The Virtue of Humility

Over the summer, I reflected on how I would describe the people that work at our school. What characterises them as a staff body?

I was reading about staff groups that appeared to be so intensely brilliant. Experts on metacognition, champions of reading strategies, pioneers of direct instruction, authorities on child mental health. Would I sum my colleagues up in such terms?

Well they’re certainly knowledgeable and possess a range of skills. But one word kept coming into my head when I churned all this round in my mind.

Humility.

There is a definite absence of arrogance and excessive pride amongst them, and it occurred to me that, subliminally, I/we have appointed people who possess this character trait, so important do I feel it is.

Not that it is easy. And true humility is extremely hard to attain. Mother Teresa called it the ‘mother of all virtues’, saying,

‘If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed, you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint, you will not put yourself on a pedestal.’

If we firmly commit to a journey towards humility, imagine the positive impact for schools. For knowing ourselves must be a priority, ahead of simply, and only, knowing ‘things’. And teaching children and parents to know themselves is life-changing. In the secular world in which we live, this is now called life-coaching, or something or other.

Are we in danger of disrespecting humility in the modern world? I think so. I feel an excessive level of pride and arrogance has infected society and, by association, education.

Arrogance is defined as ‘having or displaying an overbearing self-worth or self-importance above others’.  In my view, any school that begins to show this as a key trait is doomed to failure.  We are teachers but we are also learners – this is what makes us do what we do – we love learning.  A key feature of a good learner is that they never think that they are in any way superior, or that they have cracked it. 

I have little time for schools or school leaders who fob off parents, advisors or inspectors with an attitude that is arrogant.  We should always be ready to engage in a healthy debate about what we can do better.  Learning from mistakes is an essential part of growth and development. It is about knowing yourself.

I also believe that visual attempts to promote status sit uncomfortably with a culture of humility e.g. banners proclaiming how fabulous we all are. I completely understand why people do it, and I’ve done similar things; it’s because of the hyper-competitive system which we inhabit. On a similar theme, my primary objection to inspection grades is that it encourages excessive pride, inevitably culminating in hubris.

And now, after all the events of the past few months, do we go back to that?

Well, the good news is the pandemic might have changed things. Whilst we see our national leaders and masters maintain this façade of ultra-confident, proud, arrogant grandstanding, it is now openly ridiculed. They are becoming (if they were not before) caricatures of themselves and increasingly irrelevant, aside from the small fact that they have spread cynicism, mendacity and shamelessness with gay abandon. Thanks for that.

A change might be coming in education too. Pre-Covid, it was ubiquitous to see and hear of how amazing this academy trust was, or which school had ‘smashed it’, or how brilliant we all are, everyone outbidding each other, often clinging to data which has the same spurious merit as those Covid-19 World Deaths League Table graphs that were discredited back in the spring.  By the way, I’m not blaming those leaders and schools that have done this – in an ultra-competitive world, it is a perfectly understandable way of navigating the system. But it’s unhealthy nonetheless.

Of course, just by writing this (and congratulating my colleagues for showing great humility), I’m compromising my own humility a little, but I think we need more humility in our society and in our schools. It’s a sign of strong leadership, not weakness.

Let’s elevate its value in our education system, by teaching our children just what an important and wonderful virtue it is.

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