Humans find it impossible to avoid close contact and touching. We are just not wired to stay far apart from each other. As much as I wished, in pre-lockdown days, that I could insist that shoppers behind me in the line would stand behind floor decals 2 metres away from me, or imagined ramming my trolley back onto the toes of halitotic queue creepers, such violent fantasies are no longer necessary. And we are struggling without the contact now.
The Maestro and I enjoyed a breakfast at Mugg &Bean this morning and while he enjoyed tasteless and tediously titivating TikTok after his sausages and eggs, I people-watched:
Besides the responsible types who remain masked and greeted their friends from across the wasteland of a coffee shop table (amazing how clean the tables are mind you – sprayed and wiped between each sitting) with an elbow bump, the majority of patrons meeting family and acquaintances, could not resist a hug of greeting. I witnessed hand-patting, arm-stroking and kissing. Shocking.
So much for social distancing.
But it’s not their fault. We humans need touch. According to Professor Robin Dunbar who is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, primates are reliant on the endorphins and oxtytocins (the good hormones, not the street drugs) that are released when we touch each other. It’s part of being ‘social.’ That’s why, when you add ‘distant,’ it seems so impossible for us to maintain.
It’s one of the things so hard to control at school, or any workplace. It’s why it is so concerning that the nation’s children were sent ‘home’ from school to avoid contracting the virus; yet have been roaming the malls and streets, in packs, unprotected by masks and hanging onto each other. Expect a spike in the stats when they return to school and infect each other and their teachers some more.And it must be really hard for those who live alone or are confined to care homes during the pandemic.
“The effects of touch are physiological, bioelectrical and biochemical,” agrees Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute at Miami Medical School. “Moving the skin (as, for example, in hugging, massaging and exercise) stimulates pressure receptors which are transmitted to the vagus nerve, the largest cranial nerve that has many branches in the body. Increased vagal activity calms the nervous system (e.g. slows heart rate and leads to EEG patterns that accompany relaxation). It also reduces cortisol – the culprit stress hormone – that then saves natural killer cells that kill viral, bacterial and cancer cells.”
Helen Coffey, quoted in The Independent
So, tactile stimulation heals us; losing it can reduce our ability to fight disease.
Except with COVID-19.
Prof Dunbar reckons we’ll be ok in the long run, but in the meantime, many of us are struggling to stay connected… laughter is apparently good for producing the happy hormones as does visual stimulus, so keep those video calls going with family members in old age homes or those who live alone.
Perhaps there is method in my husband’s weird social media tastes after all.
Several people I know have lost loved ones during the Age of Corona to both the virus and other causes. Our particular lockdown levels have strict limits on mourning though: funerals are limited to fifty persons, wakes and night vigils are prohibited even under Level 3. You can’t hug the bereaved or cross provincial borders unless you are close family. I have not attended funerals of a few people I might otherwise have gone to to pay my respects.
It is bad enough to face the sudden or even expected death of someone you have loved, but not to be able to celebrate their lives and be comforted is especially hard.
Two deaths of famous people this week brought home to me how difficult it must be to grieve in the middle of a pandemic, as well as how sad it is that the lives of two people who spent their whole lives dedicated to our country should not be commemorated with appropriate ceremony at their passing.
Both Zindziswa Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni have passed away this month and I am moved by the fact that both have lost out on the kind of farewell that would be fitting – because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wrote about them in this week’s school newsletter:
I have often wondered about the childhood Zindzi endured as her parents sacrificed so much for the freedom of the nation. Yet she proved her mettle time and time again, missing out on her schooling in the struggle, advocating for her mother to the United Nations (when she was just 12!) and boldly defying PW Botha on her father’s behalf.
Mr Mlangeni stood at Madiba’s side at the Rivonia trial and suffered with him on Robben Island for over twenty years. Our flags at school are flying at half-mast until Wednesday to honour his quiet strength and life of sacrifice for us all. But it doesn’t seem enough.
Our children can learn so much from his wisdom:
“One of the biggest prisons we were afraid of being locked up in though, was the jail of ignorance.”
Andrew Mlangeni, ‘The Backroom Boy: Andrew Mlangeni’s Story’
What power there is in learning from the great people who gave up so much for freedom. To our learners I say, respect the education that comes so easily to you now. Those who made it possible studied sporadically, far from home and, in many cases, in prison.
How small these deaths (and their lives) make me feel about moaning about corona-stress; and how sad I am that neither of these two leaders who fought for us with such courage and wisdom can be publicly celebrated as they deserve because of the enemy-virus.
But I take from their lives the knowledge that a life relinquishing selfish goals and focused on the greater good will make a difference; will have an impact and will change the world.
“We need to live in a world that is ego-free and humble ourselves to talent, wisdom, and courage, when it reveals itself.”
Mourners have only the comfort that Cicero referred to when he said that the life of a person is implanted in the memory of those left behind, and the knowledge that their passing changes us and becomes part of us too.
10 Points to Consider when Reference Checking in Schools
Most schools have a process for selecting staff that includes checking references for very good reasons: interviews are false situations in which sometimes people present themselves as way better than they are (especially if they are very confident); or they can tank the whole thing because they are too anxious, no matter how much the interviewer puts them at ease. Sometime people hide things, or avoid certain topics.
I have been interviewing staff for almost 20 years and have made both good and poor decisions afterwards, however I have been saved from one or two disasters, as well as made sure we did not miss out on good ones.
