The unusual invitation arrived just as I was again laying out the day’s lunch offerings for our family. Entitled “A Moment in Time,” it was sent by my Aunt-in-law who lives thousands of kilometres away. An amateur artist, she had begun a painting in response to COVID-19 as a way to keep busy, stay relaxed and reflect on her own experiences during this moment in time. While painting away, she began wondering what other family members experiences and thoughts were at this moment in time so invited a few of us to share our reflections. It was an invitation too good to refuse.
As I put fingers to keyboard for this family heirloom, I realised I wanted to record my reflections of this moment in time from my perspective as an educator and global citizen too. Like many of us, my mind has been switching between moments of concern and moments of comfort as our world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. One minute I am gripped with worry and uncertainty, the next I am filled with peace and optimism. Nonetheless these emotions do reflect my experiences of this moment in time. I share a handful of them here with you because, as we’re constantly reminded, we are all #inthistogether. You may relate to some and learn from others and it will be helpful to revisit these reflections in the weeks, months and years ahead.
As an educator, my main concern centres around the fact that right now, 91% of the world’s student population are out of school across the globe, in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. The majority of these are students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools but there are many students impacted at the pre-school and tertiary education levels too. While large numbers of these students have access to learning through online platforms, many simply do not. In Australia for example, COVID-19 has exacerbated inequality for vulnerable, aboriginal and rural students. The latest statistics here show that for as many as 46% of students, internet connectivity and access to a computer at home are unattainable. My son’s farming friend is travelling a 100 kilometre round trip per day to access reliable internet in the nearest town. He spends his day in the office of a family friend, in between helping his family run their farm that is still in the grip of drought. How can we quickly and efficiently bridge this gap so they are not left behind?
One of those students out of school is our youngest son. He, like so many others, is in his final year of school – the #Classof2020. For them, this year is meant to be all about preparing to leave school and began full of promise. My son and his friends were set to finish well and instead their world has been turned upside down. I have grieved the intangible losses of milestones for them, the opportunities to create final lifelong memories together and for us as parents to create those memories alongside our son and his friends too. In the school context, he is an engaged learner, stimulated and motivated by classroom discussions and collaborative learning. Online learning often requires a strong visual learning style. My son’s dominant learning style is auditory so suddenly, in his final year he’s having to re-learn how to learn. I can see the increased cognitive load is exhausting and I know he is representative of many others across the globe. We, like thousands of senior student parents, have no idea what the finish line will look like for our son and his peers or even exactly when it will be. I wonder, how will the learning of these students be assessed and how will that information be used by tertiary institutions and future employers?
I’m concerned about the negative impact COVID-19 is having on the emotional wellbeing of our students – the isolation, fear and uncertainty – and how our students will and can be supported by their schools. Emotional intelligence experts tell us that our brains would rather know that something bad is going to happen to us than be in a state of uncertainty. Our emotions are the shelf upon which our cognitive glassware sits so what are the repercussions for student learning? As an adult, my brain has been a little fuzzy. I can only imagine how hard it would be to concentrate for students whose brains are still developing while wrestling with their thoughts around living in a pandemic. Most teachers are not psychologists and they are already carrying an unbelievable load as they juggle online learning platforms and adapt their pedagogy from their lounge-room or bedroom, not to mention manage their own emotional wellbeing. How can schools provide optimal support for the emotional wellbeing of students, and their teachers, now and in the future?
As a wife and mother, I have loved being at home during this moment in time, but I’m cognisant that others are literally fighting for their lives. Last week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that in the two Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, domestic violence incidents were up by 40%. This is at the same time that the multilingual broadcaster Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) revealed phonecalls to domestic violence helplines have reduced significantly and Google announced the highest magnitude of searches for domestic violence help they have seen in the past five years – an increase of 75%. For children in these situations, school was their safe place. In the Netherlands, my Safe Passage Across Networks Chairperson and colleague Drs. Doug Ota tells me that psychologists there are very concerned about the number of children who have “gone missing” since schools closed. Meanwhile a New York Times headline blasts the warning “A New COVID-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” Do schools and communities have the capacity to identify, track and care for these vulnerable students and their families?
As a global citizen, my overwhelming concern relates to the world’s refugees. My contacts in humanitarian aid tell me that in places such as Afghanistan and Lebanon, they are in a race against the clock to keep COVID-19 at bay. Take Herat, Afghanistan for example. This refugee camp has the same population as central London (approx. 2 million) but it has 1 ventilator and 1 doctor who knows how to use it. Whereas in the informal tented settlement of the Bekkar Valley in Lebanon, tents are positioned 30 centimetres apart and some are even connected to one another. There is no access to medical facilities for refugees here because they have no legal status. My heart breaks for the vulnerable adults and children as COVID-19 adds to their fear and uncertainty. On one hand I am wracked with the guilt of privilege as I am not one of those people, yet on the other hand, I am filled with gratitude for the incredible work organisations such as World Vision are doing to protect and support them. What more is needed to equip these humanitarian aid organisations to protect the most vulnerable in our society?
