‘If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you…’ (Rudyard Kipling 1895)
In the past months I have been drawn more and more to the words of this popular poem. Described as “inspirational guidance for modern living” (in 1895, when it was written), it still portrays so many of the attributes we have needed to survive the repercussions of the pandemic in the world of education.
No matter how we look on the past 18 months, everything has been turned on its head; routine, normality and common sense have been replaced by uncertainty, change and chaos. Things that were perfectly acceptable or even expected behaviours have been closely scrutinised, analysed in minutia or disregarded as no longer appropriate.
Put into the context of school organisation and leadership, this is magnified and has created an environment of both unrest and opportunity.
How do schools retain their integrity as centres for learning and growth, whilst riding out the storms of falling rolls, redundancy and shifting paradigms? The answer has to come back to individuals within the school, the leaders, boards and owners — in short, the integrity of an institution is only as strong as the heart of its leadership. For sure, the pandemic has required some soul-searching and rethinking to return to the core of what is most important for each of us. As educators, we have been required to define the essence of learning for our students; as schools, to re-find the heartbeat that keeps us going.
“How do schools retain their integrity as centres for learning and growth, whilst riding out the storms of falling rolls, redundancy and shifting paradigms?”
But what does that actually mean for the 2021-22 school year?
- Holding onto truth and honesty — we could all pretend that things are perfect, or we can start to improve each aspect of school life in the light of what we have learned and experienced together in the past two years. Using experience and knowledge can be a powerful way to develop new and meaningful programmes for forward-thinking schools. Facing reality and working from an honest, objective evaluation is key.
- Working together, not in opposition — there is no place for personal gratification, or for fragmentation of leadership, if we are to succeed in rebuilding and learning from the past. Staff members need to be valued in their roles, for their tenacity and their experience in context and can be used as strong foundations for the future.
- Fresh challenge and a renewed energy — as the world talks of emerging from the pandemic, or learning to live with the disease, students need to feel that their schooling is still valid, relevant and important. Staff teams have a crucial role, to hold onto what was always important and to rebuild the pieces that have been lost. They must harness the positives and new ways of learning and teaching gleaned from 18 months of unprecedented instability in how we teach.
- Well-being as central to learning and teaching — not just for students, but for staff members and leadership. The pandemic has brought forth a clear need and urgency for well-being to become more explicit and central to schools. It is not a luxury, or an add-on, but rather, an essential commitment to ensure healthy working environments and, in turn, appropriate preparation for students for life beyond education
… as the poem suggests, we can trust ourselves, even when others may doubt us, be patient and develop a new sense of purpose in time, then I believe we will see a new era for education grow and blossom.
But this must come without us feeling exhausted, or burnt-out, or disillusioned in the short term. We must hold on against the many things that may still thwart our mission.
“Take up the challenge, and take on the adversity that may come your way, but never lose your own integrity.”
To ride through this next stage of the storm, I would advocate the need for a set of attributes and character traits that can frame our way, individually and collectively. Students, staff, parents — all stakeholders — will need to work for the same goals, have the same focus and desire the same outcomes in order to create success in individual contexts.
Curriculum frameworks, school mission statements, core values of organisations, all offer a structure for this — but they are just words unless we take them seriously, teach them explicitly and believe in them thoroughly.
Then, perhaps, we will come out of this season stronger, more resilient, with a more positive mindset, prepared for whatever may come next.
In the meantime, I can only recommend that you read the full poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, if you haven’t already.
Identify yourself as the “Man” to whom the words are dedicated. Take up the challenge, and take on the adversity that may come your way, but never lose your own integrity. Nothing is worth that.