I had to have a COVID-19 test on Friday. It really made me contemplate my own mortality and the angels who care for the ill.
In the first 24 hours in which I self-isolated even from my family, I realised a couple of things:
I’m quite boring company, but that won’t come as much of a surprise to most people.
I would hate to be in hospital alone and away from my family.
My thoughts of being potentially abandoned in a hospital ICU (Yes, I am bit of a drama queen) reminded me of a time I was forced to do that to one of my children.
Michael, now 23, was four days old when he was re-admitted to hospital and stayed in the neonatal intensive care for another three weeks.
He was born on the Monday before the Easter weekend in 1997, a sweet little brown-haired baby boy who surprised us all after two redheads. I think all the gynaecologists in the province were planning to enjoy the long weekend and so were inducing their mothers on the Thursday which is when My wee bairn was waiting in the nursery to be taken through for a little procedure (yes… that one!). As a result, I hardly saw him on that day, and until early the next day, when we were discharged.
I couldn’t believe how good this little boy was being as we introduced him to his big sister and brother: he slept through it all. He just kept on sleeping…all day and I was having to wake him to feed. In fact, when I look back, I realize he was pretty much comatose.
Fortunately, he was not my first child, or he might have died (just remember that when you’re choosing my old age home, Michael!) but I knew something was wrong, so in the middle of the night, we called in our babysitter and did some low-level flying back to the hospital to meet the paediatrician.
He was clearly trying to soothe my postpartum hysteria, as he patiently explained he was going to do a lumbar puncture (spinal tap, for my US readers), but gestured to me that I should wait outside. So, my poor baby had a massive needle inserted 0.5 cm into his back in order to withdraw spinal fluid, and I wasn’t there.
The diagnosis: bacterial meningitis! The funny thing about the types of meningitis is this, the viral kind can’t be cured by drugs (bloody viruses!), but the bacterial kind, while it can be treated with strong antibiotics, it can be fatal, especially for a neonate. Dr Greef’s grave tone informed us that he was ‘pretty sure’ he’d survive, and ‘cautiously optimistic’ there’d be no brain damage. I’d have said, ‘well that’s just swell!’ but the horror was that my tiny baby was suffering from a gargantuan headache caused by inflammation of the meninges, the membranes which protect the brain and spinal cord, so ‘swell’ it was most certainly was, but the irony was too awful to joke about!
Michael was admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit at the clinic and spent the next three weeks there. I spent that time commuting between my children at home, who cried when I left and my newborn in ICU who, when I left did not, because he was so desperately ill. I cried both ways in the car, aware that wherever I was, I was abandoning someone. In fact, if you look at photographs of me at that time, you can barely see my puffy eyes from all the weeping.
One outrageous moment of our time there was the soap opera eGoli‘s casting director asking us to allow him to be used as a prop for an episode. you can guess what my answer was, cheeky thespians! (So sorry, Mikey, you could have been famous.)
When I am think of that little mite, abandoned to an incubator, in an isolation ward each night, I reflect now of how dreadfully lonely and frightening it must be for serious COVID-19 patients, to be attached to machines and surrounded by the starkness of a hospital, and how impossibly sad it is that so many people are dying alone, without their families beside them.
To be fair, the intensive care nursing staff was phenomenal with Baby Michael. I still remember one named Andre, who took it upon himself to call me regularly when he was on duty with running commentaries of how Michael had decorated his incubator, necessitating regular changes, much to Andre’s amusement. I often think of that young man and wish I could thank him again.
We speak a great deal about the courage and dedication of health care workers during this pandemic, and it’s worth pausing to comment on the fact that besides their medical duties, these heroes are deathbed comforters too, as well as motivators and cheerleaders of recovery.
Back in 1997, it was an annus horribilis for us as a family (mind you there was worse to come, if only I had known). We’d been private patients and had not anticipated the need for such expensive, specialist post-natal care. I can remember how upset I felt upon receiving the credit control calls, before we managed to pay off the account. It was made known to us much later, that a similar case had preceded ours, in which the child of an attorney also contracted this hospital bug. His legal team apparently closed down the operating theatre and found the bacterial cause. The clinic settled out of court. We were not so fortunate. (Just as an aside, let me tell you, it is intriguing how the medical profession closes ranks against patients when one asks questions of liability…)
But it didn’t matter. I am eternally grateful that Michael survived, healthy with no lasting damage. When I think of how bland life would be without his droll humour, casting hilarious shade at everyone at the dinner table or his writing talent which entertains millions every day; and let’s not forget he was a fair footballer in his day (having recently retired to semi-sloth at age 23). When we have our midnight chats as the only two night owls in the family, I sometimes reflect on those late nights and how I longed to bring him home, as I pictured his tiny form alone in the hospital.
Of course, when I did finally carry him home triumphantly like Simba in The Lion King, I fed him so much in the next few months that he could have won a baby sumo competition, sporting jowls that would have impressed even Winston Churchill.
Tonight, I pray for COVID-19 patients in their solitary suffering and wish that they will also have an Angel Andre to bring healing to their bodies and spirits, and who will find the time to console their mothers.
Oh, my test was negative btw – I’m too wicked to die just yet.
