Can we talk ourselves out of despair this term?

Blind optimism helps no one – but could we see this term as an adventure rather than a tragedy, asks Patrick Moriarty
4th January 2021, 2:13pm
Patrick Moriarty


Can we talk ourselves out of despair this term?
Coronavirus & Schools: We Need To Try & View This Term As An Adventure Rather Than A Tragedy, Says This Headtecher

It's a new year and a new term, and I am determined to be positive. Optimism may be too much to expect, in the short term at least, but I am firmly resolved to be hopeful. Come with me, and let's roll with the waves.

Hope treads the line between looking flatly at the evidence (risking demotivation or despair) or using it as a launch pad for a flight of fancy (risking delusion and false expectation). Neither is helpful, hence the need for a middle way: positive but realistic, upbeat but pragmatic, heeding the facts but with the best spin we can muster. I know you're tired…but can we just try?

I'm writing this article to the accompaniment of section 44 letters arriving in my inbox, as colleagues remind me of their right to a safe working environment and inform me that they don't believe schools currently cut it.

I know not to take these letters personally, but just to reassure me, several colleagues have taken the trouble to thank me for all the steps we've taken to keep them safe. I'm thankful, in return, that I have an intelligently unionised staff team. And thankful is good, right - can we build on that?

Coronavirus: Finding a way forward for schools

I am thankful, too, that I'm not a primary or special-school headteacher trying to do face-to-face teaching in my school this week - either outside the contingency framework area or within that area - because every family entitled to a key-worker place has requested one, so 80 per cent of the pupils are in school, anyway.

I am thankful that my own children are schooled within that area, so that, as a parent, I have some certainty about the week ahead. OK, I'm not everyone, but…stay positive, remember?

Perhaps those section 44 letters are a sign of convergence in the coming weeks, love letters in a courtship between policy and pragmatism. It could be a match made in heaven, when unions and ministers have so much in common: a desire to keep schools open and pupils learning, an acknowledgement that the virus does little harm to children, an acceptance that tougher measures - even closures - may be necessary. Stay with me...but could this be beautiful? 

We could see it as a dance: unions leading with the, um, right foot forwards, ministers picking up the cue, until joyfully we join in smooth moves that are ordered, energetic, joyful. Schools could provide remote learning for a few weeks, and so avoid having to do it for longer later. We could work together to keep learning safe as well as productive. What do you say to giving it a try? 

We could use that experience of choreographing lesson changes within bubbles to create new routines. The CAGs chacha, for instance, where we decide together and with immaculate timing that exams aren't going to work this year - without bickering about what anyone said six months ago, or what other countries have decided - and proceed with elegant, fluid steps.

Many marriages succeed on the basis that one partner gets their way by persuading the other that the great idea was really theirs all along. How about us?

Once we've mastered dancing, we could try singing: you say lateral-flow testing, I say lateral-flow screening, the difference being the degree of scientific accuracy needed for something to qualify as a "test". 

Whichever it is, let's not call the whole thing off: mass asymptomatic surveying has to be a good way forward. It has been a consistent request for months, necessary if not sufficient to generate the confidence required to keep schools open. Surely we can find common ground here?

Yes, it is logistically complex. Yes, there are issues of space, time and human resource. Yes, now you mention it, it may uncover so many cases that it creates an unsustainable demand and increases anxiety rather than reducing it. But can we call that being a victim of its own success - so everyone's a winner? Any chance of a little slack here…? No?

Showing positivity

Now, I admit that doggedly channelling Pollyanna for 700 words is quite draining. But, for all that, the attempt seems to me important. It requires an effort of will, but that doesn't mean it's inauthentic; it may sound playful, but that doesn't mean it's frivolous. Beneath it is some serious stuff. Ready?

First, resilient optimism is our moral duty as educators: we do it because we have to, but also because we know it works. However threadbare it may sometimes become, it is the foundation of society and the precondition for human flourishing.

Untethered optimism helps no one, and admitting brokenness and failure is essential when it's true. But we model positivity to our pupils because we believe in it. We have to keep believing in it now.

Second, if we feel frustrated and bewildered at present, that is how life feels a lot of the time to our pupils: endlessly challenging, often scary and depressing, a series of decisions that appear to ignore them or follow some malign agenda, leading towards a future they are not at all sure they believe in anyway. 

Our decisions look like that to our pupils, and we justify them by saying that we see a bigger picture. Perhaps this is a salutary lesson in how foolish positivity can sometimes look, which might help us understand more and communicate better.

Third, we will have more fun this term, and do our jobs better, if we can approach it as an adventure rather than a tragedy. Both involve pain, terror, uncertainty, and probably waste, tears and despair, too - and nothing should detract from the real suffering and cost involved. 

But let's frame it so as to leave space for the triumph of the human spirit. Let's design the narrative to let in laughter at the absurdities, rather than misery. 

It's good for us, it must be good for our pupils. And, in the end, rolling with the waves has to beat being swamped by them. I'm game; I hope you are. 

Patrick Moriarty is headteacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), in the London Borough of Barnet

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