For schools in Australia and around the world, we currently face the continuing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, widening inequality, climate change induced natural disasters, and a deepened awareness of systemic racism. This has further brought the impacts of trauma into public awareness and highlighted our interdependence, both in times of devastation and in the compassion of our response. School leadership teams can prepare themselves for these compounding complexities by strengthening their own capabilities and mindsets as leaders.
Along with the skills and mindsets needed to respond to trauma within school settings, teachers and school leaders benefit from systems-aware practices to address compounding systemic concerns. Our response over the past two years has been to integrate trauma-informed and systems-aware approaches to create a new school leadership framework. In short, trauma-informed perspectives are urgently needed to proactively understand and address the primary and vicarious impacts of stressors within school communities; systems-aware perspectives are urgently needed to help leaders understand and address the myriad of complexities arising within their own schools (which is its own system embedded within community systems). Through our emerging research, we have observed four key practices that can support school leaders and teachers to lead with compassion.
1. Navigate polarities
Polarities seem to be everywhere we look and are only heightened during times of stress and crisis. As Shoshana Boyd describes, “Put simply, a polarity is an ongoing problem with two correct answers that are interdependent.
One of the clearest ways we observe polarities arising at school is when attempting to create change. In our work, this often means school leaders harnessing the capacity to drive momentum around important trauma-informed school goals. A systems-aware approach also asks us to create the conditions within a school climate to host challenging discussions, build trust and collective leadership around shared concerns, such as school wellbeing.
Polarities are inevitable and leaning into them as a compassionate response to these times will help to avoid the alternatives of shutting down or checking out.
2. Explore community perspectives and experiences
It is common for trauma-informed schools to set up proactive approaches to student behaviour centred around addressing unmet needs for learning. This is an important departure from the old way of reacting to student behaviour through punitive measures.
A systems-aware approach helps us to look deeper into the patterns of perspectives and experiences of everyone within our school community. We come to see that behaviour is but one individual-exterior lens through which we can understand a person within a complex and networked web of beliefs, relationships and environments. Ken Wilber suggests that a comprehensive understanding of the people in our school communities is possible by exploring individual-interior (identities), collective-interior (cultures) and collective-exterior (systems) in order to “include [them] in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace”.
The four perspectives mentioned above form an integrated approach, and if we consider just one in isolation, blind spots can occur. School leaders and teachers can heed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words on the “danger of the single story” by attending to blind spots and ensuring no one is forgotten in our efforts toward social equity in schools.
3. Create restorative dialogue
Trauma-informed restorative practice brings young people into an ecology of reflection to find meaningful ways to repair relationships and build greater self-awareness.
We know that in schools teachers encounter both daily successes and setbacks when students are struggling to learn, making it complex and emotional work. A systems-aware approach values the need for everyone in a school community to engage in restorative practice, and to harness the knowledge that is created through those encounters to enhance the resilience of the entire school.
Helpful is the focus on creating containers for restorative dialogue, defined by Bill Isaacs as an atmosphere of shared awareness, consensually held together by mutual agreements and a sense of purpose. Teachers and school leaders who can create safe containers to engage in dialogue, practice open-hearted listening and thoughtfully inquire into ways they might improve their practice can move a whole school in the direction of compassion.
4. Capture a unifying narrative
Teaching is purpose-driven work and almost every teacher and school leader has a story for why they came to become an educator. What can be less clear is the narrative of what sustains them, especially when times of high stress and uncertainty clouds that original impulse of purpose.
A story can be a thread back to that purpose, particularly when we consider Oliver Sacks’ assertion that the “narrative is us.” Drawing on Marshall Ganz’s Public Narrative Methodology, when those stories of self are linked together in a unifying story of us they can break down silos of practice across a school and generate a shared vision, a story of now. From this place can emerge new and coherent possibilities that can hold communities of people and schools together with compassion during the toughest of times.
When enacted together, these four practices serve as a strong foundation for a trauma-informed systems-aware approach to school leadership. Our research is showing that when school leadership teams mindfully navigate polarities, explore community experiences and perspectives, create restorative dialogue, and capture a unifying narrative, they are shifting their own mindsets to better understand and embrace the daily complexity within the system that is their own school – and the systems in which their school is embedded. Our hope is to support school leaders and teachers to lead collectively through ethics of community hope, resilience, equity and compassion.
By Jack Greig and Dr Tom Brunzell