For Malcolm, and all the others who have reported to me and gone on to be better at it than me:
When you reach a certain age and level of experience in any field, especially education, you realize that it’s important to mentor the next generation. Just as when karateka reach black belt level they are called ‘sensei’ which means ‘teacher,’ so too do those of us who reach senior positions in school leadership have a responsibility to pass on what we have learned. We must teach our teachers to be leaders.
It struck me this week when I said goodbye to a young man going off to head up a school of his own, how I hope I have passed on some wisdom to those who have worked with me, and for me, over the years.
I always joke to student teachers that we need them because one day we would like to retire, and while that is correct, the truth is we need to inspire them as much as we need to nurture our school children, because they will steer the next generation of students.
I told the new headmaster that he needed to remember the most powerful tools he would have at his disposal would be his own personal example and his integrity. I said to him to guard them both and make sure they always align.
“The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.”
– John Wooden. Basketball Coach
It’s lonely and windy at the top because that’s where the gales are. As leaders in a tempest, we must therefore have the strong roots of integrity and the proof of example in our branches. This is especially true now as we lead our schools through the COVID-19 crisis.
Calamity is the test of integrity.
– Samuel Richardson. 18th Century Writer
We should remember these two things:
1. PERSONAL EXAMPLE
How we deal with storms dictates what kind of a leader we are and what kind of leaders we shall inspire.
In a crisis and even on a good day, everyone looks at you if you are in charge. When I first became a head, a retired principal told me that the one thing to remember is that it’s all on you, when you’re in charge.
It’s hard, but you have to be the calm one, the decisive one, the brave one and the strong one. You have to be the one they all look up to. No matter how hard it is, you have to be a model of grace under pressure (fortunately for shorties like me, not a ramp one.) You must inspire, no matter how tired or low you feel. How you respond to everything dictates how your staff and therefore your pupils will behave.
If you haven’t run away yet, or become lost in the labyrinth of admin that may overwhelm you, remember that your vision must be clear to your staff.
If you want your staff to be creative, you have to be innovative; if you want them to work harder, you must set the pace and if you want them to be well-groomed, so should you be. (I use this one to fuel my Zara addiction.) If you want them to be compassionate educators who build relationships with their learners, you must get to know them all.
What I have learned on my own though, is that if you are really lucky, you will have a team around you, who will help you. If you empower them, they will be your eyes and ears and assist you with decisions, but you also have to trust them in their own departments so they have room to grow. I have such a team.
I may be accountable, but they make me look good.
Integrity requires us to truly know ourselves and remain faithful to the core values and principles we espouse. Know what you stand for… because you will be tested on it. These are what anchor your leadership tree to the ground and hold it firm no matter what the weather may be.
Your integrity will be what determines the example you set. It will describe the measure in which you lead with compassion, your style of management and how consistent you are.
Integrity is about being truthful and honest in what you say and do. You cannot be a hypocrite if you have integrity and it’s worth noting that insincerity will be spotted a mile off. So, your personal example must be aligned to what you say you stand for. You must know what that is first though.
In my career, I have left two institutions when it became clear that we stood for different things or when I realised that what a school said it stood for, could not or was not being maintained in practice. When you run your own school, you are it. A colleague once said that when you are a head, ‘YOU are the brand.’ So aligning your beliefs and the school’s mission become paramount.
While you may feel the storm at its fiercest, at the top of the leadership tree, that is also where you feel the sun first. And it’s a place where you can look down at the glorious blossoms that are the products of your institution. Don’t forget to pass on the sunshine to those who assisted to produce the flowers and celebrate the fruit of their labours.
When you see how well your alumni do, and how they are changing the world for the better, as they blossoms in the spring, you will know you are on the right track.
It’s also true that you may get it all wrong at some point, but just as you may have a poor harvest one year, and then produce a better yield the next, there are times when you have to do some pruning, and some shaping, some manuring and some frost-shielding. Plants grow better when the farmer is attentive.
It’s also important to be kind to yourself and know that you can always improve and that no one reaches perfection…ever. You may have passed on some less-than-idealistic traits. You can fix mistakes you make though if you are transparent and honest, and have the will to keep growing.
Remember finally that farmers get an early night so they can be up at dawn. So make sure you find time to rest.
“Sleep. Nature’s rest. Divine tranquility, that brings peace to the mind.”
Acronyms and abbreviations are the next contagion. They’re the next-generation viruses.
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve kind of had enough of the latest alphabet soup of acronyms. SOP is one I spent much time with today.
SOP is not the Afrikaans word for what I am having for supper, which is delicious vegetable soup.
SOP actually stands from Standard Operating Procedures and it’s what most schools and businesses around the world are grappling with in a post COVID-Lockdown world. Every institution and enterprise globally will be enacting innovative ways to navigate the new society we find ourselves in.
The Health and Safety SOP may have something in common with my daughter’s homemade sop. It’s also a careful blend of a mixture of ingredients, all aimed at making us strong and keeping us alive. Our family dinner fortifies us against the cold, and in the same way, all our planning will offer protection.
But what I can’t get used to is the hand sanitizer. It’s true that after the alcohol fumes have evaporated, some of the sanitizers actually smell okay and the one we have at school doesn’t dry out your hands either. But to be honest I’ve stopped putting on perfume to go to work, because one squirt of Eau du Désinfectant and my Yves St Laurent (fifty bucks a droplet) is overpowered and I am… Germex Girl! What worries me more though is that I drink an enormous amount of tea and I am wondering how many cups could put me over the legal limit from the hand sanitizer I’ve just used before touching the teabag!
