Hope, Joy and Optimism in the Midst of Chaos: A System Perspective
Coming towards the last hurdle, hitting the wall during the marathon, maintaining concentration and energy....
Coming towards the last hurdle, hitting the wall during the marathon, maintaining concentration and energy during the last few minutes of the match are sporting challenges we are all familiar with. These are the moments when the cheers are loudest, the hearts are beating fastest, the excitement ever mounting but the struggle on the ground is at its toughest. This is where we find ourselves as we reach over a year of fear, loss, struggle, exhaustion and anxiety. In the words of Winston Churchill: ‘We have won the Great War. Let us win the Great Peace’. Reaching this peace means continuous hard draft, the existence of constant threat and beating a year’s exhaustion, a tough ask indeed for Irish school leaders as they limp towards a more promising future, and return to school for the summer term.
Working in the system during these challenging times has been a privilege and a struggle. There is a sense of gratitude for being relieved of the responsibility of running a school and all that entails, while the practitioners in us yearn to roll up our sleeves and assist with daily life in a school community. There is a strong feeling of responsibility to help and support school leaders as much as possible from the side lines, to cheer and encourage, to provide and facilitate. Such a motivation takes away work boundaries, necessitates constant online engagement and mentally exhausts. There is a consistent feeling of not doing enough, of adding an extra layer of work through communications with schools, and a compelling search to find out what else can be done and what innovation will succeed in finding a balance between helping and hindering. Too many messages of goodwill, encouragement and reminders of the importance of wellbeing can tip the balance and grate on the ear, too few can elicit a sense of abandonment from the system. Social media communications can hit the spot perfectly or instigate exhaustion and anger. Online events can disappoint and motivate simultaneously. Lack of face-to-face engagement raises a deep yearning for the networking opportunities of the past and a strong sense of nostalgia for the social aspect of educational events, while disillusionment with available alternatives prevails. Interaction online is haphazard depending on platforms and internet access, and the stress of presenting online or meeting a group remotely is exacerbated by the possibility of an unexpected glitch. Door bells, smoke alarms, unsilenced telephones and family pets can add humour or frustration. Being dressed professionally from the waist up and in tracksuits, jeans, leggings and pyjamas from the waist down can lose its charm when memories of long past face to face events come to mind. The working space shrinks at times, the walls close in, the laptop feels like a body part and the discourse of online engagement- ‘you’re frozen’, you’re on silent’ consistently grates. A sense of safety and reduced responsibility competes with an inherent feeling of wanting to support and assist where you can. Being removed from the tough reality of the coalface offsets an ever-ending timetable. Like every situation since the pandemic began, there are advantages and disadvantages, silver linings and challenge, good days and bad.
A constant source of motivation during this trying time has been the strong sense of hope, joy and optimism that has shone through the gloom from school communities. Despite the challenges, people have clung to the smallest things and made the very most of the joy they bring. At CSL online events, principals and deputies have spoken about the joy of the school building being full again, and how much this means to them. They have received solace from the children, rejoicing in the fact that children will be children no matter what. They have shared pictures of treats being left in their offices and notes of gratitude on their tables. They have spoken about a renewed sense of teamwork, a building of leadership capacity and of people previously new or quiet or reticent coming to the fore. They have reported on the silver linings of the pandemic, reduced expectations, a stronger focus on teaching and learning and a pace, that although has sped up due to the management of covid19, has simultaneously slowed somewhat, due to its restrictions. There is a stronger sense of what should be prioritised, what can be left behind and where the focus should be in the future. There is also a renewed understanding of the importance of resilience and wellbeing, and how this can be taught through the curriculum, and developed among staff members.
Right through their conversations, school leaders have demonstrated an acceptance of all that has been learned alongside a resentment that it had to be learned so quickly. Rather than a rush to put this period behind them, they speak about using the learning to be more adaptable in the future. For many, their future leadership role is about returning to the old normal with choices. It’s about considering what is not adding value to the learning and teaching in their school and being open to innovation and creative opportunities which arose out of necessity since March 2020. It’s also about appreciation of their school, the children, the staff and the wider school community. More especially, it’s about wonder and gratitude; wonder at people’s resilience and ability to adapt, and gratitude for their trust and support.
What strikes me most from my vantage point in the system is the absolute willingness of school leaders to share. CSL mentors have reached out to newly appointed principals as they take the reins in the most problematic of times. Those newly appointed principals in mentoring relationships have reported on such generosity when mentors themselves have so much to contend with. They feel motivated, encouraged, reassured and affirmed by their mentors and privileged to avail of the non-judgemental safe space provided by the mentoring relationship. Mentors in turn are humbled by the courage of principals new to the role. School principals, deputies, middle and teacher leaders have taken part in online events, contributed to surveys and questionnaires, written blogs and evaluations, shared their research, made videos, and partaken in online professional learning at a time when their energy is at its lowest. They have risen to the support of others and maintained a strong sense of hope and optimism despite being pushed to their limits. Newly appointed leaders have stepped up to leadership courageously while those in retirement have maintained close contact with their schools and their successors to do all they can to navigate the ship through stormy waters.
In the system, collaboration has become the key to successfully supporting those working in schools. Education Centres have assisted in joining the dots to link the work of professional organisations, management and trust bodies, supports services and unions. The Teaching Council, the NCCA and the NCSE have worked closely with stakeholders to address the needs of schools. The DE is fully supportive of such collaboration and advocates for more of the same. This is a key learning point for those of us working in the system and it mirrors the learning in schools. The best way to achieve the best outcomes for our students and to develop leadership capacity is to work together. Ní neart go cur le chéile.
I paint a glowing picture. It’s not all roses in the garden! There are challenges and real struggles. There is deep exhaustion, a real sense of monotony and no special events to look forward to. The pandemic needs to recede, the vaccination roll out to increase rapidly. There is fear and trepidation as schools open again and high infection rates stubbornly prevail. There is frustration and weariness about the progress of vaccinations and the identity of frontline workers. Yet, as the last hurdle is approached, the Irish education system has proved its worth once again. The learning is rich, hope and optimism prevail, and joy escapes from the cracks. This joy is a tribute to all teachers and school leaders out there who celebrate the return to school having sent school books home at the end of March just in case. It’s a sign of hope for a brighter future. It’s a safety blanket for those of us who work in the system to grab hold of and a true source of pride in our work. Although we live in a postmodern world with an uncertain future, we can proudly say that Irish schools have sustained their focus on hope and optimism. The least we can so in the system is to be inspired by their strength and courage.