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  • jancresswell

The Case for Compassion

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

You’d think it was a given. Good teaching has compassion and empathy at its heart: it fosters an understanding of different perspectives and seeks to enable others. The best teachers and education leaders are motivated by a powerful commitment to improving the life chances of our children - a profoundly compassionate purpose. In fact, I’m willing to bet it was right up there in your top reasons for joining the profession and that your desire to make a difference is a key driver of your dedication to what is undoubtedly a demanding vocation. It may be unfashionable to use the ‘v’ word but, whilst the day job is rarely glamorous, it is both important and of high moral worth. And as a leader you have the opportunity to set the tone and take the decisions which determine the climate in which everyone in your school will live and thrive.

Since you’ve clicked on this site, I can be fairly certain you recognise that leading a happy and successful school isn’t about storming the league tables - or even about nurturing the skills that employers are looking to find in their new recruits. Far more than this, we are seeking to provide optimum conditions in which to develop caring, curious and knowledgeable young people who are respectful of others and at ease in themselves, who will help to create a better and more peaceful world. And if we are to make this vision a reality, that same ethos of confidence and kindness has to be embedded in the thought and practice of our organisation - if we are expecting our colleagues to model these habits for our pupils, then the working atmosphere they experience needs to be conducive. Schools, after all, are not buildings but communities of people, and what each person takes with them at the end of each day will be the conversations they have had and the way they have been treated. (Angelou’s poignant observation that people will forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel is frequently quoted for good reason.)

Compassionate leadership has gained currency in recent years following the evident success of companies which have made it central to their philosophy. Jeff Weiner, Executive Chair and former CEO of LinkedIn, for example, calls it the ‘drumbeat’ of the company, a ‘first principle’ of his practice and a necessary preparation for the fourth industrial revolution: ‘By breaking free of our own tribes, even if only for a moment, and seeing things through the lens of people unlike ourselves, we can begin to close the gaps, whether they be socio-economic, racial, gender, political or otherwise’. It’s hard to think of a call to action which would have greater resonance right now.

Research post-2008 lent weight to the proposition that alpha-dominated company cultures precipitated and exacerbated the financial crash, and an increasingly 24/7, target-driven working culture was ringing alarm bells even before the upheaval and tragedy of the 2020 pandemic prompted a global rethink. This, from McKinsey, puts it succinctly: ‘A “landscape-scale crisis” such as COVID-19 strips leadership back to its most fundamental element: making a positive difference in people’s lives.’ Take a look at Amy Bradley’s optimally timed The Human Moment for some inspiring case studies of how company productivity, employee engagement and individual wellbeing have been transformed by ‘humanity in action’.

Yet much in our education system mitigates against a compassionate approach: it isn’t wellbeing or atmosphere which feature in league tables but assessment data, in ever-changing guise, from A*s to 9s to the obscure percentages of Progress 8 scores. Inspection frameworks may recognise the importance of supporting children in developing their ‘character, including their resilience, confidence and independence’ and of ‘taking account of the main pressures on staff’, but the inspection experience is rarely conducive to wellbeing given the inevitable box-ticking many of its processes involve and given the impact of its judgements. (For the record, there is no conflict between compassionate leadership and accountability - far from it: honest engagement with how things are is essential in a compassion-led model. We will deal with other myths in another post.)

And those are just the external measures. Your governors will also set their own Key Performance Indicators against which you will be judged: targets for exam results, for numbers on roll, for cost-saving efficiencies and increased market share. Then there are professional reviews, 360 or otherwise, departmental appraisals, and end of term assessments and reports for your pupils, maybe even half-termly grade cards, too. At every level in your school, the experience is defined through measurement.

So we need to learn to measure important things, as Philip Hallinger has it. Whilst there is excellent work going on to promote compassion in schools - including the influential Values Education project which grew out of Australia, and the Positive Psychology and global citizenship movements - I have found little which specifically addresses the transforming difference which can be made by a compassionate approach to school leadership. My work is about helping you to recognise the important things and about how by creating a culture of kindness and compassion you will enable and empower those you lead. In supporting you, I am drawing on over twenty years of senior leadership in schools, latterly as head of a large and successful secondary school, but also on fifty years of being a human being, because that is what we will learn to celebrate: the power of the human moment. It is my hope that you will find much to encourage you in the important and challenging role you have taken on. I wish you a happy and exciting journey!


1.Angelou quotation: attributed, 2003 March 25, Carolina Morning News, Section: Bluffton Bulletin, Column: Beautiful Bluffton By the Sea, Spring Has Sprung Around Town by Carolyn Bremer (though the line appears to have a longer heritage: it was ascribed to Carl W. Buehner in a 1971 collection of quotations from famous leaders in the Church of Latter-Day Saints).

2. Weiner, J., Wharton graduation speech, 2018

3. Irene van Staveren, ‘The Lehman Sisters Hypothesis’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 38 (5), 2014, p. 995-1014. Also worth looking at Dawn Foster’s 2015 ‘Lean Out’ for a discussion of why this is not simply a gender issue.

5. Bradley, A. ‘The Human Moment’, 2020

6. Ofsted framework for inspection, 2019

9. Seligman, Martin E.P., ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life’, 1991. Also worth looking at the resources to be found here:

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