A collective leadership journey towards healing-centred education
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was invited to work together with a courageous group of educators at the Berry Street School located across Victoria, Australia, and co-host what we called a collective leadership journey towards healing-centred education. The school’s principal, Joanne Alford, along with a number of members of staff, were curious about how they could build on the schools strengths with trauma-informed positive education, and create a restorative culture that nurtured healing on both an individual and collective level. So, Joanne and I co-shaped a learning and leadership journey where staff could explore their curiosity, discover new healing-centred pedagogies, and move towards forming an engaged community of practice that was leading new initiatives across the school.
Over the course of eighteen months, Joanne and I convened and co-hosted three, six month long journeys within the school, with each new journey building on the one that came before. The collective leadership journey had three guiding questions:
- What is healing and how does it relate to education? From a variety of perspectives, including scientific, indigenous knowledge systems, and wisdom traditions.
- How can the school support staff and students who want to go on an individual and/or collective healing journey?
- What is the Berry Street Schools collective leadership opportunity around healing?
In this article, I will share the story of what happened from my perspective as a co-host of the journeys so we can contribute to the global learning that is happening around healing in education.
I would like to begin by acknowledging some of the lineages that grounded our approach. The primary lineage I would like to name here is the Presencing Institute and practice of Theory U, which is an awareness-based system change methodology for helping groups learn from the future as it emerges and lead transformative change, as compared to repeating the patterns of the past. We used the practice of Theory U to ground our approach to pretty much everything, including the arc and flow of the journeys, our ways of listening, conversing, and organising, and our approach to learning. We drew on a variety of the Presencing Institute’s awareness-based practises, including empathy interviews, case clinics, generative scribing, 3D systems modelling, and vertical social prototyping. We also participated in u.lab 2x in 2021, which is a global accelerator for systems transformation convened by the Presencing Institute.
I would also like to acknowledge the many lineages and wisdom traditions that contributed to our learning around individual and collective healing. There are simply too many lineages and wisdom traditions to mention here individually. What I will say is that our group was nourished by a diverse ecology of lineages that openly offered us the opportunity to be in relationship with the wisdom they have been nurturing and developing.
The Berry Street School
The Berry Street School is a specialist independent school for students from years 7 to 12. The school’s vision is to offer students a high quality education where they can thrive, achieve, and belong, while also providing specialised support in areas like learning, behaviour, and mental health. The school has four campuses across Victoria, Australia, including Ballarat, Morwell, Noble Park, and Shepparton.
The school is known in the Australian educational context for offering a special brand of trauma-informed positive education called the Berry Street Education Model (also known as BSEM). At the heart of BSEM is a suite of therapeutically-informed and strength-based strategies for supporting young people that have experienced developmental trauma and for increasing engagement in the classroom. While the school has seen many benefits from using BSEM, some members of staff were curious about how they might deepen their practice and specifically build the schools capacity for individual and collective healing.
The global context
The Berry Street Schools’ impulse to explore healing-centred education was showing up at the same time a global community of teachers and schools were experiencing similar impulses. This global community brings together a number of streams of educational practice, including social-emotional learning, mindfulness-based and contemplative education, embodiment, trauma-informed care, restorative practice, social justice, decolonizing education, indigenous knowledge systems, civic engagement, global citizenship, collective trauma healing, systems awareness, and vertical literacy. At the heart of this global community’s work is the idea that healing-centred education is about more than simply adding new skills and strategies to the current paradigm of education. As Dr Angel Acosta, a healing-centred educator describes, this community is nurturing “the emergence of a restorative and healing-centred paradigm of education”.
And by healing, this global community doesn’t simply mean attending to any adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or complex traumas a person may have experienced. Healing means to make whole, to restore relationship with the whole of ourselves, others, mother nature and the Earth, our ancestors and future generations, as well as to integrate any personal, collective, and intergenerational traumas that may be present in our lives. It’s also not really healing unless it deals with aspects of the current education paradigm that may be overshadowing the wellbeing and liberation of people and planet, including white supremacy, colonisation, structural violence, inequality, and unsustainability.
The collective leadership journey
We began each six month long journey with a school wide invitation. The journeys were open to any member of staff who wanted to learn more about healing and be part of an engaged community of practice that is supporting the emergence of a healing-centred paradigm within the school. It didn’t matter if the applicant was a first year teacher in training, a support staff member, or a campus leader, everyone was invited to be in the learning together. And each time we had an intimate group of between ten to sixteen staff members who responded to the invitation and felt energised to be part of the process.
Once each group had formed, we began to gather on Zoom for a circle conversation every two to three weeks. We set the tone for our conversations by using the metaphor of a campfire and we introduced process tools such as a talking piece and the sharing of stillness and silence. We spoke about how we wanted to create a safe space of mutual care, where all voices and all perspectives were welcomed, and staff could have a courageous conversation about healing in education. We also spoke about how the journey would not privilege positivity or feeling comfortable all the time, but rather, was an opportunity to turn towards the wholeness of our experiences, feel the full 360 degrees of emotions, and stay with any discomfort that may arise.
