We will lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our examplePresident Biden, inauguration speech at The Capitol, 20th January 2021.
There have been many surreal moments over the last year in the lifespan of this pandemic. Sometimes, it feels as if we are barely holding on with our fingertips as the cold Winter grips tighter this February in our corner of Europe. In many ways, the fatigue and weariness of the changes in every facet of our daily lives now seem to have always been with us. Vaccines still seem such a long way away, especially from the perspective of a country like Moldova. It is already February and that once unique Pennsylvanian/American tradition of the 2nd of February being ‘Groundhog Day’, is now, in part, thanks to the Bill Murray film of the 1990s, synonymous with the same day being repeated over and over and there being no escape from a very real reality: I present to you Pandemic 2020-21…
Nevertheless, there have been so many moments of hope and inspiration already in 2021 that we may start to allow ourselves the feeling that our global “groundhog day” may have a potential pathway through. There is even a glimmer of light that an end is in sight at some point later on in the year. President Biden wasn’t wrong to quote Seamus Heaney when he said ‘“When hope and history rhyme” at the end of 2020.
As I walked around the grounds of the beautiful National Trust Tyntesfield estate in Somerset in early January, with my wife and daughters, in the forlorn hope that I could walk off some of the excess eating of Christmas and New Year, my thoughts were on the deteriorating situation in the UK regarding Covid19: The inexorable climb in cases and a government response that appears not to be anchored in reality or with effective communications to the wider public. When the announcement was made for schools to close, after allowing children back nationally for one day and thus spreading more potential cases, the UK finally embarked on much tougher measures, nearly a year too late to prevent the further dreadful rise in unnecessary deaths and to try to control the crisis.
I found myself at Heathrow days before my scheduled January departure, trying to get back to Moldova via Istanbul, not knowing when I would see my family again in the New Year. In the vacant Terminal 2, the handful of passengers on their way back to work sat on the near empty plane and rapidly realised that we wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. Sure enough, we were marched off the flight, back to the gate for “further information”. We waited and waited and waited. Within a few hours, most of us had missed our connecting flights at Istanbul. The staff, working hard, were superb. For the few who wanted to shout, I did appreciate the moment when the pilot came into the gate to bluntly point out the reality of discovering the problem with our flight’s fuel there and then, or the alternative at about 30,000 ft somewhere over Europe. I was with the pilot on this one. There is nothing like a dose of hard, cold reality & perspective to bring us all down to earth, if you will pardon the pun. After much delay, we were fortunate that a new plane was found and off we went to Istanbul. Who knew that being able to watch the Creed films with a sandwich and bottle of water, without any disturbance, stretched over an otherwise row of three seats, would be a wonderful highlight for me flying across the continent to start the semester. I am a bit of a Rocky aficionado, after all. There are a few experiences I would happily pass on and recommend you should not do in this life: Sleeping overnight in the terminal at Istanbul, waiting for the following morning’s flight would be one of them. I am getting too old for this, but I was glad to eventually get back to a wintery Chisinau and the wonderful, familiar faces in my second home of Moldova.
One of the differences I have noticed starkly for education at this stage of the crisis, is the shift in mood and attitude. We have now returned to what teachers and support staff in schools do best: practicality and ensuring children get care, routines and learning. There have been so many conferences, papers, proclamations, calls for “reimagining education”, and I have been caught up in this too, but what is absolutely needed right now is perspective and our agency being channelled into keeping our schools continuing in any form possible and preventing education from being yet another victim of Covid. I realised this long ago, back in September, when the school priorities of “survival” stopped being an old joke. Keeping our model working in Heritage and actually seeing the success that the Moldovan national education community has had so far, is the strategy other countries could have adopted sooner in this crisis. These few weeks back in semester 2, seeing events in school, the safe measures now an integral part of every day school culture, day to day learning, wonderful teaching and learning briefings from my brilliant colleagues, are the best things we can do now going forward into 2021.
