Maslow turns in his grave

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The importance of empathy in education cannot be overstated, says our headteacher diarist, but it doesn't go hand in hand with soft and unchallenging, as our educational leaders seem to think.

November already. How much longer the list of changes and challenges that we have had to deal with since the heady days of September.

The pace of change is ever-accelerating and, whether you lead a large or small school, you have to be on top of your game to keep up. The old strategy “what is urgent and important” has to come into play, but this can also have its down-sides.

Sometimes it is important to do “what is right” too. While making sure that all of the other stuff still gets done, we sometimes must take the time just to check on a child or a colleague who is having a hard time.

Indeed, it is also vital that we keep an eye on ourselves and know when we need to refresh and recharge – and how to go about it. 

I keep Maslow and his hierarchy of five motivational needs (Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, Self-Actualisation) close to mind as I think about leadership and schools. 

The very best schools are operating at that highest level where individuals can “self-actualise” (the fifth of Maslow’s levels which relates to fulfilling your potential and achieving that of which you are capable) because their other needs lower down the hierarchy are being met.

We are human; we need to feel valued in our lives both professional and personal, we need to feel a degree of control over our existence and to have some say in it, we need to know that those in charge of organising and leading on a societal level are mindful of this and operate not just with the highest moral and professional codes, but also with the knowledge that “one size does not fit all” and that leadership must be exercised in a very skilful and  empathetic manner.

The importance of empathy has been elevated in recent years in all aspects of societal endeavour. It doesn’t mean that one can’t make tough decisions when necessary, it doesn’t mean “soft and unchallenging”, instead it means being able to understand consequences of actions and then to exercise high impact leadership which will have the greatest impact and effect on the cause you are pursuing.

This is why I have such great difficulty in understanding why two of the main leaders in our sector don’t seem to understand the damage they are doing which is detrimental to and undermines the very positive impact that they are seeking to have in terms of improvements for children.

I have no disagreement with the overall aim of securing the very best for every single child no matter where, or under what circumstances they are born. I am open to challenge to ensure that I play my part, as a system leader, in leading others to ensure improvements. I don’t make excuses for poor performance and I don’t sit on my backside leaving the hard work to others.

This doesn’t take away from the fact that I am very, very worried. I could have used this column to rail against the lack of thought, knowledge or understanding in announcing the decision regarding early entry for GCSE, the complete unwillingness to respond to the core issue of the timing of the announcement three weeks before those very exams took place, and the standardised, ill-informed replies I have so far received from a number of very senior politicians. I don’t intend to because my belief is that it won’t make any difference.

How did we get to the stage where my professional association can write to the secretary of state, not once but three times, and be ignored – not even given the courtesy of a reply?

I’m no politician, but I am proud to be a headteacher who can look at myself in the mirror and be okay with what I see. Can they?

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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