Immortality, science, religion and philosophy: lessons for education and leadership


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Author: Christine Challen

“Literature not only illuminates another’s experience, it provides [..] the richest material for moral reflection." (Paul Kalanithi)

A recent read of two moving accounts of battling cancer: “Late Fragments” - Kate Gross’s uplifting account of her battle against terminal colon cancer - and “When breath becomes air” - Paul Kalanithi's account of his battle against terminal lung cancer, made me realise that each offers important insights for school leaders.

Wired for happiness

Both authors were, as Kate puts it “wired for happiness” - avidly seeking the positivity that death can have on life. Both appear to share a love of literature including poems by the “meditative” American poet T.S. Eliot. The deep beauty of the prose made me question how the focus on trust, integrity and communication in these writings about science, immortality and religion could apply to leadership and education.

Leadership, education and the power of truth seeking

Kalanithi states that “scientific theories were built to organise and manipulate the world to reduce phenomenon into manageable units”. Although scientific methods are useful in terms of evaluating “reproducible and manufactured objectivity,” as well as generating so called lclaims about matter and energy; they alone lack the capacity to address or justify the human visceral nature of life. Elements such as hope, fear, striving and virtue follow no logical path but are pivotal to human life and in a sense offer more permanent truth.  

It is fair to say that science and logic have made considerable contributions to leadership: many of the scientists behind some of the great discoveries were thought leaders in their own right. For example: Einstein and his theory of relativity led to the application of this in the development, construction and testing of the first nuclear bombs. Whilst his other ideas that gravity, light, energy and matter were connected, completely revolutionised thoughts about our universe.

This supports the notion that to excel in leadership you should also be something of a thought leader in your own right, in order to have the capacity to constantly question and re-evaluate what is already known. The capacity for deep reflection is also fundamental in order to ensure that staff are valued and able to develop in their work and job satisfaction: all elements key to well-being and pivotal to producing quality teaching and learning for students.

Feelings and emotions an essential component of leadership, teaching identity and mental wellbeing

One of the theories we all learn as trainee teachers was introduced by Abraham Maslow. He contends that stability of emotional wellbeing is central to academic and personal achievement, pointing out that it can all too easily be eroded by factors relating to our workplace and beyond.

Another key element of good leadership and central to many theoretical approaches, is the ability to empathise and engage EQ (Emotional) as well as IQ. However, while both facets appear consistently in the literature pertaining to teachers’ professional identity, a rising tide of reports and discussions on social networking forums indicate that poor staff wellbeing; stress; never ending unachievable workloads and lack of work life balance are increasingly leading to teacher attrition and undermining school leader mental wellbeing teacher and school leader .

One of the saddest examples I have read recently is an account by an outstanding science teacher’s description of why she finds her job so “soul destroying” that she has to quit.  In a moving and heartfelt letter to her parents - both teachers - she explains that she has no ‘emotional reserves or strength left to cope with the workload and family life. Many teachers I know can and do relate to this; myself included.

 What’s the message?

Perhaps the most powerful message that both books offer us is the fact that trust and communication are both pivotal to good leadership. A view that reverberates throughout recent articles on the role of trust in educational leadership and management. Primary head-teacher and Education/leadership writer Colin Lofthouse highlights the importance of trust and the challenges faced when trying to build it, in his blog “Searching for Trust”. Outlining that with trust you can create a positive working environment that will facilitate change and mitigate against risk citing, benevolence, reliability, competency, honesty and openness as key elements within this.

Kalanithi’s firm belief that “where there is no place for the scalpel words are the surgeons’ only tool,” together with his conviction that “human knowledge is never contained in one person it grows from relationships we create between each other,” emphases the power of language and communication in building trust.

Education is going through very tough times, and great leadership has never been more vital, but until systems and policy makers recognise that emotion and communication between leaders and teachers is as important as facts, statistics and hard competencies, teacher and school leader mental well-being, physical health and job satisfaction will continue to be eroded.

Christine Challen is Lecturer at the School of Applied Studies and Professional Services, South Tyneside College, South Shields.

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