Often it is in the challenging moments you recognise and feel particularly grateful for your supportive community. Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco reflects on her experience with empathetic leaders in two international schools and the benefits of their support.

I have just started a new role. In a (nearly) new country. Seven weeks into the term.

My class, their parents, the supply teacher and my Headteacher had patiently waited for me to fulfil my contract in the Netherlands, and I could sense the sigh of relief that I had arrived. It was good to start finally. I was determined to make a good impression.

Day three of my new job, a receptionist I barely know, hovered nervously outside my classroom and asked to speak to me. My husband had called. In soft tones, she shared the news we’d been dreading for days: my father-in-law had died.

My heart sank. After seven years abroad, we had moved back to Italy to be, amongst other reasons, closer to my husband’s family. We had never imagined that we would arrive on time to say goodbye to a much loved and cherished father and ‘Nonno.’

Our sixteen-year-old twins adored him and, as my husband busily arranged the funeral for the following day, I needed to collect them from school and break the news. I couldn’t imagine a harder job.

BSN Junior School Leidschenveen Teachers, International School in The Hague

Reflecting on an incredibly challenging ten days, I feel immense gratitude.

Gratitude for the receptionist I barely knew, who spoke so kindly to me. Gratitude for my Year 6 colleague who told me not to worry about my class, that he’d take care of everything. Gratitude for the Deputy Headteacher, who noticed I was shaking, reassured me that she’d sort out cover and told me to think about nothing else but my family. Gratitude for my new Headteacher, who had waited half a term for me to arrive and yet still said, “Take all the time you need. Moving abroad is so hard anyway; dealing with this too is unimaginable. Put your family first. I am here to listen. Be open about what you need, and we will support you in any way we can.”

International School Headteacher and student

Strangely, it’s challenging moments like this that can show us how fortunate we are.

One of the main reasons moving back to Italy has been so hard for me is that I was so happy at my school in the Netherlands. It was a school that oozed compassion, empathy and kindness. It came from the top, and it rippled through the whole community – staff, students and parents.

Sleepless night with your baby?
Mentioning it to a colleague would be met with, “How can I help?”

A challenging time with a student during your break?
A cup of coffee would magically appear on your desk.

Feeling overwhelmed with the workload?
Your team leader would give you a listening ear, plus the much-valued offer of a bit of time to get on top of things.

Personally, I feel I benefitted and appreciated this more than most.

What has actually happened is that I have hit the leadership Jackpot twice

When I joined the school, I was returning to work following a prolonged absence from mental illness. It had taken me by surprise, having been mentally strong for the first forty years of my life, and, having recovered, I was nervous about going back to teaching.

The school has five campuses, and a change of campus meant I could have a fresh start. I knew this would do me good, yet there were still so many concerns flashing through my head. Would they think I was weak because I’d been off with mental illness? Would I cope with being back at work, and would they understand if I didn’t? Would I even be able to mention it if I was struggling, or should I just keep my head down and keep going?

When I met my new Headteacher for the first time, she said: “I am here to listen. Be open about what you need, and we will support you in any way we can.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

When I heard those words from my new Headteacher last week, I wondered for a moment if she’d spoken to my last one. Obviously, that was nonsense. What has actually happened is that I have hit the leadership jackpot twice. These are leaders who lead from a place of empathy and warmth. They recognise the importance of putting people first. They know that this approach will reap benefits for both individuals and the schools they lead in the long term. Showing empathy during someone’s most vulnerable moments will not only help them cope; it will be rewarded with their loyalty, dedication and commitment. I know. I’ve lived it myself, and I’ve seen it in others, time and time again.

I am profoundly grateful. Grateful that I have found these leaders because I know that they are still too rare. Grateful because I know how much that empathy has helped me during difficult times. Grateful because I know that working for empathetic leaders is the key to enabling me to thrive.

When I first came through that door, my sole aim was to survive,
Little did I know that JSL would help me thrive:
Within a few weeks, I felt a part of this incredible team
Full mental health recovery no longer a dream.
The JSL Spirit cannot be simply defined:
Welcoming and warm, caring and kind;
And also open and honest, with trust at its core,
Celebration of success, no fear of human flaws.
This gave me the courage to simply be me,
To share my strengths and my passions openly;
To step up and take the Healthy Minds lead,
As well as ask for help if there was ever the need.
Opportunity, challenge and space to grow,
Four years in which I’ve truly found my flow;
Inspired, motivated, supported in every way
Grateful to be here every single day.
I will miss you so much, miss the JSL Spirit,
Miss this special building and every individual in it;
But I will take all you’ve taught me to my school in Rome
Know your ripple will soon be felt in my new school home.
Kindness and compassion ooze through your pores
Children and adults feel it when they come through those doors;
I know it because they’ve helped me do so much more than survive
Thank you everybody for enabling me to thrive.

Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco

Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco

Rhiannon is a Year 6 Class Teacher and Leader of Wellbeing and Positive Education (3-18) at Southlands British International School.

She was a Year 5 teacher and Wellbeing and Mental Health Leader at Junior School Leidschenveen, The British School in The Netherlands, until November 2021 and continues to support the BSN’s Wellbeing and Mental Health work from afar.

JSL’s Healthy Minds programme was shortlisted for the ISC Research award in January 2021. Check out Rhiannon’s TES articles HERE.

Connect with Rhiannon: @RhiPhillipsB

Leave a Reply