Building capacity through professional learning

Engaged in and applied professional learning
Natalie Karslake
Junior School Complex Needs Teacher, Ballarat Specialist School

Natalie Karslake is a Complex Needs Teacher and a recent finalist at the 2018 Victorian Education Excellence Awards. Natalie was nominated for the Outstanding Primary Teacher award and recognised for her strong belief that every child is capable of learning when provided with a positive learning experience. 

I work at Ballarat Specialist School with students who have complex educational, communication and physical needs. Being part of a wider team, we knew we needed to find effective ways to meet these needs and build our own capacity as teachers. 

Thinking outside the traditional ‘PD’ box was required, and like most schools, time and budgets were limited. Finding appropriate learning opportunities to suit the complex needs of our students was central to ensuring our time and resources were well invested. Through professional discussions with colleagues, we were able to identify a school whose students had similar learning needs and we arranged a visit. 

Prior to our visit, we planned a focus for our observation and developed questions to guide our experience. Our school was investing in the time to release our whole team for the day, therefore we needed to ensure we would get the most out of the opportunity.

During our visit we observed a PLC meeting, in which teachers were problem solving and working through an inquiry cycle, utilising each other’s expertise and experience. This proved you do not need to spend a fortune on consultants in order to deliver and receive rich professional development. 

We gained hands on experience through visiting a range of classrooms, where we involved ourselves in what the students were doing, spoke to teachers and took as many notes and photos as we could. We wanted to remember everything!

"We walked away feeling full of inspiration and ideas to change our world, with an idea of where our work needed to take us and how we needed to work collaboratively to grow our strength as a team."

Then the fun began! We asked ourselves "how are we going to digest and apply our new learnings?", and reflecting on the experience is where our journey gained speed. We shared photos and explored ideas we gained from the visit. We knew the experience was valuable and wanted to share this value with our colleagues.

We noted and shared our ‘big’ take away ideas and sorted these according to how they would fit into our situation, and then prioritised these based on our student's needs. 

From this, one of the areas we identified was to develop consistency in our morning Literacy Circle. We knew we had much work to do, but needed a manageable starting point. 

We considered our student’s interests and learning needs and decided on four non-negotiable components to occur every day: signing in, a morning message, common letters of the week and shared reading. 

Morning Message Developing consistency in our daily model has allowed us to support each other, plan effectively and reaffirm we were all working on building and developing the same important skills.

"It wasn’t long before we started noticing improved attention and participation from our students."

They were developing their ability and motivation to communicate, a huge achievement for our cohort.

Getting outside our school and into other classrooms was such a powerful learning experience for our team. Not only did we walk away with an immense amount of knowledge, we also built our professional network. 

We encourage other teachers to support each other; break down the barriers between schools and classrooms, and learn from others.

Read more about Natalie's journey and her VEEA finalist profile here.