Should they stay[at home] or should they go [to school]

At long last we’ll be welcoming back our matrics and Grade 7s to school on Monday, after 73 days in Lockdown!

And for our Grade 12s, matric will suddenly get real!

Be prepared for increased levels of schoolwork stress in your children. That is to be expected. As each grade phases in, it is likely that certain other fears will be experienced, especially concern about contracting the virus or anxiety over little things, like: ‘Will I “pass” the screening?’ ‘How will the new systems operate?’ and ‘Could I infect someone?’ ‘Will my friends still play with me, or want to speak to me?’

‘Am I behind in my work or not grasping key concepts enough to cope with my final examinations?’ as well as thoughts such as ‘’Will I be accepted into my chosen field of study next year?’ which are usual worries at this time of year, may be uppermost in the minds of our seniors.

We are ready to deal with all sorts of trepidation in both our staff and learners as we navigate the new way of doing things. Our counsellors and School Based Support Teams are on alert, because, as a school with an ethos of looking after the body, mind and spirit of our children, we are so aware we need to nurture them emotionally through this period also. (We are also aware that you, their parents, are also anxious about sending your children back into the world. We understand because we are parents too.)

Our school is fortunate in that we can offer a hybrid form of learning whereby students who cannot return yet or whose parents want to keep them at home for a while longer, can live stream the day at home.

Even learners tuning in from home may not be immune (if you pardon the pun) to some anxiety, however. They may suffer from FOMO and parents of such children should also watch out for what psychologists are referring to as the ‘Lonely Children Effect’ which according to Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist from the University of Bath, UK, interviewed on Cape Talk today, says ‘can manifest itself for years’.  

Social interaction is critical for the intellectual and social development of young people, so do factor in some additional data costs, for your youngsters at home to spend a bit more time talking to their friends. Yes, I am actually telling you to let them spend a bit more time online; you have not misread. It’s how they socialise. For example, gamers shooting things with their friends is not necessarily the worst activity for them, because if they are playing online, they are also bonding, which at this time is really important. Unless that’s all they are doing, or you need them to take out the garbage, in which case turn off the router (or just threaten to, if you are in need of some entertainment at their expense, as one does when one is an evil parent like me.)

You may think your children can’t be lonely because they have you or their siblings to spend time with, but Loades says that peer play is what is important, not only DMCing with the ‘parentals.’

The other thing that will add to their stress is the fact that once more there will be change in their lives. Remember that resistance to change is a form of grief. Our staff and children will go through all of these processes as they come to terms with the next new normal. It will be both your job and ours to help them to reach acceptance and acclimatize themselves to the new protocols. Mourners can go through 5 stages of grief, not necessarily experiencing all of these or even moving in this order:

  1. shock and denial
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance

And when there is organisational change, people can go through similar phases:

[For the record psychologists don’t all agree with this model, and dispute the progression of ‘stages’ concept, because folk don’t necessarily experience all these emotions or have them all in this order, but it certainly has some relevance anecdotally, and you may well recognize these in your children.]

Identify them either to yourself or with your child and help them through the hard stages. Because, eventually, we can get used to anything. Humans are clever that way. Knowing what you are dealing with, should empower you to make the tough calls, (especially if you encounter some ‘school’refusal’ but it should help you also to love them through the shock and denial stages. Good luck with the bargaining stage if you have a wannabe lawyer or lobbyist in the house though!

We cannot wait to meet our masked warriors of the New Age of Hybrid Education and welcome them home, as well as meeting some in your homes on our live streams. If you are lucky enough to be able to work from home still, think of us in this brave new world while you lounge in your pjs. I just hope I can fit into that darling little suit I bought before lockdown…

“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. “Blorft” is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

― Tina Fey, Bossypants

Sometimes God doesn’t give you what you want; He gives you your deepest desire.

37 Famous Feminists - Inspiring Women of the Feminist Movement

Since I’ve already written reflections around the birth of each of my sons, I should reference the girls’ births, lest I be accused of favouritism, or horror of horrors, gender prejudice.

The story of Caitlin’s imminent arrival does involve prejudice against women though, but it’s also a story of triumph over that, in one of life’s delightful ironies.

It was Christmas 1993. We had been transferred to Johannesburg “for one year, I promise” (We were there for seven.) and I had just been offered an English teaching post at a private boys’ school, in what would become Gauteng in a few months with the dawn of New South African Republic.

