Bringing joy back to teaching and learning post-Covid
By Education Gazette editors Ihttps://gazette.education.govt.nz/articles/bringing-joy-back-to-teaching-and-learning-post-covid/ A whakawhanaungatanga approach between primary and secondary schools in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington is tackling attendance downturns – by bringing fun times back into school again.
Sacred Heart Cathedral School held ‘the longest morning tea’ down their school corridors.
Ensuring students are engaged in their learning is only possible if they are physically in the classroom – this is the founding principle that has prompted Bernadette Murfitt to lead a collaboration of Wellington schools to take action against attendance downturns.
The Thorndon-based Sacred Heart Cathedral School principal applied for Ministry of Education funding to initiate a whanaungatanga approach to engaging students across several schools in the capital.
Joining with St Mary’s College, Holy Cross Miramar, St Teresa’s Karori, St Francis de Sales, and St Catherine’s College, Sacred Heart Cathedral School has begun a programme of engagement lifting strategies, with principals sharing ideas, advice and feedback through regular collaborative meetings as a principals’ group.
“The schools met every second week through Zoom to share ideas and to support each other in establishing a variety of initiatives to increase student engagement and attendance,” says Bernadette.
“The Ministry of Education put out an amazing document with some overall strategies for growing attendance. That’s where I got some of the ideas from. I thought that working together with other schools could help us all learn and grow together.
“In short, I wanted to bring fun times back into school again! It’s been a difficult few years for us all throughout the Covid pandemic and, for our staff, I wanted to bring the joy back to the job!”
Students enjoy lunch together on Parliament Grounds.
Fun to the fore
Bernadette has introduced a raft of new ideas to bring the fun to fore for educators and students. Hip hop classes and whole-school sessions were popular while yoga sessions have helped students and staff engage with their selves.
“There is a real wellbeing aspect to this,” says Bernadette. “We brought nutrition into it, too. Food is a great way to get people involved, so we organised ‘the longest morning tea’, held down along corridors. Everyone contributed to this wonderful collaborative feast.”
Another large-scale effort was a whole-school wellbeing day, which Bernadette says was “great fun”.
“We also had lucky prize draws where we gave away prizes that included rugby balls and drink bottles. We did things like Scrabble, puppet-making classes and quizzes.
“We put on lunchtime workshops for parents on how they can support their child with wellbeing issues. During the term, we also provided fruit and snacks for students in classrooms, calling them ‘classroom platters’ – these were very popular,” says Bernadette.
She also shared a series of self-filmed videos on the importance of being at school, Ministry goals and research, offering support, displays and learning, protocols for absence, wellbeing, friendships and more.
Positive learning experiences are key to engagement.
Some of the simple steps the school now takes to lift attendance levels and contribute to a welcoming school culture includes staff members being at the school gates, interacting with students and their families.
“Staff will be outside on welcome duty; meeting and greeting the students as they came into school. We also gave out gift vouchers for uniforms to try to remove barriers to attendance.”
Barriers to engagement
All the schools sought student voice to discover existing barriers to learning, and several engaged external input to support their mahi in removing these hurdles.
This included bringing in mental health professionals to learn how best schools could support their families.
As well as developing its school community connections by holding a beach day, Holy Cross Miramar brought in a mental health nurse to educate parents around issues of anxiety and related behaviours.
At St Francis de Sales, a psychologist was engaged to work with those in need of mental wellbeing support.
St Catherine’s College worked with a Māori elder to work supportively with some students and their families, as well as providing bus and train tickets to students when it was found public transport costs were preventing some students from making it into school.
A picnic day was held at St Teresa’s Karori, with the school zoning in on a fun focus in its bid to maximise attendance. It also posted plenty of positive messages in its newsletters and school notice platforms.
St Mary’s set up a homework centre for students, as well as supplying uniform items and roman sandals without cost. Zumba sessions, a dance-off and dodgeball games have also been introduced to try and increase attendance appeal.
“For so long, we couldn’t bring people together because of Covid,” says Bernadette. “We had to be so careful around who could and who couldn’t come into school and how many people could gather. We had to be so aware of staying within protocols and not taking any risks of being ‘super-spreaders’.
“Now, we can do more. We can involve more people and we can bring more fun back into our schools! We know that messaging and fun times will work – this will improve attendance and engagement.”
Across the six schools involved, the many different initiatives have already had an impact, although work is still ongoing.
Bernadette says, “What we have all tried to do is to make sure every day at school is filled with positive learning experiences, fun, friends, teachers, sports, games, and culture to create plenty of memorable moments.
“We know that the students who attend school regularly, learn. As well as this making them better able to pass exams and get qualifications, we believe that attendance strengthens social, cultural, and mental wellbeing. Good attendance at school is linked to having more choices.
“We also know we need the support of parents to make sure that our children are attending school and having learning opportunities. For some schools, this has meant having regular intensive communications and providing support.
“For some, this may mean meeting with whānau to build an understanding of why there might be problems. We can then look at how we can strengthen a young person’s connection with their learning and potential future pathways.”
At Sacred Heart, Bernadette is pleased to report an overall attendance rate of 88 percent for term 1 in 2023, and an improvement in punctuality.
“We need to get rid of the fear and anxiety and bring people together again – inside the classroom and out. Let’s find the joy in teaching and learning again!”