You don’t know what it’s like to lead a school through a global pandemic unless you’ve led a school through a global pandemic.
– a statement to which many of the leaders with whom I work will relate. And it speaks a wider truth: everyone on Earth has a unique pandemic story to tell. Tales of tragedy and transformation; of reflection, resilience or resignation; of anger, of loneliness; of division and unity; selfishness, cruelty and, thankfully, of kindness.
How to Tell a Story
Look to stories that have already been told to find the kind of narrative you need. Booker’s Seven Basic Plots (2004) is one of many frameworks that makes this easier. Booker analyses thousands of tales and argues for a meta-narrative that describes ‘story’ per se, together with 7 plots that keep on cropping up. Your story will be a combination of these seven motifs:
Overcoming the monster – defeating an evil force.
Rags to riches – gaining power, wealth, success; loosing it; getting it back.
Quest – setting out to acquire an important object; facing challenges and temptations.
Voyage and return – visiting a strange land; overcoming threats; returning changed.
Tragedy – a personal undoing because of a flaw or a mistake.
Comedy – concluding happily after twists, turns and misunderstandings.
Rebirth – changing ways (for the better) because of a significant event.
And these themes tell our shared, global story of the last 18 months as well: the quest for vaccines to overcome the devastation of COVID-19; the plot twists and muddles as politics, media, social media and science intertwine; and our rebirths as we return to a world changed forever.
How to Hear a Story
I joked recently with a group of specialist teachers I’m training in coaching skills that there are 5 different kinds of listening:
Active Listening – paying full attention to meaning.
Dialogic Listening – learning through conversation.
Discerning listening – gathering specific information.
Pub Listening – waiting for the other person to finish speaking so you can say the thing you wanted to say before they started.
Family Listening – two or more simultaneous monologues.
They all have their place but the first three offer real value to the speaker. If you’ve ever been able to just talk freely, confidentially, without judgement and without expectation; if you’ve been heard, really heard, by another person then you’ll know the power of that kind of exchange.
Telling your story and having it authentically heard can be affirming, healing and empowering.
Whose story will you hear? And to whom will you tell yours?
I’m in my 178th Zoom meeting since lockdown. For once I’m not the host. I can enjoy this one in a different way. Twelve of us are arranged neatly on the screen: F from Nairobi, W is in Idaho, B North Carolina and S from what looks like a studio flat in Sweden. Others call in from Germany, Denmark and the UK.
It’s 1930 BST. The sun is bright and yellow and low. It cuts in through my office window and hides half my face. On screen I’m very film noir, like most close up shots in Blade Runner.
This is relaxing. The conversation flows. It’s guided well by W and in a Zoom reverie I suddenly notice the sun’s presence for everyone else. It’s on their cheek, or hair, or it’s behind them, or streaming in through their own windows.
I have to say this: ‘Folks, can you see the sunlight where you are? Can you feel it on your face or your back? Do you feel its warmth? Can you see it in these twelve tiny rectangles in front of us all? It’s the same sun isn’t it?! We’re under the same sun. We can point to the same sun.’
Twelve people disengage from their laptop cameras. Their heads raise a little, their eyes focus elsewhere, to the sunlight. We have turned away from each other but towards the sun.
We are connected in a completely different way. From our disparate locations we are now all looking towards exactly the same place.
I must share this with you; the unedited words of a teacher of just 4 years speaking from her heart; yet speaking pragmatically (14 ideas below) and, I hope, helpfully as we start to contemplate our ‘what nexts’:
Multiple Solutions to Future Worries
Anxiety is a funny thing. I guess as human beings we are known to be creatures of habit. During the first few weeks of lockdown, my anxiety was awful. My routine went. My habits were gone. I hated the idea of simply not being busy; not being in work – not having a set of goals to achieve and not seeing my friends and family. I have always been someone who thrives from being busy and being surrounded by people so when lockdown was announced, I felt lost, totally lost.
However, after a few weeks into lockdown life and with support from a coach provided by my headteacher, I soon began to get into the ‘Lockdown routine.’ I found ways to keep my anxious brain busy – running, reading, playing board games, mindful colouring in, walks and staying in touch with loved ones over the phone.
When my coach asked me a week ago how I would feel if we were told that schools were back open on Monday (hypothetically) and lockdown was over, I felt that familiar tightening of the chest and that unwelcome knot of anxiety was back in the pit of my stomach. I was able to list off my future worries and without realising, I verbally started sharing solutions to these hypothetical problems.
So I have decided to share my ‘future worries’ about returning to ‘reality’ in the hope that it could help you in some way.
