Empathy in school leadership

By April 27, 2016 No Comments

Originally written for the Show My Homework blog, this post examines the different ways you can show empathy as a school leader. I hope you find it on point and useful.

Empathy: (noun) the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Life can be pretty sucky. It’s true. You can pretty much guarantee that anyone walking past you in the school corridor is going through something pretty rubbish that is having some kind of effect on them.

Empathy is a critical factor when it comes to running a successful team or school. If you want to have the respect and loyalty of your colleagues then you really do need to show empathy. Here are ten of what I think are key things that you can do to be a leader with empathy.

Phoetic - Word Cloud

Show that you care

It’s easier said than done but there are lots of things you can do as a school leader to show that you care. John Tomsett for example, buys flu jabs for his team at his school. A simple and reasonably cheap way of showing that he cares about his team and in the same breath helps to keep absenteeism through illness down within his school. Abigail Mann showed this recently too with some well-being bags that she made for her colleagues. In the past, some things that I have done is to ensure regular supplies of biscuits are on hand. I always ensure that I make the time to be out on the corridors at break time asking students how they are; checking in with both them and colleagues within the staff room. Always say thank you!

Mind your body language

When talking with colleagues, body language is ever so important. Remember it’s not only their body language that will speak volumes but that of your own too. If someone is opening up to you about something be mindful not to fold your arms or cross your legs, bite your lip, rock from side to side, look around – all these things can send messages to colleagues that you are defensive, unsure, nervous or disinterested. Don’t play with your hair. A warm but measured response to a difficult conversation will be appreciated although may not be vocalised. Try tilting your head to one side too when listening to someone as it shows that you are sympathetic, a serious listener and demonstrates empathetic body language.

Read signals


Listen carefully to your colleagues. Listen to the intonations in their voice. If when you are speaking with them, particularly when asking for a task to be completed – listen to their response. If they don’t seem particularly interested or disheartened in their response you may wish to address this in a number of ways. You could share the disappointment because you have to do the same task – it’s part of the job, but be mindful of ways in which you could say thank you or alleviate the task next time around.

Plan carefully


With work/life balance being so important – when you’re mapping out things like parent evenings and teacher conferences, look at the rest of the calendar carefully too. Ensure you take into account other pressures that will be hitting that week such as reports being due, school plays, concerts, rehearsals; all of the things that might mean many of your colleagues will be already spending many many hours working beyond what they might do normally. This goes for timetabling too. Try to keep teachers working in the same classroom all of the time. Don’t have them traipsing all over the school every single lesson. This isn’t good for their stress levels and will often mean that lessons will start tardily and impact upon learning. Don’t forget to bear it in mind for your pupils and students too; for example when it comes to mapping out their timetables or their homework schedules. Homework is important so you don’t want to be having it all set on the same night!

Take notice

That is, keep a tight calendar yourself. Ensure your PA or you have a close record of when staff birthdays are and send birthday cards. Send flowers to the colleagues who have recently experienced a joyous birth or a tragic loss. Take the time to write notes of thanks to colleagues when they do something above and beyond. Take notice of the things which are important to your team. By taking notice of these your team will realise that the things that are important to them are important to you too.

Know your values


Having a strong moral compass as a leader is absolutely paramount. You must always hold yourself to the highest of standards. Just like teachers should do this in the classroom as the role models they are to the pupils and students, so you should too as a role model to your colleagues. It’s simply not good enough to just talk the talk, you need to walk the walk too. Examine your values and make sure you know what they are. This will make it easier for you when you are faced with a tough decision as this code of conduct will help steer you to your decision. Keep the praise public and the punitive elements of your role, if ever necessary, private in your office.

Self awareness

Being mindful of your own fears, emotions, and knowing how your actions can impact upon those around you is really helpful to being a leader with empathy. Knowing this will temper your actions around others so that you are able to hold yourself steady when the sails of your ship are being rocked. You can help yourself in a number of ways with this. Keeping a personal blog or journal can help you reflect upon what you do. This doesn’t have to be public, in fact whilst I blog a fair amount, I keep a personal journal using the App ‘Day One’ where I can just write about my feelings about different things so that I can learn from them in the future. The process of writing these things down is part of the reflective process too so that I am able to learn from it and do better next time.

Learn conflict resolution

Things don’t always go to plan. Colleagues will make mistakes. Families and colleagues will fall out from time to time as will colleagues with other colleagues. You will have policies in place to ensure you are covered but when emotions are high, having empathy is particularly difficult. This is where having a model of mutual respect and positive relationships (not my phrase but learned from a great leader) will go a long way to ensuring you sustain your well-earned reputation as a leader with empathy. There will be days when you may have to fire a colleague or expel a student. Do this with dignity and respect for others. They are probably having a worse day than you.

Put your hand up


It’s true that no one is perfect. We all make mistakes. If you make one. Fess up. None of your team will respect or respond well to someone who shirks responsibility or doesn’t take things on the chin. Do this and your team will stick to you through thick and thin. Try and place the blame elsewhere and you will lose the respect of your colleagues. Pull your weight too. Don’t leave early on parent’s evening even though you haven’t got any appointments. If you are a member of the leadership team you are one of a few very important ambassadors for the school. That isn’t to say that an entire leadership team should be there late every time – take it in turns, but make sure you stay to the end and make sure you help to put the chairs and tables away. Get involved and get sweaty.

Look after yourself too

It’s important to note that having a good network of support for yourself is absolutely key. I mentioned keeping a journal earlier but don’t keep everything to yourself. If you are going through some problems yourself keeping these things to yourself in the workplace is important but you need a conduit to discuss your issues and problems too and your colleagues aren’t the right people to do that with. You may wish to blog your reflections on things that are going on in your life – many do such as Keven Bartle and John Tomsett. That said, I heard an interesting fact recently – I’d love it if someone could reference it for me – I’ve not been able to track it down yet; however – school leaders are six times more likely to go on long term sick than teachers within a school. Make sure you look after yourself. Get yourself a life coach or if you have an understanding partner – talk with them, although don’t let that take over your life either – quality down time outside of work is really key to being able to return to work every day invigorated and refreshed.

In summary:

Show that you care – go the extra mile – if someone has P5 off on any day and doesn’t have a meeting, let them go home if they want to – they’ll still do the work and respect you all the more for it.

Mind your body language – just think about how you act in front of others and the impact it can have.

Read signals – look for visual and audio cues from your colleagues that indicate things aren’t great – if not, then do something about it.

Plan carefully – be mindful of work/life balance when it comes to planning out timetables and events in the school. Don’t forget those colleagues on part-time contracts either!

Take notice – remember people and remember and take notice of the things that are important to them.

Know your values – this will help you through stormy times – follow your moral compass.

Self awareness – be mindful of yourself and be mindful of what your own emotions are telling you. Slow down if necessary.

Learn conflict resolution – it will help in the long run. Sustain positive relationships with those around you and engender mutual respect.

Put your hand up – get stuck in and be part of the team, put chairs away, buy a round at the staff social, go to the staff social even but keep that professional distance.

Look after yourself – after all, who else will do your job if you’re not there?!

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