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How Schools Plus Is Diving Into 2021

Schools Plus CEO Rosemary Conn on the role of STEM education in wellbeing and building resilience, and how her organisation’s work with schools has changed.

Natural disasters and a global pandemic aren’t stopping Schools Plus from forging ahead with its commitment to ensure students from all backgrounds are equipped for careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. 

The annual Collaboration Forum – which usually brings teachers from all around Australia to Salesforce’s Sydney offices – went virtual with 53 participants including teachers and leaders from 18 schools across the country. 

Schools Plus CEO Rosemary Conn shares the green shoots that are blooming against the backdrop of a tough year and how we can help them flourish.

A virtual Collaboration Forum was a big change from our usual two-day face-to-face event. There was much excitement though with participants keen to come together after such a unique year. It’s not often that teachers and school leaders get to share on a national scale, and it provided an opportunity to broaden perspectives, find common ground and explore different approaches – all without getting on a plane!

Fresh challenges, creative solutions

It emerged from our work with schools last year that they’ve been facing two key challenges:

  1. Engaging and re-engaging students successfully, especially in STEM subjects
  2. Looking after student wellbeing and mental health

Engaging students at the best of times presents all kinds of challenges. But doing so against the backdrop of drought, bushfires or COVID restrictions – and in some areas, schools experienced all three last year – is especially difficult. While schools were closed for weeks and sometimes months, some students were barely, if at all, connected with the remote learning experience. Some schools were going back to square one trying to get kids to return to school at all after lockdown. Creating exciting and interesting ways to engage students became a key priority.

At the same time, prioritising student wellbeing and mental health was paramount, with more than 40% of the schools we support reporting it as their number one issue in the context of such a tough year. The stress on adults associated with both environmental catastrophes and the COVID-19 pandemic was inevitably absorbed by the kids. As a result, schools were often used as a safe space for kids whose home lives were unstable in various ways.

That’s a lot of need for schools to meet. And it will be ongoing. Fire will continue to be a threat and the pandemic will have ongoing impacts for schools and students. But teachers, school leaders and the wider school communities are committed to meeting these needs in creative and innovative ways. With such limited resources, support from and partnerships with organisations like Salesforce can help them do exactly that.

Green shoots of recovery and resilience

Engaging in the technology required by remote learning was a fantastic experience for some kids. They loved learning that way and the technology revealed itself in new and exciting ways to them. 

For teachers too, it meant improving their tech capabilities and being better equipped to use different technologies in fresh ways. Teaching styles and mechanisms shifted, and creativity was key – what worked for kids in a classroom didn’t necessarily work for kids on a screen. 

That said, the insights gained through remote teaching are now being used to create even more dynamic and intriguing classes for a school cohort freshly empowered by new technology. This has been especially important when it comes to re-engaging kids who became alienated from school over lock down.

STEM and the virtuous circle

So how can school maintain the balance of meeting all these needs while also prioritising a focus on STEM? Fortunately we are discovering that a virtuous circle comes into play. When kids are feeling safe and secure in their environment – and schools are often a primary place of safety for them – they are more willing to learn and absorb. If what is being taught is engaging and grabs their interest, then they will be more likely to come to school. 

As we’ve seen, one of the greatest challenges has been getting kids who became disengaged over the remote learning period to come back to school. Building engaging, fun programs around STEM has really helped here. Teachers are creating exciting classes that kids want to take part in and, as always, the lure of robotics usually proves hard to resist! 

A focus on STEM learning is inextricably linked to building a school environment and community that supports the physical and mental wellbeing of its students. More than ever, that connection between learning and wellbeing is paramount.

How future-focused organisations can help

One of the highlights of this year’s forum was hearing from Jay Page at Goodna State School, who won the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award in 2020. With support from Schools Plus and Salesforce – which provides funding as well as engaging with the schools, teachers and students through its employee volunteer time off program – she transformed a school in which there were no functioning interactive whiteboards and the iPads were older than most of the kids, into one in which digital technologies have become fully embedded in learning and teaching. 

Schools’ requests for our support doubled last year, and we were able to support around 100 schools. We were thrilled to create and leverage partnerships with forward-thinking businesses to help create a love of technology and an appetite for STEM subjects among students – just as Goodna State School is doing.

Unfortunately the education gap is getting wider in Australia. Kids in the least advantaged communities are far behind their peers. We cannot afford to lose sight of that, and are looking to businesses and organisations that can support our efforts to address that inequity in all kinds of ways. We love working with organisations that can adapt and tailor their support to the needs of schools as the partnership evolves. Experience has shown us that rigid partnerships don’t work – flexibility is key. 

Education has a huge impact on a raft of other social issues. This is an important and exciting time to be preparing kids for a work future that looks unlike anything we’ve seen before. There are now myriad pathways to any career goals and a portfolio career is very much the new normal. Yes, there is uncertainty, but together we can help prepare kids with the core skills, adaptability and resilience they will need to flourish in the world after school.

Thanks to the generosity of donors and partners, Schools Plus has been able to direct more than $17 million to vulnerable children across Australia since 2015. Find out more in the Schools Plus 2020 Impact Report.

Find out more in the Schools Plus 2020 Impact Report

Rosemary Conn

Rosemary Conn is CEO of Schools Plus.

More by Rosemary

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