Children struggling with social distancing
• Take the children outside and remodel the 2m rule using a metre stick. Reiterate to the children why keeping 2m apart from one another is important and how it makes a huge difference to ourselves and to all those around us. Reassure the children that social distancing won’t last forever and we need to show love, courage and trust by following these safety rules.
• Praise children for following social distancing rules through verbal praise, stickers, vision points, etc.
• Ask the children to be creative and come up with their own strategies to help themselves and others to remember the 2m rule.
• Liaise with leadership if strategies are not successful and further advice/guidance is needed.
Wellbeing of the children • Liaise with parents/guardians • Seek support from leadership and DSLA’s. • PSHE discussions with the class linked to feelings.
• Share own feelings with the class, explain that any emotion/s that they are feeling are okay and it’s how we deal we these emotions that is the most important thing.
• Share with children what I have been worried about (the things I’m writing about here) and how I have spent time thinking of how to find solutions to each of my worries – this activity could help show the children that you are showing trust by sharing your feelings with them so that they can share their worries too. Together you could then find multiple solutions to their present/future worries.
Children forgetting everything you’ve taught them
• Instead of focusing on what has been forgotten, focus on what has been learnt. Share and celebrate with children what new skills they might have learnt/developed during lockdown, e.g. baking, cooking, gardening, etc.
• Reflect with children what we are now even more thankful for now more than ever – school! – seeing our teachers/friends, family being safe and healthy. Get them to order what the most important things to us were before corona and what they are now – has anything changed, reflect on why.
• Share and celebrate home learning with the children and for those who haven’t been able to talk about what they are looking forward to the most now we are back in school.
Well-being of colleagues being low
• Redirect conversations away from COVID19 – Talk to one another about what positive things we have been doing to stay busy, e.g. baking, cooking, getting into fitness again, etc. Discuss what we are now looking forward to again.
• Be the one to bring the positive energy to the team – SMILE! But also know that it is okay to not be okay and to have key members of staff who you feel comfortable to go to.
If these strategies don’t have the desired effect, instead of blaming yourself saying,
‘I did this wrong’ or
‘that teacher is better than me because their children are better or they seem to be OK’, rephrase the situation to,
‘that wasn’t the outcome I expected.’ From this you can remain positive and explore further solutions/seek additional support.
Holly Longley is a primary school teacher working in Hampshire, currently responsible for a Year 2 class. She’s offering her reflections here to help you think through the next few weeks and months. Whether her specific ideas work for you and your pupils is not the whole story. Holly’s advice is about the how as much as the what: Rather than stew on your future worries, write them down now and address them now. Be reflective. Be creative. Be ready.
Jake I remember Jake from my first year of teaching; shaved head, small for a 10-year old, wiry, quick. Never quite in trouble, never quite on task. He lived in a tower block with his mum and her boyfriends. He thought everyone had six dads. He never smiled.
One day I raised my arm in front of him; pushed my glasses up. He flinched and his little fists came up. Poor Jake. That one hard-wired action showed me his whole life. How often had he defended himself against peers and those supposed to protect him?
Jake’s home life was a cauldron of neglect and abuse. We did what we could. I don’t know what happened to him, I hope he made it. That was over 20 years ago.
ACE Jake suffered a continuous barrage of ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences. Violence, rejection, abuse, bullying one after the other, again and again. Most childhoods have one or two ACEs. His never stopped. He was damaged, possibly beyond repair. Jake suffered chronic, acute stress and carried a huge allostatic load. Each shock to his tiny system pumped out cortisol, shutting down his pre-frontal cortex, impairing his executive function, his ability to think ahead, to persevere, to succeed. He was physiologically and mentally scarred for life.
Loss I can never feel what Jake felt, but since COVID-19 I have a much better idea about it. One shock after the next, one loss after another. First security goes, then safety, then power, control, income and finally freedom. There’s no time to process one loss before the next arrives.
An ‘ideal’ loss looks something like this:
The model is not without its critics but it helps affirm our emotions. They may be unwelcome but they are definitely expected.
Gains When the ground beneath us moves we reach out for something to hold: family, friends, habits and behaviours. We cling to values, beliefs, objects and experiences, whatever it takes to keep steady. When Jake’s ground moved his fists came up. When our ground moves we seek out our comforts, our knowns. In this we can, if we choose to, find our gains.
I’ve spoken to my father more in the last two weeks than the last two years. I’ve learned more about Zoom since Sunday than in 20 years consulting. I’ve built personal and professional relationships of a quantity and quality unimaginable even a month ago. And I’ve set up a Zoom pub with my old university pals. We meet every Friday. We drink, we talk nonsense, we connect.
Transformations We will be remembered for what we do, what we say and what we write during this crisis. We will all be transformed. We’ve been shown something terrible and how we respond to it will define us for the rest of our lives.
