The Most Important Thing

During a conversation with a former student recently, I found myself asking, “what could we have done better as a school for you?” 

It was a spontaneous response on my part after hearing of my former student’s years of personal struggle and paralysing anxiety dating back to his school days. His direct, profound response reminded me of the huge responsibility of our work. 

“I think the school did a good job and I am grateful for the people who cared. Not everyone did.”

That final phrase was jarring. It still troubles me. 

The next day, out of the blue, a former school parent called. “I can’t help thinking about the school during these crazy days. How are you doing? Is everyone okay?

And there it was. 

A voice that cared. And it matters. 

More than anything.

These two conversations about what truly matters – about the essence of a thriving, humane school culture – merged as one. 

Care can’t be feigned. Words in the absence of demonstrable care are empty, hollow and transparently meaningless. Teaching has increasingly become a more complex and demanding profession that requires an incredible degree of expertise. The thing that consumes teacher energy more than anything else is that they care. Not everyone does. Evans and Thompson, writing about the need for new school-parent partnerships earlier this year, highlight a global trend they compare to “a ‘Yelp effect’ that encourages parents to treat their relationship with the school in … entitled, transactional ways that can cause the school … distress.” This emergent, transactional culture has the potential to have a devastating effect on society, let alone schools.

I enjoy the good fortune of working in a caring school, a place with a supportive community. This, for example, is the conclusion to a recent email I received from a parent: “I hope you have a great day today and take care of yourself well. Thank you for everything that you and the teachers are doing.” But I recognise that school communities around the world have been under enormous strain, as many communities have, and that schools will need some genuine, meaningful, restorative care in the year ahead. 

Evans and Thompson remind us that families who choose independent schools should recognise that they are joining institutions with existing, intentional, deep values that are representative and core to the ethos of each school and that these “values apply to its entire community, not just to students, but to faculty, staff, administration, trustees, and parents.” Shifts in the values of schools, of school culture, should ultimately reflect what is in the best interests of young people.

Our ambition as educators for 2021 should be for every school community member to feel valued, respected, understood and cared for. This is a massive ambition. It requires a shift in school culture, of priorities, of voices that are heard.

Schools are ultimately in the business of caring. 

Too often, I suspect, we forget that – at the end of the day – this is the most important thing.


Evans, Rob & Thompson, Michael. Combating Parental Anxiety With a New School Partnership Model. NAIS, Fall 2020. Featured in AAIE Covid-19 “BRIEFLY” #152: December 18, 2020.

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash.