Why our Schools Need Human Connection

Today’s blog comes from CEO and founder of the Amaya Trust, Alison Kriel.

I have always believed that schools are about people and human connection.  I remember my very best teachers.  I have fond memories of a maths teacher, Mrs Wood.  We had just moved from Northern Ireland to the outskirts of an English garrison town during a time when anti-Irish feeling was at an all-time high.  My mum insisted that I go in my old school uniform on my first day.
So there I was in my formal, Girls Grammar School bottle green pinafore (with matching green regulation bloomers), striped shirt and blazer thrown into the depths of what seemed like a huge, dysfunctional co-ed packed with noisy pupils, who flaunted all uniform rules and seem to have no desire to learn.  I’d just left a school where academic success was the only option to an environment where teachers cajoled the students to learn with patience and good humour.
There was one black pupil in the school, ‘Chalkie’, who used her self-disparaging humour to keep safe.  So there I was, ‘Grammar School Girl’, quiet, black with an Irish accent, unable to laugh at racist jokes, and who went to school to learn.  I didn’t belong. Mrs Wood saw my vulnerability and reached out to make a deeper connection with me and helped me to understand that yes I did look and sound different but what was unsettling the group was that I was in a minority and challenging the perceptions of majority.  And of course, with her support, I settled, made friends and then got on with the business of learning. In that order. Connection. Support. Belonging. Learning. Academic success.  (Of course I was determined to do my very best for Mrs Wood.)
Teachers like Mrs Wood clarified my understanding of what makes a good or bad teacher; what makes a good or bad school. The best schools promote human connection.  Staff and pupils have a strong sense of belonging – accepted and included for who they are – with plenty of scaffolding for those going though vulnerable patches.  I strongly believe that if children are emotionally well, they learn.  If teachers feel emotionally strong, we see them at their very best.
I recall moving from being a classteacher to being a school leader. I mourned the loss of human connection with my class. With time, I grew to love the feeling of connection with my staff and all of my pupils. I made myself available to them and they came to tell me everything, good and bad. I laughed and mopped tears. I showed compassion and when things were bad I put support into place.  Our school grew into a nurturing environment.  Warmth, kindness, understanding and respect was our norm.  When pupils greet you with a warm smile before you greet them, you know you’re winning.
My staff and my pupils worked hard for me and they were all successful in their own right.  We were a happy school.  That human connection was the one thing that was most talked about by my community when I left headship last summer. I was reminded of long forgotten small acts of compassion were remembered and still valued.
Sustaining human connection becomes even more critical when leading a MAT. It’s a complex role, which goes beyond modelling it to enable others to do it properly. Each school is competing for pupils, resources and high ranking in league tables. MATs are competing for the same talent pool, schools and funding. It could seem easier to cope in our education system by working in isolation but there is an urgent need to develop collaborative partnerships. Through collaboration at a higher level we can achieve so much together.  It will impact on cognitive performance lead to happier, healthier schools with better outcomes, and prove to be more financially viable.
As a leader of a MAT I need to:
– Hold on to my values. It makes decision making easy
– Look beyond statistics and see schools as being about people, about human connection
– Be focused on the right sized group to enable good communication
– Ensure each school retains it’s individuality
– Remove competition by being careful on what is valued
– Be prepared for unavoidable challenges and be mindful in asking schools and MATs to collaborate
– Look for shared goals, values, purpose and alignment to develop a culture of teamwork
I’ve always known that schools are about people, about human connection.  If I choose to simple think about success based on data and profit then it can only be seen as human disconnection.  I choose not to do that.  It is far better to belong to myself, to hold on to my values and my beliefs so that I can serve my community well and lead with pride.  I choose to work in schools because they are about people and I know that as long as we go on working together to develop happy schools which are about human connection, where we celebrate, respect and value each other, we will enable our students to be our best citizens.


Why Well-being Should be a School Budget Priority – Alison Kriel

“When I joined my School, that period there had been a number of leaders which had led to instability.  When the job was presented to me, I was asked to prepare the school for an Ofsted but lead to believe that with, leadership aside, everything was fine at the school. I quickly learned that that wasn’t the case.
The school was failing and it was near the bottom of the national league tables; parents, pupils and staff were aware of the school’s position. As a result, the self-esteem of the whole community was very fractured and there was little sense of pride within the school. Confidence was so low that teachers had the mindset that they could not expect much from the children and in turn, the parents had very little trust in the school. The school was also receiving a huge number of complaints.
It really was all very poor. The school’s culture at time was also very negative, chaotic even. Staff were not respectful of each other, and in turn the students were not respectful towards the staff or each other. All of this contributed to the very high turnover of the SLT which served only to perpetuate the lack of stability within the school. The school’s poor reputation also meant that the school had 125 children spaces unfilled which had a significant impact on funding.
In spite of all this, the local authority were just effectively plastering over the cracks and doing nothing to address the deeper, underlying problems.   As the new head I became accountable for everything in the school, even though the issues long pre-dated my headship. I felt like I was just trying to fix other people’s mistakes and expected to bring about change in an unreasonable time-frame.
The situation was hugely demoralising.  I was placed under relentless pressure and it quickly began to affect the way that I saw myself as a leader; my family life, my health, pretty much everything from my sleep pattern to my general happiness.
My local authority‘s sole concern was OFSTED and pupil and staff well-being was never considered. One day, I decided that this needed to change. That’s when I realised I needed to make well-being a priority in my school…”

Click below to read how making Well-being a School Budget priority helped to transform Alison’s School….

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Why Well-being Should be a School Budget Priority – Alison Kriel


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