DO NOT GET LOST IN A SEA OF DESPAIR. BE HOPEFUL, BE OPTIMISTIC.Rep. JOHN LEWIS 1940 – 2020
For most people I know and speak to, living in the present moment is a very difficult idea to hold in one’s mind right now as we move into the latter half of 2020. We are either looking back to events before March 2020, when going to the supermarket or a meal in a restaurant or greeting our friends and family with a handshake or a hug was so normal, or we are gazing ahead to try to find some end in sight to what has been a remarkable year measured against any other in modern times. We are still enduring it, either as a first wave of Covid19 cases that never really went away or a second spike because of a basic failure to observe three new, simple human global rules of handwashing, face masks and physically distancing to make our societies safe and workable again. I have found myself living very much in the present moment throughout the last few months as my school community in Moldova continues to navigate through this storm seeking to find certainty and hope.
The “next normal”: The cabin study my wife Gen, got built for me a few years back when we had our third daughter Gwen, when the need for a space to work in as a school leader at home during weekends and preparing to return to school after a break, has never been more valuable. For all of us, working from home and fitting our organisations to work in the circumstances of lockdown is also our next normal, especially as we cannot allow our societies to become inert and atrophy, even more so if you work with young children and young adults in education. Even the novelty of peering into one another’s homes or studies has now worn off with the daily online meetings and conferences. I have two calming sounds I will miss from my cabin study here in my garden in Bristol this summer. There is a beautiful, solitary silver birch tree right outside one window and the sounds the leaves make in the wind is so soothing. It takes me back to Tomsk and standing alone in the Siberian birch forests and being overwhelmed by what solitude and silence can do positively to the senses when you stop the incessant chatter and noises from modern life. You really do feel in the present moment. I have also watched since early June, its leaves change yellow and already by the end of July, they are falling in increasing numbers on the grass outside my door. It will soon be time for the swifts to leave as well.
The other sound is the sound of an old clock ticking, made in the 1880s and given to me as a wonderful gift from my dear mentor, Les Jones. He bought it in Oxford in the 1960s and it graced his rooms in Magdalen College and later his farm in the South Shropshire hills. In a meeting a few weeks back with the British Council, my dear friend and colleague, John Rolfe (direct descendent of John Rolfe of Pocahontas fame) on the other side of the screen in his home in London, asked about the clock. Well, as a student of history, there is always a moment for a story. The clock was made in Brooklyn in New York and would have been hung in waiting rooms or offices, in a time when telling the time was carried out by looking at a face with moving hands, rather than checking a phone. Teachers: 9 times out of 10, when a student checks their phone, they aren’t being defiant rebels, they are genuinely looking at how long is left of a lesson because wrist watches, like the way of watches on chains in waistcoats, are not for Millenials or Tic Tok teens, any more than a sundial was for our grandparents! The most beautiful clock in New York, is of course the one in the concourse of Grand Central station and if anyone has seen The Fisher King with Robin Williams, they will appreciate why Gen and I danced a little as we walked across one day that ballroom concourse after a train journey from DC to that great city. The Brooklyn clock in my cabin has a complicated history. It made it to Oxford from New York, via Auschwitz. It was owned by a Jewish family, most likely from Eastern Europe and it is assumed it was gifted to them to show the promise of the New World, from someone who had made it to Ellis Island and beyond. It ended up sitting in one of the euphemistically named warehouses, Canada 1, later to be carried across Europe in late 1945-46, to England by a Jewish survivor. It was then sold in an Oxford bric a brac shop to an undergraduate from the north Welsh coalfield; my Les Jones. Les gifted it to me and it now ticks in my cabin. I am very aware of and privileged to know its history and to be its steward until one day it gets passed on to one of my daughters for her study. The tick is constantly reassuring and reminds me always of the present moment we are in and that we should be grateful for the good in our lives right now.
