As we approach the new school year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for leaders to build relationships with the newest members of their school communities. It can be difficult for folks to put down roots when they feel unknown, vulnerable, or unsure about how to contribute. That said, the “new” warrant special consideration from educational leaders, not only because they require additional support, but because they have the power to loosen old givens.
Fresh observations orient us to the moral and ethical sensibilities of a place. According to philosopher Simone Weil, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” As someone who studies the emotional dimensions of leading, teaching and learning, I’ve learned that educational leaders who nurture a caring ecology in their schools create the conditions for the new to put down roots and to thrive.
A caring ecology is one that provides a relational home for people. It assumes that “newbies” unsettle the school’s culture in generative ways. Focus is placed on fostering connections, and health and wellbeing are understood as a social practice. This runs counter to the individualized notions of care we’ve been sold. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of how many people told me I should take up yoga or download a mindfulness app to deal with bouts of melancholy during the pandemic.
We tend to think of feelings as belonging to individuals when in fact emotions are shared and mutually influencing. In a caring ecology, interdependence is privileged over individualized notions of care and responsibility. Compassion, mutual recognition, and learning to live well with others are the foundational aims. This is educational leadership as soul work.
When leaders focus on tilling the soil of a caring ecology, they create more opportunities for empathy for themselves, their staff, and the children in their care. It’s true these types of connections don’t happen all the time, and when they do, they can be fleeting. Certain people will flummox you, leave you frustrated or even make you feel out of your depth. What I can promise is that it’s well worth your time as an educational leader to try. After all, we learn the most about ourselves in relation to others as we hone our listening and responding skills.
Leaders who cultivate a caring ecology pay particular attention to four things. So let’s explore them in turn.
Hold Space for Difficult Feelings
Perhaps most importantly, these leaders hold space for the difficult feelings of others. They are emotionally attuned, meaning they offer a specific type of attention that’s grounded in hospitality and generosity. Before passing judgement, they operate from a place of curiosity. One of my mentors often asks those who are experiencing intense feelings to simply, “Tell me more about that.” The response demonstrates he’s comfortable bearing witness to suffering without losing himself in the process. It’s easier for a new member of a school community to settle into a conversation with a school leader when they know they can express themselves without being judged. I’ve also found it helpful to remember that in difficult conversations, we all hear echoes of what our significant caregivers judged to be permissible emotional expressions in social situations. I try to remind myself that people are finishing a conversation with someone important from their past as they settle into an emotionally charged conversation with me. Caring ecologies have intergenerational root systems.
When I was a term teacher in the first year of my career, I was told repeatedly that if I didn’t coach, volunteer for the drama production, or sit on multiple committees, it would be less likely that I would secure a permanent contract. As an untenured new graduate who was buried under a pile of student loans, I listened. My lesson plans suffered and so did my health. When I look back on that time, I interpret the pressure as a kind of carewashing or a type of communication strategy used to obscure the more unhelpful, or even hurtful elements of a request.
Relational educational leaders treat new members of the school community as ends in themselves. It can be tempting to look at a new staff member and see the desperately needed basketball coach but it’s important to resist the urge to cast people into roles. The great theatre artist Augusto Boal once remarked, “…it’s best to see people without the captions!” An educational leader who is focused on growing a caring ecology gives new staff members the time they need to write their own chapter in the school’s unfolding story.
Educational leaders who nurture a caring ecology in their schools value the lived experiences of their staff members. They recognize that prior to joining the school community, new teachers, students, and caregivers have lived rich and storied lives. Each one of them carries wisdom, gifts and talents that will enrich the social, cultural and knowledge tapestries of the school community. Brené Brown stresses that, “…a leader is someone who holds her or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” A school or classroom should be different in remarkable ways because new people have arrived.
Share Your Time
When I ask teacher candidates what concerns them the most about their first teaching job, they often respond with some version of “losing control of the class.” They describe their fears in images of children running wild or in the furrowed brow of a future principal who might perceive their need to ask for help as evidence of incompetence. To mitigate the anxiety new staff members experience, educational leaders can share one of the most precious things they have, their time. Before the first school bell rings, they can bring new staff members together and ask questions like, “How can we support each other as we settle into the new year?”
These types of invitations are evidence of a fourth thing leaders in a caring ecology do.
A principal I greatly admire invites new staff members to join her for a spaghetti supper after staff meetings. It’s a time for the new teachers and educational assistants to ask their burning questions. The principal makes the noodles and the sauce, but it’s the group that determines what information and supports they need to be successful.
As an educational leader, you play a significant part in the lives of new staff members, children, and families. Their interactions with you not only influence the encounters they have with others on a particular day, but they also shape the interactions they will have with others in the future. The good news is that when compassion passes from person to person, patterns of healthy relationships develop. And if we understand ourselves as stewards of relationships through our leadership work, we will nurture school communities that are rooted in generosity and love.
– Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of the MB Teacher
Alysha J. Farrell Ph. D. is a writer/contributor for the MB Teacher magazine and an associate professor and the chair of the Leadership and Educational Administration Department in the Faculty of Education at Brandon University. An educator in Manitoba for over 20 years, her research focuses on relationship building and the emotional dimensions of teaching, leading, and learning in the face of climate change.