Jill Willis

Impact: how to tell your extraordinary teaching story

Last week John Cole noted here that the current Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers (HALT) certification process is complex and demanding. Now Jill Willis and Leanne Crosswell discuss the support needed for Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers to tell their stories of impact

The rapid responses of teachers to continual changes in schools is evidence of teacher expertise. Every parent and grandparent knows and can tell a story about the positive impact of excellent teachers. Yet it can be challenging for teachers to represent their impact and expertise to others, especially if they are applying to be recognised as a certified Highly Accomplished and Lead teacher.

Making it easier for exceptional teachers who are masters of engaging students and igniting learning, to represent their evidence of impact was a focus of a recent study.

Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers from Independent Schools Queensland worked with researchers from the Queensland University of Technology to refine how they represented their widespread positive impact on students, colleagues and schools.

HALT certification relies on teachers presenting a portfolio of evidence, a valid way to represent the breadth of their broad and accomplished teaching. These exceptional teachers can readily identify evidence from their existing quality practices occurring in their day-to-day work.

Yet demonstrating impact in a portfolio is challenging as it is an unfamiliar writing genre for teachers. Teachers can be too busy doing the great work to spend time writing about it. The type of evidence for a play-based intervention in prep is not the same type of evidence for a digital formative assessment initiative in senior school.  These stories of impact are as diverse as the geographic, social and cultural contexts of Australian classrooms.

As John Cole notes in a recent AARE post, the current HALT certification process is complex and demanding. Teachers believe there needs to be widespread change in the ways that their professional expertise is recognised, so the effort of applying for certification is rewarded in tangible ways.

One way to support teachers to apply for certification has been to reframe the process as a supported professional learning approach. Independent Schools Queensland support the HALT certification process as an ongoing cycle of professional learning with regular workshops with other aspiring HALTs, school-based mentors and networking opportunities.

Our research previously showed that ISQ’s professional learning approach to national accreditation had positive ripple effects for involved teachers, their colleagues and schools.  The process was reported as professionally rewarding and renewing for these experienced teachers.

You don’t realise how valuable the standards are until you start actually measuring yourself against them or looking to improve in particular areas and then you realise, oh, this is actually a really beneficial thing to consider during your daily practice or yearly practice as a teacher.

(Teacher J)

My school was really supportive and they kept offering me opportunities to be involved in different things. So for me, it was a really positive experience…I met with my mentor every fortnight and she’s my direct supervisor and the head of the junior school. You don’t normally get that much time and attention from somebody who’s so busy and in charge of everything, so that was really good (Teacher K)

When school leaders encouraged groups of teaches to apply, or supported HALTs in tangible ways, it had a wide-spread positive impact throughout the school. Leaders reported that HALTs changed the conversations in school staffrooms, supported peer mentoring and connected teachers to broader school visions. HALTs were working as middle leaders initiating successful programs and peer learning for colleagues, mentoring new teachers, and leading in community and professional associations.

However, HALTs found one of the most challenging aspect of applying for certification to be how to write about their impact and evidence for others.

In the follow up research common features and principles were shared with applicants, to see if this support took some of the stress out of the application process. By analysing successful HALT portfolios, the research team identified some of the commonly used features in effectively telling stories of impact. The QUT team piloted sharing the principles in a workshop with applicants and sought their feedback after they were certified to find out what was most helpful. Emerging principles were validated against the literature and through feedback from assessors.

Firstly, it helped applicants to be aware of the four genres of stories of impact that commonly featured across portfolios. Personal stories were often about growth in knowledge and skill and may have started from a dilemma of practice. Action planning stories of impact were inquiries situated within practice or a team. Project management stories of evidence reflected delegated projects, while advocacy stories represented how teacher championed new initiatives or a specialisation within and beyond the school. While there will be other genres that are equally effective in telling an evidence story, having these as a starting point helped applicant teachers decide how to structure evidence clearly. (Left, figure 1: Four genres of evidence stories in portfolios)

Secondly, professional learning about the how to make claims with evidence was highly valued by the applicants. Within the portfolio, easy to read stories of impact had some shared features. They made it easy for another person to see the decisions and actions of the expert teacher. Some of the key features of quality stories of evidence were summarised in figure 2.