This summer has moved us all into our “next normal” and part of that acceptance is living with the restrictions of living with coronavirus as we make our societies work to accommodate the rapid changes we have undergone to continue functioning. I have repeated so many times since the start of this crisis that doing nothing is not an option and we have to have hope in our courage and confidence to plan the future as we model to our young people and communities the promise that things get better. The sad loss of John Lewis, one of the last remaining living links to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and Dr King, reminded us all to remember the insurmountable obstacles that were overcome by these ordinary people showing extraordinary courage on segregated buses, at segregated lunch counters and crossing that bridge in Selma, Alabama. I have quoted John Lewis at the start of my blog so his powerful words of hope remind us that we don’t get lost in a sea of despair, even at the worst of times. John Lewis and his generation’s legacy is as much needed today as it was then to fight the racial and social injustices and inequalities that were deeply entrenched in society and institutions. We have seen that struggle continue in 2020 alongside this pandemic and the quote from Hillel, the 1st century Jewish scholar: “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” has never been more appropriate in the times we live.
It has been easy escapism to look back, as a student and teacher of history. The past often looks a better place on some levels, especially looking over the events of the first two decades of the 21st century. I found myself two weeks ago, late on a Saturday evening with my wife and daughters, as we watched the re-run of the 2012 opening ceremony of the London Olympic games. My eldest daughter Evie was 3 then and my middle daughter Annie, just 1. Gwen was to complete our trio in 2013. It was impossible to ignore the remembered hope and optimism of that beautiful, thought provoking and iconic opening ceremony, masterminded by Danny Boyle, as the story of a bucolic land moving to the first industrial society, through Empire and World Wars, to the remarkable creativity in fashion, design and music all underpinned by the World’s first ever comprehensive welfare state. A global Britain in 2012 that could show the World all these strands of history had been woven to produce a modern, outward facing, diverse, confident society ready to move into the 21st century as a nation at peace with its past and with a sense of purpose and direction. Even with the flying beds, Mary Poppins and the Queen jumping out of an aeroplane with James Bond. I was in London during the second week of the games working for the British Council in the Prince of Wales rooms judging hundreds of amazing international work from across the UK with my colleagues for the International School Award. Even the volleyball arena across the Mall in Horse Guards parade seemed normal. Walking back each evening across Trafalgar Square and down The Strand to my hotel, Global Britain and the World city of London, seemed such a remarkable place to be experiencing at that moment of time as the streets were full of all peoples from across the World celebrating and being united in our common humanity. That was only 8 years ago and the comments on social media as the BBC played the ceremony reflecting the dreadful ennui we all are fighting in these summer days of 2020. Even Paul McCartney singing “Hey Jude” as I put my kids to bed only seemed to reinforce the sense of loss we are feeling in the coronavirus crisis and the ascent of narrow nationalist populism, hatred and fear around the World.
This is why we need to avoid the sea of despair in these times, as Congressman Lewis said at the height of fighting segregation. We need to avoid the feelings of hopelessness and find the optimism in the simple, everyday things of life. At the end of July, along with other families of our local primary school here in north Bristol, we got to stand, physically distanced, and applaud all the Year 6s on their final walk out of their school, my daughter Evie included, before the next stop of secondary school. It was a very emotional event, possibly more for us as parents, but nonetheless, an important rite of passage for children moving on. My children got to enjoy a wonderful week on the beach and in the sea with their bodyboards on the English south coast and suddenly the stooped shoulders of months of lockdown, pale skin and hollow eyes were replaced a week later with kids looking as kids should look in the summer holidays. The work of educators and school communities around the World finding a solution to Covid19 and school closures is nothing short of Herculean. What we do know is that it doesn’t matter how sophisticated the technology or digital learning platform is, we need the physicality of school and our communities back together. You can listen to my interview with Moldova.org on this topic here.
Our societies are going to have to live with Covid19 and despite the lack of political and scientific consensus around coronavirus we are going to have to find a way that is more than months of inertia and atrophy at home for our families and children. According to 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” I saw this first hand at the weekend with the local BSpoke16 Arts Trail that my wife Gen was involved in as a silversmith. All over the city, people set up their stalls in their gardens, in the summer sunshine and it was a real surprise to see just how many people were cycling or walking to the different venues, getting fresh air and exercise, socially distancing but back to talking and interacting with one another. And this is the part of our shared common humanity we have missed in this crisis. There is a way back however, and it is this positive approach that will heal our societies, bring us back together and allow a medical solution to be found eventually. I’ve never been quite sure where the macho nonsense arguments lie with the stupidity of not carrying out three basic actions that have seen countries like New Zealand function better in this crisis – 1) Wash hands regularly, 2) Wear a mask in public places and 3) Physically distance. Not difficult…I refer the reader back to Herr Schopenhauer at the start of this paragraph.