My sister arrived to spend Christmas with us and while we were sunning ourselves on Christmas Eve, the phone rang. (Remember when phones used to ring somewhere in the distance and you had to go inside to answer them?!) I came out stunned. I was pregnant. Not part of the immediate plans, but a blessing nonetheless.

After the celebrations and announcements were over, I realized the tricky situation I was in. I was due to start at the college in the January, with a matric class, and the baby was due in August – mid-prelims. With some trepidation, I called the head of the school to inform him, and stupidly admitted I wouldn’t blame him if he fired me. He promptly did. Of course, he couched it in terms which probably sounded kind to him:  ‘We…eell, we would prefer then that yah didn’t start at all,’ he said in his lilting Irish voice. And that was that. There was no contract to dispute. The legal advice given to me was that I’d opened the door by saying I wouldn’t blame him. So, I was out.

This was a time in education when schools were not only racially segregated, but women also had an unequal deal as employees. When I started teaching I earned R900. My male counterparts with the same qualifications and experience were gifted R1 100 per month. I lost my permanent post in a state school when I got married and no longer qualified for a housing subsidy. And here I was being screwed over by an independent school too.

At the time, I shrugged my shoulders, sold my little blue Suzuki Jeep (Okay I cried about that) and realized that I didn’t want to be a part of a system raising boys to think like that anyway and a few months later found the perfect post at Holy Family College in Parktown, an institution which housed the best head I ever worked under, Alastair Smurthwaite, who later promoted me to my first HOD position. He was a person of compassion and believed in giving his leadership team the room to grow.

I am a firm believer that when we don’t get what we want out of life, we often find our hideen, deepest desire. This is a lesson that I have learned over and over in my life.

HFC was a significant place of learning for me. I had a fabulous subterranean classroom, which must have been part of the old convent building. It was massive and airy and even though it was situated beneath the front stairs, it had a lot of light that came in from windows at the top which looked onto a carpark and enabled us to listen unseen to all the parents gossiping outside. It had huge hooks that we made up ghost stories about, and I rummaged around in unused rooms of the rambling building, braving the odd lurking aged nun, and discovered an old carpet and footstools which we put cushions on and used as a comfy corner for reading setworks and chatting.

The school was also a place where I was witness to great suffering among young people who travelled for miles on public transport, some being victims of unspeakable violence.

I will never forget a young man named Nokwanto whose growth was stunted because of his kidney disease, that forced him to undergo two transplants. His body rejected the second transplant; yet with every day that drew him closer to death, he lived life with a joi de vivre that would shame the most truculent adolescent. My last image of him before I left the school eventually was of him standing arms akimbo, laughing delightedly as soft snow fell on one of those rare Johannesburg days when the sleet is in fact snow.

Then there was the young woman who was gang-raped on her way home because she ‘had airs and graces because she attended a fancy school,’ who gave up her plans to become a lawyer and chose social work instead. And the tall, thin, tortured Nkululeko who postured aggressively in class and drew tormenting demons in his diary, and who slipped one of the most beautiful thank you notes I have ever received under my office door, in which he reflected that I had loved him just as he was. The social worker at the school voiced prophetic words when I left: “This is the letter which will bring you back to teaching.’ And years later when I did return to the classroom, I remembered. I still wonder what became of him.

The school was a fascinating combination of new and old, and the energy of the young people was contagious. The staff was largely female; strong women who were clearly leaders, at least one of whom went on to become a principal in her own right. The Science teacher, a heavy smoker and nearing retirement, was the first female engineer to graduate from Wits University, so there was no shortage of great female role models.

It was a place of healing for me when I lost my mother, and I am still in touch with a student who was delighted to hear that Caitlin was born on her birthday. Caitlin herself has grown up to be a woman of deep compassion and generosity of spirit, and is embarking on her career as a chartered accountant. She rescued me from becoming mired in a school whose male leadership would have crushed me, and enabled me to find one where I was liberated. It is fitting that the child who was born during my time there is forging ahead in what is still a rather male-dominated field, despite have been seen as an inconvenience by a school when she was still in the womb.

Thank you, Caitlin for being God’s instrument in leading me to profound happiness and setting me on my own path towards leadership.

“When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle Obama

Two things to remember about leadership in schools

ADVICE FOR A (NEW) HEAD OF SCHOOL FROM AN OLD ONE

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.

