Once upon a time I was an RE teacher. I loved it. I miss it, although I probably love what I get to do now more. I did my training at Durham University School of Education with the quite wonderful David Day. He taught us that the most difficult part of teaching RE was to teach empathy. It was a challenge he laid down for us. Can our students ever really understand what motivates others, what they really feel or think, what it is like to be in their shoes? It made lesson planning so cerebral, racking our brains to find a hook that would be relevant, the way in. And to take our students there, we had to genuinely strive to get there ourselves first.
In the early years of my career I was also lucky enough (ground-breaking in many ways in those days) to get a whole week on a ‘Basic Counselling Skills’ course. Pretty intense, but utterly invaluable. When I hear the detail of the fantastic ‘Coaching in Schools’ training we deliver to our staff now, it takes me back to so much of what I learnt that week. The importance of listening, really listening, hearing, giving time for others to formulate their thinking. I learnt the importance of helping others to take time to feel, to hear their own emotions. And I learnt how we need to listen for the subtext of what we are being told, so we don’t miss the clues.
As a leader, empathy remains my biggest challenge and ‘really listening’ a close runner. How does it really feel to be that teacher, that member of support staff, that child, that parent, that Governor, that leader? One thing I have learnt, particularly since moving into headship, is that we cannot please all of the people all of the time. I can accept that, I have had to. But what I won’t let go of is that the least I can do is to really listen hard to what I am being told about where others are coming from. What are they really saying; what are their fears; what is driving them; how does that feel? And then I need to weigh up all of those often conflicting needs, wants, viewpoints and drivers and pick a path that I can justify with integrity.
During this time of the ‘Covid crisis’, more than any other time, we have been forced to make decisions that are genuinely life and death. And not just on health grounds. More than ever, the choices we make will determine a whole sequence of consequences that set the course of life for so many that we influence. It has made me step back even more and truly try to imagine what it is like to be in the situations our families (staff, students and our own) find themselves in. What is that really like? We can’t help everyone as much as we want to. Every child does still matter, that will never change, but meeting the individual needs of each is more challenging that it will ever be, now and in the months to come.
What this has taught me, what it has reminded me again, is no different to those lessons I learnt early in my career. Our schools, our Trusts, serve not only our communities, but all of the individuals in our ‘bubbles’; every one of them. We need to make the time to listen, we need to make sure our structures enable their voices to be heard, we need to really hear.
Early in this crisis, like so many of us, we moved to video conferenced line management for all our staff and fortnightly team meetings. We made sure that they happened and that we gathered the feedback. We sent out daily updates to parents and committed to manning our phones and our enquiries email every weekday through holidays and bank holidays if they wanted to contact us. We put structures in place to make sure there was a function to ask and to hear how this was feeling for our staff and our families. We built on what we had, but more thoroughly. We need to make sure we don’t lose what we have learnt from this.
And then… now and in the future, when all things are considered, we pin our colours to the mast of a decision, knowing at least that we have considered where our staff, our students and their families are coming from. We know that whatever we decide, not everyone will like the answers. But at least we can say we listened and in weighing up conclusions, the views of others were genuinely heard and we took the time to really hear and to really consider where they were coming from.
By Lesley Gwinnett