Healthy schools: The key role of compassionate leadership

The rise of high stakes educational systems

Schools are not just institutions of learning; they are the bedrock of a society’s future. Every day, educators across the globe shape young minds. Over the last thirty years, there has been a rise in outcome-focused, high-stakes educational systems across the world causing high levels of stress within individual institutions. The teaching profession faces a crisis of recruitment and retention, with many teachers experiencing both mental and physical health problems due to the high workload and incessant pressure to perform. There is a vicious cycle of increased workload, spiralling rates of burnout and loss of teachers from the profession.

Compassionate school cultures create psychological safety

Building a compassionate school culture goes beyond the focus on academic excellence and competitive school league tables by also encouraging a focus on the emotional, social, and psychological well-being of every individual within the school community – students, teachers, and staff alike. The aim is to facilitate high levels of academic performance from a place of psychological safety rather than insecure competition, and in doing so, promote overall well-being, resilience and innovation. With young people experiencing the highest levels of mental health problems ever recorded, this is crucial for the students as well as for the teaching profession.

The case for compassionate school leaders

Compassionate school leaders are the driving force behind this creation of nurturing and supportive educational environments. By possessing a unique blend of empathy, vision, and determination, they shape school cultures where every individual is valued and respected. These leaders prioritize the well-being of both students and staff, understanding that a compassionate approach to education yields not only academic excellence but also personal growth. They are prepared to use their authority to allocate resource appropriately, by giving both teachers and students time during the school day to facilitate personal growth and by providing the physical environments and resources needed. They also promote opportunities for connection and collaboration. 

Blocks to compassionate leadership

At the heart of a compassionate school culture lies empathy. It’s about understanding the feelings, needs, and experiences of others, and then acting upon that understanding to prevent and alleviate suffering. And yet, when a person takes on a leadership role moving up the social hierarchy, empathy often decreases and “othering” becomes more habitual. Additionally, in the current high-stakes educational systems, leaders often lack psychological safety in their roles, feeling constantly under threat. The threat further decreases empathy, resulting in a stance of “command and control” leadership, rather than collaboration and co-creation with the school community.

Becoming a servant leader

The first step is to help leaders move away from “command and control” towards servant leadership, empowering teachers and students alike, and fostering an atmosphere of trust and collaboration. They can aim to serve the people they lead with kindness, curiosity, and understanding in their interactions. By practising empathy, inclusivity, and a genuine concern for the welfare of others, compassionate school leaders can create learning environments where everyone feels safe and supported. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth rather than reasons for punishment. Failure is reframed as a natural part of the learning process, encouraging students and teachers to take risks and explore their full potential. 

Self-compassion is courageous

Growing self-compassion is another crucial step in the journey of the compassionate educational leader. This starts with understanding how their tricky brain both helps and hinders, removing self-blame and replacing this with taking wise, responsible action. Self-compassion involves acknowledging one’s own suffering and shortcomings without judgment, recognizing that imperfection is a natural part of the human experience. It’s not about indulging in self-pity or blaming others – it is not weak. It’s about taking responsibility and offering oneself the support needed to navigate life’s challenges – it is courageous. By daring to be vulnerable, leaders become compassionate role models for the whole school community.

The importance of policy making and funding

Ultimately, fostering compassionate cultures in schools is an essential investment in the entire education system and, by extension, society at large. When school leaders practice servant leadership together with self-compassion, they can skilfully navigate the complexities of educational leadership and create environments where both teachers and students achieve their full potential. We need Governments across the world to provide opportunities for this personal development via policy making and funding. Making this investment would be a huge step towards facilitating the compassionate and mentally healthy educational communities we urgently need for our future generations and the planet as a whole.

Dr Kate Brierton is a clinical psychologist. Learn more about her work here.

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