2. INTEGRITY

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.”

– Ovid

Leadership in Times of Change

The 5 R’s of The New Normal

EdTech Trends 2020: the future is now | Acer for Education

We’re breaking new ground next week as we return to school with our Grade 7s and Grade 12s phasing in. Change is hard and, for parents and teachers alike, it is stressful.

We shall indeed be doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our learners and staff in the days and weeks ahead, and I am fortunate to belong to a group of schools led by an executive with people-management skills. Navigating through the storms that threaten us as we re-open our schools is going to require strong leadership.

I’d like to share some insight from a leadership forum I attended this week:

As you know, in past years we used to speak about the 3 Rs of education:

  • Reading
  • wRiting
  • aRithmetic (I know -the R’s have never worked for me either.)

This has of course changed with 21st Century Education which focuses on the 6Cs (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical thinking, Character, Citizenship).

Here are the 5 Rs of this new stage in our post-COVID-Lockdown schools. (The list is purloined, but the interpretations are mine, I should stress.)

1. Resolve

We are having to take many decisions and many are hard ones in the shifting sands of the pandemic landscape. Information is a swirl of changing facts and our Standard Operating Procedures can never be a fixed, lifeless document. We are learning to live with constant, rapid change and must be adaptable and flexible, like palm trees in a cyclone.

But we must make decisions. We cannot stand around dithering. Not even Nero’s supposedly musical fiddling helped to save Rome from fire (if you believe that legend.) We must be resolute in our desire to forge ahead now and serve our school communities So we must be both strong and decisive, and supple in how we navigate the way ahead.

2. Resilience

We must stay the distance. My school will still be here to tell the tale when COVID-19 is as distant a memory as smallpox, but we have to take careful steps to adjust how we do things in order to make it through this time.  As Michael Bolton tells us in the lyrics from his song in the cartoon, Hercules: ‘[We] can go the distance!’

3. Return (Renewed with Remote)

We are like heroes returning to the winter of school like bears disturbed from hibernation. Education will never be the same again. If it’s more of the same, we shall have learned nothing over this time. And that will be to our shame. We have been forced deeper into the technological era and developed remote learning and teaching skills no training programme could have achieved, because necessity is the mother of invention.  Not only have we developed new expertise, which we shall continue to develop with the new hybrid model of teaching, we must continue to expand our technological capabilities. With the first new visualizers being installed in classes from next week, enabling us to better project our live streaming to children at home, as well as actively teaching those in front of us, we are heading into new territory.

That there will be teething problems with this, I have no doubt, but I am certain too that we shall overcome these challenges also. So, I hope our community bears with us in the days to come as we settle into an entirely new way of doing things, yet again.

This is the new normal.

4. Re-imagine (Re-invent, Re-interpret)

Our growth and development will not stop with these advances, we must continue to re-imagine our school. We have some exciting things planned around languages for 2021, and our burgeoning film school also has new horizons to explore. All of these will be developed around the new reality that COVID-19 has created globally.

We plan to push into the next normal.

5. Reform

As we experiment and develop education in the years to come, it is all rather pointless if we do not reform the community (and indeed the world) we live in. We must not merely re-make education; we must make it better. We must change the world, no matter how lofty an ideal that seems.

What has not changed in my school’s mission is to constantly remind young people that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’

Margaret Mead

Send me.

COVID-19 Alphabet ‘SOP’

Cartoons

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.

Obesity you say? …  oh you’re on your own there!

Tbd.

The ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’…and coming soon to a school near you: ‘The Redemption, through Resumption of the Class of 2020.

A reflection on change and what we face in our return from lockdown, like paroled prisoners

The Change Ralph Rumney, 1957

Aunty Angie has finally made the announcement: it’s back to school we go.

This is an appropriate season for us to be facing the uncertainty of re-integrating our learners into the wild, that’s for sure. It’s around this time that, as you dress for work, you contemplate ‘open toe? or closed toe?’ (Well if the weather is warm and your summer peep-toes are all worn out or packed away, you can’t buy more, just remember.) It’s also the time you get caught out sans umbrella, or a warm jacket for the late afternoon’s chilly breeze or downpours.

In many homes, parents will be contemplating how to return their wildlings to their natural school habitats and weaning them off the home environment.