Getting back to global. This is where I have felt my optimism all year as the international communities, the internationally minded and the global citizenry have all looked outward and forward, collaborating together, finding and sharing solutions and giving hope to one another. It is that international spirit of London 2012 in living daily action. The depth and breadth of online conferences, webinars and meetings involving organisations, schools, expert speakers and educators that I have spoken at or participated in, watching outstanding colleagues speak has been one of the most positive and important aspects of how we use our networks for our common good. There have been wonderful discussions, comparative global examples of how we have met the challenges of Covid19 and, of course, thought provoking dialogue as we look forward and try to see how much a paradigm and societal shift there really has been from the events of 2020. Noone is trying to be an educational snake oil salesperson or “expert”. Instead, we seek to share relevant, real life experience of DLPs, recovery curriculi, blended learning and we endeavour to avoid overwhelming already hard pressed school leaders, teachers and support staff at these online events. It is good to get back to this grassroots authenticity and to park the #EduEgos & leave those who have only spent 5 minutes in a classroom or fast tracked to leadership prematurely, to their irrelevant collecting of social media followers, instead allowing those of us who actually work with young people on a daily basis, to find a clear, workable strategy in a pandemic no one has experienced or and which noone can foresee the eventual settling point as our “next normal”.
The worst I heard in a conference, from the UK I regret to add, is a senior school leader who claimed the World couldn’t teach the UK anything in this crisis, because “we are different”. When my team at Heritage has been looking at models that work to return to physical school we have looked at the successful and not so successful examples from New Zealand, to Hong Kong to Denmark to Canada. All with the advice of international education influencers in this crisis such as the WHO, Microsoft and Google. This is what informed our strategy to return and a Ministry of Education in Moldova who has shown practical leadership with schools for the national education community. I long for the day when “Brexit Britain” really becomes “Global Britain” and realises the true extent & influence of a globalised World society and the crucial importance of near friends and neighbours in Europe.
The “Getting back to Global” international education conference Heritage International School organised with the brilliant support of the British Council, on Bastille Day, 14th July, two weeks ago, surprised all of us. The scope of the dialogue, discussion, participation and hope it created from what was an original modest idea did not anticipate the nearly 10000 people who watched it live. Needless to say, this will become an annual event in Chisinau as an international education conference. We had been planning an annual event along these lines with our good colleagues John Rolfe in London and Simon Williams in Kiev since last October as a physical event, but current events turned it into the unexpected online success it became. My amazing colleague, Tatiana Popa, head of global learning at Heritage, organised and pulled together an incredible lineup of global educators, as well as being the MC of the event. It is recorded live and the full conference video is below. H.E, Ambassador Steve Fisher, UK ambassador to Moldova, opened the conference with a wonderful introduction outlining the importance of our global society and the challenges we face. The conference was closed by Mr Martin McDowell, the DCM of the US Embassy in Chisinau, echoing the commitment of all nations to work together for the common good, especially in these times. John Rolfe spoke about the mindset we need right now as “we are not passengers on planet Earth, but crew”.
Following the success of this conference, we have created a @backtoglobal twitter platform for continued discussion and which features a number of new podcasts related to the future planning and aspirations of schools as we go back to global. The 10 challenges we have for the 2020s and beyond are what I concluded with as I ended the conference, summarising the key messages as we go forward and we get back to physical school this autumn/fall and we get back to global.
What are our challenges now going forward?
- Relevance of global education – even being a “globalist”
- Fragmented networks- schools constantly in competition
- The next generation of global education champions?
- The narrative of identity politics and populist history prevailing
- False binary choices and false equivalence
- Too much information and not nearly enough knowledge or wisdom
- Traditional support and organisations changing
- The definition of the curriculum – the narrowing of studies
- Mega global trends – impact and response
- Giving hope to young people that their World can be improved by them through their agency and leadership
I have this quote in my cabin in Bristol. It has more meaning the more I get older.
More clearly I’ll see, Tomorrow with fresh eyes, That life is beautiful. Heart, just be wiseAnna Akhmatova from “The door is half open”
My reflective piece for META summer edition of their education magazine can be found by clicking on the below front cover.