They can be found in every conceivable place now, these ubiquitous little bottles of Virus Vanquisher. I wonder whether one day when COVID-19 has been defeated by vaccine cocktails, they will fall by the wayside like swords did when we stopped actually clutching our enemies’ hands and dropped our swords at peace parleys. What will the universal gesture of greeting become, sans spray bottle? A little touching of the forefinger to the thumb in a cute spraying gesture?
The other acronym that is starting to grate is PPE. It sounds like a horrible combination of needing the little girls’ room and my least favourite lesson at school. Don’t get me wrong, but burly women in bulky, padded jackets (long before K-Way dahling!) blowing a whistle in my face until I leaped into an icy swimming pool was not my idea of intellectual pursuit. After school, I promptly gave up swimming and now only dip my toes in the shallows in late Feb, if at all. Mind you, I live in Cape Town: if you dip your toes into our ocean on any day they are likely to come back seconds later as pre-packed frozen pork. But I digress…
We’ve always had Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but now the term conjures up images of hazmat suits and gloves, which is not far wrong of course. While it may save us on lipstick, it is playing havoc with my hearing as I can no longer read lips – clearly something I have been doing unconsciously for a while. My mother always said I’d go deaf from playing all that rock music so loudly!
It’s a weird kind of formal dance we are developing: first the spray-bottle greeting, then we do the chicken neck extension as we lean in (keeping 1.5m apart of course) to catch what someone is saying and finish the sequence by doing the double-take shake as we try to ascertain whether we actually do recognize the masked ‘stranger’ before us. The COVID Tango.
Even COVID is an acronym : CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, and ‘D’ for disease. Idnkt. (I did not know that!)
They’re everywhere these nasty little acronyms and abbreviations of words. Acronyms are the more evolved of the two because they have really taken over the sentence by swallowing up the nouns. They are spreading fast and attacking the nervous system, causing sudden bouts of uncontrollable screaming. (Often patients can be heard yelling, ‘WTF!’ at inopportune moments.) No need to wait for a vaccine against these critters though – tea, chocolate and a good book in bed – that’s all it takes to cure the Acronym Virus.
Post-2004 in the US, this mnemonic became the FBI’s standard protocol in response to ‘active shooter’ situations or other general emergency attacks. And the ABC is used to train employees and school children across the US (sad, but true).
In many ways, this is what our COVID-19 response has been:
Avoid: social distance, wash hands, sanitize
Confront: Emerge from Lockdown and face the virus down, by re-opening
It’s a good modus operandi for many dangerous situations. I knew a black belt karateka who was a South African All Styles Champion, whose sage advice was always: run and only fight when you’re cornered.
But it does suggest that sometimes in life there is a time to come out fighting. Sometimes we can’t hide or just avoid battles and sometimes we have to come out and face down the enemy.
I’ve peered into the nasty visage of several enemies: disease, divorce; unemployment, toxic bosses; single parenthood, depression… and no chocolate.
My solution is a little simpler and less likely to get you killed:
Wearing body armour and coming out shooting, both literally and figuratively may be necessary at times, but the nature of the ‘fight’ or ‘confrontation’ doesn’t always have to be violent or aggressive. To me, the best revenge is to be happy and sometimes a benign response is better.
Oncologists will testify to how a positive attitude benefits cancer patients; Oscar Wilde says to ‘forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.’ Killing ‘em with kindness can be way more kick-ass than being a bitch. Even lack of chocolate can make you smile when you look at your ass in the mirror.
Not everything needs to be a fight. Sometimes you win by smiling.
I heard a report on the radio yesterday that the #1 item being bought by South Africans on Takealot since online stores could sell anything (except sinful things like cigarettes and alcohol of course, but we won’t go there!) is… drum roll… vacuum cleaners.
Now really! I’m all for cleanliness being next to godliness and all, but really, if I were to go to all the trouble of ordering something online, it wouldn’t be a cleaning appliance. To me those are grudge buys, like underwear, stuff you need and which is important, but no one really sees.
Not that I am into lowering standards mind you: I wear lipstick under my mask and I have a chart for the resident elves who (in my fantasy) would clean the house like small, useful, versions of The Borrowers, but who, despite their loud, haunted-house-like groaning, do in fact assist with cleaning the Mad Mansion.
But it does leave me wondering about the hygiene of South African homes pre-lockdown. I mean, did people not clean up after themselves before? Or, worse, were they expecting someone else to do it for them without the proper equipment?
The rest of the list is pretty understandable, with folk working from home and having the littluns needing school stuff, so: electronic devices and stationery supplies, including #3 (after laptops) which is gaming equipment, as sports and entertainment go virtual.
#4 takes on a more whimsical note (treadmills and home gym equipment), however I am rooting for these gym-bunnies and hope that their initial eagerness for self-improvement doesn’t result in yard sales of dejected, white elephants by December. On the plus side, I am looking forward to seeing all these folk on the beachfront in summer, sans tops please, as we clean up all the usual blubber and slothful strollers from the boardwalks. Clearly these are the types who cannot stir themselves before the 6:00 – 9:00 exercise window on Lockdown Level 4, or else they are the same ones who placed their orders during Level 5 and haven’t even opened their toys yet. I suppose it is possible that there might be some lunatics who do both, but those are just worthy of my couch potato pity. (We all know I believe working out is a little rash though, so perhaps I’m biased.)