Here’s what I have learned:
1. Always do a reference check.
Besides being good business practice, it’s just sensible. No matter how certain you are about a candidate. Check the person out. You’re not psychic, so you can’t know everything there is to know about a candidate. (And even if you do own a crystal ball and beaded curtains, no ways are you omnisciently foresighted.)
It seems like a no-brainer that someone seeking to employ a teacher would do this, but I have realized that some people couldn’t be bothered or perhaps are so rushed that because they perhaps know the previous institution or trust the former school’s head.
In at least three instances, I know heads who have employed former staff of mine, all of whom, caused us to breathe a sigh of relief when they left; yet none of my colleagues called me to check on the teachers’ time with us. I would have told the headmasters not to touch them with the proverbial barge pole. In all instances, they didn’t last long, but I could have saved my colleagues some pain and suffering (and money).
2. Do the reference check after the interview
I don’t like to prejudge the interview and prefer to check information and queries I have after meeting the prospective employee. A reference check is a confirmation of what you have decided after the interview, not a shortlisting technique.
3. Ask difficult questions
Remember to follow your instincts about certain areas in the interview that perhaps you weren’t so sure about. I have a reference form which has standard questions on it, but there is a section for the ones I want to check with a referee. If my probing in an interview still leaves me with question marks, I make a note and ask the questions outright of those offering a testimonial.
4. If you can’t reach a referee, contact the previous school
You’ll be surprised at what you learn. Sometimes all they can do is confirm that a teacher worked there (and the fact that they only have minimal info on the educator also tells you something); sometimes you learn a whole lot more, that a personal referee perhaps won’t tell you, especially if you suspect a disciplinary issue that might have existed. Listen for what they are NOT saying.
Be leery of staff who haven’t informed their current employer they are looking – this is not a deal breaker though.
5. Watch out for Euphemisms and Hesitations
That pregnant pause when you ask about how the educator relates to her charges or whether there have been disciplinary instances can tell you more than words. You have to be a voice sleuth. Listen for the nuances and delays – they are telling.
6. Always do a criminal check
The group of schools mine belongs to has a tight background checking procedure for this reason. We check a person’s references and we do a criminal check that involves a computer search, a police clearance and sexual offenders register check.
My team once interviewed a person called Michael Engelhart (not his real name of course, and not quite the one he gave us.)
His criminal check came back with convictions to do with the Suppression of Witchcraft Act. It made sense when I realized how many questions he’d asked about the Christian ethos of the school I was at. And then I looked at his name – which was an alias…look again…) Clearly a nutter!
7. Check their Social Media Sites
Look at groups they belong to and read their personal posts. People reveal so much more on Facebook and Twitter than whether they are a cat person or football fan. Look at the jokes they post; their friends pages and the groups they belong to. Even young people are careless about privacy. And if you are doubtful, Instagram is worth a thousand words.
8. Sometimes get a second opinion
Once a superb teacher who impressed us no end in the interview received a damning reference from a headmaster who described her as a troublemaker, which seemed just a bit overdone. We did a second reference and took a chance on her. And she was a remarkable educator.
People lie – even heads of schools can be venal.
9. Be suspicious of Applicants who list a colleague, not the head of the institution, as a referee
Almost every poor appointment I have made has been based on the affirmation of a peer, not the boss. Go to the top.
10. Trust your gut
Ultimately all interviews are a bit of a crap shoot. As much as you must do your homework, eventually you have to trust your gut and make a decision.
My school has just had a week’s holiday (well 9 days with the two weekends), when normally we would have had three weeks.
I joke about every holiday being one week too short, no matter the length of the vacation and I stand by that, but the truth is I divide every break into 3 parts: for the first third, I sleep – all day and night if necessary, but essentially if my body tells me ‘nap,’ I head for my cosy bed and nod off happily. In the middle week or section of the holiday, I sleep and do all those jobs you put off for your leave, like having a haircut, visiting the traffic department, taking the next child to get an ID or apply for a driver’s licence or university. In the final part, I aim to do only self-indulgent fun things, like motoring in the country with The Maestro, clothes shopping, special time with my children, reading…and sleeping of course.
This mid-year break I have had to divide the time into three days for each of my holiday divisions: so, I have had 3 days for each. I’m into the final third tomorrow and still feel I need to be sleeping 24-7.
But I can just tuck into some cheese with this whine, because at least I have had a break. The teachers I really feel for are those in the public sector who are not getting a holiday at all, not to mention their students.
You see, they haven’t had a holiday since December. Do not believe officials who say that they were off during lockdown. They were not. They may not have been able to reach all their learners digitally, but they supplied them with work before and during lockdown, many hand-delivering tasks and textbooks to their children’s homes. And in many schools, they did just keep on teaching.
Teachers are going to burn out.
How are they going to reboot, and ‘sharpen their swords,’ as Stephen Covey speaks about, when they are exhausted; they need to rest. Every teacher grinds her teeth when the ignorant masses who believe that they know how to be teachers because they once went to school, say that teachers have half-day jobs and too much holiday time. (One deputy I knew once said that’s a bit like someone who drives a Mercedes thinking they have shares in Daimler-Chrysler, but we won’t go there.) Teachers don’t have half-day jobs and fyi most work through their vacations, both marking and prepping ordinarily. Generally they have worked the hours of a holiday before they get there.)
In April, educators were frantically reinventing themselves as IT gurus and restructuring their teaching programmes. State school teachers are not getting any holiday now. And they, and all independent school teachers, will be working right through to December with a couple of long weekends to break it up. We need to find ways to look after their health, both mental and physical.
