The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Liz Worthen

Reconnection, co-construction and courage: how we create a safe space for learning

How do we create a sense of safety in schools? Sharon Gray OBE on the importance of vulnerability, trust, collaboration and community re-building.

Sharon Gray OBE is a Pride of Britain award winner, a national leader of education and a consultant who puts emotional health and wellbeing at the heart of everything. Sharon is currently supporting a number of schools, MATs and local authorities to enable the best outcomes for all involved in educational settings during these challenging times.

You’ve recently been working with the Embark Federation on their ‘Reconnection to Recovery and Resilience Pathway’. Why is the idea of reconnection so important?

My experience throughout my leadership has been about reconnecting and co-creating a psychologically safe space, which becomes a secure base from which everybody can flourish and thrive. As a headteacher, I worked in schools which had gone into special measures and entire communities had been fragmented.

I’m very interested in the neuroscience of learning. Metacognition can’t take place if we’re dysregulated – perhaps we’re in the ‘fight flight freeze’ response that comes from our reptilian brain because we’re in a state of anxiety. Then we can’t access the limbic brain which gives us the emotional engagement and the curiosity which enables us to delve into learning.

If those two parts of the brain aren’t connected, then that cognition – or metacognition – simply can’t take place. We need to reconnect to enable a pathway through to resilience, and that ability to achieve and attain, in both the short and long term.

So how did the Embark Federation pathway come about?

I got to know Matthew Crawford, Chief Executive of the Embark Federation, when he was doing his NPQH. He was inspired by the idea of making a school whole again and part of the community, and this became part of his own leadership vision.

When the pandemic hit and talk turned to school closures, Matthew asked me to work with his team in keeping as strong as possible for each other, and for the children, as they moved forward.

We needed to stand out and do something – because doing nothing would mean getting a lot more wrong

It started with a Zoom meeting of 40 staff from across the trust. I was information gathering: what’s going on for us? What issues are we experiencing? What might be the issues going forward? What’s going well?

From there we created a map showing where we might go – a pathway with nine focus areas. Not an off the shelf curriculum, but a pathway for reconnection.

What did this mean for the staff?

Nine teams came together from across the group of schools. Our aim was to facilitate teams of highly skilled practitioners. Not experts, because none of us had been through a pandemic before! But we created a psychologically safe space, knowing that yes, we would get some things wrong, but also knowing that we needed to stand out and do something – because doing nothing would mean getting a lot more wrong.

Workload was a big concern for everyone. But the purpose of this approach was to reduce replication and duplication. By being focused, targeted and collaborative, we would reduce workload.

One significant impact that we hadn’t thought about at the beginning was how we created opportunities to facilitate connection between staff members who hadn’t worked together before. Even the most vulnerable staff, such as those who were shielding, felt they were doing something proactive and productive to move forward.

That notion of the ‘safe space’ is a really important one at the moment. Can you tell me more?

I know myself that as a professional I like to come across as ok and fine, and present in a way that is as successful as can be, which sometimes means that I will mask how I’m truly feeling inside. There’s an element of professionalism in that – and pride.

We all carry that. Families may fear the potential stigma in sharing for the first time that they’re in financial difficulties when they’ve always managed before. Our teachers are desperate not to let their colleagues and the children down.

But actually, in order to be steady and emotionally available to the staff members and children returning to school, we need to be emotionally healthy ourselves. It’s that idea of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

We ignore the emotional needs of our children and our colleagues at our peril

One of the teams took on responsibility for finding out what our stakeholders (including pupils and staff) were experiencing, through questionnaires – which we made sure were accessible to everyone. The information we gathered helped us work out the best way to target resources and finances, as well as enabling us to develop bespoke risk assessments for each setting.

From the outset, by doing what we were doing, we were living the values of the trust. Coming together as that collective family and trusting each other. We felt that though we weren’t experts, we had the solutions within – if we could just stand by each other’s side – and show up. Knowing that sometimes we’re going to get it wrong, and that’s what learning is.

All of this resonates from an amazing woman: Brené Brown. My favourite book is Rising Strong!

Courageous leadership is something you talk about a lot too. What does that mean to you?

Look at leaders such as Jacinda Ardern. It seems to me that she spends very little time worrying about what people think of her. She shows up with authenticity and generosity of spirit. And that is really key for me.
I go back to the courage to be vulnerable. To say, you know what, I don’t know all the answers. But if we dare to all come together, then we can find many of the solutions.

It’s not driven by ego. Of course I want to be seen as someone who’s doing ok at my work – but if I’m engulfed with that, or don’t share an idea because I’m worried about being wrong, then I’m slipping back into that mindset of what other people think of me is more important than my contribution to this piece of work.

When I was a headteacher, I did at times get into that adrenaline junkie state, hooked on ‘saving the world’. But you can’t connect to real cognition and reflection – and certainly not engagement and empathy – when you’re in that place. So how can you lead?

You’re also putting your physical health at risk; the body holds that stress. Better to surround ourselves with a kind, compassionate, empathic crew, who will give us that safe feedback. It’s ok not to be ok.

If we’re modelling ethical and courageous leadership, I think that’s possibly the best place from which children can go on to achieve and attain.

We ignore the emotional needs of our children and our colleagues at our peril. If we don’t get it as right as possible, the catch up will go on for years and years and years.

Do you feel hopeful for the future?

What can come out of this for me is to rethink the system around how we support our children and our staff. And to draw from this the positives that we can weave through into how we co-create the new future. At Embark Federation, it’s around a curriculum which is as rich in hope and humanity as it is in knowledge.

And knowing that to really create that sense of safety, you need all those tiny moments that add together, and enable us to enter into the vulnerable position of learning.

Through adversity, with relationships: that’s what facilitates resilience.

Developing a community that supports mental health

Sharon Gray will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Mental Health & Wellbeing in Schools conference, alongside Professor Barry Carpenter. For further details and booking, visit the website.

Find out more

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