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6 March 2017

As educators, we are often asked what it is that constitutes a good and healthy school community.  It is hard to answer this in one or two sentences.  Communities (school or otherwise) are complex webs, and the ethos of a place and the actions of the people who live and breathe in it are far more important than any well-phrased and well-intentioned ‘mission statements’ or ‘core values’ put together by eloquent people.  These may be useful marketing tools to those outside the community, but will be met with cynicism by those inside, if their rhetoric does not match the reality.

So how can we create a properly caring school community?  In order to attempt an answer, I would like to refer to a famous poem by W. H. Auden that has been lingering in my mind ever since I first read it when I was maybe 15 or 16 years old.  Many of you will know it.  It was inspired by Auden’s visit to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels and refers to a famous painting ascribed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”.

I will quote this poem in full at the end of this blog.  Here, I will simply highlight its gist and some of the poet’s insightful, realistic and, frankly, rather haunting observations. 

Something amazing happens in this picture:  a young boy, Icarus, an aviator avant la lettre, has not heeded his father’s advice and has flown too close to the sun, prompted by curiosity and with the spirited disobedience of so many teenagers for centuries after him.  Relying on wings held together by wax, the inevitable happens:  the wax melts and Icarus falls into the sea.  This out-of-the-ordinary event takes by no means centre-stage in Brueghel’s picture.  Were it not for the title, we might be forgiven for overlooking the tiny legs that are only just visible above the sea. 

What makes the picture so extraordinary is that nobody takes much notice.  The farmer ploughs on, the ship sails on, nobody helps the boy or seems particularly perturbed by it all.  Auden starts his poem by firstly referring to suffering in general:  something awful may happen to someone in the world, while someone else may well go happily about their daily, mundane tasks.


People who have just experienced something dreadful (they may suddenly have lost someone they loved, they may have discovered that their husband or wife cheated on them, they may have been laid off their job, they may have been diagnosed with cancer) frequently report this unreal sense of walking along the street in a state of shock and numbness, as their world is falling apart, finding it almost surreal that the sun is still shining and that other people are chatting and laughing and going about their business as per usual. I am sure that this will resonate with many of us.

After his general observation, Auden then turns to the picture itself:

The ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


I remember, on first reading the poem, that I found its core message utterly depressing and chilling.  Really?  Was the world really such a cold and uncaring place?

Being a little older and wiser now, this emotional response has been tempered with realism.  Of course, we cannot be expected to take on the suffering of the whole world.  Some people will always be happy while others are unlucky and vice versa.  That’s life, and believing otherwise would be false sentimentality.  Nonetheless you would still hope that, on this painting, the ship may have turned round to attempt to rescue the boy, or that the ploughman might have stopped his work to dial 999, or triple zero, or whatever the ancient Greeks would have dialled in those days.

This brings me to a very important difference between poets and educators.  Poets, or artists, describe human nature.  They observe.  They show us a mirror.  Only rarely do they believe that their poems, or works of art, will change the world.  In poetry such as Auden’s, observant, analytical, realistic, there lies a certain pessimism.  Look here:  this is the stuff that people are made of. 

We educators, however, are inherently optimistic.  We don’t see the world through rose-tinted spectacles either, but we do, fundamentally and vigorously, believe that people can change and that we can make the world a better place.  Otherwise we would not be in this profession. 

Which leads me back to the initial question:  How do we create strong communities?  How do we teach our pupils and our colleagues to watch out for each other and for the world beyond us, to care for each other and to drop the indifferent attitude so magnificently exemplified in the unperturbed ploughman and the sea captain who so calmly sails away from the disaster?

Teachers are very busy people.  If they see a colleague cry, it is sometimes quicker to just pretend you haven’t noticed, rather than walk up to that colleague and ask them what is wrong.  If you know someone has been diagnosed with a terrible illness, it is easier to ignore it and tell yourself that you are only being discreet, when in fact you are simply feeling awkward and unsure what to say.  If a colleague suddenly disappears, it is easier to do what the ship does in Brueghel’s picture and to sail calmly on, instead of asking questions to find out whether your colleague is all right.  You have work to do, after all.

My advice would be:  don’t be the ploughman who ploughs on indifferently.  Don’t be the ship that sails on uncaringly.  Do get involved.  Ask questions.  Show that you care.  And where answers cannot be given:  don’t jump to conclusions and try not to resort to gossip.  Gossip can destroy lives and steal someone’s hard-earned reputation. 

Educational leaders and teachers who model this behaviour, who treat each other with kindness and compassion, who respect each other’s dignity instead of detracting from it, who act honestly, authentically and considerately, will create such a community through their actions, not through their words.





Musée des Beaux Arts (1940)

W.H. Auden


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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