As many will be aware, it’s now three years and one term since the RTLB service collectively began their transformative journey toward a service that is, at the other end of all that effort, a more focused and collaborative proposition.
Joanna Donald (standing), cluster 16 lead RTLB for assistive technology, leads a community of practice meeting
Two words underpin the effort to create a more effective and responsive RTLB service: collaboration and interprofessionalism. This approach now permeates the RTLB service from postgraduate training through to real-world practice, says Associate Professor Mandia Mentis, of Massey University’s Institute of Education.
“Our training programme is now taught interprofessionally. RTLB trainees don’t work in isolation, solely in their area of specialisation any more. RTLBs are now going along to the programme with resource teachers of autism, of vision impairment, deaf and hearing impairment, gifted education, and complex educational needs. There are a total of seven endorsement areas of which RTLB is one.”
These areas of specialisation have been in place for a long time; what’s different is that they now train together. This helps to model one of the prerequisites of RTLB best practice: the nature of the job means that there will always be a need to work effectively with lots of other agencies, and coordinate efforts toward the realisation of the main goal: supporting teachers to create a sustainable classroom. Mandia explains further.
“One of the key differences between the way we used to approach training and today’s approach is captured in our motto: ‘learning with, from, and about.’ Our belief is that if you learn interprofessionally, you’re going to practice more interprofessionally.
“RTLBs need to live this approach in their practice. So for example, when you do an IP – an individual education plan – with a student, you are working in interprofessional teams. We do quite a lot of the programme – three of the four papers – in a way that models this approach.”
Another part of the rationale behind this new approach is demystification. Many students referred to the RTLB service require the assistance of other professionals to get the best results. So learning alongside graduates pursuing other endorsements means that they gain a wider perspective, says Mandia.
“It’s about breaking down the silos that are inherent in learning these endorsement areas in isolation. This helps to instil a wider perspective, and graduates have a shared understanding and a shared knowledge base. The terminology of one specialist area is demystified for everybody. It’s about teaching people to work in communities of practice.”
Much of the academic literature supports this approach in special education. “Learn together, practice better together” is the essence of the changes to the training programme.
The creation of robust communities of practice is another piece of the transformative jigsaw that Mandia says is already getting results, for practitioners and their clients. Again, the focus is on blurring the boundaries between training and practice, so the communities that are created during training continue to be the basis of professional collaboration when fresh RTLBs set out into the world.
A subset of these communities of practice are the whānau groups. Because RTLB training is available nationally, but taught onsite at two universities – Massey and Canterbury – much of the course is accessed by learners online. To facilitate more direct interaction, whānau groups of trainees meet regularly, ostensibly to discuss their study, but Mandia says that they’re modelling interprofessionalism at the same time, and strengthening the ‘soft skills.’ These networks often continue well beyond graduation.
Another innovation in RTLB training has been the introduction of short courses, which are treated as professional development. A particular graduate may feel that they haven’t covered a different specialisation as they’d like, or perhaps they’ve come up against a situation in their practice that requires further knowledge. The acquisition of further endorsement ‘badges’ can then be added to a graduate’s e-portfolio, another innovation that Mandia says is helping to blur the lines between training and practice. The portfolios are put together as part of the training, and form the basis of ongoing appraisal.
LAYERS OF PRACTICE
Paul Mitchell is manager of RTLB cluster 16, based at Nawton Primary School in Hamilton. His position didn’t exist before the transformation, and was created to help realise the core goals of the reformative effort: seamless and consistent provision of the service nationwide; breaking down the relative isolation that some practitioners found themselves working in ‘pre-transformation’; and more effective collaboration with agencies and stakeholders like the Ministry of Education.
What hasn’t changed, and never will, says Paul, is the desired outcome for students.
“The role of the RTLB in essence is to upskill teachers, to better meet the needs of students. That hasn’t changed. The focus of the postgraduate training hasn’t changed either really, so much as the way it’s delivered.
“In terms of pedagogy, the focus of training these days is on the ‘ecological’ model: trying to look around the student, and trying to get the recipe right in terms of teaching and learning for that particular student.”
An important step in the creation of a more consistent and transparent service that shares ideas around best practice constantly was the introduction of a layered management structure within the RTLB service. Paul says that this has brought about greater support for RTLBs on the ground.
The decision to coalesce the 200-odd RTLB clusters that existed prior to the transformation into 40 today has also met with great success, says Paul, particularly toward the goal of consistency across the regions.
“I think that the RTLB service has benefitted strongly from striving for national consistency, because that has invited conversation around best practice. That conversation is now constantly taking place across the 40 clusters. What’s brought that discussion together are those lead school principals and cluster manager forums, where all the cluster managers are there, talking about the issues.
“It’s going really well. It’s always going to be a work in progress, but there’s a lot more consistency now than when there was something like 200 clusters. My cluster, for example, comes from about five or six prior to the transformation. So you’re looking at the difference being that clusters used to work far more in isolation, and much more autonomously than they do now. The regular meetings that we’ve had over the three years since the transformation have meant that there have been discussions around how we can do better. These have gotten quite heated at times, but that’s a good thing I think!”
Cluster managers are able to stay in regular contact with researchers and training providers as well, and it’s a two-way conversation. Paul says that Mandia and her colleagues have been very responsive and open to feedback and ideas. And that goes for students as well.
