A Mission


Over the last 6 weeks I’ve been doing two jobs – the Head of Education and Director of Education and Children’s Services.  We appointed my successor this week in the form of Maureen Jobson, who is the Manager of our Learning and Teaching Team. Maureen is everything I’m not – methodical, practical and reliable. She uses her experience of having been the Head Teacher of three schools to great effect and is highly regarded by all her colleagues.

Effective teams so often depend upon a mix of complimentary skills and Maureen’s skill set will definitely keep me on track and stop some of my more extreme flights of fancy with her no nonsense Sunderland rebuff.

With her appointment I’ve been able to give more thought to what I really want to achieve as Director. It’s possible to let such a big job overwhelm your sense of purpose and for it to become a management post where you simply try to keep the “oil tanker” afloat and on course. Yet as I’ve been giving this more thought the words from our Learning and Teaching policy keep bouncing back into my mind.  Unconditional Positive Regard can sound like any other jargonsitic phrase yet I believe that it should underpin everything we do with young people.

I’ve explored the definition of the term before on this log but it might be worth going over it again and giving it my own twist. Unconditional Positive Regard means that you don’t give up on kids – whatever they do. In many ways it helps to reflect upon the concept from a parental perspective.  If one of my sons did something wrong I would challenge their behaviour, chastise them, and try to help them understand why it was wrong and what the better alternative might have been. But just because they did something wrong did not mean that I was going to treat them any differently from my other son – my love was unconditional.

It took me some time as a teacher to come to terms with this approach – I remember belting kids (corporal punishment) when I first became a teacher, of getting really angry and just wanting kids who misbehaved to be removed from my class. I can’t exactly remember when my attitude changed but I do know that when I shifted from a “conditional” approach to an “unconditional” approach that the response I got from children was incredibly different and the impact that I had a teacher was transformed.

In the last three years I’ve been trying to promote the concept of unconditional positive regard within our Learning and Teaching Policy and it has had some limited impact.  The majority of those involved in education adopt it as their natural approach and you can spot them straight away. Yet for others this idea is something of an anathema – “I’m not paid to like children” was perhaps one the more memorable rejoinders, or the classic “I’m not a bloody social worker”. In other words some people in education feel that they are only there to work with those who want to be there – the rest should be removed from their presence. Well unfortunately there are lots of kids who don’t want to be there. Kids who have to put themselves to bed, who have to witness things at home which they shouldn’t have to witness, kids for whom the very act of getting to school is an achievement.

It is to my great shame that I can recall a science teacher I managed who regularly called a child in his class a “moron”. He felt he was justified in using this word as it accurately described the child’s behaviour – he certainly saw no need to apologise. Yet this same child could go into the class down the corridor and be one of the most enthusiastic and motivated kids in the class. So what did I do about it? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! I rationalised this at the time by saying to myself that it would just make the kid’s life even harder – and it came to the point where we removed the child from the class for his own protection as he would aggressively respond to the demeaning way he would be treated by the teacher to the point where he would be excluded or punished.

So what does all this mean for my new job? Well I think it means that I’m not going to walk away from this any more. I’m going to make it explicit that it will be my expectation that the behaviour of every person employed within Education and Children’s Services can be characterised by a commitment to unconditional positive regard.  I don’t intend to issue blanket edicts or constant memos but I do intend to tackle individuals, regardless of position, who come to my attention as having not treated a child in a manner which is underpinned by unconditional positive regard.

I might be wrong but I think this simple message repeated, and consistently and insistently upheld has the potential to have an exceptionally powerful impact upon the lives of children, families and the culture of Education and Children’s Services in East Lothian.

“And what if people don’t treat kids with unconditional positive regard?”

Then they are in the wrong job!

5 thoughts on “A Mission

  1. Good on you, Don!

    I’ve disliked those in teaching who do not try to live up to the concept of positive regard almost from the day I first walked into the job – from the moment, in fact, that I heard a teacher of long-experience in my first school posting tell me that educating children was no different from training dogs.

    Bad enough, but made worse by the knowledge, gained later, that she actually treated her own dog at home better than she treated some of the kids in her class!

  2. It was only when I did some counselling training and read and practised some Rogers-based person-centred counselling, that I understood the transformative nature of unconditional positive regard. When I read Jackie Hill’s book Person-Centred Approaches in Schools I understood how I could change the way I perceived the interaction between myself and the pupils. It was no longer a battle for control, but a process of mutual progress towards a goal.

    Although here you seem to limit the extent of your UPR to children, I wonder if it should also be extended to colleagues – even those who refer to children as “morons”? They all bring baggage to the job too, and just like the children, some may be experiencing unpleasant things in their lives which we do not know about. Shouldn’t our unconditional positive regard extend to them too so that when we challenge the unacceptable nature of their interactions with children, they are empowered to change rather than forced to defend themselves?

  3. As a person-centred counsellor who is currently undergoing initial teacher training, it fills me with great hope, to read this post.
    Unconditional positive regard does have the potential for transformation in all human relationships. It is even more powerful when aligned with the conditions of empathy and congruence.
    Person-centred theory holds that these three ‘core conditions’ are both necessary and sufficient for human growth and development.
    If we are looking to create a developmental, process driven curriculum model for the future, perhaps these ‘core conditions’ should become important aspects of teacher training and CPD.
    Congratulations for daring to have a vision.

  4. This is an extremely powerful and encouraging post.
    I commend your confidence, but more so your commitment to the young [and not so young] people of East Lothian.

  5. I have undergone Restorative Teaching training and although the idea has its’ own description and ‘rules’ being the three ‘R’s – Respect, Responsibility and Relationships – the thing that rang true to me throughout the training was the council’s policy on Unconditional Positive Regard! The children whom I am in contact with everyday receive this from me and with consistent perseverance and modelling of this behaviour, I am receiving it back. Therefore a much happier work force and learning environment 🙂

Comments are closed.