Case Study

Sue Byrne, Principal – Sunnydale Community College, Co Durham, UK.

I first came across John Corrigan’s Performance Development and Coaching program in 2009, while attending a School Leader’s Conference in the UK.   

I heard John speak about some of the work he was doing with Australian school communities which really triggered my interest.

My school is in a low socio-economic area and we faced some difficult challenges.  We have high levels of children who qualify for free meals, and alcohol is a big issue across the community as well.

Our school was wasn’t doing well at the time.  In fact, we were part of the “National Challenge” which represented the bottom 640 schools out of the 25,000 schools in England.  I’ll tell you where we now sit four years later… but suffice to say we were ready for a change, pretty much along the lines of “when the student is ready – the teacher appears”. 

So after meeting with John and getting a handle on the program, I was keen to become involved.

There were two aspects which really appealed to me:

  • Staff development through cognitive coaching
  • Student feedback to their teachers – which I believe is the most powerful tool in the toolbox.

I’ve never come across anything like that and I knew that if we wanted to achieve a positive change in our school, we needed to buy into this program.

Looking back over the 4 years, I am proud to say that my instincts were correct.

Here are some of the ways the program has helped us:

The overarching goal for our school was to change the ethos and embed new behaviours. 

Before we implemented Group 8 Education’s program, there was a fair bit of shouting at students.  Many of our teachers weren’t really concerned whether students turned up for school or not.  All this has changed dramatically.  There’s hardly a loud word heard across the school yard, and student absenteeism is no longer a concern for us.

The culture of the school has improved significantly and the effectiveness of our teachers has improved as well.  Because our teachers have become more reflective of their own practice and behaviour, there has been a positive influence on the students and their performance.

The Performance Development and Coaching program has given us a “common language” which helps us communicate in difficult circumstances.  Say a staff member gets agitated with an issue, we only have to mention “red zone”, and it triggers an “automatic” reflection by the person affected by the problem and immediately deflates the situation.

The common language also works with students helping them understand what is going on for them when they are experiencing conflict.  The “red zone”, “blue zone” pattern interrupt helps everyone involved change focus from “being in it” to resolving the issue.

We started the program with our senior leadership team who got trained and coached by John.  Then we trained a band of middle leaders, although the courses were slightly shorter.

I must say, not everything was smooth sailing, initially the training for the senior staff members was quite sensitive, but in hindsight, we all found it beneficial.

John’s implementation plan was detailed and worked well.  If ever there was an issue, it had nothing to do with his process.  This came down to the issues at our school.  For example, we had to slow down parts of the implementation due to a senior staff member going on maternity leave.

John was then and has always been very accommodating and considerate of our specific circumstances.  He was always willing and flexible to adapt the program and speed of implementation to our needs and circumstances.

John’s cognitive coaching program has tremendously helped us improve our own effectiveness.  The coaching is one of the things our senior staff members found most rewarding.  We adopt John’s coaching model whenever we’re dealing with an issue, be it one on one or even in big groups.

The culture of reflection and not blaming works really well for us.

We initially started the coaching process with senior staff coaching junior staff.  The senior staff would identify a staff member they’d like to coach.

The next step was for the middle tier staff to be coached and we now have reached the peer to peer coaching level.

When newly qualified staff start at our school, they’re automatically given a coach.  We really want everyone to sing from the same page of the hymn book.

The biggest change in my view is that all our staff have become much more reflective about the way we practice and communicate.

The cognitive coaching model works really well for our students too.  They don’t see this way of dealing with an issue as patronising.  If we experience a major incident with a student, we deal with it two ways.

  1. As the situations are unfolding we try to get them to reflect on what they are doing and how their behaviour is impacting everyone else around them.  A question the teacher or staff member would ask is:  “What the student’s body language is and how this would impact the people around them.”
  2. After the event, we take them through what had happened and how things escalated.

Both ways work.  Which one we use when is a judgment call.  However, it would appear that the “after” the event approach tends to work better and seems to have a longer term impact on the student’s behaviour.