Figure 2: High quality evidence features in portfolios

Some of the stress of writing about quality practice can be addressed through professional learning resources. Teachers should be supported to create evidence stories that celebrate the diversity of schools and learners, as understanding how to effectively represent professional stories of impact is still an emerging skill set within the profession. 

How many stories of impact are needed for certification is another question worth asking. We need to pay closer attention to the national certification picture and learn from the experiences of teachers and systems. 

Certifying bodies such as Independent Schools Queensland, the ACT Teacher Quality Institute are already working with HALTs to tailor the process to be a supportive professional learning opportunity.  There is potential for HALT certification to be both a recognition for the individual teacher, and a funded, strategic priority enabling the systemic and collective capacity building of teachers’ practices in their local contexts.

The nation’s Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers are an untapped resource with huge potential to lead school and system improvement. Nationally there is more that can be done to find ways to support our expert teachers to be recognised.

A streamlined, and refined certification process is possible if we do as we ask our HALTs to do – reflect on and learn from the evidence.

We acknowledge that this research was conducted on the lands of the Turrbal and Yugara people. It was funded by Independent Schools Queensland, supported by Suzanne Jessen, Jo Wise and Anjulee Singh and the 2019 – 2020 Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher applicants. The research team included Dr Rebecca Spooner-Lane, Dr Andrew Gibson and Dr Peter Churchward.

Dr Jill Willis is a researcher in educational assessment and evaluation in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education, and Social Justice and the Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia. She specialises in educational assessment and evaluation to understand how reflexive self-assessment informs personal agency and system change. She is chief investigator in current Linkage projects Thriving in Vertical Schools and Accessible Assessment. She tweets @DrJillWillis   

Dr Leanne Crosswell is a researcher in the fields of mentoring and  teacher resilience in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education, and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia. Her research explores how professional learning including professional reflexivity, shapes teacher identity, resilience and agency.  Recent publications include, Quality Assuring Teachers for Resilience and Wellbeing.

21 simple design elements that will make any School Assessment Task sheet accessible

If you have a child in secondary school in Australia, you are probably familiar with assessment task sheets. They outline the task a student has to complete and how it will be assessed. The criteria and standards that will be used to evaluate the performance are included. Often the task sheet will also aim to excite and motivate students to engage with a real-world problem or life-like performance that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Assessment task sheets are really invitations for students to create a performance to show others what they know.

Yet for many students these days, the complexity of the invitation can lead them to give up before they even start. It is a growing problem as assessment task sheets become increasingly complicated documents.

They often now contain a lot of information only intended for adult audiences because they can be used to help justify assessment decisions to parents, and can serve accountability purposes by providing evidence that the teacher has complied with the requirements of a syllabus. So they could feature technical terms from the syllabus and more information than is necessary for student understanding.

For students with language and attentional difficulties, these multiple purposes and the complexity of tasks can present barriers that prevent them from successfully participating in the assessment. Complex assessment task sheets can therefore be unfair.

We believe it is possible to design assessment tasks and write up accompanying assessment task sheets that allow more students to participate than is currently the case. Our research shows design techniques that support teachers to do this.

Currently many teachers spend precious time retrospectively adjusting tasks and rewriting task sheets to give access to students experiencing difficulties. It is a practice that is time-consuming for busy teachers and so is typically only done for students with severe disabilities.

In Australia, however, it is a federally legislated requirement for reasonable adjustments to be made to support all students with disability to access their education on the same basis as students without disability, as described in the Disability Standards for Education.

So we see our work in this field as being relevant to all teachers in every subject and at every level, whenever they are designing and writing an assessment task for their students. If the task is designed and written in an accessible way, students with language and attentional difficulties can do the same task using the same task sheet and teachers will no longer need to create other versions, readjust or rewrite for these students.

