The vocation of a head teacher.
The head teacher in Great Britain is an increasingly hard role to fill. The re-advertisement rate for head teacher posts stood at 61% in 2013[i] Janet Goodall who is leading research into this area at the University of Bath said,
- There are additional expectations from a head teacher at a faith school – they need to be a faith leader themselves. And they may well need extra support to be able to fulfil that role.
The list of expectations of head teachers come in different forms and with different levels of urgency. Accountability is one area of higher expectations, not only in the multiplicity of data streams but also the accountability to a wide range of bodies who expect hard data often in quite different forms. The list includes local authorities, OFSTED, The LSC, The HSE, National Government and the Diocese. These are additional tasks which in themselves simply take more time but they also have implications for the head teacher in maintaining school ethos because the data capture, essential as it might be, is not a value free process.
The atmosphere of measuring, grading and comparing generated by the oversight of schools tends to create a competitive atmosphere within and between schools. If it is taken as the only tool for making judgements it can undermine the compassion and self-sacrifice at the heart of the Gospel. OFSTED were aware of the discrepancy between these hard measure of academic targets and the need to make some softer judgements about the overall ethos or spirit of the school. In 2004 they produced a document that attempted to remedy that gap but it has been largely ignored. OFSTED published guidance for inspections with the following statement about the spiritual:
- Pupils’ spiritual development is shown by their: • ability to be reflective about their own beliefs, religious or otherwise, that inform their perspective on life and their interest in and respect for different people’s faiths, feelings and values • sense of enjoyment and fascination in learning about themselves, others and the world around them • use of imagination and creativity in their learning • willingness to reflect on their experiences[ii]
The documentation in this area always seems to limp because spirituality is difficult to define until it becomes much more focused in a particular tradition. But OFSTED descriptions are always trying to avoid particularity and are probably doomed to being vague. Such attempts never to lend themselves to the kind of particular target setting and judgements built into the inspection framework. Therefore, with the best will in the world, those involved in the measuring of education will always end up marginalizing the spiritual area. Perhaps the whole oversight structure for schools is based upon an unspoken assumption that only what can be measured is ultimately of value. If that is the case then the head teacher in a church school may find that they are in danger of being drawn into a practical atheism instead of being a spiritual leader at the heart of an educating community.
The Gospel reminds us that we must render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.[iii] But at times the voice of Caesar in terms of demands for data, evaluation and progress seems much louder than the whisper of God who is not to be found in the storms of anxiety and competitiveness that swirls like a tornado through school priorities stripping away anything that is not nailed down in measurable quantities. If the real world can only be defined by what is measurable then joy, hope, pain, love, creativity and forgiveness do not exist and we may find that even Catholic schools could, almost unknowingly, have slipped into the dark and brittle prospect of a Godless world.
I believe that this is the bleak narrow world-view within which head teachers are being challenged to become spiritual leaders. The challenge to lead in this environment takes them into the threefold model of Christian leadership as a priest, a prophet and a king. In the context of the situation described above head teachers may need to adopt a prophetic stance- standing as an advocate for spiritual values as expressed in The Gospel. They may need to sharpen their focus around loving kindness and self-sacrifice, those immeasurable values that lead to the living of the Easter mystery in every person’s story. The head teacher will find much support for the championing of spiritual values in church documents. This quote from Pope Francis captures some of that challenge.
We educate with…the sole object of training and helping to develop mature people who are straightforward, competent and honest, and know how to love with fidelity, people who can live life as a response to God’s call, and their future profession as a service to society. [iv]
Notice that this statement expresses a sense of mission to the education of the human person in their broad vocation to fullness life. Mission is not always about making more Catholics. In another place Pope Francis writes,
- We educate with…the sole object of training and helping to develop mature people who are straightforward, competent and honest, and know how to love with fidelity, people who can live life as a response to God’s call, and their future profession as a service to society. [iv]
The challenge of being a spiritual leader in the school therefore also implies an invitation to be prophetic within the church as well as beyond it. It implies a need to challenge what the church provides where that provision does not feed the spiritual hunger of the pupils. It implies a need for more confidence and courage in head teachers in exploring what it means to be young and perhaps catholic in this secular world.
