A week or so ago, Mrs Bald Headteacher related to me the story of a Year 2 pupil she knew well – you know, one of those pupils we all know well because, more than often, they are up to no good. He’d just been in an RE lesson about forgiveness before coming along to her Spanish lesson. He was full of interest in what had been taught.
‘And what is forgiveness then?’ she asked.
‘Well, Miss, forgiveness is when you hit somebody, and then they have to say sorry to you afterwards.’
Well, he might not quite have grasped the concept but he is to some extent correct. It is the perpetrator who is forgiven, whose sins are absolved. This is the essence of a loving God, a caring parent, a benevolent teacher. We are in the arms of love following failure, when we have let down those around us. We have sinned, and yet we’re treated well!
The victim, on the other hand, is the one who must reach out. He must take the initiative and do the forgiving, even though he has been sinned against! When you think about it, it’s a huge thing to ask of an adult, never mind a pupil.
I would be a rich, rich man if I had been given £10 every time a parent said the following:-
‘You see, Sir, I know you have school rules, but I have told my son/daughter than if someone hits them, they are to hit them back. Harder.’
As school leaders, a habitual danger is to respond to this, and many other examples, by hiding behind policy, procedure and protocol. Whilst this is entirely justified, I feel we need to go further. Just as trust is crucial to school leadership, so is its bedmate, forgiveness. We have to live it and we have to teach it. We have to use these opportunities to actively teach forgiveness.
It is a vital part of leadership. By taking the initiative to enact something which is extremely hard to do, we show the way to others – pupils, staff, parents. Worried about looking weak, too many leaders avoid forgiveness. Instead, they might be quick to blame, to displace their own shortcomings towards an errant colleague. Or they stay silent when the boot is being applied, often whilst the sinner is on the floor.
Before forgiveness, we must have trust, something I have written about in an earlier blog.
If trusting someone is like signing an unofficial covenant, then forgiving them is the re-enactment of that decision. It maintains the bond, and leads to growth of spirit and of character. It is at the root of family and community health, something we all aspire to when leading a school.
And it matters even more in today’s society. Why? Because of the internet, that’s why. Our staff, our pupils and our parents exponentially spend more of their lives on the internet, and social media in particular. Interactions that were once always face-to-face are now typically conducted through a phone or tablet. But people still make the same mistakes, probably more so. A few hours on twitter will testify to that.
Personally, I can’t abide the regular witch-hunt that rakes over a person’s past to first find fault and then to lay the boot in. It’s the pack mentality. I feel we are bringing up our children to think this is normal, that people’s mistakes are not simply to be exposed, but a vehicle that leads to permanent castigation, to contempt and hatred.
Just as there is a restlessness about people’s lives today, so there is a desire to jump to conclusions and dismiss people on the basis of hearsay or gossip. It’s almost like there is a desire to believe the worst about people and use it as an excuse to outrage. Can you believe what that person has done!!??
This ubiquitous focus on mental health is in danger of being misunderstood. Being caught up in an unforgiving and harsh community can of course lead to stress and unhappiness, but it is the same for the perpetrator too. You cannot feel good when cutting people off, starving them of compassion, denigrating their humanity. It’s a lose-lose for all.
There are many priorities for today’s school leaders – it is a 100 mph job. But leading a tolerant and forgiving school must be high up there. It takes bravery and strength of character. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Trust and forgiveness. There’s no time to waste.