It is easy to become overwhelmed with concern and find oneself bogged down in focusing on the negative impact of COVID-19, so in recent weeks I’ve made a concerted effort to “play with Gratitude.” In the words of my long-time colleague and Chief Investigator of The Playing with Gratitude Project, Rod Soper, “gratitude changes how we feel about ourselves and our world. If we practice gratitude each day, we feel better about ourselves and our environment, we sleep better, experience a deeper sense of joy and pleasure and feel more connected to friends and family. Gratitude can even improve our immune systems and physical energy levels.” Amidst all the uncertainty and concerns running around in my head and heart, this moment in time has provided me with the opportunity to slow down and practice gratitude – the emotion, the action and the state of being. It has brought both comfort and hope.
As schools have closed and are adapting to distance learning, I have found myself providing somewhat of a triage service, including providing resources around developing intercultural empathy for learners and school communities. For the most part I have been supporting local schools enrolling overseas students and I am comforted by the emphasis being placed on emotional wellbeing in schools, workplaces and across the community at this moment in time. While Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has been in curriculums and spoken about in staff rooms for some time, making it a pillar of learning has not, in many schools or workplaces. In the words of David Kessler, “we are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew. The world we knew is now gone forever.” Could it be that this collective loss brings empathy and increased understanding to us a society? As a result, is it possible we can come to realise that the research is right – emotional wellbeing is as important as physiological wellbeing and that it must be a priority before learning can take place? I’m grateful that emotional wellbeing is front and centre at this moment in time and I’m hopeful that it will stay there so individuals, families, communities and our society can grow well and grow together.
Speaking of families, all of a sudden, parents, carers and guardians have become lead learners at this moment in time. In most cases, this is an entirely new role for them and their first look at the real-time learning of their children. More than at any other time, schools are relying on the adults in students’ lives and I’m comforted to see increased dialogue and engagement between home and school, whether that home be in the next street or across the ocean. We know that when parents/guardians are engaged in their children’s education, students do better. I’m grateful that this moment in time presents a golden opportunity to use that increased communication, understanding and engagement to strengthen and unite school communities. I’m hopeful that it will have a ripple effect across local communities, nations and our world.
Possibly one of my greatest comforts and joys has been to watch my colleagues across the globe come together in a way I never imagined possible. Teachers can oftentimes find themselves in silos – one teacher per room, teaching their own subject to each student assigned to their own desk. This moment in time has seen a complete shift. Teachers, ahead of us on the COVID-19 journey, are sharing their experiences so that the rest of us can use their stumbling blocks as our stepping-stones. Resources and expertise traditionally held close to the chest or covered in IP copyright are now intentionally and freely traversing the hemispheres. Thanks to some key champions of education and their podcasts (shout out to Ellen Mahoney, Aleka Bilan and Brené Brown), we are able to access some of the best minds and creative thinkers in the business to help us reimagine, innovate and educate. Educators from across the globe are coming together in online communities such as SPAN’s gathering, The Nest, to be refreshed, equipped and connected with others like never before. I’m grateful for this selflessness, this collegiality, this wanting the best for all our students and our educational communities, wherever they may be in this world. I’m hopeful it will become the ‘new normal’ in our field. I feel privileged to belong to this tribe.
All of this sharing paves the way for schools across the globe to build back better. This is a key lesson we can learn from the Education in Emergencies field who have much insight to offer schools and school systems across the globe. For years individuals and organisations have worked tirelessly in the humanitarian aid and global development sectors to develop best practice approaches for supporting and returning students to school amidst or after a crisis. COVID-19 has forced schools to be innovative and to reimagine pastoral care, teaching and learning. I’m grateful for the opportunities to come alongside schools to equip and support them on this journey and I’m hopeful that this moment in time will see governments, educational bodies and institutions come together to get rid of the antiquated systems and transform education through building back better.
2020. It is a year that will be etched in history. Across the globe it will be used as a measure of leadership, of community, of culture and of humanity in schools and in nations. Students will learn about it and from it, and, in particular, how we as a generation responded. I have no doubt that they will note with interest, and perhaps a hint of irony, that 2020 is also a measure of clarity of vision. My hope is they will see that the world’s educators and citizens used this time to recalibrate, focus and find clarity of what and who we value. May they see that our students were well supported and equipped to use this moment in time to propel them to be change makers transforming the world for good and may they see evidence that we have built back better – individually and collectively.