If Jake is out there, I know he’ll be one of the strong ones in this. His early life was nothing but loss. He knows it, he understands it. I truly hope he found a life of gain and transformation.
What are you losing? What are you gaining? How are you transforming?
Suffering is a universal experience occurring across space and time, revealing the “big T” Truth that going down, going through, and going into the unknown can be powerfully transformative. Fr Richard Rohr
Murderous Sneeze I’m standing on platform 1 at Bristol Temple Meads Station. A young woman nearby sneezes into her hand. The train pulls in and she gets on ahead of me gripping the handrail by the carriage door – with the sneeze hand. Four more people touch the rail after her (I don’t). I see one of them touch his mouth; another rubs her eyes. Later, at my destination, I shake a colleague’s hand and realise afterwards that I’ve touched my mouth before and after doing it.
And so a virus might ride its way around our herd, leaping, sliding and firing itself between us; the ultimate freeloader, the dangerous hitch-hiker; the subtle, invisible, murderous travel companion.
World War Z I’m writing this a few weeks later. It’s mid-March 2020 and the world is in uncharted, pandemic territory. I’m washing my hands more and not touching my face. Scenes from the films Contagion, 28 Days/Weeks Later and even World War Z, though wildly extreme, are closer to our experience than ever. We have a problem. We have a big problem. We have a wicked problem.
Wicked A wicked problem is ‘difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and “wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil.‘
Think about the diversity of national response to the COVID-19 pandemic: China leverages its communist ethos on mitigating behaviours; Italy shuts down; the US restricts entry and the UK adopts a high risk, contrarian nudge strategy of facing it head on and letting it run its course to a faster herd immunity. ‘Solutions are not right/wrong but better/worse‘… ‘it can take a long time to evaluate solutions‘. Each government is doing the best it can with the data and resources available to it. But none yet knows if their best is good enough.
We don’t always solve a wicked problem. We poke it to see how it reacts and then poke it in a different way to see what else happens. Our focus is on finding out not fixing. It’s frightening and it could be devastating but we can learn at least 3 important things while COVID-19 plays out:
1 Anti-Fragility When the shock comes, what do you do? Break? Stand firm? Fight back? The scale from fragile to robust does not end at resilience. It extends further to ‘anti-fragile‘: Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fragile breaks you; resilience keeps you strong in the face of adversity, but anti-fragile accepts that life is unpredictable; that in every shock is found a gift. It isn’t about naively embracing a crisis then exploiting the opportunity. No, anti-fragile is an attitude, a mindset, an assent to whatever the world does and a commitment to co-create with it.
Fragile is the shattered pane of glass; resilience the oak; anti-fragile the reed bending in the wind.
COVID-19 can teach us to be anti-fragile.
2 Humanity People you know may die. Your business may fail or take a serious hit. You might loose your job. Your investments will shrink. You could feel fear, anxiety, dread. None of this is in your control but how you respond to it is.
We’re realising just how connected we are; just how dependent we are on each other; just how much we can influence another human being. If I don’t wash my hands, you might die. I could be your executioner and you might be my father. (He’s over 90, has serious underlying health conditions and I have to decide if or when I’ll next visit him. For now, I’ll phone more and do his online grocery shop.)
The virus shows how linked we are and the links that it exploits can also be the ones we use to understand and care for each other.
COVID-19 can teach us to think beyond ourselves.
3 Creativity I’m looking at my bookings for the next 3 months. It’s a mix of face to face coaching, training, teaching and e-learning design. Some of it will be cancelled, some rescheduled, some will go ahead.
I’m asking myself, how much of this works if I’m at home, if I can’t travel or if my clients can’t? I sometimes use Zoom and Skype but could I use only Zoom and Skype? Will my clients be at the other end? Will they value that as much as the original plan. I’ll let you know.
If I do find myself with a blank diary and an empty bank account a plan is already in place to create a new offer, a new style of delivering Thinking Classroom. I’ve created a 9-year plan to meet my new goal (enrich the life, work and learning of 10,000,004 people each year).
I might not have much toilet paper, beans or soap, but I’ll have a mission. I’ll have something to create.
COVID-19 can teach us to innovate, to create.
Wicked Scars The cull of the Black Death eventually lead to urbanisation and the empowerment of the peasant classes. However in the 3rd century smallpox reeked havoc on the Romans by following the same trade routes which had established the empire’s wealth and power.
We don’t yet know what scars COVID-19 will leave on our planet but, as a good friend once taught me, ‘scars tell you where you’ve been they need not dictate where you’re going.’
There will be wicked scars but there are 3 lessons here if we choose to learn. Anti-fragility, humanity, creativity.