But… could this give some students an unfair advantage?

A key barrier to accessible assessment is the fear that reasonable adjustments could lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the assessment or that they provide an unfair advantage to students with a disability. However, this would only be true if the benefit were not universal or if the main aim of the assessment was to test students’ ability to interpret assessment task sheets.

If accessible assessment tasks are proactively planned and provided to all students, then the benefit is universal. And, if the assessment task focuses on the knowledge or skill being assessed (the first order priority of assessment), then it is still a valid and fair assessment.

Importantly, as Joy Cumming and Graham Maxwell have previously pointed out, when second-order priorities (such as the accountability purposes of assessment) complicate assessment purposes to the extent that the assessment task itself creates barriers to student access and participation, then the result is not a true reflection of that student’s response to the (first-order) purpose of the assessment and the assessment is therefore inequitable.

The challenge is to design assessment that is accessible from the outset of planning, so that teachers can maximise opportunities for all learners to have access to assessment tasks.

Challenges of access that students must overcome

We analysed a typical Year 8 English task sheet and considered the visual, procedural and linguistic complexity of the task sheet design to highlight how some assessment practices may inadvertently affect access and therefore equity.

There are three considerable challenges students must face to correctly interpret an assessment task and successfully demonstrate their learning. These are: –

  • Comprehending what the task is about
  • Working out what has to be done
  • Understanding the parameters in which to do it

Access can be made easier or more difficult depending on the way the assessment task is presented; both in terms of visual presentation and in terms of the language used. The number and type of procedures required can also differentially affect students’ successful completion of the task.

This approach to analysis helped us to produce a list of recommended design elements that will be useful to teachers as they plan and write up their assessment tasks.

Design elements that support making assessment tasks accessible

Visual accessibility

The layout of the task sheet helps the students access the important elements of the task

  • The most important information is easy to find
  • White space is used to separate sections
  • Text size aids readability (11 or 12 point font with 1.5 line spacing)
  • Margins are left-justified
  • Visual cues direct student attention
  • Information that is irrelevant to students is not included

Procedural accessibility

Consistency and clarity of instructions

  • Authentic context is relevant
  • Common access barriers have been addressed in the design
  • The task, objectives and criteria align
  • Students are able to respond within the prescribed conditions
  • Enough space and resources are provided for responses
  • The assessment is scheduled to give students the best opportunity for success
  • Processes for evaluating quality are clear
  • Authentication strategies are included
  • Student feedback on the draft task was sought
  • Teacher peer feedback on draft task was sought

Linguistic accessibility

Directions are clear

  • Instructions are clear and direct
  • Sentences are short and simply structured
  • The language is free of bias
  • Specialist language is defined using student-friendly terms
  • Information is stated once only and if it needs to be referenced more than once, consistent terminology is used

Encouraging results from using these recommendations

We used an accessibility checklist based on these recommendations to support teachers in their assessment design work in two secondary schools participating in our research.

Significantly, teachers who participated in this research reported that students who had not previously found success were able to demonstrate their learning with new levels of confidence.

We believe proactive accessible assessment design has the potential to increase the assessment participation and success of all students, especially those with language and attentional difficulties.

An added bonus is that designing for accessibility from the outset promises to reduce teacher workload due to fewer requests for clarification from students and less need for retrospective adjustments.


More in our open access paper Designing out barriers to student access and participation in secondary school assessment


Haley Tancredi is a Master of Philosophy (Education) candidate at QUT. A certified practicing speech pathologist, Haley also presently works for Brisbane Catholic Education. Haley’s research and clinical interests are adolescents with language disorder, student voice and teacher/speech pathologist collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Haley is also an active #WeSpeechie on Twitter @HaleyTanc.




Linda Graham is a Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham and at linda.graham@qut.edu.au



Jill Willis is an assessment researcher and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She investigates how educators promote learner agency and equity through their everyday assessment practices. You can reach her via Twitter: @JillWteachEd




Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via Twitter: @kmcg2375