Carnegie Education

On love, legacy, leadership, parenting, and a global pandemic... What would love do?

In this blogpost CollectivED Fellow and primary headteacher Dr Victoria Carr reflects on love, leadership and creating and sustaining relationships.  

leeds street

What better time to write about ‘love’, than when the world has been tipped on its axis, at the end of the first half term of 2021, which will be analysed and written about for hundreds of years to come, and remembered in history for only two things: the 3rd lockdown and the Covid-19 death toll passing the 100,000 mark?

What I will remember about this February half term, set against that grim backdrop, however, is that when the protracted measures to address the pandemic, a third lockdown, meant we were isolated, again, removed from physical connection, from normality, from all we held dear, when people began to dissemble, I reached out and bridged the distance between people, and #AVicCarrCalls was born. 

Now this isn’t a navel gazing exercise and not at all self-aggrandising, but a reflection on why, and on the content of some of those calls, and, despite being undertaken from an altruistic place, the positively transformational impact they have had on me, the caller, as well as the called.

At its inception, the first call was made because I read a tweet from an anonymous account about the behaviour of some of the parents from their school and about how, because of that behaviour, this person did not want to go to school the next day. I saw that and felt nothing but empathy and sympathy. Which Headteacher hasn’t had a day like that, many more in the last year than ever before, which of us has passed through headship unscathed by this? 

In my school, our leadership team deals with issues like this as a collective, and we often offer insights into the possible reasons for this behaviour, and usually arrive at the source, able to deal with that, rather than the painful way it has arrived. But not all school leaders are this lucky, either with their team, which may consist of them alone, or with the ability of the team to respond. 

In taking the plunge, I sent ‘the tweeter’ a direct message inviting them to have a chat the following day if they felt they would benefit from it, and they responded in the affirmative. This breaches most general social media safeguarding rules and, in fact, my own personal self-protection rules, in addition to creating a situation that I am usually not a fan of, and that is talking on the telephone (which anyone who knows me will testify to), but such was the cry for help that I felt someone had to answer. I took the chance (mitigated by a well-developed sense of emotional literacy and a belief in the greater good that most people possess). 

From that single DM I have since had over 100 calls, spanning 6 weeks, with a range of people from experienced Headteachers and educational ‘glitterati’ with followers of over 70k, to those who are first year teaching students; from those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, to those who are looking forward to the arrival of new additions to their family; from foster carers to school governors, and this blog distils some of the wisdom that I have gained from those random but life affirming conversations.

One of the great beauties of aging for me is that you can articulate your position on just about anything, and the fact you have enough experience to base it on means you can speak authentically about your philosophy, which I have done publicly in the past so it will come as no surprise that I live my values and they are based on sending out as much positivity as I can. I ask myself, in each contentious situation in which I find myself perplexed about what best to do. ‘what would love do?’ I want to leave each life I touch all the better for it, like leaving butterfly kisses on people’s souls – the truth, sadly, is that I am more of a ‘bull-in-a-china-shop’ than a Blue Morpho, but that is beside the point. So where did this part of me come from? 

In talking to another ‘Twitterati’ member about his father, who he spoke of so warmly, and with such grief, something apparently he rarely has done as it is clearly still so raw, I asked which of his dad’s numerous excellent qualities he felt he had. We both smiled into the phone when he talked about the legacy of his father’s teaching and how this translated into his own dealings with people. I left him happy, at least his tweet about me being ‘Dr Feelgood’ suggested that this was the case, to do some of my own DIY and couldn’t help but reflect on why I do things the way I do them, if someone asked me about what my parents had done to influence my thinking, behaviour and philosophy, how would I respond? 2 things emerged.

I have to say, my mum is (thankfully) very much alive, and tells me often how much she admires and loves me, how proud she is of who I am and what I do – she is experiencing her legacy first hand, yet I wondered if she ever stopped for a moment to consider that it is her selflessness, her compassion, endless reserves of love and positivity that have largely made me who I am, enabled me to pay forward her investment of love so willingly? She will help anyone, strangers on the platform of a train station, old people, animals, children. Her and my aunt are forever ‘giving’, they know no bounds. To them I owe a huge debt of gratitude for making sure that running through me, like letters through rock, are the values that I have, anyone telling me I am in any way inspirational needs to say that to those women, not me. 

