Banking compassion

Since 2016 I have worked at Releasing Potential, an organisation dedicated to supporting children and young people who have been excluded from mainstream education. My role is to manage the parts of the organisation that support our independent special school and extend the reach of our message. I work with a small team of talented staff committed to sharing our practice with others in order to support the best outcomes for all children and young people with barriers to accessing education. At Releasing Potential, one of our core values is ‘banking compassion’. It is a term taken from work with sexually exploited children and young people, to describe the process of continuing to maintain relationships even in the face of continual rejection by the child or young person. As our website explains:

“we invest in children and young people without any guarantee of a return. Our faith in the power of people and community underlies the importance of the compassion that we ‘bank’ in the hope that children and young people will respond positively, even when this can take a long time to come about, if at all.”

Banking compassion is an ideal, but one we take very seriously. As part of a fully theorised approach to practice in alternative education, we prioritise and value relationship-building as part of what Eichsteller and Holthoff identify as the core of social pedagogy. They describe social pedagogy in education as:

“forming relationships, being in the present and focussing on initiating learning processes, being authentic and genuine, using one’s own personality and […] being there in a supportive empowering manner.” (2012)

Our approach

For the social pedagogue, working with the whole person to find opportunities to co-create—and in doing so offer agency and autonomy—is also key to successful outcomes. As such, we have made the process of ‘banking compassion’ central to our approach with the most marginalised children, because we need to be patient and consistent in finding opportunities to come alongside children and young people and share their worlds. Children whose behaviour or other barriers have made them feel like school is an impossibility for them, are offered unconditional positive regard and encouraged to see themselves as learners. The approach privileges kindness, consistency, flexibility and collaborative relationships of genuine warmth and care. However, this week I have spent some time reflecting on the downside to working in an environment where prioritising these things can result in real confusion for colleagues. 

I have always thought of myself as being fairly good at reading signs and understanding the needs of those I work with. In general, I see myself as a caring and effective manager. However, it was shocking to find I had been getting it wrong with a member of my team last year, and, even worse, I had been getting things wrong for quite some time with no idea. The experience prompted me to think more carefully about whether social pedagogy really works in the school environment as a workplace. As well as the recent COVID 19 lockdown, which has caused such a degree of anxiety amongst staff in our workplace, the experience with the member of my team last year has forced me to examine some assumptions about social pedagogy as an approach to relationships in school.

A resignation

Last year I received a resignation from a colleague with whom I had really enjoyed working. The colleague had been in post for about a year. She had been recruited into a still-developing role; part of her duties involved shaping the job specification and collaborating with leadership to determine what the outcomes and outputs should be. It was a comparatively junior role, but one with a lot of access to senior leadership and the autonomy to help contribute to the agenda in parts of the organisation. The colleague was very skilled, and from my perspective had coped well with the fast pace of change and big personalities in the organisation (including mine). The role she had come into was very new for us, and while some things had not worked as well as they might have, we very keen to try and work out the kinks and get things right. Her contract, at first for a fixed term period, was made permanent with a rise in pay at the end of the fixed term.

It was with some surprise that, several weeks later, she tendered her resignation citing a range of factors that included serious frustrations about the way she had been managed. At first I struggled to understand this.  I had enjoyed open and honest conversations with the colleague, been kind and flexible in the face of personal and professional challenges, and had fought for some stability for her when the organisation’s shifting priorities made her job difficult. She had been included in and had influence over decision-making, had been well respected by her peers and by other managers, and had never been anything but positive about her work. 

I was shocked to read in her exit feedback that I had presided over the loss of her confidence and her ‘voice’. I was horrified. Reading the lines she had penned, it was clear this was genuine. She believed that her creativity had been stifled by my own passion and enthusiasm, that she had felt unable to come forward with ideas or concerns because the person managing her was so focussed, determined and certain of their own agenda. I was incredibly sad and confused, yet willing to accept that the feedback was offered in good faith by someone I really cared about. What I could have done to have got this so wrong, I wondered, and how I could ensure it didn’t happen in future?

While reflecting upon the resignation, it made me recognise the dangers of assumptions in a workplace that privileges both relationships and collaboration. When a decision had to be made about whether to continue to employ the colleague beyond the fixed term period, I had fought for her to stay because I genuinely believed that her skills were valuable even though the role itself hadn’t managed to fully deliver what we had envisaged. Others had questioned whether, as an organisation, we had been ready – had we really understood what we wanted from the role? Should we not pause and recruit at a future point when we had a better idea what we wanted? To me it was obvious that the relationship should be maintained – we had someone good in the role and it was worth ‘banking compassion’ by putting this colleague at the heart of the development process. I argued emphatically, and, in doing so, I wrongly assumed this was something she would want. It got me thinking about the assumptions we make in ‘banking compassion’ with children and young people. 

