Yarra Valley Grammar has taken the constraints of COVID-19 and has evolved its skills to offer students the best possible learning opportunities and experiences and further advance its teachers.
Following a year of disrupted learning and challenges in the classroom as a result of COVID-19, Principal Dr Mark Merry believes there were also unintended positives.
“The learning curve for students, teachers and parents last year was massive,” Dr Merry says.
“Regardless of the negative elements of last year, we have come out stronger, more qualified, more aware and a better school because of it.”
With COVID-19 forcing Victorian schools into a sudden remote learning environment, most teachers and students had to adapt to online learning and teaching.
Dr Merry says his teachers were able to up-skill within days, skills which would have usually taken months to implement and learn.
“If I had gone to my colleagues and said this is going to be a big new intervention for the school and we are moving to online teaching, it might have taken us a good year to get everyone up-skilled, but because necessity kicked in, teachers were able to learn the skills in days in order to make things happen.
“Currently we have a very tech-savvy teaching team and that would have never happened if we didn’t have to make it happen.”
The second unintentional positive to stem from last year was where parents and families of students at Yarra Valley Grammar gained a new-found appreciation for teachers and their classes.
Dr Merry says that during lockdown and remote teaching at home a lot of their parents and carers were sitting in watching and listening to classes.
“The positive feedback from parents was overwhelming,” he says.
With high expectations of its students and commitment to equipping them with the skills, knowledge and values needed, Dr Merry believes his students are taught, nurtured and inspired by an outstanding team who are dedicated to their roles as teachers.
“Families also noticed the positive relationships between students and teachers and the way teachers supported students. I received email after email saying how impressed they were,” Dr Merry says.
“We believe that when teachers and students develop strong relationships built on mutual trust and respect then our students will be happy and willing learners.”
Dr Merry highlights that the most powerful unintended positive to come from last year was students coming to the realisation of how much they missed being at school. The day students came back to school was a day he will never forget.
“I remember watching them get off the buses and they were just beaming,” he says. “They had been away for so long and came to learn how much they missed the school.”
Despite the three benefits emerging from last year, the biggest concern Dr Merry had from the disrupted year was a potential loss of a sense of school community.
Following a year where students, teachers and parents were disconnected from school for a long period of time, the school this year has a big focus on reinforcing its cultural values with all of its events.
As schools regain a sense of normality this year, Dr Merry is confident that the school will keep some of the initiatives introduced from last year.
One initiative here to stay is moving parent-teacher interviews to completely online.
Rather than having parents physically come to the school and wait to see each teacher, the meetings can now take place online, from the comfort of their own homes.
With online teaching taking up a large part of 2020, Yarra Valley Grammar also has the option to diversify its teaching techniques.
“Online teaching does two things – first is it breaks up the term and the second is it ensures we are continuing to up-skill. From now on it is certainly going to be a mixed method of teaching,” he says.
“Our primary delivery of the curriculum will be on campus, because you can’t eliminate the social aspect of school environments, but we now have the option to deliver it online if we need to.”
At Yarra Valley Grammar there is a big emphasis on self-discovery in the early years before shifting its focus to its innovative enhancement program.
This program breaks out of the classroom to give students practical and engaging experiences in the middle years. In the senior years, the school focuses on academic rigor and preparing its students ahead of time for the challenges that they will face.
Dr Merry says despite the outstanding academic results the school produces, the most important thing is the quality of relationships between the people at the school.
“It is the quality of relationships between colleagues, teachers and students, the students themselves and our families,” he says. “That really marks our culture. Students do well here because of the positive culture we have created and they have a very positive experience and can look back fondly at their school days.”