#10 is just sad: non-alcoholic beer! I mean, non-alcoholic wine is fine – it’s grape juice which I prefer to drink anyway, but a good lager surely requires a bit of kick? Otherwise, you’re just drinking starch, and frankly, in that case, I’d prefer a toasted cheese sandwich, thank you. Unless beer drinkers have become devilishly clever and have found a way to infuse this supermarket sludge with raw alcohol or something.
Whatever happened to online clothes shopping? These items didn’t make the list, possibly because they have their own delivery systems. I have targeted a couple of darling little items for purchase from the Zara electronic store (yes, of course I subscribe to their online magazine, although Zara models are a trifle intimidating and rather aggressively emaciated, clearly have Elastigirl genes.) But it’s not the same as the chance to see the majesty of the whole boutique in front of you, with quality lighting (dimmed to make us look better of course, along with carefully angled mirrors to make us taller and slimmer) and the hours to wander at one’s leisure, and appreciate the beauty of it all. (I think I may have a little problem, arguably worse than the country’s drinkers going through the DTs).
I suppose it’s because shopping for clothing is an experience, not a mere practical function, along with attendant cappuccino-sipping.
I bought a new phone the other day, my last having had an overnight cerebral haemorrhage (which was sudden, and came as a huge shock to me, taking with it all my treasured memories and telephone contacts, with no time to say goodbye.) I had to shop online to check out the latest devices and I found it a rather stark experience. I like the sensate experience of shopping (to the chagrin of The Maestro, who constantly parodies my wistful path through such stores, which is why it’s better to leave him in Exclusive Books while I satisfy my frivolous leanings). Perhaps it’s the difference between men and women because Andrew was thrilled to help me the opening of the box and the setting up of the phone. I’d rather have been trying on winter boots.
Online or not, Lockdown is costing us, but as Oscar Wilde said in a foreshadowing of a capitalist’s dream sap.
“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
Are you also analyzing every tickle of the throat and ache in your limbs as potentially presaging general pulmonary collapse and ague, related to COVID-19?
I think I am either becoming a hypochondriac or hoping to finally contract the jolly illness to put me out of the agony of suspense caused by expecting it at every turn.
But let’s face it, it’s not unrealistic anymore to suspect one might have succumbed. In our metropol, they have begun to identify cases by ward. There are 38 cases in the streets around us. %^&$ gets real when you realise this is not something over there in Wuhan or even across the peninsula at Groote Schuur Hospital. It’s in our neighbourhood. These are the people we shop with and jog with (okay so I don’t jog, but you get the point.)
‘So, this sore throat could be the start of my decline… Diarrhoea? Probably just a bug…but hang on that’s also a symptom…. oh my gosh, oh my gosh…. I’ve got it!’
And we confirm our self-diagnosis after consulting Gray’s Google by reading that an employee at the Checkers store we visited two days ago has tested positive… ‘so that settles it. I must have it!’
But if we take the panic pot off the stove for a bit, we’ll remember that just because COVID-19 is doing the happy dance through the air, it doesn’t mean that all the other bad boys in Da Flu Gang have stopped stalking us in the malls and taxis.
Sometimes a cough is just your allergies and sometimes a fever is from one of the other many flus that float across to us from the east every year…. I also sneezed… so it can’t be COVID, hey?!
So it might be merely something minor. Not every cold or coronavirus is COVID-19. Not every sore throat foreshadows the deadly flu.
However, no one told Cancer and her Mean Girls to leave town while we dealt with Corona.
Just this week, a friend’s nephew was diagnosed with leukaemia, a colleague’s mom had a malignant growth removed from her thyroid, and health authorities tell us patients are not turning up for TB and HIV treatments because of this pandemic. And those gangsta-germs are killers too.
… But this tiredness could be serious… I mean just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m not being hunted down by swooping microbes who’ve been lurking on trolleys, waiting for my sweet blood (okay it’s a little acidic because of all the lemon tea I drink, but you know what I mean.)
My mother used to joke that only the good die young, and then she had a heart attack at 56… I’m nearly 56… perhaps that tightness in my chest is actually a heart attack…it’s genetic…
Then, as I peer into the mirror to see whether the itch around my eyes is conjunctivitis (another symptom), and hence a clear sign that I am COVID positive, the Celtic Queen Maeve of my ancestors rebukes me for such foolishness. It’s actually a slap in the face for people with real illnesses to carry on like this. Even hypochondria is a real anxiety disorder, and I don’t have that. I think I just have COVIID -19 fatigue: the only thing I’ve ‘caught’ is the unease of others. All the preparations for healthcare at school, and coping with so many other people’s anxieties about the re-opening of schools, and the financial worries of my school community have exhausted me. I am in danger of jumping into the trauma terror train of needless panic myself. It’s time to put on my warrior armour and fight my own demons.
So, I am taking a cautious step back this weekend and switching off from all things COVID.
… If I do catch it though, just remember you heard it here first…
“After obsessively Googling symptoms for four hours, I discovered 'obsessively Googling symptoms' is a symptom of hypochondria.” ― Stephen Colbert
The Real COVID-19 symptoms:
COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Most infected people will develop mild to moderate illness and recover without hospitalization.