In the Department of Basic Education’s commitment to completing the school year, I don’t know that they have considered the teachers (who are dying at their desks btw – just look at the country’s COVID statistics: as at 30 June 2020, 775 state schools across the nation are affected by the virus, and 1169 teachers have been infected – more than twice the number of children who have contracted the disease – 523; but in the Western Cape in the last week we have laid to rest 2 teachers, as has Gauteng; in the Eastern Cape the count is 18 – that is eighteen – who have died. And that is only 3/9 of the provinces.)
We are concerned about the frontline health workers who are at risk from this virus, and rightly so, but teachers are at risk of becoming the latest, silent group of victims. Many educators suffer from so much stress simply from being in the classroom, let alone all the other attendant pressures like socio-economic crises in their communities. How many are walking around with undiagnosed, stress-related co-morbidities like hypertension, putting them at greater risk, without them even being aware of it?
And tired teachers get sick. Our educators catch every virus around in an ordinary year, especially in winter. This year they are bone weary. With no real holiday in April, nothing in June, and no break of any significance before 15 December, the government is stretching one of its greatest human resources to breaking point.
Even in the independent school sector, where I work, where many schools have at least had a small break, we have identified this as a problem for us. I think we need to think about it more, before we either break our teachers, lose them to other professions or attend their funerals.
This is the biggest challenge facing schools in the next 6 months. How we address it will determine how we keep our teachers (alive).
My job in the next months is going to be focussed on my staff.
B-L-A-S-T: 5 Steps to building instead of breaking relationships
A colleague’s young daughter once told her mother that the principal just sits in her office waiting for trouble. It can feel like that sometimes (except we don’t have to wait…)
In a customer-centric world, it’s hard to negotiate the displeasure of those we intend to serve, especially when they may even be mistaken, wrong, or downright unfair in their complaints.
Albert Barneto is an entrepreneur who started in the restaurant business and makes his money now ‘Creating online tools for entrepreneurs and small business owners to reach, grow, and cultivate their customer base,’ according to his bio. In English, that means he knows how to work with clients and serve them well. We can certainly learn from him in the education space, which more and more needs to become more ‘customer’ focussed.
His manner of addressing customer complaints in the business world (using the acronym BLAST) is effective in dealing with both parent complaints, staff grievances and learner conflicts in schools.
BLAST stands for:
B – elieve
L – isten
A – pologise
S – atisfy
T – hank
When that parent storms into your office, or a staff member cracks up in front of you, or a student brings a complaint to you, it’s never a convenient time and often you don’t necessarily have reason to entertain the matter they raise with you because you may consider it somehow lacking in legitimacy.
And yet, the first thing you must do is believe them. Someone who is angry enough to raise a concern believes there is cause enough, whether they are flat out wrong, or not, and has a right to be there. Other conflict management processes use the LAST concept, but most exclude the ‘B’ which is sad, because it excludes the reason behind why one would do the rest.
People speak about attributes like empathy as ‘soft skills,’ but ensuring you believe the complainant actually leads to the rest. You see if you have enough appreciation for how the other feels, then half the job is done, because they will know you understand them. Believe the emotions: believe the anger; and attempt to see what lies beneath it and then you will see the matter from their point of view. That’s a strength – no ‘soft’ involved
Back in the day, in an old episode of Suits (before Meghan Markle dropped them for her real prince) Donna, the actual star of that show (because she is redhead-fabulous), tells the IT guy that the ‘key to having empathy is making people feel supported in their feelings, not just trying to solve their problems.’ ‘Platitudes,’ she said, just won’t do. Believing someone involves really seeing them.
And you can’t know and understand them, unless you have truly listened to their story. Often, I know what’s coming in a complaint because someone else may have alerted me already to the problem, but it’s important to hear it from the person who is actually affected. The temptation to form a conclusion before they have aired their views must be overcome if I am to truly listen.
I worked once for a headmaster who took the side of the first person who approached him with a problem, and that became his viewpoint. You can imagine how that lead balloon went down with people with genuine grievances.
Part of listening is waiting out the venting, (sometimes) swearing, and even personal attacks, and not defending or justifying whatever the school is accused of doing/not doing. At this point in the conversation, it is not a good idea to share your own problems, or make excuses. ‘What can I do for you?’ is the only approach to take.
Don’t ever rush such a meeting. In order to get to the heart of the problem (and yes, there is a problem if someone is upset) you have to take time to hear them out. I usually warn parents that I am taking notes so that I can fully understand them; otherwise I face them, make eye contact and generally make sure my body language is not conveying that I am closed to their concerns (no crossed arms). Ask questions (not loaded ones) for clarification; otherwise just let them speak.
One way of really listening is to re-state what you are hearing until the person acknowledges the statement with a ‘yes.’ (after you have listened without interrupting of course.) Sometimes that is all it takes. Sometimes a person just wants you to acknowledge what they are feeling. And you can’t know what that is unless you suspend disbelief in ‘your side’ of whatever is at issue.
And sometimes when you repeat their opinions to them, you’ll find you got it wrong, because perhaps you haven’t properly heard them. Don’t stop until they agree that you understand. That ‘yes’ is a magic point in the conflict – it is a signal they know have been heard.
I have a saying with my staff that ‘sometimes only grovel will do.’ Because sometimes things do go wrong, and people are human. We mess up. Lawyers will caution against apologising in certain circumstances, because that can be an admission of liability, but I must say that a sincere apology goes a long way compared to a refusal to take ownership of the issue. Sometimes an apology is simply an acknowledgement that we didn’t know.
Apologising is another way in which we acknowledge the reality of the other’s experience, even when (and especially when) they may have the facts wrong. I do not want anyone walking away from my school feeling let down.
