Over the past 4 weeks I have been teaching the Leadership Module as part of the Upper Sixth ILM course. Elements of leadership can be taught, but so much of the style an individual will bring to the role comes from their character, their personality. During a debate last week in a zoom breakout room a group of Upper Sixth started questioning whether you can teach ‘personality’. The pupils were very clear. You can teach it, and that this is what Shrewsbury does. I don’t know if it is the current pandemic situation shifting perspectives, or the fact that they are so near the end of their time at school and fast appreciating what they have been a part of, but the quality of the debate in that virtual room, the way the pupils articulated themselves and described how personalities are forged here was really something very special.
Without realising it they were talking about what educator’s call character education. Not taught explicitly, this social and emotional learning is what happens all day every day, in boarding houses, tutor groups, peer to peer, during co-curricular experiences, school trips, even during sanctions. To paraphrase Einstein, it is what ‘remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school’. It is the teaching of a set of values that sit at the heart of a community and an individual.
I have been very fortunate to work in some excellent schools around the world, all of which have provided pupils with the opportunity to develop a strength of character. However, I have never experienced the overwhelming power of a whole person education like I do at Shrewsbury. One might argue that it feels this way because I have the viewpoint of Deputy Head, an easier vantage to witness this playout than that of the junior member of a Geography department that I was 20 years ago. Perhaps you might also say that times have changed, the type of young person I am working alongside now is a different breed from that at the turn of the millennium. Sure I’m bias, but I know I have never worked in a school that prioritises the whole person education like Shrewsbury does. Takes an acute interest in nurturing the individual, of developing them as fully as they will let us.
Back to the zoom break out room. What sorts of personality traits do the departing Upper Sixth think we craft in a Salopian? Their answer: we encourage them to take advantage of all opportunities, to develop wisdom, follow their passions, to learn all they can from who they can. Teamwork and kindness were also at the centre of what they feel we inspire. House life and the sports field were cited as the places where opportunities to experience these traits are best exemplified. They felt Shrewsbury teaches respect and understanding, that the world is full of different people, with different ideas and they all deserved to be listened to. They all agreed that integrity was essential, but more easily cultivated the older you got, that not everyone gets everything right all the time, but at its heart a Salopian is a gentle and caring soul. Finally, and my personal favourite from their list, that we encourage the growth of a certain impish spirit.
Rather like an entertainment show where the audience volunteer has unwittingly played into the hands of the magician, this group had pretty much described the strength of character page that was to be published only a few days later by the school in the new Ethos and Educational Philosophy document. I wonder if like UK Magic Circle Legend Paul Daniels if they knew this ‘they’d like this... not a lot, but they’d like it!"
We know this pandemic has not affected everyone the same. COVID-19 is not a leveller in society. The experiences of our community through the past 12 weeks have been wide and varied. However, through their experiences at Shrewsbury School I do believe that Salopians own a strength of character and resolve to help them react appropriately, and with passion, and that they have played this card strongly in their defence during this difficult time. For those returning I look forward to hearing their stories and helping them to understand how these past months have shaped them. To our leaving Upper Sixth I say, ‘look out world’, these strong, independent and remarkable young people are coming, and they are unstoppable.