Most common symptoms: fever, dry cough, tiredness
Less common symptoms: aches and pains, sore throat, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, headache, loss of taste or smell, a rash on skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes
Serious symptoms: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure,loss of speech or movement
Seek immediate medical attention if you have serious symptoms. Always call before visiting your doctor or health facility. People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should manage their symptoms at home. On average it takes 5–6 days from when someone is infected with the virus for symptoms to show, however it can take up to 14 days.
How accelerating change affects leaders and 5 things that are helping me.
I don’t know about you, my gentle readers, but I have sent so many emails in the last few days that open with, ‘I am so sorry to change this meeting time/start date/start time/rule [select relevant option]’ so that I have begun to think I should sign my name, ‘Angie Motshekga’!.
We all know that modern life requires us to be flexible and learn to cope with change, but I think it’s the rate of change that has increased so much since we have entered the Age of Corona (forget Aquarius, this one needs its own title). We need change management techniques on speed, literally and figuratively.
The Effects of the Rapid Rise in the Rate of Change:
1. We need to be more flexible
The acceleration of changing information requires us to be instantly adaptable, with the dexterity of a taxi driver changing lanes. I had occasion to thank a staff member today, our imminently organized high school secretary, who had just been told one thing by her manager, only to have me alter the plan as new decisions were made. Her gracious shrug of ‘No problem,’ was so gratefully received because I didn’t have to placate, console or explain anything. (I would have hugged her if I could.)
Not everyone is that resilient.
Adapt or die may sound pithy when contemplating Darwinian theory, but when faced with the possibility that choices we make may well have life or death consequences, taking time to pause and choose wisely, then adjust your approach when new announcements change our underlying assumptions, takes a new kind of rolling-with-the-punches kind of thinking, which can be exhausting especially for those with a need for tidy, stable structures.
2. Clear, Accurate Information is difficult to Communicate
COVID-19 statistics are changing almost as fast as the numbers on an Eskom electricity meter in winter, and so does the information available, which makes it frustrating when trying to communicate effectively with our parent-clients who are crying out for clarity about so many things, not least of which are dates for the phased re-opening of schools.
Knowledge is power, so when it keeps changing, so does our confidence in being on top of things. No one likes feeling stupid, and if we are caught napping with ‘I don’t know’ it doesn’t feel good. I have started tacking on ‘at this point,’ ‘according to current information, ’and ‘as far as we know’ to my statements, for plausible deniability.
Unfortunately, scientists are a bit like expert witnesses – you can always get one to back up your opinion. And everyone who has a viewpoint has a scientist to back up their view. We are bombarded with these twin talking heads, each crying fake news at the other and we as educators need to sail a path of sense through it all.
How I have managed to cope with the speed of change
I try to distil the myriad of articles, videos and documents into the essential snippets. However, anyone who has ever sat through one of my meetings knows that précis is not my strong point, but the ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ technique would be a good one to follow, if I could.
I have been blessed in the course of my headships always to have good management teams, with whom to grapple with decisions. There is so much benefit to be derived from collected wisdom, and fortunately what we call the 5 Cs: CCCCC (CCC (School’s name) Command Council – we could have named it the 6 Cs: CCC Covid Command Council, but that would have been a bit much) has been tremendously insightful in unpacking the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP – my new, least favourite acronym) and all the new protocols to be observed when we re-open our schools.
My leadership team has worked tirelessly to transition our school from being a conventional educational institution, to a remote learning school, and… coming to a theatre near you… a hybrid, combining physical lessons and the remote offering for those who can’t or don’t want to send their children back.
Note to all leaders: if your team is strong, you always look good.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed or irritated with the content overload and perpetually altering circumstances, not to mention having to absorb the anger and anxiety of everyone else like SpongeBob superheroes.
That is when the ability to appreciate another person’s viewpoint enables you to maintain a certain amount of humility and gentleness in your responses, all the better to diffuse antagonistic situations. People are stressed. It helps to visualize what that feels like.
If ever we needed this 21st century skill, it is now, in this crisis. The trick is ensuring we have fun even in the dark days. The entrepreneur, Sam Cawthorn believes that
‘Crisis moments create opportunity. Problems and crises ignite our greatest creativity and thought leadership as it forces us to focus on things outside the norm.’
As a school we have seized on some things we’ve wanted to do for a while, and the change has allowed us to do them.
Billy Joel thought that honesty was hard to find; wisdom is even harder and when everyone is looking at you for the oracle moments and quotable quotes, it can be a bit daunting. See #2 above. Thank goodness for teams.
When all else fails in a crisis, my mother’s favourite prayer (and also funnily enough the prayer of addicts) is what keeps me going:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
I am not in any danger of being addicted to change, but I certainly need the serenity of the Mona Lisa (although I sometimes think she was a schoolteacher thinking ‘%^&*& I don’t know what to do with these new-fangled methods – I’ll just smile and perhaps they’ll think I’m on top of it all’) and the guts of a Man United fan at Anfield. (FYI I’d never be a Man U fan.)
But perhaps the Good Lord will grant me the wisdom I so badly need. If not, see #2 above, repeat…
There was a young man walking past outside my window as I was dressing this morning, and I had already opened my curtains. If he had looked up he would have had quite an eyeful (and needed some years of therapy too, I imagine), but fortunately for my modesty and his medical aid savings account, he was so engrossed in his cellphone (never mind that since it was during the exercise hours of lockdown, and he should have been jogging) that he did not notice the matron in her knickers in the house across the road from his morning constitutional.
