In a recent blog, David Willows suggested that school admissions was an act of „institutional
kindness”. Cristina Willows now adds to this conversation by describing what this might
actually look like in practice.
Western philosophy has tended to be silent on the subject of kindness.
So, whilst Aristotle once famously defined this virtue as an act of helping someone in need without
looking for anything in return, the West has tended to look down upon or simply ignore its importance
in any discussion of the Good Life. The idea of kindness was simply too „soft” and stood in stark
contrast to the rhetoric of duty, virtue and the responsibility of the rational mind.
Within the Buddhist tradition, however, there is a rich vocabulary around the idea of kindness. It
speaks to us of the value of muducittata, the state of having a tender mind. Confucian education,
likewise, encourages us to pursue the idea of intelligent kindness. Much more than simply being
„nice” to people, it points to a virtue that can be mastered only through practice, cultivation and
In recent times, it has been interesting to see the language of kindness return to some corners of the
political arena, perhaps because of the way it offers a powerful antidote to the narcissism of our
Rather than take us deeper into philosophy or politics, however, let us perhaps simply consider the
possibility that admissions, in its most noble form, is an expression of personal and institutional
Learning the art of institutional kindness, for me at least, is about together becoming a community that
is generous, giving without wanting anything in return; a community that is inclusive, embracing those
who are different; a community that is radically open, listening first and speaking later; and, finally, a
community that is attentive, making each individual feel at once connected and unique.
It was the French philosopher and social activist, Simone Weil, who once wrote that „Attention is the
rarest and purest form of generosity.”
I believe that the schools that do admissions best are those that are generous in this way.
At the same time, I fear that this is an art that only a few of us have mastered.
It was Maya Angelou who taught us that „people will forget what you said, people will forget what you
did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
As someone who has worked in admissions for several years now, I know all too well that almost
everything I’ve said or done has been forgotten.
But I also know that, when things have gone well, it has often been linked to a feeling that a family has
left with after visiting my school.
Whether it is specifically a feeling of „kindness” that families feel, I don’t know. Feelings are complex,
messy and often hard to discern precisely one from another.
Giving priority to how we make people feel, in contrast to what we make them think, has been
something that I focused on for several years now.
Here are five anecdotes – snapshots – of what that looks like from my small corner of Brussels
Kindness is… being prepared to move outside
I’ve learned over time that those of us in admissions love our routines. Most of us have a particular
way of running an interview and tour. Sometimes, though, that just doesn’t work for a family. So I’m
learning to stop and ask myself, right from the start, What does this family need right now? Do they
need to sit in an office and ask questions or would they be better off talking informally while their
children play in the playground?
Kindness is… suspending judgement
Almost every day, we meet people with different backgrounds and experiences. Each family has a
unique story, a unique way of seeing the world, and a unique sense of what good education looks like.
Over time, I have trained myself to take a step back, listen, and remain open to other perspectives. I
try to suspend judgement and always put myself in the shoes of a family trying to manage a transition.
How important it is, I am learning, to give families „the benefit of the doubt” and not always trust my
Kindness is… telling the truth
School admissions bridges the worlds of marketing and finding the best fit for a child. As such,
kindness is not always about saying what a family wants to hear. It is about telling the truth and being
the voice of reality. Undiluted truth, however, can be a bitter pill to swallow. So I often find myself
asking, How can I share bad news in a way that demonstrates understanding? How do I encourage
without over-promising? Finding words that are both true and comforting is the balance that I find
kindness demands of us.
Kindness is… remembering to say thank you
When a family recommends the school to a visiting family, it reminds us of the importance of word of
mouth. I don’t take this for granted and also contact the family that put in a good word, thanking them
for their positive recommendation.
Kindness is… passing on the love
During the admission visit, parents will often have positive comments about teachers that they meet.
Others will pass on things that they heard anecdotally from former parents or students. I always take
time pass on every kind word that is shared