to a small school yourself?
No I went to Bathurst Public School and then Bathurst High School. I really enjoyed teaching at a little school outside of Bathurst called O’Connell School and I loved it. It was only two teachers and I knew one day that I would end up back as a teaching principal in a small school because I just loved it so much.
You are a teacher at O’Connell School?
Yes just casually. It was just a casual position but I wanted to get a permanent job so I moved on and I decided to take an outback position and I have never regretted that.
Let’s just talk a little bit about the challenge of teaching at a small school. I am always struck when I look at the statistics, in NSW we have hundreds and hundreds of schools with teaching principals. It strikes me if you are a teacher in the school with only two teachers you have got to learn how to do everything pretty quickly.
You do and I was lucky enough to work at a large school and I had various roles on the South Coast in that large school. I felt really equipped to be able to deal with any situation. I had been working with gifted and talented kids, I had been working on learning support, I trained as a reading recovery teacher. I felt like I had a lot of expertise so when I got to a small school I had already had various roles but along the way, as a principal you are always challenged anyway within a small school because you have to be the master of everything.
Let's talk about going to Moulamein. You are there and when you start there are only about forty kids at the school. There is no place to hide, there is no place to hide in the staffroom. There are few people to hide from. How do you arrive and get a sense of what is going on in a small school when you start there as principal?
That is really interesting because when I arrived I knew that my school needed to feel a sense of safety. They needed to know that I was there for the right reasons.
How did you know that safety was important?
Because they had a disruptive last couple of years. They needed someone that showed commitment to the job and that is what I had to do very quickly, I had to say I am here for the right reasons and I am going to do everything that I can to make this school the very best it can be.
How did you provide that reassurance early on?
I connected to the community. I told them every step of the way of the things and the changes that I would make to improve the outcomes of the students. When I got there I had a lot of students that were not reading at benchmark. Literacy was an issue so that is where I started. I thought if I could get every child at this school reading really well they will go home and they will start reading and their parents will go ‘wow, you really are learning to read with this new principal on board’.
Do you learn much from looking at the data on the school?
I did. Before I got there I knew that I had to make changes instantly to improve the outcomes of those students. I looked at the school plan, I looked at NAPLAN data and I gathered information off the teachers as well.
Tell me about the teachers and I appreciate they will be listening to this so there is no place to hide. You arrive in a sense young, new teacher, you arrive in the town, some of them have been there for a period of time, they have worked hard in the school how do you convince them that we are going to need to do things differently around here.
Sometimes teachers are really keen to put as many tools into their belt I would say. Every teacher I know wants to improve their practice and our classrooms are very complex places to be especially out in remote areas. They knew that. They were really willing and open to the changes that I was going to make but I helped them also help me make decisions. We did it as a group. I had parents involved and I said “what changes do you want me to make at the school? How can we make this a better school?” so they were part of the decisions that I made to improve the school.
I want to dig a little bit into what you did specifically around literacy but one of the interesting things that I think we can see when we look at the data and one of the big challenges that we face in Australia and big states like NSW is the performance of kids in regional areas, rural areas, remote areas and there is this question of high expectations.
The question is did you have people who thought these kids are as these kids are, they probably don’t come from advantaged backgrounds, some of their parents might not have high levels of literacy or high levels of education how did you get the mindset right that you needed to be more ambitious for these kids.
I was really lucky I had a lot of beginning teachers so they were just starting their career and I said to them “we must have high expectations with our students and our parents. We must expect higher results and if we expect it we will work at getting those higher results”. I did have teachers that have been teaching at the school for a long time but I was just really lucky that they were open to my ideas and some changes along the way and I banned a saying which was “they are only Moulamein kids”, I said “no all kids can reach our benchmarks and they can work beyond benchmarks if we give them the right opportunities”.
Tell us about how you went about lifting literacy performance?
When I was on the coast I must say I took professional learning for granted. I was able to get to courses very easily in the afternoons, I only had to drive 20 to 30kms down the road to get to professional learning and I was able to train in lots of different areas and access lots of programs. When I went to a rural and remote area I was really shocked at how I took that for granted. Then I worked out that a lot of the courses were 400kms away and that is just one way. A teacher to attempt any professional learning it was going to be a three-day trip; one day travelling, one day for the course and one day back.
And a big hole in your budget.
Financially not viable. When I went to principal network meetings all the principals were saying the same thing; “we want to improve literacy and numeracy”. My area of expertise was literacy. I tried to sit on my hands because I had moved, I have three children and I thought I will just wait a little while to see what happens in our district. I thought people might come out here and offer some professional learning but it wasn’t the case. I knew that for my results to improve I needed to improve the way teaching was happening at my school. I needed to put more tools like I said in teachers belts. I thought I will start a course myself and that is exactly what I did. I started a course, I didn’t wait for a solution to come to me and listening to all the other principals I knew that they needed professional learning for their teachers as well so I took a chance really and I decided to be innovative for myself and start a thing that I now call “The Literacy Den”.