But as I streaked (literally) into the bathroom, I contemplated what I had seen: a pedestrian on this glorious morning, face in his phone, not noticing the colourful dawn (or even where he was going). Much has been said about the zombie apocalypse of technology at our fingertips and I don’t want to comment on that, but I worry about our children in these times when all they are doing is on their devices – even school now.
The socialization of young people is being significantly affected the longer we stay in lockdown, in that they are not spending time in the same spaces as one another, because physical presence is so important for appreciating the nuance of meaning via body language, tone and pitch, as well as social development within groups. This is something that homeschoolers recognise and ensure that they take their children out of the home to places and activities where their children can mix and mingle.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for social development above health and safety from the virus, but I am saying that this is an area to consider when it is time to return to school. Pre-school age children are particularly likely to show social lags if they do not return to school with their mates after lockdown. Of course, some children are physically vulnerable, because of pre-existing conditions, and one can appreciate the need to protect their health above all else, but none is immune to poor socialization following long periods of isolation, so parents who choose to wait some months before ‘re-introducing their young into the wild’ should consider finding ways to do ‘virtual play dates’ or ensuring they spend time in unstructured play in the same space (with their siblings at least).
Children in lockdown are missing out on collaboration that is a very real part of the creative process and of 21st century education. Peer learning is vital for childhood development. Studies show that children with better social skills in pre-school, perform better academically in Grade R (Kindergarten) and are better adjusted to Foundation Phase, are better able to regulate their emotions and maintain more positive friendships in later years.
Long term social isolation leads to loneliness and can affect brain development, and mental and physical health. I am sure that parents are tired of their youngsters underfoot already, but more and more I am reading about children really missing their friends and weeping from the sheer stress of being stuck indoors with the same people, no matter how loving we may be. We are starting to see really increased stress levels in children and must beware of depressions, especially in teens.
I have a son in matric this year. This was supposed to be the year he played his last season of hockey for the school; he was cast as the Mad Hatter (why am I not surprised?!) in Alice in Wonderland and was looking forward to his matric dance. Now most if not all of the magic of matric has been stripped away from the Class of 2020 and they have been left in a ‘winter of discontent,’ a barren year of stress and study.
That is really hard for them emotionally but there is a vicious cycle happening here as well: their social isolation at a time when they most need to have some belly laughs, a quick game of football at break, or a round table on the latest gossip, has been taken away. And I am not sure that a nightly game of whatever murdering adventure is popular in the gaming microcosm of their network counts as true socializing, with its attendant eyeballing of mates and endorphin release. You definitely cannot be socializing properly over the ‘gram or WhatsApp because we all know what happens to tone and context in those virtual worlds. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound.
Without the release found in the fun part of matric, students’ stress levels are likely to rise considerably and they now have only the parentals at home who are putting additional stress on them because we are stressed for them and the looming examinations sans class time..
This will inevitably lead to inability to concentrate and process information. My high school has added a free social session on Microsoft Teams for a kind of virtual break, so that the teens can interact, but of course some are still keeping their videos off (because – ‘pyjamas and bed-hair- duh!’) so they are still not receiving important social cues such as body language and tone, nuances that are so important for maturing social intercourse.
As much as educators allow for some fun and chatting in online classes, you either have lethargy and apathy from your audience or giddiness with junior school learners which is draining for an educator to control and far more difficult than when they are all in the same room:
With prep school children who are having great fun waving their virtual hands and commenting online, to the chagrin of the odd parent who happens to peer over a shoulder, it’s tricky to ensure they are focusing on the content delivery. But that’s also an elementary school child mindset. We need to let them have fun. We all learn when we are having fun. But it’s also why too much live online work can impede learning. Having said that, online etiquette has certainly improved as the weeks have passed, as we’ve navigated the remote learning space and children are co-operating with correct online decorum.
With high school learners’ videos and mics off (to save data) who knows whether the blighters have gone back to bed even?! It’s tough enough getting signs of life out of teenagers on a Monday morning at the best of times, but now a question such as ‘’You all with me?’ which in class is easy to observe, even if all the responses you get are adolescent grunts, is really hard for a teacher to measure when faced with a blank video wall of cute profile pics.
The moment when a teacher does this sort of informal class benchmarking, is when some of the best learning happens – when an individual ‘fesses up to not having a clue; there is some laughter and everyone refocuses and learns after additional assistance. There is a clinical nature to online ‘live’ teaching that cannot replace the human relationship element so vital for teaching. After all, we teach children, not subjects. School teaching is not lecturing. We need group work and personal interactions to bring lessons to life. So, it’s not just the peer relationships that are being missed out on, it’s the mentor-learner ones too. I salute teachers who have abandoned their human form and overnight out-transformed Optimus Prime, and who are still ensuring that they nurture their relationships with their charges despite the challenges they face. (Can we clap at about 23:00 for them, when they finish their workday?)
Even the second-year university student in my house, who is a true introvert, is missing the subtle social interactions that happen mid-lecture, which aid learning and build the kind of connectivity that can never come from MTN or Vodacom.
So, as much as I know that we can continue with remote learning for as long as it takes (well at least at my privileged school we can) I look forward to the day we can teach flesh and blood human children, not their screen avatars.