Many have noticed that the RTLB service as a whole seems to comprise a wider range of experience level that perhaps it used to. Paul says there’s likely many factors driving this influx of youthful energy to temper the wisdom of the more experienced, including the transformation itself.
“What has attracted younger teachers I think has been the fact that the job now has a career pathway. In the past, there were RTLBs. That was pretty much it. There was the odd cluster across the country that came up with some way of having a ‘lead’ RTLB, but that certainly wasn’t typical. Now, we have RTLBs; we have practice leaders; we have people within clusters who are identified as having experience and skills in specific areas, and who are the ‘go to’ people in their area for RTLBs within a cluster.
“For example, my cluster, which under the old model would have comprised 37 RTLBs, now has a cluster manager, two lead RTLBs - who are sort of like deputy cluster managers - and then we have seven RTLBs who have an area of responsibility representing Ministry of Education priorities, like Maori/Pasifika; behaviour; high learning needs; literacy; numeracy; assistive technology, and that sort of thing. So we have people with specialised skills in those areas, among others, who RTLBs can turn to for help. These upper tiers of skill and experience also provide professional development for the whole cluster.
“One of the strengths inherent in the revised model is the amount of sharing between really experienced RTLBs, and those who are new to it. I don’t mean to suggest that these relationships are one-way; there’s lots that the more experienced can learn from fresh eyes. Remember of course that these new RTLBs didn’t just fill in a form and get the job, they got the job because they’re very capable teachers. They’ve also had more recent classroom experience than a lot of the older practitioners, and so they bring a dynamic to our work force that is really complementary to the dynamic that a person with lots of experience as an RTLB brings.”
COMPELLED TO HELP
Joanna Donald qualified as an RTLB two years ago, and works with Paul Mitchell within cluster 16. She says it’s a direction she always knew she was heading in.
Joanna began teaching in 1999, but decided she needed to see more of the world a few years later. While in the UK, she found herself teaching at so-called ‘behaviour schools’, also referred to as pupil referral units, or short-stay units. These are specialist institutions that accept students who’ve been expelled from mainstream schools, and are staffed by teachers specialising in dealing with particularly challenging students. Joanna says it was an “intense” experience, but one that helped her realise that she wanted to forge a career helping students with complex educational needs.
“I’ve always been drawn to students that have what we might call special needs, or need that little bit extra at school. That desire has come from my own experiences at school, and other experiences that I’ve had as a teacher. In my role now, I really enjoy working with parents and other agencies, to get the best for the student that I’m working for.”
Back in New Zealand, we of course don’t have anything like behaviour schools – which Joanna believes is definitely a good thing – so she went back to mainstream schooling as a senior teacher at Hillcrest Normal School in Hamilton.
She couldn’t stay away for long though, and embarked upon the RTLB training programme. Joanna says she enjoys the fact that she gets to work intensely with one learner at a time.
“As a classroom teacher you’ve got 30-odd students in your class, so you have to cater for the needs of all of them to a degree. RTLBs can really specialise in assisting the teacher to nurture achievement. In a way, we get more time to work with a student. We also work interprofessionally with other agencies too, so we can delve further into a child’s needs. Really it’s about assisting the teacher so that they can manage the student, so that you reach a position of sustainability.”
“I love the interaction, and I think there’s a number of benefits [to being an RTLB], like the study opportunities for example. It’s challenging, but it’s been great. We get excellent professional development opportunities. Also there’s a great career pathway, that’s become apparent over the course of the transformation.
Joanna says also that the increased opportunities for professional interaction that have come about as a result of the transformation are constantly re-invigorating her practice.
“At the end of the day, if we get lost in a case, or we get stuck, there’s always someone who can help with professional knowledge. That’s been invaluable for me coming into a larger cluster. I didn’t really fully understand what the job entailed when I first applied, and once I got into it I realised that the role was a lot bigger than I thought, and one that is quite pivotal for the students we deal with. We come across some really difficult situations in our work, and it’s been invaluable to be able to talk to senior people in our cluster, and across clusters.”
With the news that 82 per cent of primary schools, and 84 per cent of secondary, report positive outcomes in their dealings with the RTLB service, the transformation – and more importantly the practitioners putting the theory on the ground – is clearly doing something right.
By Jaylan Boyle
CALL FOR PASIFIKA ADVISORY GROUP COMMUNITY MEMBERS
Fakalofa lahi atu, Fakatalofa atu, Ia Orana, Kia Orana, Malo e lelei, Ni sa Bula Vinaka, Taloha ni, Talofa lava, Tena Koutou.
The Ministry of Education is seeking expressions of interest from those interested in serving on the Pasifika Advisory Group (PAG) and so have input into the development of the Ministry’s Pasifika-related policy and programmes.
Members of PAG will provide advice on ways to improve the education system’s effectiveness for Pasifika students, including engaging with parents, families, communities and students.
The appointment is for up to three years and applications close on 5 June 2015. To find out more, including the required skills and experience, email PasifikaUnit@education.govt.nz or go to education.govt.nz and search for PAG.
Fakafetai, Fakaue lahi, Ia manuia, Malo ‘aupito, Malo ni, Meitaki maata, Vinaka vaka levu, Kia Ora.