Redefining 'Normal' in our School Community: The Empathetic Approach

by David Ingram

On Thursday 1st September, our school opened for face-to-face learning for the first time in almost six months. To say it was a special moment is an understatement. There was a tangible sense of happiness in corridors, classrooms, and courtyards throughout the school. As Head of College, my feelings of relief at reopening campus have been accompanied by deep reflection about what it means to be a successful school leader. Empathy features more strongly than ever.

First day back at school. A group of children meeting their teacher after returning to school following COVID-19.
Image credit: Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi

Our community is still coming to terms with the experience of hard lockdown, which involved prolonged periods of physical and social isolation as well as food shortages. It has been important to acknowledge the ongoing emotional impact of these challenges. We have been mindful of our approach to the beginning of the new academic year. Teacher Preparation Week is usually highly structured but this year we deliberately built-in time for our staff to reconnect and readjust to being together on campus again.


In addition to the mandatory first aid training that takes place each year, we introduced mental health first aid training to empower staff to meet the emotional needs of our students and support one another through the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. We have also introduced a Staff Wellbeing Framework to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our team more holistically.  This comprises five strands: physical health, mental health, organisational wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, and social wellbeing. We still have a long way to go but it has been useful to articulate what we want to achieve in order to follow through effectively.

Teachers and Students of Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image credit: Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi

Our recent experiences have sharpened our focus on the importance of taking an empathetic approach to leadership within our context; a significant example of which has been recognising the value of wellbeing every day and not just when we face a crisis. 


It has also been important to recognise the way in which everyone responded in the face of adversity. Empathy became a defining feature of our school community, and we are proud of this. We literally had t-shirts made to celebrate the way in which we came together. Our staff prioritised student wellbeing throughout remote learning in order to understand the many different ways our students experienced the lockdown. This required a far more personalised approach to teaching and learning online. The impact of this was that we saw much higher levels of engagement in 2022 than we did during our first period of online learning in 2020, and also a much smoother transition back into face-to-face learning. 


Our empathetic approach was reflected by our parent community, who made it their

number one priority to make sure that our teachers felt connected and cared for during the lockdown. They articulated their appreciation in words and in actions, sending multiple food packages to each and every member of staff. 


The depth of staff appreciation for these acts of kindness is captured perfectly in this video: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/iSZ_9CP_7gL6ASw5h6qeMQ

Our priority as a leadership team was making the time to understand the individual needs of our team members, and then making empathetic operational decisions to address these needs. These varied from offering bespoke counselling and mental health support to organising deliveries of nappies. 

Teachers and Staff at Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi.
Image credit: Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi

As travel restrictions eased and we approached the summer holiday, we made the commitment as a team to offer our staff genuine choice. Our aim was to enable our team members to make the decisions that they felt were right for themselves and their families. For many colleagues, this involved offering financial and logistical support for travelling home over the summer, something that we were able to do as a member of a stable and established family of schools that prioritises the wellbeing of staff. We even organised a chartered flight from London to Shanghai to ensure that our staff were not overwhelmed with the burdens of travel during this challenging time.


One week into the new academic year, we are well and truly back in the swing of things. All-through international schools are busy places. But as we enjoy our return to ‘normal’, we are committed to redefining what this means for us as a school community. Empathy is integral to this, and we are revisiting our college values accordingly. The challenge of the last six months in an opportunity for something better going forward.


 David Ingram is the founding Head of College of Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi. 


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