Soil is not ‘dirt’: What Permaculture has taught me about leadership

I’ve done a number of meaningful things this term: I’ve finished a book; made the SEND provision in my schools far more robust and even put the wheels in motion for a Free School application (eek). Yet by far the most important thing I’ve done is teach my Y8 geography class that the soil isn’t just dirt and it isn’t dead.

In a post COP 26 context, when our leaders have the gall to lecture us about the importance of teaching climate change this might seem trite. However, it is small perceptual shifts that comes from teaching powerful knowledge particularly the kind that make the natural world come alive for those young people most disconnected from it, that are key to the fight against the worst ravages and inequalities of the Climate Crisis.

I am feeling more and more called to for fight for access to nature for all. It is a travesty and a key issue of social justice that access to the wilderness in this country is predominantly the preserve of the privileged. This alongside the fact that it is the consumer habits of higher income (and predominantly white countries) that are driving the Climate Crisis and it is poor people and people of colour who are (and will continue to be) disproportionately effected by it.

What is more, there is so much we, as leaders, can learn from the natural world. Last year I took a sabbatical and was fortunate enough to spend 6 months working on an organic farm in the south of Spain. In this time, I learnt a little about the permaculture approach to growing. It strikes me that this might be a helpful antidote to the orthodox way of solving problems in education. In permaculture you watch, non-judgementally first. From looking at the patterns you then design the details of your plan.

The permaculture model, about which more can be found here, recognises the interconnected and aliveness of many things that western scientific thinking has (at least until recently) held as distinct and abiotic: the soil; the fungus; the rocks; the weather. This moves us towards the ethos an integration rather than segregation. This is a theme that keeps cropping up in my consultancy and leadership work.

Integration is not an abstract phenomenon, Interpersonal Neurobiology has identified integration- finding a balance between chaos and rigidity- as the key to good health. This is on a lifestyle, psychological, interpersonal and neural level. It is visibly apparent in brain scans where healthy brains show balance between the hemispheres and striking a number of conditions in the DSM-IV (the ‘Bible’ of psychiatric disorders) from autism to schizophrenia demonstrate notably similar damage to the integrative fibres or lack of balance in the hemispheres (Siegal, 2012).

In my work leading SEND, integration is a core theme. Nicole Demsey has written brilliantly here about on why true inclusion is no inclusion. In fact, some of our biggest problems come from segregated provision (too much time out of the classroom or with the least qualified staff) and recent findings from the UCL Institute of Education make the case again for mixed ability teaching. What is more, where students do need some additional support outside of the classroom, EEF research indicates the importance of supporting students to integrate what they’ve learnt into the classroom and wider life.

All this has therefore, got me thinking about what a permaculture approach to school leadership and consulting might be…

 I think it would the opposite of the quick fix approach that we have come to know from the change management orthodoxy. It starts with an acknowledgement of the complexity of the problems that we are trying to address in education and a stilling of our mind to allow for this complexity to reveal itself. Then it is our role as leaders to work with in this, and to nourish the connections rather than pull them apart artificially in order to try and get quicker results. To return back to the notion of soil. Whilst all the elements in an eco system are important the role of soil is perhaps the most maligned, yet fundamental. If we don’t nourish the soil then nothing can grow. Therefore, whilst in permaculture we mulch, water and wait. As leaders we must do the same. We must nourish everyone in our schools (adults and children, vulnerable and less vulnerable) with the things we know work and are good for them and  hold our nerve as leaders when things get difficult. That means not being temped by quick fixes (chemical fertilisers and the like) because we know in the long term they ill damage the very eco-systems that we are trying to nourish.  

On that note I need to try and steer clear of too much December chocolate too..

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