“Labouring Ethically” by Rob Campbell (@robcampbe11)

Why do people become teachers? And then from that broader group of people, why do a smaller number want to be come headteachers? I suspect that if each was asked that simple question one of the more obvious responses, if not the most common one would be ‘to make a difference’. Of course that simple utterance can communicate a vast range of assumptions: what kind of difference do people mean? Leaving an imprint on someone can make a difference – but it’s not always for the best. 

When I’ve tried to think about my own motivation, I tend to use the mission statement of the International Baccalaureate (IB): to create a better world through education. I like it because it asserts that our role (as educators) is to ensure we teach and develop young people who want to go and make the world a safer, more just and equitable place than the one it is today. In order to do that, they’ll need knowledge and understanding (which we will formally assess through subjects/qualifications) but also a set of values and principles which will motivate them to lead lives that give greater consideration to their fellow humans and to the planet as a whole. 

This means that the business of education is, for me, an ethical pursuit. A few years ago I did the (excellent) MEd in Educational Leadership & School Improvement (ELSI) at the Faculty of Education at Cambridge and chose as my thesis a study into what I called ‘ethical labour’, a concept I evolved from Hochschild’s term ‘emotional labor’ (2012) which is about the management of feelings in a range of service sector jobs. She notes that people such as flight attendants have to suppress feelings in order to sustain the necessary outward countenance to reassure passengers. When I read her work, it struck me that headteachers, in particular, engage on a daily basis with a different kind of labour, namely that which is ‘ethical’. 

Headteachers have their own individual values, their ethical systems, which will have evolved through their experiences in and beyond their work. Schools and the contexts in which they reside are often places of contested values with differing groups (students, parents, staff, Governors, community, Government) asserting their own particular values. It’s up to the headteacher to negotiate and determine the right passage through any decision-making which can mean s/he aligning their values with those of the school community (which may not always agree with its own definition of values) and beyond. In the same way that Hochschild’s flight attendants had to suppress individual feelings, headteachers may have to suppress deeply-held ethical values to perform the role they have been appointed to, what I called ‘ethical labour’. 

Living and working with ‘ethical labour’ is not easy. Of course Heads accept the responsibility of their role and get well-paid, but we’re also human and prey to the same stresses, strains and anxieties as the next person. Because this is connected to values and principles, the sort of thing that defines as who we are (as humans), the threat to these can be existential and therefore grander than more ‘mundane’ challenges of the day-to-day management of a school. 

The research I did suggested that Heads think that there are more ‘ethical’ challenges as government policy narrows the curriculum and resources become scarcer alongside the needs of children and young people rising with the impact of austerity on all aspects of lives. Since 2014 that was worsened. This therefore places Heads in the challenging position of ‘labouring ethically’, finding a way through the issues to build that better world. There are days when it’s a real struggle and there are times too when people find it just gets too much and leave the role (and the number of resignations by school leaders in this category has risen in recent years). 

There isn’t an easy answer and this blog certainly can’t offer any solutions; simply it will suggest that the best response is to share what can be shared, to open up the debate about a given issue, to create psychological safety so any participant is able to engage and feel included and to seek affirmation from the wider community (and this includes the professional community who can often provide the most compassionate support through empathy and understanding). 

Heads’ Roundtable came about because a small group of Heads answered Ian Gilbert’s tweet in 2012 calling on anyone concerned with the trajectory of (the then) Government policy on education; so it is, in itself, an ethically minded organisation. It is therefore trying to ‘create better world through education’ by seeking reform to the education system itself – in the long run, the only real answer to ethical labour. 

Rob Campbell is a founder member of HTRT and is the CEO of the Morris Education Trust 

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