What happens when the mantra of never giving up on people becomes detrimental to outcomes? What happens when relationships are maintained at the cost of sensible, if painful, decision-making?

In light of the painful decision-making that schools and other organisations working in education have had to do of late, it seems a timely question to ask.

The problem with assumptions

In my commitment to ensuring this colleague’s future with us, I never thought to speak with her directly about whether she wished to stay. She had already expressed to me that she was nervous about whether her contract would be renewed; in hindsight I mistook this for her desire to continue in a role she must have already doubted she wanted to do. I assumed that her positivity about her time with us was genuine, and that if she had any concerns she would have raised them with someone. I also assumed that my honesty about the challenges we faced and my efforts to stabilise her priorities were received as they were intended – as a vote of confidence in her. 

In reality, the colleague felt undermined by my honesty about the difficulties of the still-developing job, and uncomfortable that her opinions on how the role should work were of importance to leadership. What I had read as confidence in her calm response to my collaborative approach to problem solving was in fact an attempt to hide the anxiety she felt at being asked for her guidance and expertise. She described feeling embarrassed that senior managers had different ideas about what her role should be, and that they often looked to her for answers she felt they should already have. It would, in hindsight, have probably been better to have imposed a very structured job description on the colleague without her input, but we had genuinely tried to practice what we preached in terms of co-production. 

I assumed, wrongly, that because the colleague had seemed well, confirmed she was happy to get on with her tasks, and not brought any concerns to my attention, that there were no concerns. I had asked regularly if she was getting on OK – what else could I have done? 

Somehow, despite efforts to the contrary, I had made things worse by trying to make things better. I had privileged and relied upon a perceived relationship of trust between us that had not really been as clear cut as I had assumed. I had applied the ‘banking compassion’ model and been as kind, supportive and invested in this person as I could be, yet it had somehow achieved the opposite of what I had intended. My frustrations about the challenges of getting the job role right and my efforts to co-produce solutions with her had been received as criticisms of her work; the suggestion that she work from home for a period to finish an important strategy document were viewed as a form of punishment; the attempts to protect her from a range of distractions were understood as a criticism of her work ethic. 

Somehow, everything I had put in place to support her had just conspired to make her feel worse. I had invested in the relationship with no guarantee of a return, certainly, but I had also totally misunderstood that there had been an equality in the relationship to begin with. 

Taking responsibility for relationships

The worst part of this experience, for me, was that I had not known. I heard about these issues at the end of the colleague’s employment at a point where there was very little I could do to salvage the situation. I have to take a lot of responsibility for my colleague’s feelings of frustration, because clearly I had mis-read whatever signs were there that I was making things worse. As the senior person it was my responsibility to understand where my colleague was at, and not to rely on the existence of a positive relationship to do that work for me. 

There is an arrogance, of which I find myself guilty here, in assuming that staff will respond well to the approach we take with great success in working with vulnerable children and young people. There is a danger in over-investing in relationships with staff, just as there is in ‘banking compassion’ in work with students. Assuming that unconditional positive regard should work both ways in an employment relationship is, at best, naïve, and, at worst, exploitative of an uneven power dynamic. Of course, as the senior person I was told things were fine, and that was, on reflection, a shame, but understandable from the junior colleague’s point of view. My colleague had executed her duties well. She had done what was expected of her and it had been my mistake to presume that she was happy because this assumption confirmed my own view of things. 

In our philosophy, the check to ‘banking compassion’ is ‘reasoned empathy’, which we describe on our website as follows:

“we believe that we are at our most effective as educators and role models to young people when we are able to empathise without exercising self-indulgent selflessness. We need to take good care of ourselves and each other to ensure we are capable of delivering at our very best.”

I have learnt that, as an organisation like ours grows, we need to ensure that we understand that what works for our students and service users—flexibility, responsiveness, co-production, personal autonomy—doesn’t always work for our staff. Sometimes, people are not ready, or are in the wrong roles, to be expected to co-create or to feel comfortable with the autonomy we may offer. By investing in relationship-building at all costs and basing decision-making on the perceived strength of professional relationships, we may in fact risk making staff feel anxious, overloaded, and confused. It is, clearly, possible to exercise self-indulgent selflessness in employment relationships that confuse the boundaries and make people more anxious.

If we are truly balancing relationship-building with reasoned empathy, then perhaps we are less likely to make assumptions that lead to misunderstandings in the workplace. In my case, there have been some lessons learned about assumptions and about relationships. Though painful, they are valuable nonetheless.