Supporting the emotional work of school leaders
Belinda Harris, 2007
London: Paul Chapman Publishing (Sage Publications)
193 pp., £20.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-7619-4468-3
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2008
For thirty years now, politicians have sought ever greater control of education in England. The process began with Prime Minister Jim Callaghan's Ruskin College speech of 1976 and the 'Great Debate' which followed. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's administrations, supported by the tabloid press, invented an 'education crisis' as the pretext for political intervention, which culminated in the 1988 Education Reform Act. This imposed a content-based National Curriculum (in which teachers had had no say), a grotesquely complicated edifice of targets, testing and league tables, a privatised inspection service (Ofsted) whose main purpose seemed to be the humiliation of 'failing' teachers and schools, and a system of funding which forced schools to compete with each other rather than cooperate. From 1997 Tony Blair's 'New Labour' governments increased the level of political control still further. Where the Tories had told teachers what to teach, New Labour now told them how to teach it. And Blair's education ministers appeared to take a positive delight in 'naming and shaming' so-called failing schools.
This political interference has done enormous damage to education in England, but it has also been traumatic for those involved - for the teachers and pupils, and for the school communities in which they work.
It is against this background that Belinda Harris seeks to 'draw on extensive personal and professional experience of working in schools, on empirical evidence and on the literature of teacher effectiveness, human relations, counselling, school improvement and educational leadership to propose a more dynamic, inclusive and relational stance towards school change.' (p.2) She rejects the task and performance models of school improvement which politicians have imposed and seeks 'to place people, relationships and learning back in the driving seat of change'. (p.2)
The first two chapters of her book set out the context in which the emotional life of communities, schools and individuals is played out and offer an overview of what is meant by the emotional work of leaders in that context.
In her introductory chapter, Harris outlines the purpose of the book and explains its empirical base. She argues that 'the current social, political and economic climate has depersonalised communities and cut people off from internal and external sources of care and support ... It is the inability of governments to engage teachers' hearts and minds and to involve them as partners in policy making that is one of the key failures of school reforms and one which has had serious consequences for the power dynamics of relationships experienced in classrooms, staffrooms and playgrounds.' (p.5-6)
In Chapter 2 Leading in an emotionally challenging context Harris argues that the many changes schools have had to endure - including the effects of globalisation - have had a negative impact on people's sense of their own efficacy, worth and well being. She uses the term 'repetitive change injury' to highlight the prevalence of traumatic stress in schools and the disturbing rise in mental health problems in young people.
Chapter 3 The emotional work of school leadership explores the emotional conditions which support the development of inclusive learning communities. Harris argues that 'If one of the purposes of education is to effect a more humane society, then change is needed in the individual and collective psyche of schools and communities'. (p.35)
In Chapters 4-9 Harris draws on empirical data to identify key factors supporting the emotional work of school leaders and suggests ways of nurturing these in self and others.
Chapter 4 Developing emotional awareness focuses on enhancing emotional awareness. Leaders need to keep in touch with their inner experience if they are to respond appropriately and authentically to the daily opportunities and challenges they face.
Chapter 5 Understanding personal process emphasises the need for self-acceptance, including the less palatable aspects of self. Without this, leaders may be limited in their capacity for emotional experiencing and relating to others. '"Tuning into" self allows the more vulnerable and disowned aspects of self to be known and appreciated as valuable sources of information. Appropriate humility helps to protect the leader from a gradual slide into arrogant and grandiose ways of being and to sustain the capacity for empathy that is central to the work of teachers and leaders.' (p.83)
Leaders can be as vulnerable as those they lead, so Chapter 6 Wounding self and others offers suggestions for navigating a path through 'two-way wounding'. 'A leader's capacity to acknowledge their human vulnerability is one essential ethical safeguard to prevent them from hiding behind or abusing their status and power.' (p.92)
Chapter 7 Values: a process approach explores the role of values in creating and sustaining inclusive schools. 'Re-establishing trust in teachers, in leadership and in schools involves not just agreeing a vision or a set of school values but ensuring that these values are embodied in the behaviours of all staff and therefore experienced as predictable and consistent over time.' (p.111)
Creating vibrant communities of practice is emotionally draining work. Chapter 8 Caring for self and others is concerned with developing cultures of care in which the leader's own needs and the needs of colleagues and pupils are respected and attended to.
Chapter 9 In trauma and in health seeks to explain the nature of post-traumatic stress in young people and the 'repetitive change injury' suffered by teachers and schools. 'New kinds of commitments and relationships are needed to create enough safety, trust and persistence for collaborative, cooperative, mutually rewarding and growthful learning.' (p.12-13)
The book concludes with a postscript in which Harris reiterates her central theme - that 'emotional experience lies at the heart of school leadership and that the most effective leaders work at this level principally intuitively and fundamentally'. (p.171)
She offers a summary of her principal arguments:
Supporting the emotional work of school leaders is a very readable book and it is certainly an important and valuable one. It offers sound advice based on practical experience, and invaluable coping strategies based on empirical evidence.
It does contain a few linguistic errors which occasionally necessitate the re-reading of a sentence to work out its meaning - plural subjects with singular verbs, missing commas, a couple of split infinitives, inconsistent use of hyphens and the misspelling of 'practise' as 'practice'.
Nonetheless, I commend it to all those involved in the difficult and stressful task of school leadership and to those who aspire to such positions.
It should also be required reading for government ministers!