I was gobsmacked when in June of this year I received a personal invitation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Trust to attend a Summit on 3 and 4 November 2014 to discuss and share effective teacher development strategies. 100 attendees from the US, England, Finland, The Netherlands, Canada, Ireland, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia descended on the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC, where the Beetles have played and Kings, Queens and world leaders have stayed. I was one of four delegates selected to represent Australia. The event was covered by the UK-based, Times Education Supplement.

The purpose of the two days was to share best practices in teacher development, with the hope of identifying the most effective strategies that could then be replicated in schools across the globe, but particularly in schools that serve the socially disadvantaged (a key focus of the Sutton Trust). Delegates had been selected because of their reputations and innovative strategies already implemented in their schools or jurisdictions (when I received my invitation I had to check three times that it wasn’t a hoax!).


The four Australia delegates

In the preparation leading up to the Summit all delegates were asked to share one of their strategies on an online forum. Half of these were selected to be unpacked further at the Summit.

What an amazing two days it was; what a humbling and privileged opportunity to be in a room of remarkable educators from across the globe. The facilitation was spot on. From the moment the first day commenced to the very end we were worked hard, with the program ensuring that we met and made the maximum number of productive connections possible. We work shopped people’s strategies and built upon ideas in a number of ‘blue sky’ brainstorming sessions.

I met John Tomsett, a Head from the UK. He is using an IT system called IRIS to observe teaching and learning in his school. An unobtrusive camera is set up in a classroom, enabling John to remotely control the device, watch and record the learning. He can then unpack the lesson with the teacher, identify each teachable moment and provide feedback that promotes growth. High levels of trust in his school, created in part by John’s willingness to record and share his own teaching (which he says is pretty ‘crap’), means that teachers have become thirsty for the opportunity to improve.

Barbara Cavanagh from Albany Senior High School in Auckland, New Zealand, has implemented ‘Impact Learning‘, a pedagogy not too dissimilar to project-based learning. Every Wednesday students work on their own self-directed project for the entire day. Students begin by designing their project and then ‘pitch’ it to the teachers for approval. The only stipulation for a project is that it must be of industry standard. Time for this initiative was created by reducing the students’ load from six subjects to five.

Barbara shared some of the work the students have produced. One 16-year-old boy designed a method to help local businesses improve their productivity. Another young man, passionate about fish, discovered that plants watered with fish tank water grow faster and bigger. He has since been offered full scholarships to four universities in NZ and is off to speak at an international conference in Japan (he’s only 17 mind you!). A young girl created a series of five picture books to help children cope with living with mental illness. These short stories were truly amazing, bringing a tear to your eye when you realised what was actually going on in the story: “Emily has five sisters, and they don’t get on,” begins one book. It is not until later in the book that you realise that Emily has schizophrenia. The young lady is now selling her books worldwide; a fellow student has developed a business plan for her. And the final year results? For the six years the program has been running they have been better than any of the other local schools.

Dame Alison Peacock talked about her work on Learning Without Limits, passionate that we desist from labeling, or grading young people so we don’t limit their potential. Every child can, and has the right to learn, no matter their background, disability or school setting.

I have never met another person as passionate about her students than Stacey Quince from the Campbelltown Performing Arts School, who prefers to forego personal comforts and opportunities to ensure that every dollar her school receives from the government goes to her students.

Barbara Ala’alatoa from Sylvia Park Primary in New Zealand has developed a unique program to engage the parent community. The program is a preventative one, aimed at ensuring that every child is given the very best start to their education. “If we don’t get it right in the early years,” Amanda says, “then you’ll be paying for it for the rest of that child’s formal education.” Upon entry each child sits a diagnostic test. A parent liaison staff member then meets with the child’s parents to discuss the results. But they don’t ask the parents to come into the school; they go to the parents, in their homes or to their place of work. The initial meeting can take up to an hour. Parents have said, “I came away from the meeting with tools and ideas of how I can best help my child at home; I feel empowered.” The process happens again when the child is five and a half, six and seven years old.

A local university has been working with Barbara to track the impact, and it is staggering. But the most exciting part is that Barbara is now replicating the program in 10 other schools this year, and a further 44 next year. And if you’re skeptical of the cost, wait for it: Barbara says that for a school of 300 Year 0, 1 and 2 students you only need a 0.5FTE parent liaison (teacher) for it to work!

I listened to Professor Rob Coe speak and had morning tea with Sir Alasdair Macdonald. I met Megan, a young woman who has been given her first headship, a Charter School in LA funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. I Barnett Berry, CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality in the US. I heard from Geraldine Davies who has changed the conversations in her school by sponsoring groups of teachers to do a Masters of Leading Innovation and Change, delivered by St Mary’s University through the weekly PLCs (Professional Learning Communities). We brainstormed using the strategy, “Yes, and…”. We shared, we collaborated and we worked hard. My favourite quote from the two days was,

“teaching is rocket science.”

Of the 100 delegates 12 were asked to run a workshop on the strategy they shared online prior to the Summit. I was stunned to be asked by Sir Alasdair to run a workshop on my research into the practices that generate trust (but perhaps not surprised because almost every delegate recognised the important role that trust plays in any teacher development program).

At the conclusion of the Summit delegates were asked to name the best ‘takeaway’ strategy, tool, or idea they had come across over the two days. Each delegate wrote their favourite strategy on a piece of card and then voted for Summit’s best ‘takeaway’. And the strategy voted as the most profound shared by the 100 educational leaders from the 10 countries: the Trust and Transformational Leadership Rubric!

What an incredibly privileged and humbling experience; I couldn’t let myself sleep that night, still wondering if it had all been a hoax! Thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Trust.