My Great Aunty Fran was a remarkable woman. She was 99 years old when she passed away a few months ago. Even near the end, she was at the gym 3 days a week, maintained a robust social life, and found time to read, follow local sports teams, and keep up with world affairs. In her final words, she told us to “look for the best in life, and rise to it. Look for the top, and be there. Stretch for it, and if you have to, stretch a bit harder, you will be able to do it.” As a woman born in the early 1920s, she certainly had her fair share of life’s lessons to absorb, from her own personal trials, to those the community faced collectively, such as a World War, the Great Depression, and a multitude of systemically engrained inequalities.
As we enter what is destined to be another period of significant disruption, anxiety, and uncertainty, there is wisdom to be found in the words and experiences of those who have lived through great challenges before. Although at 99, Aunty Fran had plenty of time to make sense of her life and reflect, we do not need to wait for years to come in order to start learning from these hard times.
For educators in particular, this pandemic has reminded us and our kids that we don’t always have the answers. It may seem simple and obvious, but it is crucial to acknowledge. As we help prepare students for the future, they must understand that there are fundamental truths that come along with being human. Chief among them, is that we don’t have it all figured out, not even our coaches, teachers, doctors, politicians, friends, or parents.
Kids are specialists in reading adult emotions. They feed off of our energy, for better or for worse. As educators, we have a responsibility to stay positive and hopeful right now, but also to allow our authentic human selves to be present in our interactions with students. We should look to include them in our discussions and when possible, for input in making the decisions that impact them directly. There is nothing wrong with saying to our kids that “we don’t know the answer to that just yet, but how can we work together, using our collective knowledge and experience to find solutions or to try and make sense of the situation?” The period we are living through at the moment gives us the chance to teach that lesson.
This pandemic has forced us to innovate and adapt quickly across all segments of our society. Educators have frequently changed course when needed, without losing the passion, dedication, or commitment required to provide kids with quality learning, as best they can. This need to think critically, working through problems in real time without clear answers, is a skill that will translate into other areas of life for young people and provides them with resolve and resiliency that otherwise would not be found until much later in life. Although none of us would have wished for these lessons to be learned as a result of current circumstances, we can capitalize on the moment, and leverage the realities we have been forced to face into powerful tools for future success.
When this school year began, I had never seen so many students excited to be back. Beyond the excitement, they were actually relieved. They missed their friends, teachers, routines, and learning. As I talked to them, and heard remarks such as “I never thought I would want to come to school so badly”, it reminded me of the old Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi, in which she famously sang that “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. In many ways, we have been forced to slow down, reflect, and think about those things we feel most blessed to have in life. Our kids, along with our educators, have recognized in ways they had not before, the value of our learning, the importance of social networks, and how fortunate we all are to have schools to go to in the first place. This is a good thing.
We cannot change much of what is happening right now, but what we do control is the way we choose to react. For those of us in positions of authority and influence, we have an added responsibility to our youth to keep looking for the best in the situation and in each other. As we get ready to face the next hurdle, I can admit that I don’t have all the answers as a school leader.
The American Novelist John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden popularized the idea of “timshel”, a Hebrew word roughly translating to “thou mayest”, meaning that we have the power to decide. We can choose to look for those silver linings and blessings in disguise, even if we have to keep stretching just a bit further to find them – we will be able to do it.
Ben Carr is principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg