LEAP program offers lessons from Down Under

E-learning with iPads at Taronga Zoo
E-learning with iPads at Taronga Zoo

This summer I took part in an international peer-shadowing program in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The Leading Educators Around the Planet (LEAP) program is an innovative international leadership program that connects school leaders around the world in a collaborative peer shadowing and action-research experience.

I joined a group of close to 40 principals, vice principals and supervisory officers from Ontario who spent two weeks in NSW researching a specific area of focus linked to our school and board improvement plans and guided by the Ontario Leadership Framework.  Although the majority of participants were from Ontario and NSW, our exchange also had a handful of participants from Finland, two from the United Kingdom and one from Nova Scotia.

During the exchange, visiting participants are matched one-on-one with school leaders in NSW. I was matched with a lovely deputy principal named Diane Read who works at Lindfield East Public School. While on exchange, you live with your partner and make a home base out of their school. From there you visit other schools, participate in organized professional learning and carry out your research.

I decided to jump-start my official exchange by spending the week prior in Queensland, Australia, visiting a former colleague who I met while she was on an exchange in Ontario teaching at my previous school. My choice to spend time in two very different areas of the country provided a varied lens into practices used in different states with extremely diverse communities.

My research was on the question “How do elementary schools in NSW implement targeted, evidence-based strategies to promote mental health and well-being, positive school climate, self-regulation and pro-social behaviour?”. I visited multiple schools to observe classes, look at data, and speak with school staff, parents, community partners and, of course, students. I also looked into the effects of programs that we were discussing on student engagement, student discipline and closing gaps in student achievement.

During professional learning sessions, I also had the opportunity to learn from leaders in international education such as Dr. Chris Sarra (Executive Director of the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute, which is based on his “Strong and Smart” philosophy) Jeff McMullin  (journalist, author, film maker and honorary CEO of Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth–Jeff has written, filmed and campaigned around the world to improve the health of Indigenous people through education), Rhonda Craven  (Director, Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Australia Catholic University), and Steven Heppell (Professor and international consultant on 21st century learning).

Now that I have returned and the jet lag is (mostly) gone and the learning is still fresh in my mind, I would like to share a few of the learnings that I brought home from my travels. Just to keep things interesting, some of my reflections will be professional and some will be more personal.

1) Nobody ever says “Shrimp on the Barbie

Nope, never, ever…it just doesn’t happen. In fact, in Australia shrimp are referred to as prawns.

2) Explicit teaching of resiliency promotes positive mental health

My home school Lindfield East used a program to explicitly teach social emotional well-being and resilience, with good results. The Bounce Back program, based on the premises of cognitive behavioural psychology, is comprehensive, research based and award winning. It integrates curriculum, quality literature, arts and technology, caters to multiple intelligences and incorporates many entry points for differentiation of learning. Unit topics include: core values, elasticity, bouncing back, courage, looking on the bright side, emotions, relationships, humour and bullying. Teachers can choose from hundreds of activities to build into their teaching.

In the program, the term “Bounce Back” is an acronym, with each point used as a common language around the school to guide students through their difficulties:

Bad times don’t last. Things always get better. 


Other people can help if you talk to them.
Unhelpful thinking makes you more upset.
Nobody is perfect – not you and not others.
Concentrate on the positives (no matter how small) and use laughter.
Everybody experiences sadness, hurt, failure, rejection and setbacks sometimes, not just you. They are a normal part of life. Try not to personalise them.

Blame fairly. How much of what happened was due to you, to others and to bad luck or circumstances?
Accept what can’t be changed (but try to change what you can first).
Catastrophising exaggerates your worries. Don’t believe the worst possible picture.
Keep things in perspective. It’s only part of your life.

(taken from “Bounce Back”, Toni Noble & Helen McGrath)

During this school year, I intend to further explore the idea of integrating targeted lessons focused on developing resilience in our students.

3) Possums in Australia and opossums in Ontario are NOT the same animal!

My host Diane, mentioned a few times how cute the possums were that lived in her trees. As they are nocturnal and as someone who is terrified of Ontario opossums (who are often referred to as possums as well), I hadn’t actually seen one and I would politely nod my head during these discussions. One evening, after having this conversation again, I finally said, “We can’t be talking about the same animal, the ones at home are horrible looking!” With the assistance of my good friend Google, I discovered that in fact, we were not talking about the same animal, rather two animals with a similar name. Lesson learned, Australian possums are adorable (go ahead, Google away)!

