Linda Lenord is a senior executive at Heritage Christian School in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia. She is responsible for culture, support and innovation. She also runs her own coaching/consulting business called Assist Global and she consults with other schools who want to implement a strengths-based approach.
Heritage Christian School is the first school in Australia to pilot the Gallup Student Poll (GSP) and uses a strengths-based approach as well. Her school would like to collect the GSP data for years 5 through 13 for all students.
What is the history of your school and how did you come across the Gallup tools?
Heritage is a small Christian school New South Wales, about 30 years old. Over the past 8 years, they have taken a critical look at the culture of their school. They found the Gallup Student Poll on Facebook. The book "Why Hope Matters" by Shane Lopez helped Linda to understand the different engagement levels with students and how hope impacts engagement. First baseline results were "confronting" – her school thought they had happy kids and that they were doing well with education and operations, but they didn't know what our students actually thought about their experience and the school.
The GSP question about “understanding whether you are able to solve a problem” was the lowest score with their students. When their students came across a problem, they were reporting they were more likely to give up than to persist – the school wanted to address this first. Since hope stems from the idea you have a future, they started with addressing whether or not their students saw a future for themselves.
Through conversations with students, they had one suggested action to create a course called "Future" since they had a course called "History". The school wanted to create a cultural language around hope – so they did a year of hope, a year of engagement, and a year of strengths. Each year they focused on developing the language and knowledge around those topics. Due to their efforts in year 1, they doubled their hope scores on the GSP.
The definition of hope, as applied in the Gallup Student Poll, are the ideas and energy we have for the future that drives effort, academic achievement and retention of students of all ages. Hope is the ability to see the future and that they have the skills and abilities to affect change.
There are three levels of hope (hopeful, stuck, and discouraged). When your school received the report indicating such poor levels of hope, why did they choose to address the results in a positive and constructive manner (rather than ignoring it)?
We had to respect that the students had given us their voice. We could not ignore that. It wasn't about solving the entire issue of hope but knowing that each of the measured items had a solution or set of actions. Our students were saying (based on the results from the poll) that they don't have the skill sets to be hopeful, we don't know what tomorrow will look like, and we don't feel overly hopeful about that. It required us to come to a common understanding of "hope" and use that definition.
What is your secret of having students open up and talk?
What specific things did you put into place to address some of the items in the Gallup Student Poll?
(Anne lists about 5 sample questions: I know I will graduate high school. There is an adult in my life who cares about my future. I can think of many ways to get results. I energetically pursue my goals. I can find lots of ways around any problem. I know I will find a good job after I leave school.)
I know I will graduate high school: It's a mandated expectation that you complete high school in Australia so we were not as concerned about that item.
There is an adult in my life who cares about my future: Make sure at least at school (who might not have a connection outside of school) that students have some adult who cares for them.
It's the questions about the future that seem most daunting because the opportunities are so wide and the choices may not be as high in our local town. Thus, our graduates might have to move in order to find a job. We didn't do specific activities but we had a lot of intentional conversations about linking classroom conversations to the future -- about costs of living, earning opportunities, types of jobs (strengths-related), and being interested in who they are. It was about quality conversations, defining hope, defining future, and problem solving. We're still wrestling with that because a lot of this stems from primary school and just when they turn 13 or 14. Schools have an opportunity to create problem-solving mindset from early ages. Overall, addressing the Gallup Student Poll items require a mindset and a culture that you embed with language. Sometimes just using the word "hope" and defining it in conversations that is helpful to start.
Were you using CliftonStrengths before, or did you bring it in after the Gallup Student Poll?
We had an organic approach. We were going through some changes so we had some students and staff using CliftonStrengths but we were careful about how much to bring it in until we were ready to embed it. We started with executive level and then included many staff because we wanted the adults in the school to speak the language with students.
How do you integrate another tool (like CliftonStrengths) when your teachers have so much going on in their curriculum and other requirements?
It's really important to go slow -- you have to look at your executive team. They have to see that this has a value in the school's environment. Embedding it through the executives helps to establish it as an expectation.
Structuring it as a separate activity within the classroom is difficult due to time. However, getting to a place where the language becomes common, then you can start to see opportunities for teachers and students to have informal conversations about strengths (break time, etc.). A one-time or series will not have the same impact as when you embed it culturally (though these things should be done also).
Can you give some specifics on how you do this in the classroom? Do you have some examples of how a strengths approach plays out in the classroom?
Empowering the teacher to have conversations. Exercises to frame conversations between students and teachers. Get the teachers to talk about their own strengths - teacher explained the Maximizer strength because he was thought to be too critical on students but when he explained he had high hopes for their performance it made for better conversation and understanding. Having short phrases to explain your strengths as a teacher is helpful. We'd like to have stickers on student/teacher diaries so that there is a visual for future conversations.
How did you look at the element of "engagement" from the Gallup Student Poll? (Engagement meaning "the involvement and enthusiasm for school, reflecting how well students are known, and how often students get to do what they do best")
My job is the head of CSI (culture, support, and innovation) which is focused on ensuring that students are engaged in their learning. We combine welfare and well-being to well-doing. Well-doing is the engagement part of your learning. Students were not always recognizing that their teachers were interested in the students' learning. There was a gap between student and teacher perception, so what would students need from teachers' behavior and instruction to know they cared about their learning? Students sharing with their teachers how they learn best - teaching staff opening listening to student feedback on their teaching style vs. learning style. The students are not running the show - they are sharing how they can engage best. Being open to receiving that feedback is courageous on behalf of teachers.
What have you tried to address disengaged students?
Visible Learning is a new project to help tell if your students are engaged. That's where the Gallup Student Poll helps -- to share that feedback. We will rely on the student poll to help us measure the impact of the "visible learning" initiative. This program offers new tools to help teachers enhance their lessons and lesson planning. Engagement is really about what we are doing as teachers to help support our students' learning.
Anne also provided some sample items for engagement: I have a best friend in school. I feel safe in the school. My teachers make me feel like my school work is important. At this school I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day. In the last 7 days I have received recognition or praise for doing good school work. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student. I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future. In the last month I have volunteered my time to help others (this is a new item to the poll - philanthropic index).
What is your experience with well-being and well-doing?
Well-being is measured on a scale of thriving, struggling, and suffering.
We need to be responsive to students report of their well-being. Sometimes you cannot change a student's life circumstances. But you can impact someone's well-being by helping students to do more of what they do best every day. As staff, we are curious about that so we know our students strengths in order to provide and construct opportunities for students to do their best. We address well-being through well-doing. We also work through socio-grams to help map our students' friendships. Every student needs to have a friend at school. If students are happy, safe, and have friends then they are ready to learn.
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Linda Lenord, Senior Executive Heritage Christian School (Culture/Support/Innovation) and Consultant and Strengths Coach – Assist Global, is a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach. Linda works at Heritage Christian School in Port Macquarie, Australia as part of the senior executive team. She also consults with other schools and organisations assisting executive teams implement cultural change through a strengths based approach. Linda is passionate about creating school cultures that provide all students with hope for their futures and a strong sense of wellbeing and ‘well-doing’. This is achieved through a strengths based approach.
Gallup-certified Strengths Coach, Luke Ramsay, contributed to this post.