A bitterly cold, snowy winter. A new US president inaugurated. A pervading notion around the world of the fragility of human life. In many ways, 2021 echoes 1961. Substitute Biden for Kennedy and the coronavirus for the Cold War, and those who say that history repeats itself may feel vindicated.
Then, JFK’s inauguration address ushered in a new era. Widely praised as one of the greatest ever: meticulously planned and expertly executed.
Now, revisiting the speech sixty years later as a principal is timely. The enforced separation of teacher and student over the last year could easily have turned into something resembling an educational Cold War, where mistrust festered behind a turned off camera. Any submitted work was viewed with suspicion of plagiarism and previously ebullient communication slowed to a minimum.
Granted, Mutually Assured Destruction may never have been a threat between the two parties, but the planning for a process of “détente” and enhanced relations following the virus is necessary: a review of our processes in the education sector is inescapable.
With early indications of a successful widespread vaccination programme, the elusive feeling of hope for a brighter future is beginning to emerge. Obviously, the nation is not out of the woods yet, but we seem to have found our bearings, identified the right means of escape and are now carefully plotting our course to a path of progress. Leaders in education must now question whether there may be a better path ahead than the one traditionally most travelled.
“Now more than ever adopting Kennedy’s idealism would not be misplaced.”
Many of Kennedy’s visionary statements in his presidential acceptance speech offered a blueprint for the future. Perhaps now more than ever, adopting his idealism would not be misplaced. Recognising that coronavirus has altered the playing field and accepting that we must adapt to prosper is fundamental to creating the grounds for positive change. At Ealing Independent College, part of the Bellevue Education Group, we’ll continue to utilise many of his words as inspiration:
“The torch has been passed to a new generation”
We must find as many ways as possible to encourage our student body to become leaders, comfortable in taking responsibility and not shrinking from duty. Students are navigating their way, during their formative years, through a uniquely challenging period, and facing an uncertain future. They must be given every opportunity to be the drivers of positive change.
“United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do.”
The more intimate nature of lockdown teaching, with breakout groups and an abundance of opportunities for one-to-one guidance should encourage a stronger sense of trust. As educators, that must be at the forefront of everything we do: we need shared goals, learning experiences, resilience and transparency when engaging with problems. And we must have a shared sense of fulfilment when we succeed.
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.”
Lockdown has inevitably seen students spend more time as individuals, but as they return, a renewed sense of community must be emphasised. Along with it must come an understanding that if one student is struggling, then we all have a duty to assist. The evolution of the remote learning platform at Ealing has enabled students to collaborate amongst themselves, forming their own study groups and revision hubs. We’ve also created a hub with free resources for students learning outside the college. We understand that many schools and colleges work under far less favourable circumstances than we do.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
We are defined by our legacy, and the last few months of the academic year must be made the most of, not just in enjoying day to day learning and reuniting with friends. Links should be made between staff and students which last for years to come. I’ve taken great pleasure in reconnecting with a number of alumnus in our AZoomni series – and they have been able to impart priceless wisdom on current students understandably apprehensive about following in their footsteps.
“Goals which seemed impossible before the pandemic should be strived for now.”
To paraphrase another of Kennedy’s famous speeches, “we choose to go to the moon…not because it is easy but because it is hard.” Initially envisaging such a mission as a partnership between the US and the Soviet Union, it seemed outlandish to even consider such an aim on several grounds: of being able to work collaboratively with a sworn enemy; of dealing with the cost of such an expedition; of getting somewhere so seemingly intangible.
In a similar vein, goals which seemed impossible before the pandemic should be strived for now. I’m of the belief that we must use this pandemic as a prompt to recalibrate our goals for the sector as a whole, investing in this generation the skills to successfully strive for a better future. Robust relationships, between students and staff, must be at the heart of that.
Kennedy’s vision was realised within a decade – we should hold ourselves to the same standards.