I also realised that my birth father, the man I spoke of so publicly in my TEDx talk, also contributed to my personality. That came as somewhat of a shock! I recalled the research I conducted for the dissertation I wrote for my second MA, about attachment disorder and trauma in children. Although that dissertation earned me a first, it isn’t the mark that lasts in my memory, but the realisation that my dad had been damaged and then enacted his damage out on everyone he came across – the 2 sides of his personality so fractured that to love him was also to fear him. 

We now know that birth to five really does matter, even if those in politics choose to put their head in the sand on this topic, but 70 years ago, Bowlby had yet to undertake his studies and psychology was still in its infancy as a mainstream field of practice. My dad was born in the Second World War, in Jarrow, where poverty was endemic, hunger rife, and his dad went away to war for 5 years. His mum put him in a children’s home, thinking he would be fed and kept warm, something she was unable to do for him until his dad returned and he was reclaimed – by which time, the damage was done, and the rest is history. As a result of the reading that I did, and the research, which as it happens was extremely cathartic, I was able to begin to find peace with a childhood that had all but broken me, and see that in every broken adult I come across is a child whose needs were unmet. 

How does this legacy translate to my own? Simply put, I do all things with love.

Now, it is February, and Valentine’s Day is the main (commercialised and superficial) event of the month of love, but the kind of love I am talking about isn’t the kind that can be demonstrated one day a year, with a cheesy card and some flowers, it is the kind that involves a daily workout akin to a gym session. It is sometimes messy, because ‘tough love’ can be, but it is vital nevertheless. It has left my heart looking more like a patchwork quilt than a stylised symbol and it takes it out of me at times more than a 12 round session with Anthony Joshua, but equally it can have a profound impact, sometimes beyond what even I can appreciate.

How does this look?

In my leadership it permeates my relationships, underpins my behaviour, reinforces expectations and informs our school main effort. In my interview for the school where I currently work, that had obviously been ‘on a journey’ before I arrived, I told the panel that the school needed to be ‘loved back to life’, and I meant it. Nobody knew that I had a broken heart, I tried to forget about that, and I began the daily job of giving out little pieces of it as soon as I was appointed, like protective and healing blister plasters over the wounds of my community. In exchange, I metaphorically received little patches back, squares of exquisite turquoise velvet, of tactile blue-green tweed, and sheer white linen; my heart is now kaleidoscopic.

When an email arrives from a member of staff to tell me their beloved dad has died, I think about that individual, and the person they are, and I write to them from a place of love. I write, “I suppose my thoughts on death vary depending on the circumstances but here is what I think about you and your dad. You are a lovely, warm, thoughtful, caring and kind-hearted person. We are not born that way. We are born a blank canvass and our families, our life experiences and our lives bring out traits in us and develop our personalities. Your dad must have loved you very much, and instilled in you the qualities that you have and the strengths you bring to the lives of those around you, and this means that your dad lives on in you. Each kindness you do for someone is a reflection of a kindness done to you by him. Each act of love, an extension of the love he gave and shared with you. The greatest hope any of us can have is that we leave a legacy of love and a footprint of joy when we depart this world and I truly believe, having known you for two years now, that your dad has done both. The pain of loving and being so loved is magnified with the loss of someone so dear”, and I mean it.

