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Guest Blog: From Vulnerability Comes Strength ​​​​​​​

St John’s is a flourishing community, where pupils are encouraged to be courageous. And it is the warmth of our community that often springs to mind when I mention our school to anyone outside the St John’s network. 

So what is it that makes a community successful? Sociologists such as Etienne Wenger suggest that an effective community involves and requires three key components:

  • mutual engagement whereby diversity is embraced;
  • joint enterprise whereby mutual accountability is explored;
  • and a shared repertoire which involves styles, stories and of course actions.

Speaking to our pupils at a recent assembly, I asked them to reflect on the Thursday evening ‘Clap for Carers’ which took place during the first lockdown, something many of them participated in. One of the many benefits this Thursday evening clapping brought about was the sense of community it fostered, encouraging neighbours who may never have even spoken to one another before to feel connected through shared appreciation during a stressful time. This public outpouring of emotion allowed communities to form what psychologists classify as intimate relationships.

Looking a little further back in our country’s history, World War Two historian Ian Baker describes how the Blitz community was brought together by knowing and placing a value on the intimate experiences each individual faced and supporting one another as a result.

This term ‘intimate relationships’ refers to the ability of individuals to be open and personally vulnerable, something that researcher and lecturer Vincent Miller suggests is in serious decline in our modern digital era. He argues that today’s digital era allows individuals to hide behind their own fears of being openly vulnerable and, as such, prevents healthy bonds being built between one another. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, enables individuals to support one other.

The sports psychologist Pippa Grange is known by many for the work she has done with the England men’s football team. She is widely considered as one of the fundamental driving forces behind the European Championship success we witnessed at Euro 2020. In a recent interview, Pippa discussed the importance of bringing groups of people together to ultimately gain a mutually beneficial experience and, in turn, outcome. Throughout her work, she has led various exercises with teams from across the world, with the sole aim of promoting a sense of community within the groups by developing their inter-personal relationships.

One such activity involves bringing groups together and asking each member to stand up and involve themselves in what she calls ‘the three Hs exercise’. The players, often in front of individuals they do not necessarily know well, are asked to become personally vulnerable by sharing with the group their ‘hero’, a moment of ‘hardship’ and a ‘highlight’ of their life so far.

So, in an attempt to demonstrate the idea of being personally vulnerable, I thought it was only fair that I undertake this exercise myself and share my own ‘three Hs’ with our school community. Here goes…   

Hero: Whilst there are many individuals throughout history I could have listed as being my hero, the person who immediately springs to mind is my grandad. Grandad was an ex-sergeant major in the Parachute Regiment who turned his hand to carpentry after his military service. He was able to make virtually anything from wood. His skills were truly impressive. Not only this but the life skills and values he left me will never be forgotten and his recent passing at the age of 91, despite several ailments, shows the resilience he had in abundance.

Hardship: While I have been exceptionally fortunate to have what I consider a comfortable life, the more I considered what hardship I may have faced, the more I found myself reflecting on periods of discomfort that have affected me. One such example was struggling to integrate within the first weeks of university. For someone who has always been a very sociable individual, I found this very challenging indeed, to the extent that it made me reflect on whether I wanted to continue at university or not. Thankfully I persisted and my university time became such a valuable experience.

Highlight: This was much easier to come by for me - the birth of my sons Noah and Oliver. Coming home to hear stories of their various achievements at school or being presented with their ‘artwork’ brings highlights and enjoyable moments to every day.

I’ve encouraged pupils and staff in our St John’s community to engage in their own ‘three Hs’ exercise over the coming weeks and to share them with friends, peers and family.

It is not necessarily easy or natural for us to put ourselves out there and be vulnerable. But once we find the strength to open up, we may be pleasantly surprised at the positive responses we receive.  Just imagine the bonds we would be able to create, and the support we could provide each other, if all of us in the St John’s community were able to become more personally vulnerable and able to share our stories.

Strong communities are a force to be reckoned with. Through interpersonal relations, shared knowledge and negotiation of enterprises, positive communities hold the key to significant transformation in the way we operate, the kind that Wenger states has the ability to have real effects on people’s lives

To quote Sigmund Freud, ‘out of vulnerabilities, will come your strengths’.

Ian White is Assistant Head (Upper School) at St John's School.  Stay in touch with all the latest from St John's by visiting our news page or following us @StJohnsSurrey