4) PBL Programs use a clear framework to promote positive behaviour

PBL poster for the basketball court.
PBL poster for the basketball court.

Positive Behaviour Engaging Learning is a research-based program which uses data collection within each school to identify focus areas. A committee (ideally staff, students and parents) then comes together to look at data and choose three positively-worded, concise expectations for the school (usually one to do with behavior, one to with learning and one to do with safety). The committee also develops a logo that is posted everywhere and spoken about widely by staff, students and parents. They then create anchor charts, defining each expectation. These are also posted and spoken about. Specific posters are made for each setting within the school where each expectation is further described within that setting (e.g. in the gym, stairway, washroom, outside, classroom…anywhere you can think of). Procedures for teaching and reinforcing these expectations are then developed. Within this framework, all students, staff, parents and visitors understand expectations and can talk about them and are expected to apply what they look like in different settings.

5) An Australian-English dictionary may have come in handy…but I’m not sure there is such a thing

I thought I was up on my Australian slang (g’day, Sheila, mate, bloke, reckon, give it a go), however, on more than one occasion, someone would say something and I would non my head in agreement, having no idea what they actually just said. As soon as I had Wi-Fi access, I would again turn to my trusty pal Google to translate these Aussie-isms. Here are a few examples:

popper = juice box                                    occa = over the top Aussie-ness
cossie = bathing suit                                 pokies = slot machine
chook = chicken                                       drongo = a dope
daggy = unfashionable                             tea = an actual meal
whinge = complain
bikkie = cookie or cracker…I’m still not sure how they differentiate
flat white = the kind of coffee I drank when I was there…I learned this one pretty quickly due to its importance!
entrée = appetizer (which is the opposite from North America and had me very confused one evening at dinner)

6) We can learn a lot globally about 21st Century learning models

Although it goes without saying, the face of education has changed drastically from when I was young (and I’d like to think that wasn’t really that long ago…please humour me). Changes in the global job market and rapidly changing technologies force us as educators to constantly redefine the way we look at preparing our students to function in a world that is very different from the one we grew up in. Combining quality teaching practices with a quality learning environment, and activities that have relevance to students are common foundations that will guide school planning.

After visits to schools such as Merrylands East and participating in workshops with Stephen Heppell where he discussed schools around the world that he has worked with, it became clear to me how innovative schools are becoming. Along with moving toward “out-of-the-box” models of education comes reports of decreased suspension rates, improved academic scores and increased attendance. Some of the global trends in this area include:

  • flexible, comfortable and moveable furniture and leaning spaces that support engagement and different types of learning
  • taking the student voice into account in school planning (making decisions about student learning and environment with the students, not to or for them)—this is often referred to as “voice and choice”
  • using various technologies
  • using project or inquiry based learning—this begins with a driving question that students then research, create, analyze and share their findings and creations, often globally
  • mixing age groupings (the concept of stage not age)
  • everything that is done in the school has relevance (some schools are eliminating textbooks and worksheets entirely, focusing again on teaching essential skills through quality teaching practices, quality learning environment and making tasks relevant and meaningful)

While looking closely at different models and trends, it is clear that there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach. Each school community is different and all stakeholders need to have input into changing educational models.

7) Who needs video games when you can drive in the Australian countryside?

Driving at dusk in the Australian countryside or outback, is like playing a live version of one of those race car games where you have to dodge things on the road…those things being kangaroos, wallabies and other wildlife. Between that, and driving on the left side of the road, I am thankful that I was just the passenger and that I made it back unscathed!

8) We’re on the right track in Ontario

When looking at ideas and strategies being implemented in NSW schools, there are enough similarities that you can imagine how you could take the idea home, slightly revise it and implement it to meet the needs of your own school. While discussing programs, practices and initiatives, I would often say, “we have/do that but it’s called something different”. I also often found myself saying, “You would love our ___ program” (insert program name). Having these conversations creates a real sense of pride for your own education system and also reinforces the feeling that we are on the right track from a more global perspective.

I can say with great certainty that taking part in an international research exchange has been the best professional development of my career, allowing me to fully immerse myself in a culture of reflection and dialogue that was directly focused on improving student outcomes. I look forward to continuing my learning during the second part of the exchange where my partner, Diane, will be staying with me to complete her own research during her next school holiday at the end of September. I am eager to repay her hospitality and show her some of the beautiful sights of our province as well as some of the fantastic programs that we run in the SCDSB!

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