I am less concerned about arguing exactly what has changed so dramatically in education through this pandemic, than the absolute necessity of children having their learning and as much normality as possible. September demonstrated how important physical school was for us all and how much we had missed it. We are literally in survival mode in education right now and for the foreseeable future as we predict the coming potential chaos again with exams and the more worrying long term impact on the wellbeing of young people. Perspective has also demonstrated how adaptable all educators are, and right now in the UK, local schools, local communities, support staff, teachers, school leaders and parents are all making education work in whatever form they can for children. I know first hand from my daughters and their school working so hard to ensure that if this lockdown lasts further into the Spring in the UK, that these routines and learning will be well established to sustain families. When the actor and writer, Stephen Fry, recently called for teachers to be kind to themselves in all of this, he echoed what we all feel about how hard those in education are pushing themselves. Finally, we have moved away from the “one size fits all” mentality of everyone trying to follow the same digital, synchronous model and finding what works best for their context: Something Heritage was advocating last March. No doubt, a significant paradigm shift has occurred and my own teams at Heritage spent time working with the Future Classroom Lab in Brussels on professional development for hybrid learning in January. Right now, however, at this part of the crisis, when winter has gripped us all and just surviving the day is a triumph, the rush to find the next best panacea in education can wait a while, as we all catch our breath from these months.
I know, all around the World, the awe inspiring words and the clarion call for everyone to be the light after the incredible reading of 22 year old poet Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration. Her words became more of a talking point than the President’s own incredible speech on that beautiful sunny day, at the very scene of what had been such an ugly moment of more hateful history on the 6th January. I have thought of the title of Amanda’s poem ‘’The Hill We Climb’’ almost daily, reflecting on the struggles taking place all over the World in these times.
The reach back into history to commemorate Holocaust remembrance day on January 27th saw Heritage look at the Holocaust in Chisinau itself and the ghetto here in a city where the original Tsarist pogroms in 1903 began what contributed so much fuel to modern Anti-Semitism. We also studied the genocides that have been perpetrated subsequently around the World since the new global community in the guise of the UN declared ‘’Never Again’’ in 1945. I even had the privilege of doing some team teaching with my brilliant history colleagues at Heritage for the day and my second assembly to students focussed on the awful story of Srebenica, something I remember so clearly happening in our own continent of Europe. This hate is not receding fast enough into history and is often getting a new lease of life and new audiences in the words of demagogues, like Trump. Amanda is right to offer us hope as individuals being the light, as we celebrated the first black and Asian woman as vice president, the first openly gay cabinet minister in America and for us all to be aware of the hills we each need to climb.
The snow blizzards that hit Moldova at the end of January covered the city and the countryside with a very white blanket. I was amazed to see again the resilience of people in this part of the World getting to school and to work in the snow. I know from the snow days I called in Wales and the Forest of Dean, that my old deputy, Martin Jenkins would have had kittens, had he seen the scene in Chisinau from the classroom windows in the thick of the snow storm last Thursday morning. It was mesmerizing.
Best of all, for the first time, in what has seemed such a long time, children went outside and had sheer unadulterated fun in the snow. They were in the moment and not worrying about anything else to come, other than the wonderful hot soup and delicious food in the canteen for lunch. I have spent the last couple of weekends getting out of Chisinau, into the countryside and dropping food off with other volunteers, to make sure the dogs and wildfowl left at restaurants in the Winter have something to eat. We have also made sure the caretakers have had something too. The Winter landscape in Moldova is so harsh, but it incredibly beautiful and it has been good to get out and also find some perspective here as well. I need it. Biden was right: We all need to lead by the examples we set.
The greatest paradigm shift we can give our young people from this crisis for their educational futures, is the very hope of an educational future. In these moments of school, whatever it looks like or wherever it may be, a school community and all its players, are working their hardest to make this happen right now in 2021. Real perspective and real agency.
The lessons that our students need are still continuing and the first Founders’ Lecture of 2021 was Martin Wilcox, the CEO of the charity, ChildAid, who perform incredibly inspiring work with vulnerable families and children in Eastern Europe. Their work here in Moldova is done through the Tony Hawkes centre, set up by the famous comedian after his first trip to Moldova to play tennis against the players of the national football team. You can find out more about this story through the book available and through this video. Martin was brilliant in the way he challenged the privilege of the students and gave them the challenge of using their skills and education to give back to those in society who are in need: to lift up others through their strength. In a second lecture series of incredible speakers to date, it really stood out for the students as a beacon of hope and the leadership these young people could give to society: The very hope and mission of Heritage. Many of these students were also fortunate to have some of my former critical thinking students from Wyedean join them online to talk about post 16 choices, A Levels and universities and it was a nice connection and conversation on a Friday afternoon that briefly took me back to Dumbeldore’s study. Life before the pandemic.
‘Winter, slumbering in the open air, wears on his smiling face a dream of springBill Murray, Groundhog Day