15th February 2021
“What is that?” asked a student, as they pointed to the huge ‘vision statement’ emblazoned upon the wall of their school’s reception area.
“I think that’s your school’s ethos and vision statement”, I replied. The student looked a little bewildered and left, so I didn’t think any more of it.
Compare this to another school, where I asked a student about where they recalled seeing their school’s ethos. Instead of referring to a physical poster in reception, they replied “I see our school’s ethos in our chaplain. Our chaplain has the school ethos in their DNA. They are the walking, talking, living, breathing version of our school’s values every day”.
I’ve been interested in school ethos for a long time, and have been fortunate to undertake a PhD study, exploring how school chaplaincy interacts with school ethos in a variety of school contexts. Completing this project has given me plenty of opportunities to visit lots of schools over the years, to speak with chaplains, senior staff, and students to explore this very topic.
Conducting research into this, often neglected, area of school life has revealed so much to me about the amazing things school chaplains are doing. Some of the findings surprised me, and may surprise you too.
I’ve summarised here a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:
School chaplains contribute significantly to school ethos in schools
Whether it’s school assemblies, collective worship, pastoral support, or simply ‘being available’ for students and staff, there was something about the chaplain’s presence in the school that contributed towards the distinctive ethos of the school community.
So much so, that students typically described the headteacher and the chaplain as being two of the most significant roles that demonstrate the school’s ethos day to day. The chaplain often didn’t recognise this in themselves, often selling themselves short, but students and staff were quick to point it out!
School chaplains often ‘translated’ ethos to students and staff
I wonder if your school has a list of prominent values or a particular ethos statement displayed somewhere in the building, or on a website? Far from being words displayed in a nice font, the chaplain was often referred to as one of the key people who took those values, breathed life into them, and lived them out for others to see and learn from.
What does it mean to be ‘hopeful’? What does ‘resilience’ look like on a drizzly Tuesday morning? The chaplain was often the person students and staff looked to to see how to live these values day to day.
School chaplains were significantly distinctive within their schools
When asked about what made chaplains so distinctive from other roles within the school, students and staff listed a number of factors that were unique to the chaplain or the chaplaincy.
These included the chaplain’s impartiality, their unique approach to relationship building, their peaceful presence, a unique authority, and their level of depth and embodiment of school values. This was less about the activities and projects the chaplains delivered, but more about who the chaplain was and how they related to others.
I used to think that school chaplaincy was about being around to support individuals through the ups and downs of life. Whilst that is a significant part of being a good chaplain, I’ve learned something much more profound. That chaplaincy isn’t just about the individual. It’s also about the collective of the whole school community.
Those little interactions with other people, all those assemblies, the fundraising and charity work, those mentoring sessions, the gifts of cups of tea, the sending of positive emails and all of those seemingly bizarre conversations we have with students at break time...all those things add up to position the chaplain as someone at the front and centre of the school community- living and breathing school ethos day in and day.
So my message to all chaplains is simple- well done! Keep going. The endless list of varied tasks and activities you undertake each week, coupled with your distinctive presence and availability, is noticed. It’s significant. Because in your school, whether you realise it or not, there are people looking to you as an example of what it means to live out your school ethos. Even on a drizzly Tuesday!
Josh Hunt is the lay chaplain to Felixstowe School, and works for Boost Felixstowe to pioneer partnerships between faith and education. Josh is completing a PhD exploring school ethos and school chaplaincy, and can be found on Twitter @joshua___james
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