In the meantime, parents, I beg you: send them outside to play and exercise, but if they cannot see other youngsters in the flesh, be a little more lenient with screen time. Facetime and Zoom calls are better than nothing. It may be the only social interaction they are getting.
And tell them we miss them.
Or just show them this:
Perhaps we should give in. Who needs great rhetoric or literature. Move over Cicero and Demosthenes. Sit down Marlowe and Plath. We’ve gone back to hieroglyphics:
I just hope we don’t go back to this:
At least there’s one for me (the specs are Versace):
Remote Learning during Lockdown is the pits – but that’s okay if they’re Learning Pits.
I thought I’d take pity on all those parents resorting to TikTok and YouTube to post parodies of their children working at home and who rant about reaching for the Valium to get through the school day with their own beloved offspring who have turned into spawn of the Remote Learning Apocalypse. So I am letting you in on a teaching secret: the Learning Pit. Understanding this simple model may assist you and your child with school tasks at home and let you in on (some) of the magic educators learn when they study pedagogy.
It is a feature of 21st century learning and teaching that students are required to grapple with the unknown; face the fear of ignorance and learn to overcome.
The Learning Pit is an immensely empowering concept.
And it applies not only to a concept at school, but to all problems needing solving, so it is a guided way to coping with the problems of life (like avoiding opening the wine before lunch while your child is working on parts of speech.)
Now more than ever, during Lockdown, when children are learning remotely, this is a way to focus your youngsters and assist them to be self-sufficient. Besides reading, teaching a child strategies to learn is one of the most effective ways to equip a developing mind for a lifetime of successful learning.
Nottingham’s model suggests that real learning what we call ‘deep learning’ only happens when something new is learned and that can be a scary experience (almost as scary for parents who are facing similar pits during their ‘homeschooling experiments’ during COVID-19 lockdown at the moment.)
The concept is simple: if a youngster encounters a new section of work (the learning pit) and he ‘gets it’ easily, he can leap across the chasm like an avatar with that faux loping stride leaping across gorges (unrealistically) in Fortnite and can hurry on to his next challenge. He hasn’t learned anything new yet though. FYI Bright leaners do this often through school and often battle later on because they haven’t learnt HOW to navigate learning challenges so it’s important to stimulate them all the time (extend them until they face something hard) to ensure they learn the skills. All too often I have seen rosy-cheeked Dux scholars in prep school turn into average achievers later on in high school because they never learned about the struggle that is the learning pit. But they make great collaborators and cheerleaders in peer teaching -see ‘Collaborate’ below – if they understand both the work and the process.
So how does it work?
I love this child’s depiction of the pit:
When our intrepid warriors arrive at a pit that looks too dangerous and fear and confusion sets in, it’s game-on. I urge teachers to encourage our learners to leap into that pit with both feet, as soon as they recognize that they don’t understand something, we want them to feel a sense of adventure and excitement, as if they are going on a quest. A key factor in 21st century education is also the demystifying of the learning process so we point out each phase of the learning pit a child is in so they can chart their progress.
‘Having a go’
This diagram above illustrates the dangers at the bottom of the pit and challenges to be overcome like on an epic journey. (like those moments when your drooping Petal whines ‘I can’t! I don’t know what to do? And you’re thinking the same only with a few Anglo-Saxon words in between). But they are encouraged to jump on in and ‘have a go’ like the valiant gladiators of old.
A Leap of Faith
Tell them: The work may be tricky but the first important question to ask yourself is: ‘How can I do this’ – that is almost the key to crossing the bottom of the monster-filled abyss. I remember a scene in The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones (oh so young Harrison Ford) takes a leap of faith into the unknown and finds that there was a way across the impassible ravine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-JIfjNnnMA
That first step shows the way, but the adventurer still has to climb up and out of the learning pit.
Notice that nothing new has yet been learned, but the student has already started to climb out of the pit, because attitude to learning is so important. This is why we believe in making learning fun. If a child is playing, he doesn’t realize that he’s already crossed the chasm and is climbing.
Try something else
As with all climbs, things can be quite steep and so a good pupil should know that there can be different ways of solving things: ‘What else can I try?’
Recent problem-solving by clothing manufacturers who were forced to shut their doors overnight and stop trading due to the lockdown, have re-designed and developed their sports masks into fashionable and effective alternatives for the COVID-exerciser. Instead of focusing on products they can’t sell they have focused their marketing and sales on these much-needed current products, and become essential services in the process. This kind of creative thinking is what keeps businesses afloat when times change, so when your child is struggling with a Mathematics problem, don’t show him the way you were taught – if you can even remember(!) and not at first anyway. Encourage him to try different ways because this is part of developing creativity, which stand him in good stead when his career faces a challenge.
A child must own the problem; WANT to solve it and struggle with it a bit. We all know what happened to Kodak, The Concorde, Blockbuster Video Stores and Blackberry. They would not/could not innovate. There is nothing wrong with using the fruit and veges to work out answers to basic arithmetic. Make problems relevant to real life so they have a connection. So if all you do is guide them to see a link to their own experience, you will have helped them focus on alternative ways of looking at things. Just don’t do it for them. (Walk away and mix teh margaritas for later.)
Innovation is a vital skill to learn and it’s the first step of that upward climb to problem solving so give your child lots spare paper or let her open lots of word docs and keep trying different things.