During our early circle conversations, we introduced the arc of the journey ahead. If I was to describe the journey in a few words, I would say it was intended to be both restorative and regenerative. The journey was intended to be restorative in that Joanne and I wanted to create a restful space within the school where staff could slow down, relax into any trauma material that may be present in their lives and school culture, and open up to a process of individual and collective healing. The journey was intended to be regenerative in that it aimed to include all participants as partners in the transformation of the school and support the emergence of a restorative and healing-centred paradigm.
We also spoke about the quality of collective leadership we wanted to cultivate and practice together. Here, collective leadership was not something reserved for a leadership team or a group of people in a position of power. Collective leadership refers to the distributed capacity of everyone within the school community to respond to their life circumstances. To facilitate this, Joanne and I focused on hosting an inclusive process where healing-centred leadership could emerge from within each person, and the group as a whole could move towards collective action.
From here, there are five central aspects to the journeys that I will speak to. These aspects are deep listening, emergence, alignment, transformation, and action learning. Let’s step through these aspects one at a time.
A foundational aspect of the collective leadership journey was that it was grounded in an individual and collective practice of deep listening. At the start of each journey, we explored a number of perspectives on deep listening, including Otto Scharmer’s Four levels of listening and Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr’s practice of Dadirri. Every time we gathered, we created space for everyone to slow down together, and share in a practice of mindfulness, or quiet still awareness, so everyone could arrive, and centre themselves, and tune into their capacity to listen with an open mind, open heart, and whole body. Everyone was also encouraged to use our circle conversations as an opportunity to develop their practice of deep listening, paying careful attention to what was being said, and not being said, as well as what was emerging through our group as a whole.
An important aspect of deep listening was learning to be in respectful relationship with a range of lineages and wisdom traditions that are in some way working with healing in schools. As part of this process, everyone was invited to go out into the world to find and connect with inspiring examples of healing-centred education. Then, participants were invited to share what they had discovered, so the group could raise its awareness of what was happening around the world and engage in global peer learning. We were moved to discover there are many different perspectives on healing, with many different lineages of practice and many different ways to heal. Some of the lineages that resonated with participants included Shawn Ginwright’s work around healing centred engagement, the eight ways framework, an Aboriginal pedagogical framework, and Thomas Hübl’s foundational teachings on the healing of collective trauma.
We also wanted to deepen our capacity to listen to what was happening across the school in relation to the burdens of trauma and the potential for healing. One of the awareness-based practises we found to be useful here was the empathy interview (or dialogue interview) process from the Presencing Institute. An empathy interview is a 30 min interview process that fosters authentic connection and surfaces important information from people within a system in a holistic and relational way. Over the course of 18 months, every staff member at the school was interviewed twice by members of the collective leadership journey and school leaders. The empathy interview process helped participants get out of the bubble of their own assumptions of what was happening, so they could see and feel more clearly and precisely what the current realities and emerging possibilities for healing were across the school.
Some of the themes that showed up during the empathy interview process included:
- Teaching during the pandemic was like being on a roller coaster. In one moment, a staff member might be feeling good and expressing their highest potential, and the next moment everything can change, and they enter into a kind of survival mode.
- Some teachers were experiencing depletion of energy stores while at work and they had to be careful not to end up with an empty tank.
- Some teachers were taking the baggage of interpersonal ruptures, conflict, and unresolved trauma material home with them.
Some of the core questions the school community raised about healing included:
- How do we support staff to turn towards healing when the process of healing is different for each individual?
- What is the role of the community in healing collective and individual trauma and what is the responsibility of community leaders in the process?
- How can we support and empower staff to be active participants/take ownership of their healing?
Overall, our practice of deep listening helped everyone raise their awareness of what was happening within themselves, the school, and beyond, so they could respond in a holistic and relationally engaged way. Participants also spoke about how practising deep listening was one of their favourite parts of the journey, and how useful the empathy interviews were at making staff feel seen, heard, and felt across the school.
The next aspect of the collective leadership journey is emergence. What emergence means is that Joanne and I resisted the temptation to come up with a plan, pre-prepare content, or develop an education model, and instead invited everyone to join us in an emergent peer-learning process where we would co-shape the curriculum, content, and focus as we go.
To frame emergence for the group, we contrasted two ways of approaching the journey. The first way was leading to solve a problem. In this approach, the move towards healing-centred education is framed as a problem to be solved. Typically, a problem solving approach involves using the knowledge and skills we already have to come up with a plan or strategy. The second way was leading from the emerging future. In the emerging future approach, we begin by building trusting relationships in the group, and then we listen carefully to what we are learning about ourselves, others, and the wider system, and see if we can hear the whispers of an emerging future possibility that wants to be brought into being. Typically, an emerging future approach takes a group of people to new, unexpected places that no one could have predicted, and supports the emergence of new paradigms and possibilities that are different from the past.
One practice that helped us take an emergent approach was called 3D systems modelling. 3D systems modelling is a playful activity where our group created a 3D model of the school’s current reality out of creative materials, and then we used this model to collectively explore how the school might open up to its highest future potential for healing-centred education. The practice helped the group identify a range of potential leverage points for the emergence of a restorative and healing-centred paradigm within the school.
