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Teamteaching trailblazers: Pioneer Academy Ormonde joins ISASA

| June 11, 2015 | 1 Comment

By Gavin Esterhuizen

Pioneer Academy Ormonde (PAO) opened its doors for the first time in January 2015 and is the founding school in the Pioneer Academies Network.1

The school has opened with three grades in the junior school: Grade R, Grade 1 and Grade 2, while the senior school has started with Grade 7 and Grade 8. We will open a grade in both phases each year until we reach a full complement in 2019.

One of the underlying principles of Pioneer Academies is to provide affordable, high-quality private education. Our fees for PAO start at R25 000 per annum for primary school and R35 000 per annum for secondary school. These price points have given almost every single one of our parents access to private schooling for the very first time. An analysis of our Grade 7 and Grade 8 intake shows that our students came from over 50 different government schools. This wide range of feeder schools, coupled with our unique location in Ormonde in Johannesburg, has led to a wonderfully diverse group of students.

Creating a culture

An established school has a rhythm of its own – there is an acknowledged understanding from the teachers, students and parents around the organisation, structure and methods. Teachers, students and parents may not always be on the same page, but there is an awareness of the manner in which the school operates. Collectively, all these elements contribute to the culture or ethos of the school. Starting a school gives one a unique opportunity to shape a school culture and create an ethos, so when the prospect of starting a school presented itself, it was something which attracted me from the beginning. As the founding head of the school, the journey over the course of the last 10 months has been a significant learning experience.

My educational background has been quite varied: I spent time in government and private education, both here in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Along the way, I have worked in co-ed schools as well as boys-only schools and girls-only schools. Each experience has given me a slightly different perspective, but the common denominator was that all the schools had a long history of processes and tradition.

Whenever I have spoken with colleagues around the subject of stepping into the role of being a principal, the subject of staffing is always at the top of the list. I remember attending a conference a few years ago and listening to the principal of an established institution saying that a school is never really ‘yours’ until you have the opportunity to employ at least 25% of the staff sitting in front of you. Being a part of the school from the start gave me the opportunity to appoint every single member of staff.

But starting a school, employing every educator in the school and being a part of shaping the manner in which a school grows and develops were not the only attractions. Two of my passions are student-centred learning and educator development. Both of these align really well with the Pioneer Academies philosophy.

Student-centred learning

Pioneer Academies aims to develop students for success in life tomorrow and not just on tests today. Our aim is to create students who can think critically, are able to problem solve, are creative and curious and happy to ask questions. To achieve this, there is a definite need to shift the focus in the classroom away from the teacher to the student as the centre of attention. All of our lessons start with solving a problem or conducting analysis first, and an opportunity for our students to investigate possible solutions before the traditional context building begins. This is a subtle shift, but it changes the “This is what we are going to be learning today” approach to the “How would you explain the following?” principle. Once the concept is understood in the context of what the student has discovered, the reason for the learning is much clearer. It is our belief that this will then deepen a student’s understanding, increase their motivation and develop stronger thinking skills.

Parents prepared to be part of innovation

Our parents seemed to agree that a different approach was needed to teaching and learning. Our initial target had been to enrol 150 students in our first year of operation, but as soon as our doors opened, our enrolment soared to 250. Most of our marketing was very traditional – flyers, billboards and adverts in magazines and newspapers. These traditional approaches brought in a number of parents, but our biggest drawcard was the numerous Open Days we had in the second half of last year. The minute we had the parents on-site, and explained in detail what our instructional model would look like, they were more than happy to take the leap of faith. Emphasising that the students would follow the international syllabi set by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE),2 allowing them to gain a globally recognised secondary education and that we were on the brink of joining the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA), gave them the peace of mind to know that they were making the right decision.

There is no ‘I’ in team

To achieve this shift in teaching and learning in our classrooms, we have asked that our teachers teach in teams. Generally, these teams consist of three members. Two are qualified educators, while the third is an intern, who is either part of the ISASA Mathematics and English (M&E) programme3 or in the final year of their studies at tertiary institutions. Teaching in teams means that every student is supported by more than one teacher in the classroom. This approach fosters open collaboration among teachers and provides a continuous apprenticeship for all our teachers to develop higher levels of mastery in their craft. Teachers have also been able to incorporate immediate differentiation into their work in classrooms. As one explains a particular concept, the co-teachers are able to support and observe whether the students are understanding the concept. They can step in at any time to adjust the level at which the content is being delivered, or pull out a group to provide additional support. This approach can also be used to expand on the content with students who have understood the concept and need extension. As one of my maths teachers put it to me the other day, “Teaching in teams gives us the opportunity to build each other up all the time.”

Eager educators

Even the interns experience this kind of on-site learning at PAO. Traditionally, schools have used their interns as nothing more than assistants, who spend most of the time observing. At Pioneer Academies, the intern is an active participant in the classroom from day one. Finding teachers with this particular mindset was a time-consuming exercise, but well worth the investment. Teachers have come from all over the country, even from abroad, to be a part of a school that wants to challenge traditional approaches. The exciting outcome of hiring towards a particular disposition, and then training for competency, has resulted in a wonderfully diverse teaching staff.

Challenges for creative minds

But, to say that our genesis has been a completely smooth process would be disingenuous. There have been numerous challenges, some much easier to negotiate than others. Some of the easier ones were around trying to decide on what colour the uniform should be, what our crest should say about the school and what the structure of our teaching day should look like. The much more complex issues revolved around finding an appropriate venue for a school, starting from scratch in every aspect of the school’s life and finding the funding required to build, renovate and set up classrooms months before parents began paying their school fees. I think our biggest challenge is still ahead of us – how do we consolidate the financial sustainability of the school over the course of the next few years?

A positive start

These challenges have been an important learning experience for all involved, and they have created a wonderful sense of opportunity. Our educators are excited by the unique teaching environment and the constant development, our students are happy to come to school each day and our parents are thrilled by the individual attention their children are receiving in class. We are still in the early stages of the life of our school, but I think we have made a positive start.

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Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2015

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  1. Lerato says:

    Hi, am looking for space for grade1,5 and 7 for my daughters. Thanks

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