Trying can be exhausting though and is not necessarily immediately rewarding. Learning warriors need courage and resilience and what we callgrit to believe that they can. (like that little train we all remember from our youthful storybooks: ‘I think I can…’) There is a dawning hope, with each small success. Encourage her to push herself just a little bit harder, for just a little bit longer. Athletes understand this about training – the brain must also be trained to think. And sweat is involved.
Again I plead with parents not to give in and tell your child the answer. We see too many high school students these days whose parents have given them everything on a plate and they have never learnt the simple truth that success does not come without hours of (their own) hard work. They throw their hands up in despair, blame the teacher, the school, the government and everyone else because they simply don’t know how to keep at something. Things like re-writes, editing, touch ups, second drafts, conceptualization, planning are all part of keeping at it; they need to keep slogging away, and not accepting pedestrian prose or mediocrity. Cheer them on when they do.
10 000 hours at a task brings you professionalism in something. Sadly, too few students these days know how to keep at something for that long. It’s not their fault. Everything in their world is ‘insta’ – the ‘gram, their cappuccino, the news, and take-aways to their doors; binging on series has prevented us from yearning and imagining, and even gaming teaches devotees to use the cheats. Without sounding as old as my own children say I am, have to confess that I worry that we are growing a nation of quitters and lazy thinkers who want instant answers. There are loads of fun ways teachers encourage children to stick at something: competitions, promised rewards, clues and even a simple thing like timing them gives them an end in sight to strive for, so draw your child into the game of learning and keep them on track. (It will work for yourself too, especially if your choice of the fruit of the vine is the prize). Let them play music if that is their poison. (Earphones are a wonderful invention and protect us from said noise pollution).
Having said that, it is possible that you are experiencing a more genteel time at home with your family, (if you’re not exhausted from multi-tasking – running your home and empire AND Junior’s Work programme) and that can allow learners a chance to explore tangential interests and it’s consequently a great opportunity for them to go slightly off track and discover things they are really interested in. We all know this is when the real learning happens, so allow them a little intellectual bundu bashing. (They may develop an app in that time that will make them famous and you rich – more wine!)
Collaboration is one of the fundamentals of 21st century education and even during lockdown it can be achieved via Teams and WhatsApp calls. Our offspring are connected. They know how to crowd-source ideas. One of mine decided today a name change was in order for her next birthday so she threw a few ideas at her friends and bingo she had her new name. (and it wasn’t B-I-N-G-O … now there’s a blast-from-the-past kiddies tune!) So they know how to connect. It’s our job as educators and parents to guide them into using these skills to co-operate on learning tasks the same way they collaborate in their social lives. ‘Phone a friend’ is a good catch phrase to have in your classroom or on the fridge – and it’s not just a phone call – this applies to all those lifelines : teacher, google, friend, parent, asking for clues. Re-watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ and draw up your own set of lifelines to point them at when they get to this stage. ‘Read a book, search for other resources, make an appointment for a one-on-one with your teacher on Teams, You Tube videos’ – all of these are important. YouTube may well replace tecahers one day – you can learn anything on there. My eldest son watched something on ‘how to escape from a hijacking’ and it worked two weeks later when someone started shooting at a traffic light. You can learn a lot from the Tube, not least of which is how to research.)
By this time of the day, you may have your wine in hand and all you will have to do is wave your glass at the fridge to point out the ‘Phone a friend’ options.
I have always believed that a ‘lazy’ teacher is an effective educator if he is steering his students into self-discoveries and can be a profound influence on his charges. (I use the word ‘lazy’ hesitantly and for effect because I mean it in the sense that he doesn’t spoonfeed his pupils with dished up answers on the set platter of pretty notes and worksheets. In fact much time and forethought goes into planning a lesson that requires the children to do – to struggle, engage, chew on the pencil (not the stylus please though), scratch heads, stare into the vistas of space, doodle, cross out and keep trying. That is facilitating discovery. That is teaching).
Collaboration through peer-learning is important to facillitate – it empowers both teacher and learner and encourages empathy and altruism, qualities that are in rather short supply. Suggest siblings help each other, while you finish your own work (or wine).
You have almost summited the mountain if you reach the point that a child is thinking ‘I am getting there.’ This is that heady moment when a learner picks up the pace, and feels the adrenalin of final summitting the Everest of his subject. This is self-belief and is so vital for self-esteem. This is where the teacher/parent is the cheerleader, the folks back home waving the flag of support. So, don’t rob them of this high by giving them the answer because next time they will expect you to do it again. This is when you tell them they are fabulous and you knew they could do it; when you paste their artwork on the fridge/wall outside to motivate passers-by like my neighbor did with her daughter.
Give them that buzz of accomplishment and let them own the ‘Eureka moment.’ Because next time they will jump into the pit more eagerly because they know they can do it and they will need you less and less and eventually, if you are very lucky, and lockdown ends, they’ll leave home, buy you a wine farm and support you in your old age… because you taught them to solve problems on their own. School is a place and time to prepare you for life and let’s face it life is hard!
You will have taught them to think.
And you gave them an even greater gift: confidence to do it all again.
So that is the secret from the oracle today:
When it all gets too much for you, tell them to go and jump into the pit…. and resist the urge to bury them in there. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll find a way to dig themselves out anyway!