Practising Responsibility

The idea of professional responsible leadership has emerged in recent times, but what does it mean to be responsible, and can you teach it?

In the next few blogs I will be exploring this. Maybe we should start with the simple question: are you a responsible person?

It is actually not an easy question. Few people want to be seen as not responsible, still less irresponsible. But to decide what that means requires an exploration of who I am. Most people then reflect on the things they are responsible for; family, job and so on.

So how does being responsible for something or somebody make you a responsible person? I guess through what that responsibility tells you about your identity and your relationships. If I am a teacher I am responsible for educating people, which means being committed to these people through the experience of learning. But as soon as that commitment is entered into I am responsible for both meaning, relationships and practice in education.

So, as a responsible teacher I take responsibility for knowing what I am doing; the nuts and bolts of how you teach, and developing good practice. The teacher is responsible for the meaning of this, that is, the significance of this practice. Rowan Williams drills this down to the nature of the person as a learning being; learning is a key part of what it means to be human.

Crikey! Now I am responsible for something which many would see as of ultimate significance; what I do makes a real difference. Of course, I am not responsible for all of that myself. I share that responsibility with other members of my profession; which is nice. But rather than lightening my responsibility this deepens and develops it! I am not just responsible for my little corner of education world. I am also responsible, with my colleagues, for the integrity of the teaching profession.

Maintaining the standards of teaching practice maintains the meaning and significance of that practice and expands the community of learning, such that new learners recognize and realize that meaning. The learner begins to understand what he or she is doing and why it is important. The teacher and the teaching profession can be seen as social leaders; committed to the development of a key pre-moral good for society. Hang on… I can you hear already saying this is more than a pre-moral good. At the heart of good teaching is autonomy, the capacity to govern the self, and this is both a moral and psychological good, key to community and health.

This is all starting to get pretty heavy; shades of Satre, Levinas, Bauman, the Abrahamic religion, and universal responsibility. At this point we may want to deny this responsibility, or at least draw a boundary around it. Boundaries are important for mental health and order. But boundaries, like rules, cannot determine who we are and how we develop and negotiate responsibility. So part of my responsibility has to be to keep open the conversation about the different ways I view and practice responsibility, more of that anon.

To this point the responsibility has been for ideas, value, values, competent practice; all of which connect to the project of teaching. Lurking behind that is commitment to the people involved, which in teaching we must assume is the student.  Or must we? If I am responsible for the vision embodied in the teaching profession am I not also committed to the profession and to the members of that profession, summed up in the idea of the community of learning? The student becomes part of that community of learning, and so in turn becomes responsible for the community. Of course the commitment does not end there.

What about the different professions within the community of learning, the local community, the wider society, the supporting government? So is there a conversation which explores that commitment and its implications? It becomes hard to predetermine how we fulfill such responsibility without listening to these groups; without conversation. This suggests a responsibility to have a conversation, both as the basis of sharing responsibility and as recognition of the value of the project to all those involved.

Let’s pause there. Just two questions:

  • Is there evidence of reflection on this kind of responsibility in your institution or profession?
  • When did you last have a conversation about the significance of what you are doing?

As always, we encourage debate and feedback!

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

One thought on “Practising Responsibility”

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