There are times when that is not enough for some complainants, but at the very least, they can never say that ‘the school did not even apologise.’
I think it is important that we apologise to students when we let them down too. To me, modelling regret teaches young people that they are worthy as human beings to be treated well, and should also encourage them to practise penitence in their own lives. I have made a point of apologising to my own children when I have been in the wrong, especially when I have lost my %^$# with them (and there have been some choice moments with my beloved offspring, some even justified).
Some outdated thinking has apologising as a particularly loathsome form of losing face. I disagree. An apology restores dignity to the other, of course, but it does not reduce yours at all, not if you are a person who is genuinely humble.
If you have established enough of a rapport with your parents, staff or learners via the first few steps above, the next step, while possibly most difficult, should at least be easy to identify.
‘How would you like to see this resolved?’ or ‘What can we do to fix this?’ are good questions to ask of the disappointed party in front of you. If you have carefully addressed the emotions of the person, they should not be demanding unreasonable public-hanging sort of solutions, and you should be able to generate a way forward together.
If they do insist on something that is not possible, they should be receptive to an alternative solution. If the problem is a systemic one, inviting them onboard to partner with the school in addressing the matter is also a way forward.
With youngsters, as with adults, the solution needs to address the emotion that has been generated as much as it responds to the crisis that caused it. A child upset over a low mark may express anger at an educator, but the underlying emotion of fear of failure for example must also be unpacked so that another critical moment does not occur later on.
Sometimes you can’t solve the problem, but note that this stage of conflict resolution is not called ‘solve.’ It is called ‘satisfy’ so that you can reach a mutually satisfactory resolution, because it may be that the problem is a consequence of an event or law that is beyond your control, or something caused by external forces, or could be an historical event which may even predate your presence in the institution. The way forward should be the focus of this step.
It is important to indicate clearly what you may be unable to fix in order to prevent further conflict down the line when expectations are not met. For example, you cannot allow parent presence in a disciplinary action against an employee or someone else’s child; nor can you expel or fire someone at the mere say-so of an aggrieved parent. Various acts of parliament preclude such actions, as well as information sharing. You can promise that the matter will be investigated and limited feedback given following the investigation. This is especially important if bullying of any kind is alleged.
Manoeuvring around in this legal space requires a delicate touch because all sorts of rights come into play, but don’t shy away from explaining clearly what you can and can’t do. And then ensure that you follow up regularly so that they do not feel as if the matter has been swept under the carpet. Often when a parent’s complaint results in disciplinary action of some kind, the focus automatically shifts onto the alleged perpetrator and is no longer directed at the alleged victim. Both sides need to be looked after throughout what can be a long process. It can be like walking on eggshells, but one must never forget the original, aggrieved person. Otherwise, you may feel the matter was dealt with, especially when there are extreme outcomes for the accused, but you could end up losing the whistle blower as well because of lack of appropriate feedback.
Sometimes the incident being brought to your attention is in fact not the real issue at all. It may be something deeper or even unconnected. (That’s why you have to listen for what lies at the heart of their disenchantment).
I shall never forget engaging with a learner who was repeatedly late for school and had been giving those on late duty a hard time about this being recorded. In the course of unpacking his fury at the matric learner recording his tardiness, I discovered that there was a special needs child in the home who frequently held up the family departure with unavoidable tantrums. His defiance was a projection of his frustration with his young brother. Not only could we engage in other ways to address the latecoming, we were able to get him the emotional support he needed as a sibling of a child with a disability. And that was actually way more important.
Always end an encounter with annoyed stakeholders by thanking them (in fact when I present this method to staff, I sometimes call it T-BLAST: start and end with thanks. Thank the disgruntled before you do anything. ‘Thanks for coming’ shows you welcome the concern and communicates your openness to consult.)
Thanking the person for raising the issue, even after it is resolved, shows you value their contribution. And you should…. Even if they are dead wrong or really irritating, they have had the confidence in you to come to you, and in these days of Social Media Complaints Departments, that is a mark of faith in you. Thank them for that.
Then ensure you keep your word. That way you will earn their trust again.
And make sure you have a good way to let off your own steam safely. Absorbing other people’s stress can suck the spirit out of you.
A tribute to the staff of my school and all teachers around the globe:
A few weeks ago, I started a post called, ‘A Fly on the wall in a Lockdown Classroom.’ It was a reboot of an article entitled, ‘A Fly on the wall of a 21st Century Classroom,’ which I had started just a week before we shut the schools due to COVID-19.
Now the buzz word being flown around by that pesky flying insect is ‘hybrid education’ and the ones swatting it like Novak Djokovic on steroids (before he messed up and infected a bunch of people at a poorly screened tournament) are the neglected heroes: teachers.
You know, even when I studied (one hundred years ago) lecturers were warning us that ours was the ‘Cinderella’ profession. Yet the problem is educators don’t seem to even have a chance to dance with a prince these days. And I think the attractively-challenged siblings of the fairy tale are all the more set to spoil their day; yet our pedagogues are cleaning more chimneys and firesides than ever as they put the shine on the nation’s youth.
Let’s recap: in March this year, before the world locked itself away, 21st century skills consisted of technology in (some) classrooms, depending on the status of the school in this unequal world, and an effort to develop the 6 C’s of education.
