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The new normal

| October 30, 2020 | 0 Comments

BY GAVIN THOMSON

The day after the lockdown announcement is broadcast, without fully comprehending the consequences, you absentmindedly join the throng of panic purchasers.

You seize anything within arm’s reach in an attempt to stock up on every imaginable variety of frozen and tinned food for the 21-day mandatory stay-at-home. You wonder how effective you will be at surviving with your family for days on end. A curt ‘That is two thousand seven hundred and forty-six rand, sir!’ snaps you back into reality, and you wonder how five plastic bags of groceries are going to feed a family of four for three weeks.

The rapid manner in which the virus infiltrates the lives of people and captures entire nations, seemingly overnight, is breathtaking. Media unleashes frightening images of an apocalyptic doomsday outcome.

Once you settle your children in bed, your mind is bombarded with thoughts and questions: what digital platform you are going to use, do the pupils all have unlimited data and connectivity and how will your teachers assess the work? You haphazardly search the plethora of educational websites that have materialised overnight on your smartphone. Your laptop alerts you to another incoming mail from the head of academics that requires an immediate response.

Day three lockdown

On day three of the lockdown, you shift your office to the couch. Now you can keep one eye on the television as the death toll reaches cataclysmic levels in Europe. Life is going to be equally calamitous for you if you do not get a grip on Zoom, Google Classroom and every other digital platform prior to the next conference call.

You have completed two worksheets, but secretly admit that this will not keep your class busy for a week. Mrs Jones will threaten not to pay her daughters’ school fees due to your pathetic standard and amount of work distributed.

Day six lockdown

On day six, you shut down the news channels, revert to Netflix and focus on something absolute such as life, the importance of truth and faith in God. You simplify, narrow your focus and attempt to bring order into your rapidly diminishing world while endeavouring to be a model citizen and staying at home to assist in ‘flattening the curve’. However, you seem powerless to stem the rising emotional stress of living and never leaving work to go home; it’s a life akin to that of a battery hen sharing a coop with three other people whom you, a few days earlier, considered your family.

The first batch of work is sent to the pupils at remote learning stations and everyone is pleased with the novelty of having school at home. Pupils are cognitively engaged, and you are forgiven for your Zoom outburst. As you stretch out on your couch, you wonder how you are going to manage the new future. How are you going to amend your teaching style, and how are you going to ensure that pupils have the necessary skills to cope in the next grade? You drift off into a pea-soup-thick academic fog.

What was an old, familiar and predictable school system has evaporated like mist before the rising of the sun, to be replaced by an alien educational landscape. Rules and expectations have changed, and we feel that we have to learn to walk by ourselves.

Social contact so crucial

What is distressing is not curriculum content moving onto a digital platform, but the pupils who are now stripped of the all-important emotional bonding with an inspiring role model. We can all recall teachers from our past who positively impacted our lives through their example, a motivating or uplifting word at the right time, that eyeball contact – which spoke a thousand words with one glare – that we were on thin ice. We respected the teacher who you would never disappoint because they understood you; they read your mind, they connected emotionally and unfailingly brought the best out of you.

The pupils’ social connectivity and networking skills have fragmented life: previous generations remember that life’s key lessons were more often learnt through experiences on the playground and on the sports field – through the scrapes and tears, the disappointment at losing one’s favourite marbles or the sports match, the pride of winning and being told by the coach to be humble, the consideration of who to choose as your friends, the overcoming of something you thought you could not achieve, auditioning and being selected for the choir, working together as a team, never giving up against the odds, leaving your lunchbox at home and starving for the day. All of this vital social foundation and learning is gone.

You sit in the autumn sunshine on your backdoor step, together with your faithful Labrador, while your kids play peacefully in the mud and you muse over the new educational dispensation. Will all the pupils return to school after lockdown? How many parents have lost their jobs and income? Will I be paid a salary? Will some of my fellow teachers and parents die during this pandemic? How will we restore the school ethos?

No more time for musing

You are interrupted by your kids running mud into the house, your phone vibrates and the message is from the father of little Mathilda, the delicate girl with the shy smile who sits in the front row of your classroom. The Angel of Death has stopped over their home and she has lost her mom to the virus. There are no answers.

There are no answers, but there is opportunity. You will phone Mathilda’s dad and deliver a message of hope and courage. You will not return to normal; instead, you will be part of creating a new educational normal and an optimistic future for Mathilda… and for all your pupils and parents.

Anyone can unpack a curriculum in a classroom or on a digital platform, but great teachers are those who use opportunities and teachable moments to connect and expand their pupils’ depth of knowledge and understanding of the meaning of life – they unlock, mould and shape the dreams of countless pupils.

There is a newfound respect and appreciation materialising for teachers during this lockdown. Post this period, there will be an eagerness among the children to return to school; not because of the curriculum, but because they have a deep need to reconnect with their friends, on the one hand, and on the other hand, with the great teachers at their schools – those exceptional adults who understand pupils’ strengths, fears and feelings; inspirational teachers who will provide pupils with the guiding principles, show them the way, rekindle hope and unleash their spiritual potential so that they will succeed in the new world that awaits.

Be a ladder, not a leader

And so, in this time of grappling with this major transition, we pray over all our educators:
The Lord bless you and keep you
Make his face to shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn his face to you
And give you peace.

Gavin Thomson is the principal of Victory Christian School in Jeffrey’s Bay in the Eastern Cape.

Category: Spring 2020

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