“It is not just the amount of work. It is the pressures of a punitive and non-productive accountability system.”

This quote comes from an article from the Guardian in 2018 appraising the current climate in education. But for a moment imagine you read this about Google…what would you advise? That they speak to their shareholders? That they ease off a bit? That they rethink what their mission is? That they reduce their ambitions? Or perhaps you might ask the question, how is the intense pressure of what Google needs to achieve translated into everyday life for employees? What is the reason that they feel squashed, cowed and enslaved? Why has the hopeful, empowering vision of what they want to do turned into a nightmare on the ground?

But this isn’t about Google – this is about education and schools and about a vision arguably far more important than Google’s – it’s about the future of our children who will be running the world as we age and pass the relay baton.

To look at a macro, government level has overwhelming implications. If large numbers of our teachers are becoming mentally unwell, leaving or indeed never even training as it looks so unappealing, then it does indeed look like a sector in crisis. But this isn’t the whole picture – by any means. And so we need to ask how and why do some schools have happy, confident teachers who can cope with the pressures, yet others are crumbling?

It’s the culture. It’s the tone. It’s the levels of kindness and compassion and humane accountability. If this is right – it is amazing what we can achieve. It’s not just motivational rhetoric. Because a strong culture is not a nice-to-have but an absolute essential. These words sound so soft yet they pivotal to our wellbeing.

We are hardwired for this

There are eight basic or primary emotions which are mixed to create the diversity of feelings we experience. Five are survival emotions: fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness. These are often the driving emotions, having evolved to keep us safe and alive. Two are attachment emotions; namely love and excitement and are said to have no survival benefit yet huge social and cultural value. Indeed, the pain we feel when not attached is very real and almost paralysing. As social creatures the attachment emotions are certainly critical to our wellbeing – to stay within the tribe.

Emotions aren’t limited to our personal lives

These basic emotions do not conform to boundaries relating to specific context. They are triggered in personal AND professional contexts, indeed in every corner of our lives. To speak of love and fear in many professional settings would seem ludicrous, yet these fundamental emotions are the foundation of all human interaction. Without understanding and harnessing the emotional interplay in an organisation it is easy to see why many workplaces are unsuccessful or create cultures that are on the brink of implosion.

The paradox here is that schools do this all the time – but focusing primarily on the students. We seem to have compassion exhaustion when it comes to relationships and interaction of staff and team members, yet to ignore this dynamic is to make a grave error.

Fear cultures

Loading more pressure, veiled and open threats, opaque messages, telling, reprimanding, excluding, blaming and ignoring do not work – they create fear which moves people into fight, flight or freeze. All these behaviours are endemic within a culture that stems from fear and anxiety.

As social creatures, we are evolved to be part of the tribe and when we are in a setting where we experience incessant fear and insecurity about the tribe and our place within it, our emotional wellbeing is severely compromised.

We are hardwired for attachment which comes from trust– it enables creativity and resilience. Currently many schools unwittingly work along the lines of survival which comes from fear. Fear means many of our brain functions close down and we become narrowed in our thinking. Without the perspective to see clearly we reverse ourselves into a dark corner.

A high concentration of union involvement, significant percentages of people on long term sick and low morale are all symptomatic of fear-based cultures.

They arise from myriad roots – some historical, fear strategies and leadership legacies can leave staff reacting to new situations through the lens of old experiences. Or it may be that the current way of running your school is producing fear.

Moving out of fear into trust

So how do you make the transition from fear to a culture of trust? Well first it isn’t fast – nothing good ever is. But you can start now. Be inspired by work in that area and consider reading: ‘Professional Capital – Transforming Teaching in Every School’ ‘Good to Great’ and/or ‘Switch’ (this is by no means an exhaustive list so go on your own journey of literary exploration).

Five steps in the right direction

  1. Start smiling and speaking to people – genuinely look to connect
  2. Make a productive culture of wellbeing central to your school development plan and start talking about this – if it doesn’t have a language no one can articulate the changes that need to happen. Don’t make certain subjects ‘off limits’ as it’s important to create open and honest discussion
  3. Find out how people really feel and why – as Jim Collins said – look at the cold hard truth first. You may need to do this anonymously first though and it’s important to understand your baseline
  4. Take the criticism on the chin (and celebrate the successes together) – a culture isn’t a separate thing – you are all part of it and you own it collectively
  5. If you are reading this as a school leader it’s important that you take responsibility and you act on it. The good news is it is front of mind and so now is the time to look at it and transform it. I know you can, I’ve seen it happen.