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The Ultimate Guide to Compassionate Leadership in Education

Approximate reading time: 9 minutes.
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Compassionate leadership in schools is essential in a world that seems increasingly stressful and demanding. When school leaders practise compassion, they demonstrate that they care about people more than they care about outcomes. This engenders trust among staff and can ultimately lead to a stronger, healthier school culture.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatry, compassion is "a sensitivity to distress together with the commitment, courage, and wisdom to do something about it". It means being aware of how others are feeling and desiring to help them. As an educator and school leader, you probably practice compassion regularly. Applying what you already know to your leadership style can transform your relationships at school and foster greater teacher wellbeing. 

What is compassionate leadership in education? 

Compassionate leadership isn't a bunch of grandiose actions. It's a mindset that puts the needs and struggles of others on equal footing with one's own. When you use compassionate leadership in education settings, you put emphasis on both people and outcomes. Some school leaders worry that being compassionate will result in a poorer quality of education for students, but the opposite is actually true.  

According to school leader Bob Griffin, "People respond better in their learning and work when they feel valued and when their unique situations are understood". You don't stop expecting excellent performance from educators when you focus on compassion. Instead, you encourage that performance by understanding, supporting, and helping your staff. Because they trust you and know you care, the majority of education staff will work hard to help you meet school goals. 

Why does compassionate leadership matter? 

Compassionate leadership in schools has always mattered. You can probably recall a school leader whose compassion and wisdom made a difference in your early years as an educator. Teaching is a demanding profession. Education staff need strong leadership and team support to meet the challenges of each day. 

Sadly, many educators in schools today don't feel that they are trusted by school leadership. According to a 2022 survey on teacher wellbeing, 45% of teachers said that they felt they were trusted by their line leaders. Only 37% of education staff felt that they would be able to disclose problems with mental health or unmanageable stress to a school leader. 

Focusing on compassionate leadership in schools is one of the best ways to increase trust between staff and leadership. It's also a powerful tool in the fight against burnout. Teachers who believe that they're able to turn to leaders in times of crisis are less likely to leave the profession than those who don't have a strong support system.

Cultivating a school culture where compassion and kindness are prioritised fosters greater education staff wellbeing. It also provides an example for pupils of caring for others and doing the right thing. As a school leader, you have the power to shape a compassionate culture in your school and the wider education community.

Becoming a compassionate leader

No one masters compassionate leadership overnight. Becoming a compassionate leader is a learning process, and you're sure to make some mistakes along the way. There might be times when you misread a situation or cut an educator too much slack. It's okay to make mistakes. Take note of what you've learned and move on. After all, it's easier to exercise compassion with others if you show it to yourself. 

Compassionate leadership in education settings comes down to small, everyday habits. It's about the way that you treat people and the attitude you bring to the room. These tips will help you develop a compassionate leadership style and can change the way that you approach managing education staff wellbeing at your school. 

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Create a community with a shared ethos and values

It's important that everyone on your school staff shares some common ground beyond simply meeting pupil learning objectives set by the government. Business organisations often use a motto or vision statement to capture their ethos. A school leader's motto might be something like, "creating a culture where staff can learn and grow together". The leader's actions and school policies should all be aligned to meet this vision. 

Your school may already have a strong ethos and culture. If that's the case, simply make sure that your leadership style supports that culture. If your school lacks a shared ethos, start building one by asking education staff what their priorities and dreams for the school are. Perhaps they want to work in a setting where their personal lives are valued, or maybe they want more professional development opportunities. Listen attentively and take note of what education staff tell you.

Workplace culture experts note that there are eight elements of a great organisational culture.

  • Credibility: Staff know that you are worth your word.
  • Respect: Education staff and school leaders treat each other with respect and dignity. 
  • Fairness: Staff believe that leaders make decisions fairly and don't resort to favouritism. 
  • Pride: Staff and leaders are truly proud of where they work and what they do. 
  • Belonging: Everyone feels that they belong and have an important role to fulfil. 
  • Effective leadership: Leaders are invested in and work to build a strong culture.
  • Values: All team members share the same values in regard to how others are treated and how classrooms are managed. 
  • Innovation: School leaders and staff aren't afraid of trying something new. They embrace innovation and the positive changes it can affect. 

Put education staff wellbeing first 

If you asked a group of school leaders what is the most important population at your school?, most would likely answer, "the pupils." After all, the purpose of schools is to educate children and prepare them for adulthood. It seems that they should be the absolute centre of everything you do as an administrator. 

The truth, though, is that education staff and teachers are the most important population at your school. Without well-trained and happy staff, there's no way your school can provide the highest level of service possible to pupils. Focus on teacher wellbeing and mental health awareness. When educators are personally fulfilled, they do a better job in the classroom. 