We were toying with the concept of allowing students to tune in from home if they were sick, because we had the infrastructure at our school, but it was more like a well-fed house-cat toys with a beetle, than an alley cat going after a dozing bird. There was no real need; no hunger. Sure, we thought it was a good idea, but there were problems – other more pressing needs; no data on how parents would respond; educators’ core beliefs that we function best in person (and by ‘we’ I mean teachers and learners – I still believe that btw); teacher reluctance to ‘perform’ live online; additional technologies needed; teachers’ online skills; data costs; learner connectivity (The digital divide is still a major impediment: in India, for example, only 8% of schoolchildren have internet and a device at home; it’s not much better in South Africa at 11%) …the list goes on. Factor into this, that educators, as low-end income professionals themselves, do not necessarily have uncapped internet or data at home.
But there was a trend towards online learning and homeschooling among the middle class because of the increased focus on the individual and scorn for mass education. And independent schools were starting to see that exodus, a trickle sure, but it was there.
Then COVID-19 happened.
And global Lockdown.
And all hesitations were swept off the table like the victims of an angry politician.
And ‘Cinderellas’ all over the world stepped up to the new job. Our teachers spent the April holidays cramming remote learning strategies; necessity being a far better IT peer coach than any school or corporate programme to upskill staff. They did it on their own (unless they were lucky enough to be a part of a larger organization, like the group of schools we belong to), in their own time and in some schools, or countries, at their own expense. And they didn’t go to the ball with a handsome prince; they sat at their laptops and studied and then delivered, at times rewarded merely by the criticism of parents who saw only the tip of the work-iceberg and thought the live online hours were ‘all teachers were doing’; spending hours playing IT techie to get children connected and as usual going above and beyond. They shed the Cinders’ rags, suited up and cloaked themselves like the heroes they are. No need for a saviour prince swooping in to the rescue. They went from fireside to frontline IT gurus in a few days.
And they stayed on track with the curriculum, like models on the catwalk, who maintain their sashay, despite losing a heel.
Some schools in our group even turned into factories using 3D printing to produce shields for healthcare workers and for our own staff.
Then the presidents and health authorities unlocked our front doors and school gates and we came back to school. Now that ‘fly on the wall’ sits there watching half a class of masked teens and small children while teachers go back to their natural environment without the physical structures 21st century skills flourish in. No more learning hubs with groups huddled together to problem solve. Our youngsters sit in rows now to ensure social distancing like a throwback to old fashioned, industrial revolution-style regimentation. We do have fun wriggling eyebrows to communicate, trying to be heard via accents, masks and shields like medieval fighters. But we can’t hug them or see them properly so teachers develop robot systems to gauge comfort levels and wellness. We’re using sign language to communicate.
Imagine being able to look over a doctor’s shoulder or peer into a lawyer’s inner sanctum while she works? Or hang onto an accountant’s every telephone call? That’s how teachers work in the hybrid environment: live on TV with all their vulnerability and privacy on display to every parent (some even interrupt their lessons (I kid you not). A few years ago educators would have been up in arms about having cameras in their classes for this reason. Now we’ve put them live on TV and they’ve adapted. What heroes! It gives ‘a fly on the wall’ a whole new meaning.
A note of concern here is the vulnerability of learners as well in this exposed environment where any parent in the class could theoretically be watching from their work or home computer. We may need to consider only posting recorded videos of lessons, even though it would mean that those at home with health concerns would not be able to connect live. If we regulate anything after the COVID crisis abates, we should consider this carefully. Classrooms are safe places where an element of intimacy and trust needs to exist between teacher and learner. There is something voyeuristic about the possibility of this unseen audience at home. As much as we can continue to teach like this ad infinitum and it will be of great benefit going forward for housebound learners to connect remotely, this should be judiciously used in the long term in order to preserve the sanctity of that classroom relationship.
The remote and online spaces have blurred the boundaries even further for teachers who battle to say no at the best of times and educators are finding themselves assisting learners late into the early hours of the morning, especially in cases where children only have access to data during off-peak hours (read; middle of the night). And they do that because they care. It’s that simple.
And as the online-classroom-hybrid term draws to a close, for those whose schools are lucky enough to be taking a breather, our study superheroes are tired. Deep, in-your-spirit exhausted – so that forcing yourself out of bed is an act of sheer courage.
And they still arrive at school this week to motivate their equally stressed and fatigued students with smiles of greeting, with a Monty Pythonish ‘expect the unexpected’ mindset as they adapt… because teachers refuse to be beaten by a wee virus.
So when you see such a masked and caped classroom hero, do not even dare to breathe a critique that they are taking 5 days off (instead of the usual 15 at this time of year). They worked every single day of lockdown even though the schools were closed. Salute them – they have prevailed and will live to fight another term soon, armed with so much knowledge and experience gained, they could write a book… if they had the time!. Because of them the next generation will not be found lacking. Respect is due.
Forget the glass slippers of Cinderella – just bring them fluffy slippers to match their gossamer capes (They are elegant still, despite their paralysing tiredness) …and chocolate and wine…Teachers like wine.
I have been enthralled by the series Billions over the last week or so. For those who haven’t seen it on DSTV or Showmax, it’s a series in which a ruthlessly flawed hedge fund manager is pitched against an equally determined and unrelenting US States Attorney.
Now, far be it for me as a liberal arts major to fully understand the intricacies of the stock markets and the algorithms and economic sleights of hand that go with it. But I have certainly been learning about shorting stocks and going long on information both in the public domain and info obtained via devious means.
This series though, like all shows about people in professional positions like lawyers, doctors, the press and politicians, is about people. It reveals the nuanced protagonists as both heroic and venal; yet their decisions and maneuvering are motivated by personal interest before all else.
