No, her office doesn’t look like a control room full of computer screens.
“Our structured pedagogical approach is quite rigid and direct, but it means I know exactly what each teacher is teaching and the outcomes of student learning. That’s the art and science of teaching at scale. They are all doing the same program by year level,” she said.
And it’s all because of ‘vuca’. The US army coined that term to describe challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan that were uncontrollable or challenging, Gazula told her audience at a plenary session of the EduTECH conference yesterday in Sydney.
“Vuca is the speed at which change takes place; uncertainty refers to our lack of confidence in predicting the future and that there are a complex number of factors that exist in an environment.”
That’s the term she uses to describe the challenges her school faces with its transient and diverse student population and low socio-economic status.
Currently 721 students are enrolled but by the end of the year, 100 to 120 will have left and the same number will have joined classes.
Ninety per cent of the students come from a non-English speaking background and 65 per cent of those have been speaking English for less than three years. Some students have never gone to a school before.
“We had a Year 5 student, who at 10 years of age had never held a book in her hands, had never been to school. That’s part of the vuca for our school.”
Gazula, who’s in her fourth year as principal at the south western Sydney school, said it was primary schools’ responsibility to teach students to read and write.
“Students come to us to learn to read and write. High schools do not teach kids to read and write but kids they need to be able to do so to access the curriculum and learn.
"I can’t be comfortable with the fact that for every 100 students sent to It's ourhigh school, only 16.2 per cent are proficient in reading and writing – that is at their stage level,” she said.
Her solution? An explicit instructional model is a must. She said if she’d disregarded volatility, unpredictability and ambiguity in developing her school’s teaching strategies, that would have been “detrimental for our students’ learning”.
“We’ve gone back to the basics. If you are bombarded with so many ideas and programs from everywhere that sometimes we forget the core business of primary school.”
It’s a very structured pedagogical program that facilitates explicit teaching of reading through five elements of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. It also teaches 10 elements of writing explicitly and maths lessons are in the same flavour, so students can understand the relationships between concepts. The school also has a “very rigid assessment” schedule in maths and literacy for each year.
“Yes, it is prescriptive and directed for the teachers – we tell them what to teach and when," Gazula said.
"It takes a very crowded curriculum and makes it easier for them to teach. All teachers know what is happening across the whole school – it’s consistent. It takes out the ambiguity and complexity.
“Teachers are appreciated for their own personality, and making the learning contextual, creative and authentic. They bring their own integrity into their teaching,” she said.
Marsden Road Public School has extra support for teachers through instructional leaders, relief to do planning and opportunities to observe other classes. They are more confident and get better in their art of teaching, she said.
A survey found more than 90 per cent of her teachers were confident in “applying cognitive load”, they said they had strong pedagogical knowledge and that students learnt self-discipline through the predictable, simple routine.
“In the past three years, we’ve not had a single suspension. Students gain the confidence to flourish and thrive, feel known, valued and cared for. It’s a credit to the students and my teachers," Gazula said.
Last year’s NAPLAN results showed Year 5 students growth was 67 per cent above expectations; the Year 3 proficiency in literacy had been the highest of the past seven years.
And explicit instruction is an approach she believes can be applied in most school settings.
“Are we preparing our students for the future when we’re giving them the skills they need to be analytical thinking, to collaborate? These skills are absolutely essential in this society, but they are skills. Knowledge comes before skills.
“There’s no point in having skills if you don’t have the knowledge to go with that and knowledge can’t be gained if you are illiterate and innumerate.
“This conference is all about creativity and technology, but I had to balance that with my presentation. You’ve got to teach the core skills first,” she said.