“History is the antidote to hubris” David McCullough
I have had a few moments in these last few weeks of the end of summer, to really spend time to think and reflect about the new academic year ahead. Sometimes, we are completely in the thick of the moment that we don’t stop and look up enough. My old basketball coach’s voice from secondary school reappears in my mind in these moments shouting loudly to look up, turn and face down the court. He said the same thing when we played rugby and he definitely was the kind of coach whose voice stayed with you.
Sitting on the Air Moldova flight from Stansted to Chisinau in mid August, certainly was one of those opportunities. The person at the check in desk was a little bit surprised that I worked and lived in Moldova when she asked me if I was going on vacation to the country. Everyone else in Stansted seemed to be going somewhere on vacation but mid August is the signal to get back to Moldova and we begin two weeks of staff induction and training. Not that the summer has ever really been a vacation in any sense, especially these last few years in school leadership. Working from home daily or working from school daily, more or less amounts to the same thing.
To have all the staff, new and old faces, all together to start a new academic year, is one of the most important moments of the academic year’s cycle. I do prefer the pattern of the academic year in Europe and for the last 3 years I have cast my thoughts back to the way UK schools have crammed in so much in the 1 or 2 days before the students return. The two weeks of preparation and induction this August not only meant less focus on Covid for the first time since 2019, but more importantly, it meant we could give colleagues individual planning time, go through school priorities and summer exam results, spend time on issues like our approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as sharing ideas around teaching and learning.
Standing at the podium, on the 1st September, in the sunshine, dressed like a cross between the man from Del Monte and the groom at a summer wedding, I did get to have time to think, just before the first families arrived and we welcomed students back to another new academic year in the wonderful Eastern European tradition of the 1st September and the Day of Knowledge. I wish more UK and US schools picked up this tradition and turned that first day, a day of dread for many students (and teachers), into something celebratory and joyous to launch a new academic year in style.
I had three clear lines of thought as I looked across the empty quad soon to be filled with our staff, students and their families. The first thought was just how inexplicable it is to describe the actual moment of standing there on the 1st September, ready to welcome our community with knowing what has been central in our thought process, our minds, our fears and the drain on our courage since the 24th February and the war launched on the people of Ukraine. Between early March and the 9th May, it really did feel like an existential time waiting for an arrow of Z and V to come up from Odesa and into Moldova. It hasn’t gone away but things have changed as the world has changed irrevocably in 2022.
I thought about our dear colleagues in schools like BISU in Kyiv, its extraordinary principal David Cole. I thought about those schools willfully destroyed across Ukraine and the courage of students to continue learning. I especially liked the pictures showing proudly defiant young people in prom clothes that students had taken in the ruins of their old school. If anyone ever doubted the certainty of education, the transformative power of learning and the future really belonging to young people, then look at how these remarkable people are making a stand daily against tyranny in the eastern part of Europe. It is humbling and this has been constantly in mind. I think of the Ukrainian families joining the school, along with our new Russian families, all forced to flee, all making up our international school community, all wanting peace and a better future than just nationalism, hate and nihilism.
Just to stand in that moment of the 1st September, was just pure joy in my mind. My second thought, and forgive the history student in me, was to think about the work of David McCullough, the great American historian who died this summer. He believed passionately in connecting people’s stories to the past and to link them to their identity and the idea of something bigger than themselves. David’s work often focussed on leaders who were not necessarily in the limelight of history after their departure, and certainly not during their time. His work on Harry Truman, as one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century is worth a read. Anyone reading his biography on the second US president, John Adams, will come across a true titan and a Founding Father who should be up there along with Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison. McCullough has focussed a lot on the importance Adams placed on education for democracy and the future development of a prosperous and peaceful society. It is enshrined in the Massachusetts constitution and anyone in education who believes our classrooms are just about passing a couple of tests of numeracy and literacy needs to take a few history modules from this era and particularly from this historian.
My final thoughts, as I could hear the string quartet tune up at the front of school and see parents and students waiting to get in, arms full of flowers to give to their teachers and teaching assistants, was the thought that plagues all leaders, the thought of being a fraud. The thought of giving messages of hope and optimism and yet having your own doubts. Game faces aside, it has been hard this year for anyone in education, not to feel doubtful about the future. I know from my colleagues in the UK, my daughter’s schools; the bizarre approach towards unfunded (but completely deserved) pay rises, linked to energy bills that have been allowed to sky rocket without any real support, to the basics of school canteens not being able to afford or secure supplies for meals. It makes you wonder if we are actually in an uncut episode of “Black Mirror”. Before anyone answers, just look at who is about to be the next 1st Lord of the Treasury, the person she is replacing (the historians will have their work cut out here but I can guarantee, no Adams or Truman) and the way this was chosen.
In these moments, the certainty comes from one’s responsibilities, of duty, of being in the arena. Of finding the courage and the hope to be able to say we can and we will forge the better future deserved by all our children. I know the teams I work with, have their own fears about what this winter will bring. Moldova faces more than a challenge if we are faced with a cold winter, Russian gas cut off and further destablisation from those who wish the country to face subserviently east again. It’s important not to be isolated in one’s thoughts and this is why we work in outward facing networks, with shared values towards making a more equitable and just world. That we develop in our students the ability to critically think built on the foundations of knowledge, dialogue, integrity and reason. We have record numbers of families this year at Heritage, they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t believe in a better future for their children. Community strength, in a positive way, is a very powerful thing to experience in any organisation, especially a school.
As I finally got around to writing this blog, it really does feel like autumn here. I am fortunate enough to be sitting in the sunshine, in the beautiful Moldovan countryside. The vines are heavy with dark grapes and it is the advent of the winemaking season and the festivals to celebrate wine in Moldova, a feature of life here in the land between the Prut and Nistru that has continued for generations. An act of humanity, of community, outlasting many a tyrant from east, west, south and north.
I have been reading the commentary, analysis and obituaries of a man whose legacy on not only Moldova, but Eastern Europe, Russia and the World, will keep historians busy for a long time. I have two direct Gorbachev connections. My wife’s grandfather served in Coastal Command during World War II, based in Wick, at the top of Scotland. He escorted the Royal Navy ships & convoys bringing essential supplies to the USSR, around the frozen Arctic seas to the ice ports of Murmansk and Archangel during the war. He and his comrades finally received recognition when they were awarded medals in honour of their service by Gorbachev, now as old men, long in retirement. A recognition when allies faced and fought together the real tyranny uniting all in a decent, common humanity.
My second connection was an extraordinary day, thanks to my dear American colleagues and friends in Virginia, to a visit to the home in the Appalachians, of a beautiful farm and vineyard, owned by the Gorbachev family who were delighted and fascinated to hear of my experiences in Tomsk and Siberia. They were also very keen to know how we taught recent Russian history and what our thoughts were for the future. Leaving aside a drunken swim in the pool at the end of the day, they were very pleased to hear of my students from Bristol, working in the summer camps in the forests near Tomsk, playing cricket, learning English and Russian, being together as young people and as global citizens. Looking back seems so halcyon and I have stopped myself thinking what has happened to those boys teaching boys from Bristol lapta. Are they now in Kherson, Donetsk, or safely at home in Tomsk thinking of their moments in the UK all those years ago?
The plan for my new academic year is not to lose sight of what we stand for, our values, the belief in education and continue to provide the certainty of hope of school no matter what. It is ok to be afraid but we also need to keep finding our courage in the times we live in, especially those working with the future.