What has struck me, with this production, is that it suggests that once you have suspended your faith and desire for honest justice, situational ethics, guilt and desire and the balancing of favours seem to operate in this society as a more powerful currency than the ‘mighty dollar.’
How true is that in the ‘real’ world, I wonder. Well, I have certainly seen what one of the Billions characters, Brian Connerty, calls ‘political fluidity’ in operation in life, sometimes in places you’d least expect it. That’s one of the reasons I like the group of schools I work in. I respect the person in charge as one of integrity. And that makes all the difference.
The characters in this series are in so many ways morally bankrupt, despite their billions. Their honour is as fake as John Malkovitch’s Russian accent. As much as everyone on the planet ultimately sees themselves as the hero in their own story, moral turpitude is all too often downplayed when people’s personal interests collide with doing the right thing.
And it’s so simple to choose expedience before integrity. Because it’s easier. How tempting it is to give a glowing reference to a person one wants to encourage to leave; how easy to overlook malfeasance in someone one feels sorry for, or bend the rules for someone you like. It’s jolly hard to be fair to everyone. I have sleepless nights sometimes trying to decide the fairest way to treat people. But, I have to live with the choices I make and face myself in the mirror.
Billions explores loyalty and betrayal and assumes everyone is guilty of something. And that is certainly true. All people are flawed in some way. The characters in the show leverage the peccadillos of the players, even those close to them, to wield power. And I guess that’s what it comes down to, far more than money: power.
I am glad I don’t live and work in that sort of wild west, but every institution has the potential to be run like that: using and trading on secrets and inside information and pitting people against each other and the worst of moral ambiguity: rationalizing it as being ‘for the best,’ the end justifying the means. It’s hard to be a straight arrow, but I think it’s important to be honest, especially to myself.
Like the traders and lawyers on Billions, the temptations remain in any institution, because when you have authority over people there is always the possibility for corruption and pursuing self-interest above what is right.
So, we must guard against it. Transparency and honesty are essential. Knowing what is right is important. A moral compass and careful adherence to the core of an organisation’s ethos keeps you on the straight and narrow. In some faith-based schools, there is a position dedicated to such oversight. In many cases it doesn’t have enough teeth, but it is one way of keeping a school on course.
A leadership team that is allowed, and in fact encouraged, to challenge the leader on matters of moral direction is also important. Good advisors are invaluable. I am lucky. I have such a team.
And I’ll keep rooting for those with a conscience, even on television shows, if I can find them.
Besides, no one can actually spend billions and there is no price on peace of mind.
“Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect.”
‘Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.’
The Western Cape is no longer testing patients who present with flu-like symptoms. So sick people have to assume they have COVID-19 until they are well and are often quarantined for up to 14 days, even though they only have normal flu, because those other nasty germs haven’t gone away because Big Brother Corona is on the rampage.
Consequently, a week or so ago, we had so many facilities staff members absent and booked off for a significant period that we were forced to contract with a cleaning company for a few days, for additional staff to ensure the school was clean, given all the additional hygiene routines that are required with the new protocols connected to protecting our school community from the COVID-19 virus.
Although this was mentioned to a small group of staff, the reasons behind the move were not understood or properly explained (I realise now) to the staff in all three schools on campus. The next week we began hearing rumours that our facilities staff were looking into signing up with unions and there appeared to be general unrest on the staff, which surprised me because we have had a peaceable, open relationship with our staff in the time I have been at the school. It was only at a routine meeting a few days later that one employee eventually spoke up and asked, ‘What is this with these other cleaners?’
In a moment of clarity, I saw the cause of the misconception. The staff thought we were planning to outsource our cleaning function permanently. Fortunately, I was able to explain the misunderstanding easily enough and reassure them that their jobs were safe, and our institution’s relationships returned to normal. However, I realized then how a simple misunderstanding can have massive consequences whether at work or at home. Trust takes ages to build up and one miscommunication or misunderstanding can destroy it.
In other news, my child who shall remain anonymous, was instructed last week to give away packets of old clothes I’d collected from the early days of lockdown when I was gung ho about tidying. ‘But not the coats and evening dresses in the cupboard,’ I said (several times). Needless to say, I got home on Friday to find the entire cupboard bare of not just the old clothes but all my winter and evening wear.
What I learned from these two experiences were the following three things:
Communication is so important – and, as leaders we should consider in advance how decisions may appear, in order to forestall possible panic (not to mention losing one’s coats).
Honesty and transparency are essential for trust.
Get the whole story.
Fact check everything – surely Trump’s aversion to the truth has taught us that!
Apologise when you break rules one to three.
And forgive others when they get things wrong.
If only characters like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello, to name but a few of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes had had the benefit of hindsight and an opportunity to make good. Then again, what the appearance-reality theme illustrates in so many of his plays is precisely how ruinous misunderstandings can be.
The magnitude of Shakepeare’s genius is in his depiction of the genuine human condition. Unfortunately, we often react (and overreact too) before checking whether we have been properly informed. It’s not necessarily the equivocations of our enemies which cause such misunderstandings, it has also happened that major events in history have resulted from misinterpretations caused by mistranslations:
Did you know that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, because of a mistranslation of the Japanese word ‘mokusatu’ (‘We withhold comment’) as ‘We are treating your message with contempt’ (in response to ‘Will you surrender?’). You’d think they would have checked such a thing, but President Truman essentially ordered the deaths of a quarter of a million people because of that!