Tell us about The Literacy Den. What happens there and what does the professional development look like for staff there?
What I did is I looked at other school plans not just my own. I believe that while we work for a school we also work for the department and I thought it was my role if I was going to put some professional learning in place for my teachers then why not invite other schools. I asked the principals “what they needed?” I looked at their school plans and literacy was in all school plans and then I also asked the teachers “what they felt they needed support in?” I surveyed teachers. Then I gathered this really good insight into what they actually needed rather than me developing course with what I thought they needed.
Was there a difference? How was the course different once you had spoken to teachers about what they felt they needed?
I thought that I would go in at a different level to what I did go in. I thought that I might just need to fine tune something they already know about. I went way back and started at basic levels. A lot of beginning teachers start their career in rural and remote regions. I started from scratch. Let’s see what fantastic guided reading looks like, let’s see what a really good writing lesson looks like. I designed the course around the teachers needs rather than what I thought they needed. They had a lot of input to what the course was about.
How long does the course go for?
I started it last year and I thought I will just do it for a year to see if that works. Like I said it was very experimental. I started at the start of last year and I thought I will split it into two I actually started two courses. Teachers travel to my little school and they travel twice a term and it is ongoing professional learning for a whole term. I got to the end of the year and about 25 or 26 teachers from long distances travelled to our school and they had a whole year of professional learning. I thought maybe that is enough but then when I asked them would you like this to continue everyone said “we have got a lot more people that want to come this time”. Now we have over sixty people coming to our school in the middle of nowhere.
Tourism boom at Moulamein.
It is honestly, the local café love me for it. I have to let them know when they come. Now we have workshops running throughout the year for teachers to come to our school and learn how to teach literacy well.
That sounds remarkable. Part of the challenge we know is that you can go to a course and you learn and you are surrounded by all the stimulation and the input from that course and then go back and implement it on the ground in your school and in your classroom and Jennie Wilson is not there at their side how are they going back in the school?
We have had really positive feedback. What the course does is it take it to “ground zero: the classroom”. The way I would structure each workshop was I would say this is what the research is showing that works well in the classroom. We have got to so much information out there with what works best. The department has done an amazing job with having all these websites and platforms that we can access this information from. Sometimes I find beginning teachers find that very overwhelming, I call it “the analysis paralysis” they analyse everything that is on the department’s website and the research to the point where they are paralysed by it. I saw my role as getting the ball rolling. That is what I did but I said ok this is research but this is what it actually looks like in the classroom. I go and collect the students out of their classrooms and I bring them in and I do a modelled lesson. They actually can see what the research means for the classroom teacher. It is connecting current practices to ‘ground zero’ within the classroom and then I provide the resources for them to go and implement it within their own school and their own classrooms. Then it also means that those teachers that come to our professional learning they can then show other teachers how to do it. It is reciprocal teaching within itself.
Talk a little bit more about some of the other challenges that you face at Moulamein and these kids. It is a long way away from the big city. A big dry part of the country now.
What are the challenges that you are seeing in your local community and how do they manifest themselves at your school?
The drought is obviously affecting our school. We have a lot of itinerant workers that travel so it means that they have to really love Moulamein to stay at Moulamein. What I can do as a principal to ease the burden of farmers and people that are experiencing such harsh conditions at the moment due to the drought is I can assure those parents that they can put their children on the bus and they get on that bus and they come to school and they have a really great day. Their grass is green and they are coming to school because they want to come to school. I can ease their burden by allowing them to come to a school that is doing a great job. If they are not worried about school then that is one less thing that they need to worry about in their life.
In a small community it does also mean that I must tap into other resources. It could be mental health resources that I need to tap into for families. It can also mean that I have to contact St. Vincent de Paul and organise some food hampers for people. I have a strong welfare side that I have to tap into when you work in a small community experiencing difficulties.
One of the issues you have wanted to focus on is school attendance. It is interesting I think we have talked about this at the executive level of the department; if you believe that school matters then you believe school attendance matters. What have been your thoughts and your strategies about how you ensure that you get as many kids through the door every day?
The parents consider me a bit of an attendance nag which I take pride in. It is because my attendance rate was not good so I used the power of creative arts to get our students at the school. I found a lot of my students needed to improve their self-esteem. They needed to believe in themselves as learners and they needed to build some confidence. Creative arts can do that. I taught them how to play an instrument. I also taught them that they could be creative and follow their own thoughts. We had a problem on Friday’s people would not send their children to school and we also found that the last week of term was really problematic for us.
You are close to the border.
I am very close to the border so it meant that a lot of our high school students go to Victorian schools so that means that they would break up a week early so my students would then break up a week early even though it was school time. I created so many exciting things in the last week of school to ensure that they would want to come to school, so they did.
