Pastoral Leaders: Cultural Capital and Connection

Perhaps understandably given the election has gripped the world right now, I’ve been thinking a lot how we heal and build bridges across divided communities. The key to this seems to lie in part in looking inwards and allowing ourselves to be truly open to listening and learning from the Other. However, I also think that sharing culture has a role to play in bringing us together.

There is a lot of discussion taking place at the moment about the importance of domain specific leadership knowledge. When you’re a pastoral leader your domain is not always so clear, we wear so many hats. Is your domain Safeguarding Legislation? Definitely. The SEND Code of Practice? Certainly (more understanding of this please). What about Psycho- Biological understanding of motivations, behaviour, relationships and trauma? Absolutely (and I’m putting a book together on this subject right now- shameless plug). Crucially though, we also need an intimate knowledge of the communities that we work with. We often think of this in terms of local safeguarding priorities or languages that we may need to translate our communications into. In short, it seems we focus a lot on our communities needs. Yet time and time again the research advocates the use of strength-based models when working with families. So I’m starting to wonder is there is a role for pastoral leaders in getting to know and celebrating the diverse cultures that we work with, developing our own ‘Cultural Capital’ as it were.  

My own curiosity about and fluency (at least some of) the wide range cultures that make up the schools I have worked in is a form of domain specific knowledge that I’ve been very cautious about using. As well as working in extremely culturally diverse schools, I’m lucky enough to have travelled a lot, to have friends and family members from many different heritages and have studied anthropology and religions at university. This has given me a glimpse into many different worlds. Whether that is a taste for West African jollof rice, an understanding of the value of poetry in Somali culture, a proficiency of the language of grime music or simply knowing that I must take my shoes off in a South Asian household.  Whilst these examples are clumsy, I’m hoping to illustrate a broader point. We seem to view Cultural Capital as a one-way street, something that disadvantaged young people need to acquire to get on in the world and that we (white, middle class educators) already posses. I’m suggesting that we broaden our conception of the term and how it might function as I believe in understanding and connecting into the rich worlds that make up our school communities is a powerful thing.

Like I say, I’ve been very cautious about using my own ‘Cultural Capital’ when working with families. As I see it there are many pitfalls to fall into. Firstly, whilst I believe it’s possible to use cultural links and curiosity as tool for connection, it should never detract from the shared purpose of working with families in the best interests of their child. This is primarily, where the lasting connection needs to be built and maintained. Secondly, it cannot be an ego thing, it must never be about manipulating families (making them feel comfortable to get them to do what you want) or about gaining their approval  to fulfil your own need to be liked or feel ‘worldly’. Finally, and perhaps this is what’s kept me most cautious, there so much space for getting it cringingly wrong and offend families or embarrass yourself with inaccurate or out dated knowledge.

So what am I advocating here? I’m certainly not suggesting a cringy, tick box CPD session where you learn some cultural references that you must work into your discussions with families. There may be a role for CPD, I worked with a fantastic Somali colleague who gave our staff body some really simple cultural and political pointers allowed us to develop our understanding of the Somali community in Bristol. However, I think what I’m really suggesting is that (among the many other things on our plates) it’s important to have a curiosity and a keenness to ask and learn  about the histories, politics, art, language and customs of the communities we work with. Perhaps that way we can build a few bridges in this increasingly divided world.

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