When an email arrives from a member of staff to tell me their beloved mum has died, I write, “I have no idea how you feel, and if I am honest, I genuinely dread the day that this happens to me. If we are lucky, as women, our mums are the foundation upon which we build our own characters. They are usually our first, most important and lifelong teachers. They teach us how to love, by loving us fiercely, and unconditionally; patching up our heart breaks with pieces of their own beating hearts to help us heal. They teach us how to be compassionate by showing forgiveness and compassion to us as we navigate our way through the mistakes, lessons and trials of life. If we are blessed to become mothers, we seek their guidance and advice, knowledge and skill in parenting. They teach us how to be strong because they have been strong as mothers of the past who have thrived with a lot less than we have today. The saddest, most profound and yet the last and most important lesson is that they teach us about how our hearts break when they are no longer with us, and how we must find strength to heal and live without them. Only when their time on earth is over can we learn this lesson, although sometimes events in life begin to prepare us in increments for this eventuality. You have done so much to care for your mum. In the two years that I have known you alone, you could not have done more. She knew that, and you knew it. Your heart will be heavy but you will know that you have repaid some of the love she bestowed upon you willingly in your early years, just as willingly in return in her later ones.”

When I end a school year, I write a personal letter to each member of the team, cleaners, mid-days, admin superstars, TAs and teachers. I find something unique in each and I tell them why that makes them such a wonderful part of the school family. At Christmas I invest in a wooden book holder for each member of the team, so they have a tangible, ergonomic, and tactile reminder that they are thought of. 

When an email arrives from an angry parent, and each sentence is like a dart; or an unpleasant  tweet/Facebook post is shared and it scorches the soul, I feel only compassion and I try to see where the hurt is and work on repairing that rather than getting angry in response. It hurts me, of course it does, but ‘what would love do?’ Love absorbs hurt, and sends out understanding and once I have rationalised the situation then the approach is usually clear. When the staff are hurt as a collective in this way, I write, ‘It has been a long term, and a longer year, for us all. I know the truth, as you do, too. It is our duty not to accept anything other than excellence for ALL of our children. We never accept poor behaviour, never brush it under the carpet, have the tricky conversations, support parents who are hurting, grieving and in anguish; fight for funding, get it; fight for diagnosis’, get them; share the positives, make sure that transitions are successful - and we can all sleep well, with easy consciences, because our team do that. Our team facilitate the future successes of children, heading into a new year in a far better way than they entered this one. Please do not allow the hurt to take over, allow the joy of what we do to do so. Here’s what I do, I look around me at the team we are a part of and I feel nothing but happiness and joy. You are a pleasure to work with and with rest, and recuperation, you will restore your energy and resilience. We will carry on, regardless because it is the right thing to do.’

During a pandemic, parents need more love than ever. Trust me. I may be better known for the paid work that I do, but my unpaid parenting job is much harder to navigate – with no training manual. Parenting has given me as much leadership preparation as any professional training or academic research. It has made me humble, empathetic, and far more emotional that I care to admit!

I can feel the pain of the parents who sit before me, advocates rightly demanding the best for their child. I can feel the joy of parents who see their child demonstrate a real sense of social conscience. I recognise the sense of pride when someone tells them that their child is a genuinely good person, having interacted with them. I know the adjustment we make as parents at each stage of our child’s transition to adulthood and that bitter-sweet moment when they inevitably leave. 

My approach to parenting, as with my relationships and leadership, involves letting my children make age and ability appropriate choices, coaching them through those choices and if they go wrong, which they sometimes do, helping them find the learning and the lesson in those mistakes. 

Currently I am working with both of my children. If eye rolls were a thing in writing, then I would be inserting one big one right here.

Simultaneously, I am fighting my maternal instincts and yet trying to remain calm when dealing with my 17 year old son, who has spent 5 of the last 6 weeks in a room isolating with 11 other boys from his section at the Army Foundation College. I know that he has been suffering boredom and homesickness, second thoughts and separation anxiety; but it is my duty to point out the obvious adult realities of life to him, as he is almost an adult and striving for independence (he is safe, he is being fed, he is warm, ok he has no privacy but, he is being paid, for the only time in his life, to sit in a room on his bed and mooch on his phone, he could be learning, to could be reading, boredom isn’t even a thing!) so that he can come to his own conclusions. I have no road map to follow, I was not parented in a way that would help me to do so; I ask myself the question, ‘what would love do?’ 

I tell him, ‘You are 17, it is ok to change your mind, to settle on a different career. You do not need to pigeonhole yourself at any age. Please complete the year, you will feel a sense of satisfaction, and accomplishment and this will give you a foundation to future challenges. You will gain your equivalent English pass at C grade. This is all you need to add to your qualifications to gain entry into apprenticeships. You will be ok. Trust me. Do you remember when you were small and I would ask, ‘What’s it all about?’ and you would reply, ‘Love, mummy, it is all about love’, and nose-kiss me? Get to lunchtime. Get to dinner time. At bedtime, mark off another day. You are strong. You are independent. Occupy your mind, set goals. I will call you tonight. I love you. No matter what’. It is hard, and love must be tough at times.

Pair this with my daughter, who is only 11 months younger, and also, as it happens, my son’s best friend. She is a different kettle of fish, an academic in many ways (unlike her big brother), an over-thinker like me, going through the anguish of this year’s pandemic GCSE debacle, and we are in as tricky situation at home as the boy is in Harrogate! 

Keeping a teenage girl motivated, when she is alone all day, and I have had Ofsted (I know, imagine), and also generally every week we have ‘burst a bubble’ and I have inevitably been ‘present but not present’, has been quite the task. The announcement that ‘Exams are cancelled’ in January was like a tolling bell, or the fall of The Sword of Damocles for her. When she is crying herself to sleep, and I am helpless in bed beside her, I hold her, she is as big as I am, and I smooth her hair and remind her of the love notes I used to leave in her lunch box telling her I couldn’t wait to see her after school and hear all about her day. I tell her nothing has changed. I am still her biggest fan and still want to hear about her day. I feel a blind sense of being out of control of virtually every aspect of my life, but instead, I coach her on the fact that GCSEs are not the golden tickets she believes them to be. People can be successful without sitting exams. She already has an unconditional place at 6th form. She will study law, politics and history. She will be fine. She is right, their lives should be filled with day trips and holiday plans with friends. Life is upside down. But she is loved.

I post a tweet or two about it, and I am overwhelmed by people who feel the same. By the love of people I have never met, across the airwaves, socially distanced, within Covid guidelines. I reach out to people, who are struggling, or who are always positive, randomly.

The spin off from the ‘A Vic CarrCalls’ is a growing network of likeminded professionals who I have connected with and who, mutually, benefit the philanthropic cause we serve. But this is the icing on an already lovely cake, because this last 12 months of being outward facing, of sharing, of reaching out to others and bridging the gap, both physical and also technological, means that not only am I helping keep to people already in education buoyed up during what is arguably the most challenging time of our generation on a global scale, but also opportunities have arisen for me to have a wider reach. 

I have been privileged to be invited to do cohort talks to those in their first and second year of a teaching degree to reassure them that all is well; to those in a secondary school and a different university who cannot attend their usual careers fairs and who are unsure about what they want to do and reassure them that they don’t need to; to young officer cadets who are going through officer selection during a pandemic and worrying about the shifting sands and tell them its not necessary; to students at the end of their PGCE and worrying about jobs and interviews and help them practice letter writing and what to say; to MA in Leadership students trying to do research and teach online or run businesses and manage workplaces and under pressure, and help them write assignments that support their success. Doing all things with love, and being open about this approach has perhaps never been more important, and it is all done with no expectation. And yet…

The fact that one of those calls meant the difference between someone almost stopping their MA study and then submitting a paper a week later; the difference between someone wondering about going for headship and actually then taking the leap of faith required to do so; the difference between someone heading into their 3rd week of not talking to another human being and having an hour long conversation to list but a few of the positive outcomes means that they were worth it. More so because several people I have spoken to have then gone on to be inspired to call people in their own network who have very much appreciated the calls that they have made. 

What better time then, as I do a 360 degree review of my life, as a daughter, niece, sister, mother, friend, school leader, soldier, lecturer, researcher, to proactively do all things with love, in the hopes that my legacy will take care of itself.

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