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A Prayer for Teachers: St Francis and Leadership in Education

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It's not often that I turn to a Catholic prayer to begin anything, let alone a blog post. I count myself, most days, as agnostic. My first encounter with the Prayer of St Francis came, embarrassingly, in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even then, it was a song version by chanteuse Sarah McLachlan. Even more embarrassing is the fact that I like the sentiments of a prayer that Margaret Thatcher quoted in 1979 after winning the General Election. However, despite the inauspicious circumstances of my first hearing and the associations with rampant Toryism, I am moved today to show how the prayer itself should be the mantra of those of us who work in leadership positions in education.

The prayer itself is attributed to St Francis of Assisi although it probably only dates back to 1912. St Francis was known for his commitment to poverty, to nature and the environment. Popular images show him with birds, ever the gentle hand. So, how is this prayer relevant to the modern leader in education? It reads:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.

The first line requests that we are made "an instrument of [the] peace." On a literal level, teachers in general on a daily basis function as instruments of peace. Notwithstanding the obvious connotations of behaviour management, teaching is a profession that seeks to create a peaceful and prosperous society by educating young people. It is with this in mind that we should consider our role as educators this year - are we employed to churn out grades or to mould a generation of peaceful, useful members of society? If we are truly to be instruments of peace as teachers, then the bigger picture - one that goes beyond league tables and percentages - needs to be taken into consideration.

Specifically, middle leaders, in particular, function as the sponge of all disgruntlement in schools. If you have ever been asked by a senior leader to "speak to" a classroom teacher for some small misdemeanour, then you will know what I mean. Developing skills that allow you to be the hub whilst keeping the peace between groups of staff members is absolutely essential for middle leaders. It is the core skill of the emotionally intelligent middle leader.

To be able to "pardon" when there is "injury" speaks of the kind of resilience a leader has to have in leading their team. You are the one who has the "faith" when there is "doubt", especially when the stationery hasn't arrived and term starts tomorrow. You are the person who remains hopeful when Year 11 seem nowhere near their target grades. The hopeful leader is the one who says that child, the one who has been written off elsewhere, is still capable of that C grade or above. You are the one that helps your team to learn that "despair" is not forever, it is just until the end of the day, after that particular class has been taught. In leadership, you relish providing the opposite perspective - and indeed, perspective, in general.

My favourite line from the prayer is the one that instructs us "not so much seek to be consoled, as to console." In any kind of leadership position, your aim should be to alleviate the distress of others. This may not be as simple as being a shoulder to cry on - it is making sure that you are a sympathetic ear, but also an ear that listens for what is needed and then acts upon it. Distress, despair, disheartenment - they are all things that require you to "console" and the worst thing you can do to your team is to be the one that is consoled. Here, consolation is action.

If you can be the kind of leader who seeks to "understand", and not merely a figurehead that seeks to be "understood", you may end of commanding the kind of loyalty in a team that some people dream about. When you have to implement a new department policy, the instinct is to gather people round and make them understand your reasons for doing so. The best kind of change comes from collaboration and from understanding the perspective of others. There may be times when you have to be "understood", but the balance should always be tipped in the favour of understanding others.

Of course, the last lines of the prayer are particularly pertinent if you are in a leadership position. It is in "dying that we are born." Not literally, of course, but you do need to let things come to a natural end if they do not work. Policies and practices that are hindering progress can be put to one side; new isn't always better, but it is better that stagnating and struggling. That feeling at the end of the day - when you think you are "dying" of exhaustion? It is okay to feel that - you are "born" again in the morning and the next day happens, whether you like it or not.

Now you may be thinking: what on earth has she taken to go quasi-religious and quite frankly, a bit touchy-feely? Nothing, in fact. This feels remarkably zen-like for a me that is prone to panic and frustration. Perhaps 2013 is a year in which I learn to follow my own, and St Francis' advice, to become a better leader and for all the right reasons. I would hope that those in education leadership and policy, the Goves and the Wilshaws, can do the same.