In the past six months, Monaro High School principal James Armitage feels like he and his school have seen it all.
The school, situated in the NSW Snowy Mountains region of Cooma, has been threatened by the catastrophic bushfire emergency, major flooding caused by a burst water tank, the discovery of asbestos that caused the closure of one of the school’s buildings, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the school’s principal James Armitage puts it, “it’s been an interesting year to say the least”.
If there is one thing the school has learned to do, it is create crisis from opportunity and ensure that teaching and learning continues – maybe not “as normal” – but as effectively as possible under these strange and unprecedented circumstances.
Today, the school is mid-way through a major upgrade that will turn it into a future-based learning environment, infused with technology. Besides new flexible learning spaces for art, performance and technology in a dedicated innovation hub, the redevelopment will establish a new two storey performing arts centre with 350-person capacity.
Below, The Educator speaks to James Armitage about this exciting transformation, and how he is driving effective professional development and effective online learning in this time of unprecedented crisis.
TE: I understand that teachers at your school have been provided with access to high-quality professional development materials to help them teach online. Can you tell us more about this?
JA: To support our current fast tracked digital transformation, interested staff were asked to volunteer as “Microsoft Ninjas” to provide professional development and support to colleagues, students and families – helping them understand how to best use Microsoft’s suite of programs in and out of the classroom. Microsoft’s community resources served as helpful tools for ninjas to reference as they supported various features such as the use of Microsoft Teams and Onenote with classroom Prowise interactive panels, digital inking on Surface Devices, and video recording in PowerPoint. With the support of Microsoft Educator Megan Townes, staff were able to develop and demonstrate skills that have supported a move to interactive remote learning environment in an incredibly short period of time.
TE: How has the school helped parents and guardians navigate the challenges of shifting to remote learning?
JA: In addition to technical support, we have ensured that our students and parents were supported through structured 1on1 conversations to adjust and navigate remote learning. Those who conducted these conversations (face to face, through Teams and via phone calls) were supported by the ‘Microsoft Ninja’s’ to ensure a consistent message was provided to students and parents.
To ensure that online learning was intuitive and engaging, our ninjas developed dedicated Teams channels that covered all the key learning areas in Years 7-10 – allowing students to access learning materials and connect with teachers in one easy location.
Our Ninja’s provided significant personalised support to Teachers of Yr 11 and 12 to support existing timetabled classes to be maintained and move to a flexible environment overnight. This strategy was based on a strong focus on connection through digital platforms of which most decided to utilise Teams as their preferred platform, a significant number of staff worked towards maintaining a substantial number of synchronous lessons.
For students who did not have access to the internet or technology from home, we provided loan equipment – such as laptops – to allow them to access Microsoft 365 from home. To ensure no student would get left behind, our teachers have also worked hard to ensure that online lesson material was planned and presented in a way which could also be printed and collected in hard copy at school.
TE: How has the school enabled its 500 students to stay in touch with one another while working from home?
JA: Through dedicated Teams channels, our students were able to communicate with one another from home. During this critical and developmental time in their lives, we know that student socialisation is important for maintaining a positive learning environment – which is why we’ve encouraged our students to use teams as both a learning and communication tool. While COVID-19 has greatly disrupted our student’s lives, we’ve made it a priority to ensure their learning experience is as interactive as it would be in the classroom.