Encourage kindness 

Research consistently links being kind to greater feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction for people of all ages. Simply put, being kind makes us all feel better. The person on the receiving end of kindness is encouraged, while the person on the giving end experiences a boost in self-esteem and satisfaction. 

You should set the tone by being a kind leader. You're probably already good at this — working in school leadership requires empathy, patience, and kindness. It's important to get staff on board too. Some ways to encourage kindness among education staff include

  • Giving a public "shout-out" to an educator every week to recognize their efforts.
  • Launching a "random acts of kindness" week where you encourage both staff and pupils to do kind things for one another without being asked. 
  • Creating a "good news" social media feed so that education staff can log on and see something positive and uplifting every day. 

Be present and caring

Being there when education staff need you matters. This can be a challenge for school leaders simply due to the nature of how schools work. You're on a specific timetable for the day, and you may have scheduled meetings that you can't miss. Whenever possible, make it a priority to be available for staff during the before-school and after-school hours. 

Showing that you're present can be as simple as asking staff how they're doing on a daily basis and actually listening to their responses. It's okay to make notes of what staff members tell you so that you can follow up later. For example, a teacher might share that she's going on a hiking trip with her sisters over a holiday break. Show that you care by asking how the hike went when school resumes.

Be visible in the school community 

The more education staff see you in a positive light, the more likely they are to approach you in a time of need. But how do you engender trust in your staff? Try a style called 'managing by walking around' (MBWA). This is a people-first approach where you'll schedule time every day to walk around your school and observe what's happening. 

One of the primary goals of MBWA is to catch people in the act of doing something good, and then praise them for it. When education staff know that you're looking for positives and aren't just there to critique them, they won't dread your presence. Instead, they'll look forward to seeing you in the hallways or staff room.

Use a compassionate communication style

You know that how you speak to education staff can have a substantial impact on their wellbeing. You probably try to use a measured and fair style, even when you have to have difficult conversations. Check in with yourself periodically to ensure that you're prioritising compassionate communication. Communicating with compassion means

  • Listening thoughtfully and working to understand what is being said 
  • Delaying judgment until you understand everyone's feelings and needs
  • Thinking through what you say and how others will perceive it before you speak 
  • Asking for more information to better understand the issue 

Own your mistakes and shortfallings 

No one likes to admit that they've made a mistake or haven't put in their best effort. However, being able to take ownership of your mistakes as a leader is essential to building trust with education staff. It's also an essential component of compassionate leadership in education settings. 

You've probably told a pupil something like 'a mistake is an opportunity to learn'. Show that you believe that by admitting when you make mistakes. Let teachers know that you're aware you missed the mark and are working to correct any damage you've caused. It might seem counterintuitive, but people will trust you more when they know that you're willing to take responsibility for your actions.

Review school policies with an eye towards compassion 

Part of being a compassionate leader is knowing when policies and school rules are outdated and should be changed. Make a list of any controversial or overly strict policies that are currently in your staff handbook. If a policy is undermining teacher wellbeing, it's time to re-think it. You might not always be able to change policies, but you can show that you care about how they impact educators regardless. 

For example, many school leaders are changing the way their institutions handle time off. They're doing so in an effort to recognise that teachers are also parents and partners who want to attend special events such as graduations and school programs. It might not be possible to give teachers as much time off as you'd like, but changing the policy even a bit can improve teacher wellbeing and satisfaction.

Common myths about compassionate leadership 

Many school leaders know that compassionate management can be beneficial but are discouraged by myths about this style. Rest assured that many of the negative things you've heard about compassionate leadership in schools simply aren't true. 

Myth: Compassionate leaders are weak and simply take the consensus route instead of making tough decisions. 

Truth: Compassionate leaders aren't pushovers. They weigh the feelings and needs of others, but ultimately they have to make the best decisions for their schools. A compassionate leader explains to staff why they had to make a tough choice. 

Myth: Compassionate leaders don't encourage high-quality performance. 

Truth: Compassionate leadership is actually an amazing way to drive better performance from education staff. Remember that staff who feel cared for tend to 'go the extra mile' for their leaders. 

Myth: Compassionate leaders don't enforce school policies and regulations. 

Truth: Compassionate leaders absolutely enforce policies and regulations as needed. They simply do so with compassion by evaluating the appropriate response in each individual situation.  

Compassionate leadership starts with you

You can't be a compassionate leader if you haven't taken time to attend to your own wellbeing. It's important to take time for self-care. Why not sign up for your free Welbee Wellbeing Toolkit today? You'll find a wealth of resources, videos, and articles designed to help you care for your wellbeing and become a stronger leader. 

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