The British educator Tim Brighouse once said school leaders come to regard a crisis as the norm. I’ve thought about those words a lot in my career leading schools, facing challenges ranging from anthrax culture plates being found in the cupboards of the science prep room, to Spanish exchange students “playing” on the main London train line. And of course there are the scary deficit budgets and safeguarding cases that make you weep silently for days.
None of this prepared me for the early morning of Thursday 24th February, 2022. A day we already know now joins 9/11 and the 9th November, 1989, for future school textbooks, when history was changed forever by a single event.
My colleagues and students were travelling to our school in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, like countless others everywhere, only to suddenly hear the constant roar and boom of missiles over the border from us. They were crashing around the ancient Black Sea port of Odessa in Ukraine, shattering the morning peace as winter started to merge into spring.
“Missiles were crashing around the ancient Black Sea port of Odessa in Ukraine, shattering the morning peace.”
My Heritage colleagues were calling, messaging, terrified by the news and images across social media that the most unreal and unbelievable scenes were pouring in from across Ukraine as the unthinkable finally happened. Putin got his war and his chance to turn the clock back 30 years for a USSR MK2 in this troubled and contested crossroads corner of Eastern Europe. It wasn’t a clever bluff. War really had been imminent.
My thoughts had already turned to my COBIS colleague, principal of The British International School Ukraine David Cole and his schools in Kyiv and what they must be enduring as a school community under an actual invasion.
Messages from our COBIS Black Sea schools group of heads were being sent from all across our region, all hoping everything was ok. David sent word back, calm, reassuring and doing all things possible to get their community safe. Even in the darkest and scariest of moments, there is always hope and inspiration from dedicated school leaders like David Cole and his team.
The truth may indeed be the first casualty of war but often, in the fog of conflict, just finding information, in the information age, is problematic. The closure of Moldovan airspace was correct but we could not verify reports of the Russian army moving into Moldova from the neighbouring breakaway territory of Transnistria — the strange leftover frozen conflict from 1992 and the original break-up of the USSR.
“What happens when the tanks turn up on Dacia Boulevard and do to Chișinău what is currently happening to Kharkiv, Kyiv and Mariupol?”
The government and leadership of Moldova, under President Maia Sandu, moved very quickly to reassure everyone and to prevent the panic and fear that was already gripping our small country. We are sandwiched between the river Prut, the border to the west with “safe” EU and NATO member Romania, and the river Nistru, our eastern border with Russian controlled Transnistria and Ukraine.
Our brilliant sources of security and safety advice for so long within the UK and US Embassies, advised and we planned so we could make good decisions for our next moves as a school community.
Our international staff are frightened to be caught in someone else’s conflict in a part of the world, so far from home and no way of getting out. Our local staff are full of fear and sorrow, many with families in the war zones of Ukraine, with historical, cultural and kin ties to Russia, but all calling Moldova their home.
“Our local staff are full of fear and sorrow, many with families in the war zones.”
Like the refugees fleeing the conflict from Ukraine, where do they run? Moldova, too small to count, not in NATO, not in the EU, what happens when the tanks turn up on Dacia Boulevard and do to Chișinău what is currently happening to Kharkiv, Kyiv and Mariapol?
The school emergency crisis plan works brilliantly for the current existential crisis as we confronted a pandemic and we reimagined education, keeping learning going daily for two years as an organisation. That now seems like a walk in the park kind of crisis to face.
But now the plan needs the “War and Conflict” section added as if we were curriculum mapping literacy or numeracy back when school leadership didn’t quite have the same challenges to face as we do in 2022.
We don’t choose the time we are leaders and the most important thing we can ever do is to make sure our communities that we serve are served by us. The former Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear is showing what real leadership means right now.
For us in education, that means reassuring children that the world is a good place. To explain, but not over complicated or overload, complex geo-political historical events. To keep routines, events, clubs, lessons, exam preparation for the summer. To lead our school communities. Teachers being just brilliant in such difficult, emotional and fearful times. I am so proud of my colleagues and schools.
“I can live with crisis being the norm, but I am tired of children living in fear in this decade.”
To live our values; Moldova is already welcoming nearly 70,000 refugees with food, shelter and even some schooling, for people who have lost everything when last week they had everything. Heritage student councils by the weekend had already begun collecting for refugees and the messages of support and donations from across our 20 nationalities of Heritage families, proved that there is far more hope than hate in this World. Our children are seeing this too, the bully doesn’t get to win.
This week we celebrate the 1st March, the celebration of the Martisor festival and the hope of Spring. All our hope this spring is for peace. That the fighting and destruction stops. No more lives are lost needlessly and conflicts are resolved without war for all our sakes. The unity of the world to support peace and to tell tyranny it has no place in 2022 is a lesson that would be worth taking from these years. I can live with crisis being the norm, but like most, I am tired of children living in fear in this decade. The children of Ukraine, and the world, need peace now.