Guest post: Four big words for quality relationships (by Ross Dawson)

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 7.45.28 AMRoss Dawson is the Primary Principal at Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA), a bilingual IB World School in Hong Kong. Ross has lived in Hong Kong for over twenty years and has returned to VSA this year after studying Psychology of Coaching in Sydney, Australia, and running his own educational consultancy and coaching business. Ross has a strong background in inquiry-based learning and a passion for Positive Psychology and its many applications in the field of education. Follow Ross on Twitter @rdawsonedu.

Schools are complex systems and, like all complex systems, they are made up of many interconnected parts that are sensitive to change. Without a common agreement about the way we intend to conduct and develop our interactions and relationships, they can become a hotbed for miscommunication, tension and misunderstanding.

I am privileged to work in a school full of amazing educators who are multi-talented, passionate and highly professional. Teachers who, to paraphrase Dylan Wiliam, want to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even betterAt the start of the year, we formulated ten essential questions we felt were important to drive our school’s vision. One of them is, “How can we develop the quality of our relationships and conversations?” To this end, we introduced four big words that we have used to guide our communication, actions and relationships.

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Trust for me is by far the most important word and the basis for all quality relationships, so that’s why we have put it first. We have been working hard to create a climate of trust, which is essential in order for any community to flourish. We trust that we all come to school with the best of intentions and we trust that people are doing their job, whether it be teachers, support staff or parents, to the best of their ability at any given time.  I don’t believe any teacher ever wakes up and says, “I am going to work today to do a bad job”, so we trust that if people are having an off day or not meeting expectations that there is probably a pretty good reason why. We want to trust and empower people to take risks, to make decisions and mistakes because they want to learn, improve and grow. Trust, however, doesn’t mean we have blind faith, abandon our standards or accept everything without question. With a clear shared vision, we are building an environment where we welcome different ideas and perspectives, and trust that if colleagues do challenge us they are doing it with the intention of improvement and growth. We want to become the best school we can be by supporting our staff to become the best educators they can be.

Dignity is derived from Latin dignus which means worth or worthy, proper and fitting. Dignity is about the way we treat other people, their feelings and their ideas. I was taught that you can always measure the true nature of a person by the way they treat other people and I think this is very true. A little hello, smile and thank you really do go a long way. I believe if we conduct ourselves with dignity even the most difficult conversations can have a positive, solution focused outcomes. Sometimes, we will inadvertently get things wrong, step on some toes and upset people. This is part of life, but being dignified means checking back with these people and apologising if necessary. Interacting with dignity also requires us to temporarily set aside our own views and opinions in order to take the time to actively listen to others. This is a skill that is difficult to master and takes time to hone and develop. A few weeks ago, our insightful Year Four students asked me how I approach difficult problems or conversations. I told them that I treat any issue like a ball. If you hold onto an issue like a ball you tend to want to defend it. You end up grasping so tightly that you don’t want to let it go. Instead, I take that ball and place it on the table. In fact, some staff have reflected that I sometimes seem to be looking at something on the table as we discuss issues. Once the issue is on the table, it is no longer about who owns it, but about the issue itself and how, together, we can resolve or improve it.

Empathy is one of our Primary Years Programme Attitudes and something we aim to develop in our learners. In the IB we also talk about human commonalities. The fact that we all have hopes, joy, fears, challenges, successes, ups and downs. It is through these commonalities that we are able to connect and relate. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes will reveal to us completely different points of view and ultimately help us make better decisions. We encourage staff to look at things from multiple perspectives, those of our students, parents, colleagues and support staff. Having empathy for others allows us to look at the different possible outcomes and try to minimise any unintended consequences.

Reason, for us, has two slightly different but related connotations. The first being that of doing things for a reason. This year, our leadership team has been constantly asking the question, “What is the purpose?”, when discussing existing systems, procedures, curriculum, and any proposed changes. Can we relate it back to our ten essential questions and school vision? Will it ultimately affect student outcomes? If it doesn’t then we really shouldn’t be doing it. As I mentioned earlier, schools are complex systems and any changes, even small ones, create ripple effects and can result in unintended consequences, therefore they require careful consideration. Data and feedback have become important in helping us make decisions and it is vital that we continuously seek it from students, parents and staff. We aim to make evidence backed decisions. The second derivation of the word reason is that of reasonableness. Approaching issues and decisions in a reasonable way.  Our school has worked very hard to develop clear and concise policies and procedures which are essential when working in such a large school. While extremely important, we still need to be reasonable in the way we apply them as there will always be cases that are out of the ordinary and require a level of reasonableness. Is what we are asking, or being asked of us, reasonable?

Often the term conflict gets a bad wrap, when in fact we need managed conflict in order for things to evolve and improve, otherwise, you run risk the of declining into a state of educational atrophy. We believe that through applying these four words, Trust, Dignity, Empathy and Reason, our relationships and conversations can harness the power of conflict and create new and exciting possibilities that will ultimately benefit our whole school community. I have shared these words with our parents and many have commented that these words resonate deeply with them and already describe our school,  the type of school where their children will grow and flourish. In our school, we are also supporting our relationships with Professional Learning Communities, mindfulness lessons and practices in every classroom and a tailored coaching programme that will roll out to all staff next year. Our aim is to create a strong impermeable culture of growth, respect and creativity. A joyful place where we inspire and support all students and staff to be happy, healthy and accomplished.

Are we getting everything right all the time? No. Are we expecting to? No. But by using these four words as a guide, we are continuously improving the collaboration happening in our school community and look forward to growing from strength to strength.

Trust, Dignity, Empathy and Reason.

What would be your four big words?


  1. As a new teacher to the school this year, I can say that I have seen how the embodies these four words in both long term plans and daily practice. It creates a culture of support and understanding that gives teachers and student a learning environment that fosters creativity, empathy and achievement.

  2. Hi Ross,

    Thank you for writing this post about VSA’s four big words and the ongoing effects that these have on our daily school life.

    For me, one of the best examples of these words was during the proposed staff room layout change. It was clear that your own opinion was not enough for you to proceed. When the proposal received an approval rating of just over half, other leaders would have taken the majority vote as the perfect justification for proceeding with an idea that they love. For you, the approval rating wasn’t high enough. The perspectives from your staff were obviously taken into consideration when you made the decision to rethink the idea and “put it back on the table”.

    We used the idea of Four Big Words in class this year. After we made our class essential agreement with our students, we realised that the lengthy document could be summarised in four key words: empathy, respect, responsibility and maturity. These four words have been continually referred to throughout the year to reinforce positive behaviour and discuss negative behavioural issues. It has been easier to refer to four key words than the whole agreement document, and I assume it has been easier for the children to keep these in mind.

    Thanks again for your hard work. Please write for me again in the future!



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