History is littered with such poor translations, from Krushchev’s Russian as more threatening than he was being, to the Maori’s being shafted at Waitangi by the Brits. Mars was identified as potentially having intelligent life after the ‘canali’ (which an Italian astronomer mapping the planet’s ‘seas, channels, continents’ called them) were translated into English as ‘canals.’
We all know about the concept of ‘broken telephones’ where hearers repeat a story slightly differently each time in the retelling, sometimes to the point that the original meaning is completely distorted. It’s how rumours spread and very few check with the original speaker to corroborate the accuracy of what has been quoted.
‘Nice guys finish last’ is a misrepresentation of what a baseball manager (Leo Durocher) actually said and Sherlock Holmes never said, ‘Elementary, dear Watson.’ Nobody says, ‘Play it again, Sam’ in Casablanca. The much-maligned Marie Antoinette probably never said ‘Let them eat cake (‘gateau’)’ although the person who did, used the word ‘brioche’ which is a type of bread enriched with butter and eggs so the intention was the same, but still.
One has to ask how many men have felt encouraged to explore their baser instincts because of that inaccurate reflection of Leo Durocher, who was not encouraging negative behaviour when he pondered aloud that an opposing team had really ‘nice guys in it.’ How many patronising mansplainings or putdowns have concluded with ‘Elementary, my dear Watson?’ I wonder how many wannabe seduction moments have included the faux quote from Casablanca.
Sometimes of course misunderstandings are just incorrect use of grammar: Neil Armstrong’s famous ‘one small step for man; a giant leap for mankind’ is nonsensical and should have been ‘one small step for A man; a giant leap for mankind.’
Computer algorithms are not exempt. The Mariner 1 crash in 1962 was caused by a missing overbar (a small line placed above script). I wonder if that’s what happens to the bank code when I use my card at the grocery store?…
One of the problems facing educators in this Age of Corona teaching is the inability to read the faces of our students, because of the mandatory, ubiquitous masks. Unless a person has extremely expressive eyebrows, has expressive forehead furrows, or crinkles their eyes up when they smile, it’s really hard to know what they are thinking and we cannot tell how they are feeling. Since relationships are so important to us in education, I think it’s time we encourage bushy eyebrow exercises in Life Orientation classes to accommodate the need to project and interpret brow gymnastics.
Life is so fraught with miscommunication, one could be forgiven for feeling paralysed by indecision at times. Take marriage for instance, where we often end up in arguments over silly misunderstandings. But there is another way to look at it: in the words of Oscar Wilde,
‘The proper basis for marriage is mutual misunderstanding.’
The Maestro thinks I’m beautiful – I’m going with that…
Aristotle believed that there are seven causes for the changes in human behaviour.
COVID-19 has certainly been a major disrupter. I saw a TED Talk once about how to form positive habits in just 30 days. So, I thought, ‘Ok I shall make some positive changes while we’re incarcerated at home.’ Some have been good changes; others… through no fault of mine, I declare… not so much.
This is what has changed since lockdown for me:
1. I’m writing
On the plus side, I am writing again every day, which is for me like going to gym…without the gym. I feel rejuvenated afterwards, and it’s fun.
I have ring-fenced me-time slightly better, although I can see this resolution slipping since the return to school process has started. I have enjoyed getting more sleep than usual and hope that I can try to limit the number of nights I burn the midnight oil.
Traffic is better -I am hoping that more companies have realized that they can in fact trust their administrators to work from home. Please. I’d like to be able to sail through as we are able to do now – gives me an extra 15 minutes sleep every morning.
Unfortunately, I have given up reading books temporarily. Well of course that’s because the library is closed and I just cannot do online books. Not with our wifi. Just when you get to the end of a page or an exciting part of the narrative, damned if it freezes and then when it finally reloads it’s back at the point you were when you picked it up. And it’s hard to get quality books for free on the internet, and I just can’t get myself to spend money on a book which I am only going to read once. I’m tightfisted like that. Having said that, If I can solve my data issues, this could be a revolutionary change in my life.
5. My car is dirty
This is a sad story. Car washes are not yet open so picture my excitement when the oil change light came on. ‘Oh good,’ I thought, ’I can get my car cleaned at last.’ Not so lucky: the service centre was operating on skeleton staff and so no non-essential stuff (like car valeting apparently) was happening.
I got even though. Unintentionally I swear…
After dropping off my car and having to rope in my husband to transport me further, I received a call informing me I’d been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 (Fortunately all is now well with said-person, so I can tell this story). As a good citizen, I now needed to inform the garage that there was a chance that I had contracted the virus and that I’d send in my husband to collect my car later. Well they weren’t having any of that – they delivered the car, hooted and left the keys on the roof… It was a little disconcerting I must say, although I can totally understand their temerity to come anywhere near me, but it did make me think I should buy a bell while I was out having a COVID test so I could yell ‘unclean’ as I walked. Of course, I didn’t need to …I was driving for one, and secondly my car was also still ‘unclean.’
Not even all this rain has sorted it out.
I guess I could wash the car myself; but, well…perish the thought.
Spending so much time at home has made me realise how inhospitably cold it is in our house, so I have allowed the heaters to go on. We’re spending a fortune on electricity, but it is so cosy – at least we shall be warm and poor.
7. Grocery Shopping
… because we are going to be poor. Has anyone else found they are spending so much more on food? My grocery bill has skyrocketed with all of us at home constantly. I used to be able to buy clothes every month. No more. I’m barely breaking even. Now it’s biscuits and chocolate and other exotic snacks I don’t usually buy, along with fancy juices and lots of everything in case we need to hunker down again… And that darling little suit I nipped into Zara to purchase just before lockdown, is never going to fit me now!