I tapped into our community. I am very lucky to live in a community where we have practicing artists and an art gallery and creative arts is a passion of mine as well. I had our community members come in and run really amazing art workshops such as glass making, mosaics, we had painting and drawing oil pastel classes, we also had some great science workshops as well. The last week of school at Moulamein is very exciting. We run all these amazing workshops and the kids just do not want to miss out and that means they are at school. If they are at school for that they are at school to read every day as well. It has been fantastic. We haven’t had kids take extra days off and they actually nag their parents to come to school which is exactly what I want.
We talked about data earlier and your big focus on literacy is it too soon to see improvement in the outcomes of your kids? What are you seeing through your work?
When I arrived a lot of my kids weren’t reading at benchmark. If they are not reading at benchmark they are not writing at benchmark. In 2016 and 2017 I had about 20% of our students were in the top two bands for NAPLAN. Last year 100% of our students in Year 3 are in the top two bands for Reading so that is a massive improvement already. I would expect now that to continue. It also means that if you put numeracy and literacy together because they are linked to improve numeracy you have to improve literacy because it means they can read and understand the question. It means that 55% of my students in Year 3 and Year 5 are now in the top two bands of NAPLAN.
Fantastic achievement and an important message back to the community linking back into the high expectations that we were talking about earlier. Have you focused much on NAPLAN or is NAPLAN just a by-product of the other stuff?
It is a by-product. Every principal wants great NAPLAN results but I knew at the heart of improving the outcomes of my students was to improve literacy. I knew that to improve maths I needed to work on literacy.
Some of the other principals that I have spoken to who have had great NAPLAN results have said you almost back yourself in that if your literacy strategy is working you are going to see it in the NAPLAN results.
That is right, that is exactly how I feel as well. It was just a confirmation of what I put into place is actually working.
One of the interesting things to think about your school is it is the one school in town, it is a pretty static population, about 300 people in the town but you have seen significant enrolment growth. Tell us about that story?
I am bucking the trend definitely I feel.
Where are these kids coming from and what do the numbers show?
When I started we had about forty students we now have sixty students and it means that parents are now choosing to send their children to Moulamein Public School rather than putting them on the bus to go into the bigger towns of Swan Hill or Barham so that is exciting for us because local kids are staying at our school, they are not choosing to go to the private schools or the larger schools.
And crossing the border for a Victorian education.
A special hello to all our Victorian listeners.
I really wanted to keep our kids at our school. That meant I got out into the community quite often. In our newspaper we are in the newspaper every week. It means that people know what we are doing at the school. I changed the grounds at the school. I made sure that our school looked good and everyone wanted to be there. We turned the appearance around of the school as well. I often say “I woke the school up”. I found that our school was once a central school and half the school had locks on the doors and it felt like it was asleep because the high school part of the school had been shut down and not used. It was almost like–
A ghost town.
It was and that made me really sad. I had come from a school on the coast where we would love extra rooms.
Did you break open the locks? What did you do?
I did, I broke open the locks and we have renovated and we have done that ourselves with the help of the P&C and we now have a music room, we now have a technology room. We are now turning an old woodwork room into a design and technology room. Now these children have all these amazing facilities that they didn’t once have. We have made our school look amazing, we had a beautification program and it has been very well received by the parents, the grandparents and the great-grandparents because people have sentimental value within our school. There are grandparents that walk around the street and they are looking at these buildings and they are all locked up and they weren’t being used. I felt that would be really sad for them so now they are all awake and we are using them so that itself has been really powerful.
You are clearly ambitious.
You are ambitious for the kids, you are ambitious for the learning and the schools around your school, and you are ambitious for the community. what is next on your agenda for the school?
I see my role out there is sharing my expertise still. I love building bridges between all our small schools. Being in a small school away from larger centres can be isolating and we do want to keep our great teachers out there. Again I still see future development in our literacy program that we run but I also my job is not done there I have still got a few rooms to renovate and I just really enjoy working out there. I enjoy working with the community, the community mean a lot to me and I take my job very seriously. I think it is an honourable position that you can have in a small school. You are the life blood of that town when you are working at a school and you have a really important role as a principal.
Across New South Wales we have hundreds of small schools and hundreds of teaching principals like you Jennie and I think it is a really salient message to everyone. I think there can be a sense that the bigger the school, the more important the job. But in a way, the weight that a small school principal carries not just with those kids but in the community, you will be a big figure in that town.
Yes and it is a badge that you should wear with pride and I do, I do wear it with pride. I probably know most of the town people and the community really appreciate the work you do, that is what I really love about it. No matter what you do, they appreciate it. They can see how hard you work, they see my car parked out there on Sunday and they know that I work hard and they know that I work hard for the right reasons, they know that I want the best for the students at that school and I know how important this school is to the community.
Now we all want to visit Moulamein.
Yes come along.
Jennie Wilson, thanks so much for joining us today on the Every Student Podcast.
Thank you, thanks for having me.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from, you can get in touch with us via Twitter: @NSWEducation, on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.