When I watch a sporting event, I am struck by how effortless and graceful a true athlete is in pursuit of their goal. In moments of hubris, I imagine that I too, could pirouette on the ice, execute a triple backflip, or shoot a three-pointer. Those who are good at their jobs make what is challenging look easy.
Schools lead from the ground, and this too can look easy. It is not. On the ground, you look into each other’s eyes and see the richness and complexity of people’s lives. You witness how edicts from on high profoundly affect a child, a family, a community. This has especially been the case over the past 18 months.
Term four starts on Tuesday and schools and their families are grappling with the looming return to the classroom for all NSW students, after months of learning from home, and with COVID-19 still present in the community.
School communities are not homogenous. Every individual in a school falls somewhere on a spectrum from being risk averse to risk tolerant, and from relaxed to anxious. And every individual is embedded in a family unit that has unique vulnerabilities and strengths. The COVID-19 pandemic has put all these individuals and families under sustained stress for nearly two years and we have seen first-hand the need for strong, community-based support.
Schools are expected to ensure our young people do not fall behind because of a global pandemic. That we will manage the wave of mental health challenges coming down the pipeline. That not one child will die. And that even though we spend our lives saying the HSC is not the end of the world, we will explain why it apparently is this year. Everyone must come back to school, even though we know some families are highly anxious and have reservations, but education is compulsory, after all. And even though the date-to-return will not change, it has been changed – a couple of times now.
Here’s the thing. In practice, it’s very hard to change a return date but because schools are good at what they do, they make it look easy. And educators want to help. So we have followed multiple messages, from multiple stakeholders, ofttimes conflicting and sometimes downright absurd. When this is over, we need to talk about returning agency to the education profession.
I’m delighted the HSC is going ahead. But it would not have been the end of the world if it had not. Being back in the classroom is great but it is not the location that is important to education, but the relationships built to deliver it. And not everyone thrives in school. There are some students who find it overwhelming and have flourished at home. Easy one-liners from the podium do not fit easily into the complexity of leading schools.
Schools will cover off on literacy and numeracy and character development and everything else that gets passed our way this term. We always have and always will. But just because we make this seem easy, do not underestimate the complexity of what is being asked. This is hard and challenging work and while others are going back to “normal”, this is not so in education. In 18 months, education has changed, expectations have grown and what school looks like will be different moving forward.
In return, as a society, I have a favour to ask: if we could remember that we’re adults and our actions and words are witnessed by the young; if we could model respect and courtesy, using language that is calm and filled with hope, this would lighten the load in schools and be a constructive and helpful way of saying thank you to teachers and assistants and who haven’t missed a beat for two years now.
Dr Briony Scott is the principal of Wenona, an independent, non-denominational school for girls.