Building on emergence is alignment, which refers to each participant finding a new healing-centred practice that aligns with their higher or emerging Self and supports themselves and others who want to go on a healing journey. After a few sessions together, our group was co-inspiring each other with energising ideas of how they might wholeheartedly step into their unique potential for healing-centred leadership, such as one teacher who wanted to infuse art therapy into her art classes, and another teacher who wanted to learn how to access the healing power of nature through her work.
One practice we found useful in nurturing alignment was the case clinic practice from the Presencing Institute. The case clinic practice offered each participant space to explore where they were at on their own healing journey and also give voice to how they were coming to understand their unique potential for healing-centred leadership within the school.
Another aspect of the collective leadership journey is that we wanted it to be transformative. And what we mean by transformative is that we didn’t want participants to simply conform with current norms or focus on improvements within the current system of education. We wanted to create a journey that included everyone as partners in the transformation of the system.
One way we facilitated transformation was with a method called the iceberg model of reality, that helped participants make visible some of the deeper patterns that were giving rise to events across the school. What we found was that by making some of the deeper patterns visible, it opened participants up to the letting go of old mindsets and paradigms that no longer served, and the letting come of new possibilities that were different from the past.
For instance, to paraphrase what one person said during one of our online circle conversations “I used to associate my work with being trauma-informed, and wasn’t sure about the word healing. And now it’s changed. I like the word “healing” much more now. It more accurately describes the work I am doing with young people.” Some of the other transformative insights to show up in our conversations include the realisation that you can’t heal unless you know yourself, and that teachers can’t help young people heal unless they go on healing journeys themselves.
Another practice we used to help facilitate transformation was called generative scribing. Generative scribing is a practice of attending to the field of energy and relation between people and mirroring that back visually. One of the treats of our journey was having Joanne be in the role of generative scriber, mirroring back the essence of what she was noticing move through our circle conversations.
The final aspect of the journey was action learning, or vertical social prototyping, which means to experiment with an emerging future possibility. Building on what was emerging for each person, participants were encouraged to continue to explore their potential for healing-centred leadership by taking small actions within the school. The idea here is these actions should be small, kind of like a safe to fail experiment, where each person could further their learning by trying out something new. We also formed a healing-centred community of practice to support each person with becoming the lived embodiment of the possibilities they sensed were possible.
This move to action learning led to the emergence of a diverse ecosystem of inspiring new initiatives, with each new initiative exploring healing in a unique way. For example, we had initiatives that approached healing through art, gender identity, interpersonal relationships, nature connection, mindfulness, exercise, and culturally responsive pedagogy. As a metaphor, it was kind of like throughout the journeys we cultivated the social soil for the emergence of new possibilities for healing, and this was the moment we could see these possibilities starting to bloom like a field of wildflowers across the school.
“Being part of this PLC has shown me that if we want long term success, both staff and students need support to heal from their trauma. Our job is not to ‘fix’ them, but instead provide the tools that can help them on their journey.”
“I have found the collective leadership journey to be one that I am still processing and reflecting upon. The themes that resonated with me throughout the discussions and activities were increased awareness to self, others and the environment; the power of listening and the concept of “dadirri”; being present and grounded to country and to allow time to reflect. It’s highlighted for me that traditional styles of leadership are not the only way and they certainly aren’t the only way to connection with others and the young people we teach. I felt a sense of validation from this as I’ve spent many years in both teaching and outdoor education being challenged by what I thought leadership was and how far I was from this idea of leadership. I feel reassured and motivated by the conversations we had over the first half of the year how change and education can occur in many ways. Overall, for me, the themes kept leading me back to the importance of nature in our lives, both in an educational sense and a personal one. This also further ignited my passion for reconciliation and using the eight ways framework to share knowledge with students.”
So that is the story of the collective leadership journey towards healing-centred education. It was such a privilege to be on the journey with this courageous group of educators who had the courage to open up to their own healing, and support the emergence of a restorative and healing-centred paradigm at the Berry Street School.
The experience of going on this journey left me with a powerful dream. While I was deep in the learning process with everyone, I was moved by the many place-based collective healing journeys that were emerging around the world, such as a movement in the United States to support healing from 400 years of inequality, and a movement in Europe to heal the traumatic aftereffects from the second world war. It left me wondering what a collective healing journey in Australia might look like, one that engaged in the deep work of healing some of the place-based traumas we are currently living with, such as the trauma of colonisation, and possibility of reconciliation, as well as supporting the movement towards healing-centred education in Australian schools.
To close, I invite you to take a moment to pause and to check in with yourself to see what parts of this story and journey resonated with you. Is there anything that you might like to explore further in your life, or at your school or place of work? If there is, I encourage you to be courageous and follow that impulse, and join us as a fellow traveller on the journey.
Ash Buchanan is a collaborator and group facilitator that helps schools and organisations build their capacity for collective healing and collective wellbeing. He is a student of a number of restorative and regenerative practices, including awareness-based systems change, co-design, mindfulness, and yoga. He is the founder of cohere, a community-based wellbeing practice, and he leads a participatory action research initiative called benefit mindset, which supports communities with making a transformative contribution in the world.