Such ideas may be inspiring but they need support behind them and resources for head teachers if they are to continue to make the Gospel at least as loud as the insistence on measurable outcomes in school life. Where are the resources, the leadership and inspiration for a new generation of head teachers? The CES does a fine job in advocacy for catholic education and for leadership and supports a broad view of education of the whole person with Christ at the centre of the school. However, it has a political task to hold together a wide range of views within the church and speak with a single measured voice to the public and political world in which we have to work. It does not set out to be prophetic at the local level.
The local dioceses have similar pressures with specific theologies within the diocese, and with political constraints in local authorities or in academy trusts beyond the diocese. The dioceses are also facing major re-structuring, diminishing numbers of clergy and lower levels of resources. All of these groupings can add some support to the work of head teachers in a creating a spiritual culture. However, all of them are under similar pressures themselves and are losing rather than gaining resources. There is no cavalry about to ride to the rescue of head teacher- but there is hope.
The hope comes from each head teacher themselves. They have generally been life-long Catholics, they have engaged for many years with the world of young people, they know how to be creative and to break down complex ideas and they know how to establish routines and manage change. These educational and leadership skills are also evangelising skills that can be transferred to the focus of spiritual leadership. Perhaps our way of evangelising as a church has de-skilled lay leaders to the point where they have insufficient confidence in their ability to integrate sacraments and Gospel into every level of life in school. Many heads, especially those emerging from an RE background, have an advantage in spiritual leadership through their study and work. Perhaps they will be more aware of much that is listed below.
Knowing that every sacrament is a process as well as an event makes a difference to the way school life is viewed. Baptism is lived out when each person is treated with the dignity they deserve as children of God. A school lives that dignity value on a daily basis and so it is a baptismal community. Each time a pupil or teacher breaks open their life and shares with another something of their gift or inner life they are breaking bread again and living in a Eucharistic community. The sacraments are outward signs of an inner reality that unfolds on an hourly basis in every school.
Learning to look at the school through the eyes of Jesus is a spiritual skill that can transform the way in which a head teacher works. Most heads “walk the school” on a regular basis to take the temperature and be present. Looking with a sacramental imagination means recognising the lost sheep, the good shepherds, the prodigal sons, the lepers and the good Samaritans in classes and corridors, taking the spiritual temperature of the school.
This term refers to the process of making a fresh proclamation of the Gospel to those who may have not really absorbed it before in a secular society. It presumes that there is a gradualness to the process- a sense of people being on a journey. The school is catholic because it is prepared to walk alongside young people even if they are going in the wrong direction- as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus. It was whilst he was talking with them and breaking bread with them that they came to recognise resurrection in their lives. Therefore, friendship and listening skills across the school are vital aspects of evangelising young people and ensuring their freedom to choose what they believe. That openness and breadth of relationships is what makes a school catholic in its proclamation of the Gospel.
The Spiritual life of young people
Too often we talk of handing on the faith to the young when we should really speaking of awakening their spiritual life through the experience of the catholic faith. They are not passive receivers of a set of dogmas but children of God awaking to their mystery and dignity as spiritual beings. Research tells us that many young people have rich spiritual lives until the age of 11 and then it goes underground. It is often seen as unreal and simplistic by a teenager but at the same time it emerges through a sense of justice, or vocation or a sense of mystery or otherness. Those are the areas where spiritual leadership needs to be at work to help young people find their soul in a more integrated life.
The spiritual life of young people is the strongest asset available to the head teacher in leading the school. Many of them will have had spiritual experiences, often alone, and will be reluctant to share them. Others will be hardly aware of having any inner life at all. The spiritual task of the head teacher is to create an environment where the spiritual can come to the surface and be cherished by the individual and the whole school community. That means presenting symbols, routines, behavioral standards, teaching and staff training within the context of the spiritual, the inner world of each member of the school community.
That means that all the demands of those agencies that feel the need to measure education can be met with a broader spiritual view and held in a kinder perspective. They are the reality in which the school exists and they represent an aspect of the world for which young people are being educated. Framing the tasks around curriculum and targets within a broader Gospel pattern can help to accentuate the positive aspects of accountability whilst softening the repressive and competitive harshness that they seem to bring. A head teacher has a delicate balancing act to make between achieving the necessary targets of inspections and the breadth of Gospel values that put the lowly at the centre of an educating community.
The danger of not having a really broad and catholic approach is spelt out in this final quote from Pope Francis:
- Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists - they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, their faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.
Let us pray for our head teachers who are at the creative boundary with an aggressively secular world. May their faith be broad, rooted in humanity and supported by the Gospel, by prayer and by the sacramental life of the church.