So much of our return is uncertain. We still don’t know how other grades will be phased in and for our students it’s going to be hard to acclimatize themselves to new regimens of health checking and social distancing. And for our matrics, the added trepidation that comes with firstly being in matric and facing the unknown future of their tertiary studies and adventures, is exacerbated by the fact that now matric is almost as variable as the Cape weather, and as hard to predict.

Wearing masks all day will take some getting used to, because they are hot on your face and fog up glasses so there can be no heavy sighing. Different break time routines and washing procedures will become part of the fabric of the autumn time.

The Keats ode to the season of change, ponders the sliding transition as Summer slowly draws to a close and autumn sets in. Our youngsters will find themselves in this chilly term in socially distanced classrooms, and the jerky teenage hug-athon that usually presages the return from a holiday, will not be allowed. (The Pres did say the time for kissing and hugging is over). Pity these poor teens trying to get a date now too! But the warmth of the social embrace will be missing for them and we must be prepared for their reaction to the starkness of it all.

It will be up to us to make this new normal (I hate that expression already) as painless and as natural a process as possible, like the turn of the seasons. And fun – we must have fun too, just as Keats suggest autumn brings her own beauty.

The ode reflects on the fact though that Autumn’s music is just different from Summer’s and yet it has its own lyrical voice and cadence. I hope that when we return we shall have a new appreciation for our learners and they of their teachers. We shall still be playing music; it will merely have a different sound.

On my brief forages into the shops, I have noticed that wearing masks draws your eyes to other people’s eyes and this masked season in our schools may give us a new look at each other – I am hoping we shall see our children more clearly even though we shall have less of their faces to see (and we know of course that there will many a bearded young man hiding his lack of a razor behind his mask). Perhaps this will be a time of closer contact soul-window to soul-window, as we need to peer more intently at one another. Lord knows, we shall need to watch closely for signs of trauma.

Some of the sound of our return may be more groan than song however. Change of any kind brings with it attendant traumas, and these children may well not have been outside the confines of their homes, even to exercise, for 65 days by then, especially if they are the couch potato type, because, other than the hours to exercise, children have not had a chance to go to the shops like their parents.

When prisoners are released back into society, there are psychological adjustments to be made to adapt to their newfound freedom. (In the case of schoolchildren returning, some comics may say they will have swopped one prison for another, of course) but the fact remains that the elements present in the body and mind’s response to change will be reflected in our returning parolees.

Learners with pent-up emotions within the confines of the homes, like prisoners who bottle up their feelings and present bland exteriors in prison for the sake of keeping the peace, may well be prone to greater quarrelsomeness as their emotions have a little more space to be vented; ‘pecking orders’ will have changed (no matter whether the home or school is the more egalitarian) the rules will be different and learners will discover themselves on a different side of the heap than at home;  some will have been able to avoid facing up to the reality of impending matric exams (as well as the likelihood that feelings of dread,both real and imagined, may abound around how little they may have worked ) and will now have to confront matric, in the same way that an ex-con has to face what he has done when he sees his family again.

And, of course, not one child’s experience of the changed environment will be the same, nor will their responses be timed to make things easier. And we may well have days when we have the perfect storm of them all acting out differently on the same day.  And like all prisoners they will regard the teachers (and their parents) as jailers, and rebel accordingly, playing us off against each other.  

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-47.png

Some will struggle with leaving their comfortable prisons where they have been cossetted. The challenge of trying to teach teens who have become accustomed to beginning their studies after 9:00 in their pyjamas, with hot chocolate or coffee on tap, is going to take some counting to 10. They are going to be grumpy. In some homes, there may have been little oversight and so educators may suddenly be seen as the abusive prison guards.

It is not going to be as smooth a transition of seasons as Keats describes in his poem, but I am comforted by this reality: the human spirit has the most wonderful power to adapt to changing circumstances, and I am sure that soon the new way of doing things will become as commonplace as wildlife in our towns these days and our resilient learners will flourish once again.

But… forget about autumn and mellow fruitfulness, …winter is coming…. the next grades have to return … and we shall start this rollercoaster again…. and again…. until we are all back.

Traces of change by Magdalena Morey

And learning to be comfortable with change, we need to be fluid, like water. As that great philosopher, Bruce Lee says:

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
― Bruce Lee

Of Schools and Screens and Lockdown, and Socialising Scenes

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:

Or 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):