Education will never be the same again. There will be a clear BC (before Corona) and AV (After Vaccine) in the timelines of every organization. At this stage, at my school, we are adjusting to a hybrid form of teaching and learning with some learners and others logging onto our livestreams from home. With no gatherings in the immediate future, events like valedictory and matric dances present real challenges, which we shall have to meet with some creativity. The coronavirus has single celled dragged us into the 21st century technology-wise and that’s a good thing, but I am sad to see us reverting to industrial-age rows in an effort to social-distance and losing the collaborate hubs we were using. We have to be creative about that too going forward.
I just hope that all the positive changes that have taken place in our society, like appreciating medical staff more than celebrities, lower data costs, families revelling in their home activities and banks being kinder on debt repayments, will remain, but I fear that once things return to some semblance of normalcy I fear that selfishness and sloth will return… just as the urge to exercise has diminished now that it is no longer forbidden fruit to jog.
I’ll leave you to decide which of the above changes fall under each of Aristotle’s headings. But, no matter the cause behind the positive changes at least, it is definitely time to turn some into excellence:
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.”
The Dalai Lama was once asked if he could reduce the essence of all that is common to major religions into one word, and legend has him saying that that word is ‘compassion.’
This has stayed with me for a long time and underpinned what I find so powerful in my own faith. It’s something others have shown to me and which, as I grow older and hopefully a bit wiser, I am growing to see as singularly important in my dealings with others.
It requires a gentleness and empathy and a slowness of pace, a giving of your time to someone else’s world. And compassion defined as ‘feeling with’ another, an entering into someone else’s suffering.
Here are some things I have learned about compassion:
1. Compassion upholds the dignity of another
If you treat people with mercy and gentleness, you have recognized the humanity in each. It gives life to the Hindu greeting of ‘Namaste,’ (The sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.) It’s saying, ‘I see you’ when an individual may be feeling invisible.
2. Suffering can increase your compassion
The more hurt, grief, betrayal, penury and bullying you endure, the greater the potential for deepening your own compassion.
After my mother died I became intensely aware of how desperate people can feel when they lose someone they love and I became much better at helping my students and their parents (and indeed my own friends) through their times of grief.
When my first marriage broke up, I became more understanding of the aching paralysis experienced when one stands bereft of the love of your life and its meaning, not to mention the poverty that often accompanies betrayal and abandonment.
I’ve survived toxic work environments and determined never to pit employees against each other and always to remember that staff members are human beings, not numbers to discard on a whim. I have seen both in various settings.
Recognizing the humanity in other people actually allows you to forgive your enemies because when you imagine them as suffering fellow travelers in life, it’s easier to let go of hurt.
3. You need to have an imagination
The Age of Corona has heightened the need for both empathy and compassion for people we’ve never met. I must care about people I don’t know. I must imagine what situation that person in the shop is going home to and be moved to wear my mask properly, stay on my own jolly decal on the floor and sanitize, not to mention refrain from going out when I’m sick. (Of course understanding how others may feel can lead to unnecessary guilt in an empathetic person. The other day, I had a tickle in my nose from my allergies, not the virus, in the queue at Woolworths, and had an urgent need to sneeze, but for the first time in 55 years, I swallowed the sneeze in terror that I would be thrown out of the store or lynched by fellow shoppers.) But I digress…
There is a huge need for the gentleness of compassion in this time when people are struggling with anxiety and when many are staring financial ruin in the face. It’s tempting to respond to outbursts from other people with our own annoyance in equal measure, but trying to recognize that they are just projecting their own fears onto you, helps you keep your temper and soak up their rage.
4. Compassion isn’t a feeling, it is a conscious decision.
Compassion is love in action. Therefore, it can be learned. It’s no good knowing something or feeling sorry for someone. Compassion requires the devotee to reach out to someone to help. Don’t feel bad that someone has been retrenched; buy them groceries.
5. COMPASSION DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN necessarily FIX things.
This may seem to gainsay the previous point, but sometimes you can’t fix someone else’s problem; sometimes things are beyond fixing. But the compassionate person is the one who sits and passes the tissues as the sufferer cries her way through her grief or becomes the kitchen help when there is a death in the family and just makes the tea for all the visitors. If I think of the people who heard me vent over the years about things they had not control over, who heard me say the same angry words over and over until I had expunged the ache, I am so grateful to have been blessed to have such friends.
It may be that you have to be a firm presence and not help even when you could, in order to empower someone needing to grow. Again compassion doesn’t prevent you doing this gently. One of my teachers who had the greatest impact on me when my parents divorced and I was acting out (Mrs Paveley at Springfield Convent Junior School back in 1976) held me to account for my cheeky behaviour, but understood and acknowledged (if a little gruffly, as was her way) that I was hurting. That’s all it took. I would have walked through fire for her afterwards and I cleaned up my act very quickly. And I never forgot.
6. Some people in business think compassion is a weakness
This annoys me no end. Just as hardened business consultants will pooh pooh qualities like good communication as ‘soft skills,’ they will also see a focus on people, as distracting when it comes to making ‘those tough decisions for the good of the business.’ And that’s rubbish.
It takes great emotional strength to put your own feelings aside and cross a psychological ravine to connect with another human being.
A compassionate person might need to make decisions which affect people negatively, but they can either find people-friendly solutions or manage the situation in such a way that the person involved maintains his dignity. Richard Branson says ‘Look after your staff and they will look after your customers.
In the end compassion makes us better humans:
“There is a nobility in compassion, a beauty in empathy, a grace in forgiveness.”