Another aspect the PD & C program has really helped with is student and teacher engagement.

We run an independent learning centre which is managed by non teaching staff.

The head of the centre is on the senior leadership team and is not a teacher!

He came to the school as a lab technician initially.  He then became a network manager, and I put him in charge of the virtual learning environment, and finally made him head up the independent learning centre.

This centre has made a massive contribution to school exam success because it helps students who would otherwise not be engaged at school with their learning focus on their course work and ensure that they get their qualifications.

We often hear from the students who use the independent learning centre comment on the mutual respect that exists within the centre.

We really are proud of our academic achievements, for example back in 2006; our school was significantly below the national average.  By 2011 we’d been able to achieve 57% of the required 58% of the national average in some areas and in others our results were significantly higher than the national average.

We also had an inspection in 2011, in which we were described as a “good” school.

One of the biggest cultural changes was the introduction of peer to peer observation.  Teachers now observe each other in their class rooms.  This has been great boon to increasing effectiveness through both modelling behaviour and feedback.

Because of the positive feedback and improvement we’ve experienced, we’ve decided to take the next step.

In September 2013, we plan to introduce videoing teachers during their lessons.  We leave it to the staff member as to what it is they want to share, and with whom.

From my perspective, I would obviously like to use these experiences for staff development, but it is entirely up to the teachers, if they want to share the recordings or not.

And while all the cultural changes have been great, the most powerful aspect of the program is the quantifiable surveys, in particular from a teaching point of view.

Again, the teacher decides who they want to share the survey results with.  Some have opted to share them all with their senior leaders.  Others only share parts or the feedback.  Either way is fine with us.

As the Principal, I’m given an overview which I find very useful indeed.

John Corrigan is as a great teacher, facilitator and trainer.  He delivers really good sessions and is a good communicator.  He’s thought provoking and because he uses the reflective approach on himself, he’s an excellent role model for the program that he has developed.

I cannot think of anything negative about John or the program or John himself.  As I mentioned before, he was always available, accommodating and guiding.  He was willing to take our personal circumstances on board and was always happy make adaptations according to our specific needs.

John was open to finding solutions to make the program work for everybody in the situation that presented itself.

And while we know we’ve improved dramatically as a school, it’s wonderful to get recognition from the Government as well…

“Sunnydale Community College has again been hailed by a government minister for its academic performance.

The Sunnydale School has been officially recognised as being amongst the top 100 schools in the country when it comes to year-on-year improvement – the third year in a row that its achievements have been recognised by top officials.

It follows the publication by the government last month of the secondary school performance tables charting the achievements of students who left school last summer.

Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb has now written to Sunnydale’s head teacher Sue Byrne offering his congratulations of excellent achievement of Sunnydale’s pupils.

He says: “Your results show that you are amongst the 100 top performing schools based on sustained improvement in each year from 2008 to 2011.

“I would like to congratulate your staff, governors and pupils for their hard work and success and to thank you for your leadership in continuing the drive towards the highest standards of educational achievement.”

The accolade follows last summer’s results in GCSE examinations and equivalent qualifications which again were a record with 94 per cent students achieving five or more A*-C passes with 53 per cent achieving that level including English and Maths.

The figures maintained the school’s year-on-year upward trend.

Mrs Byrne said: “It is the third year running that the improved performance of our students has been recognised in this way which is quite extraordinary.

“We are delighted that Mr Gibb has taken the time to recognise in writing the efforts of our staff and students to achieve these latest results.’”

All in all, a pretty good result, achieved through a lot of hard work by my team and the Performance Development & Coaching program.

In closing I believe the 3 major hooks as to why a school should consider implementing the Performance Development & Coaching program are:

  1. The power of the student voice and the feedback to staff
  2. The common vocabulary that provides us with short cuts and its ability to short circuit conflict between peers and students
  3. The focus on reflection.  In my view it is only by reflecting on our practice that we can make improvements

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