David O'Connor, a principal from Australia, left, poses in front of a mural in Westwood Elementary School's front entrance with Westwood principal Steve Dalla Lana. 

Exchange valuable for principals, students

Two principals – one from Prince George and the other from Albion Park, New South Wales, Australia – have just completed the second half of an international exchange. The visits offered them new professional perspectives and helped their students gain a better understanding of life in vastly different parts of the world.
 

Westwood Elementary School’s Steve Dalla Lana traveled to Australia in the summer of 2018 and spent two weeks in Albion Park, a coastal community located 105 kilometres southwest of Sydney. David O’Connor, principal at Albion Park’s Mount Terry Public School, arrived in Prince George in late September and finished his two-week stay on Wednesday.

Leading Educators Around the Planet, or LEAP, facilitated the exchange. LEAP’s purpose is to connect peers from different countries so they can explore school leadership practices and educational programs in other locales.

“You look at how systems run and how leadership organizes and supports their staff to improve learning for students,” Dalla Lana said. “They are very strong technically in Australia so watching what they do with their systems, it was really refreshing to take some of those ideas back (to Westwood).

“One of the things I’ve heard David say is, ‘The schools are schools. We are very similar in a lot of ways, and we have a little bit of difference and variation in our systems.’ It opens your eyes to different ways of doing things.”

Summer in Prince George is winter in Albion Park so Dalla Lana was able to see Mount Terry Public School’s 70 staff members and 730 students in action. He observed teachers at work in their Kindergarten to Grade 6 classrooms, interacted with students and shadowed O’Connor so he could learn about O’Connor’s methods for developing teacher and administrative leadership.

“It helps you grow as a leader and see how to support students’ development and learning,” Dalla Lana said.

While in Albion Park, Dalla Lana and his wife, Ersilia, stayed with O’Connor and his wife, Sharon. Guests and hosts switched roles in Prince George.

“So you get to see the pattern of life as well, which is different,” Dalla Lana said. “After dinner (there), you can walk and go surfing in two minutes. Here, we’ve gone for lots of hikes and walks and looked for the animals that are everywhere.”

When Dalla Lana mentioned to O’Connor that Heritage Elementary had a bear in its schoolyard on the morning of Oct. 7, O’Connor reacted with interest and perhaps a bit of disappointment at having missed the moment. Heritage students, of course, were kept well clear of the bear, as a shelter in place scenario was put into effect.

Even though O’Connor had hosted Canadian principals on two occasions prior to Dalla Lana’s visit, this was his first time completing an exchange. O’Connor commented on the beauty of the provincial and local landscape and, from a professional point of view, continued to appreciate the value of the LEAP program.

“Just those conversations that you have – incidentally, on the way to school, sitting in the office, at home over the dinner table – about how the systems are similar and how they’re different and how we both go about doing certain things is really interesting,” O’Connor said. “When you’re having some of those conversations, some of the things that you hear about, you think, ‘Oh, that’s a good way of doing it.’ And then you think about your own context and how might that be applied in your own context because everywhere is different. You can’t just take something from here and place it there but you can think about how you can use some of the ideas in your context and that’s what I’ve found really interesting and valuable. And I think also understanding various approaches to our practice and the impact that that then has on the kids. Obviously, internationally, Canada performs really well so it’s about looking at, ‘What happens every day to make that happen?’”

One major area of similarity between the Canadian and Australian school systems is the focus on repairing, improving and building relationships with Indigenous populations.

“I think that’s probably done better here,” O’Connor said. “It’s certainly an absolute priority in our system and in my state and country, but just some of the practices here (stand out).”
 

O’Connor referenced being at a principals’ meeting and seeing Pam Spooner, School District No. 57’s Director of Aboriginal Education, give a presentation.

“She gave us a medicine wheel, which is really a conversation piece to have with a student and their families about ‘Where are we at and where can we move to?’ And I can actually see myself using that model. Adapting it slightly and using it in my context is a great way to start the conversation. I think you guys are doing a pretty good job but there’s a hill to climb for both of us.”

Just as Dalla Lana did when he was in Albion Park, O’Connor spent some time in classrooms while in Prince George. On Monday, he was in a Westwood Kindergarten class at snack time, offering crackers and vegemite to students. Vegemite – a savoury black spread made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract, with vegetable and spice additives – is a staple in Australian kitchens but the Westwood students who tried it weren’t about to rush home to ask their parents to put it on the shopping list.

O’Connor also had some fun with Westwood students, joking with them that their Australian counterparts do math upside down. He even got involved in some of their playground games and, not surprisingly, fielded a ton of questions.

“They’re all interested in what kind of creepy crawlies we have in Australia,” O’Connor said with a chuckle.

“I think some children have a pretty limited understanding of what things are like so far away. Like kids were asking me, ‘Do you have electric light, power?’ Really elementary things. So that’s been good for them, I think, just to have those conversations and realize that, apart from the fact we talk a bit funny, we’re just like they are. The kids are interested in where I come from and what’s different about it and I think that’s a good thing.”

Dalla Lana said the introduction of O’Connor to Westwood students was highly educational for them.

“David has opened up their understanding of the world and he’s allowed them to be inquisitive about what they think Australia is and help them shape some of the ideas that are there,” he said. “So that’s been awesome. David has a natural talent as a leader and as a teacher to allow kids to explore and learn about Australian culture, the education system and family.

“Except for the Kindergarten,” he added with a laugh. “The crackers and vegemite didn’t work.”