By Anita Devi
I am grateful for the feedback, I had to Part 1 of this reflection piece. Leaders valued the list of questions and broader thinking. Many could see how, for the benefit of our learners and within a culture of high accountability, we can still capitalise on greater autonomous leadership, at local level. Key actions and announcements by national leaders have also helped me realise, we have different perspectives on the construct ‘rebuild’. In Part 2, I continue my thinking around the learners, the operational and the strategic. However, I begin, by defining ‘rebuild’.
Rebuild is NOT about going back to what was, but defining the new; something better that meets the needs of where we are, not where we were. I think we can all agree the experience of the pandemic (2020-21) crossing two academic years has changed us! In September 2020, speaking on a radio programme about ‘Returning to School’, I talked about the ‘spectrum of experience’. Lockdown and COVID19 may be part of the global vocabulary, but what they mean to each of us differs. At one end of the experience spectrum is a positive experience – we have learnt new things, had quality time with family, perhaps and embarked on new online adventures of connecting, to name a few. At the other end of the spectrum is bereavement, living in cramped conditions, no connection to people, no online access and so on. We’ve all experienced grief and loss, as I shared in Part 1. For most of us, our lockdown experience lies in the middle of the two extremes – we are weighing up multiple experiences and emotions, simultaneously. That’s taxing. I recall Easter 2020 vividly. That weekend, usually a joyous festival for my family and community – I was informed of a few teaching colleagues who had passed due to COVID19 and the death of a friend’s sister-in-law. Three months prior, this lady, a mother of two – she and I had been dancing at our friend’s 50th birthday party. Equally on Easter weekend, I had a lot of online laughs and helped another friend surprise his wife on date night, as she is a medical key worker. As Sunday night came to end, I was a bundle of emotions. That was just one weekend of the many over the last year. It’s been a real mix. I remember listening to a young man in America – during lockdown 1, he had lost 7 members of his family. We cannot discount the personalised experience individuals have had. The DfE guidance document on Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools (2018) would define the pandemic as an adverse childhood experience (ACE). As such, our response to the rebuild, has to bear all of this in mind.
I have already considered aspects of mental health in Part 1. In this section, I want us to focus on speaking and listening skills. These are the root for learning – developmentally and socially. Learning does not happen in isolation. In England, speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) has been a long-standing problem.
Source The Communication Trust
If you are interested in reading more on this, look up the reports A generation adrift (2013) and Talking about a generation (2017). Even the most conversant families have shared that communication during lockdown has been challenged because there is little or nothing new to talk about at the dinner table.
As educators, I do believe we have a responsibility to restore and develop skills of oral communication. This is a two-step process:
Step 1: Consider different strategies to integrate institution-wide approaches to metacognition. This is about giving learners a ‘language for learning’, so they can think and then talk about their learning. The Education Endowment Foundation website clearly demonstrates that this is a low-cost intervention, with a potential 7-month gain. The school year in England equates to 195 days. That equates to 39 weeks and just under 8 months. If metacognition recognises a 7-month gain, then surely an important part of the rebuild should include an intentional approach to metacognition. Questions I raise in Part 1 of this blog are a starting point.
Step 2: Investing time in speaking and listening and not placing an over emphasis on writing. Please do not mis-interpret what I am saying here. Writing is an important skill. However, individuals who think and speak with clarity often make the most effective writers. As a method of differentiation (high-quality teaching) the use of alternative method of recording has been considered a powerful tool for learners to demonstrate progress and achievement.
In 2010, The Communication Trust launched No Pens Day, now know as No Pens Wednesday. No Pens Day Wednesday encourages learners to put down their pens and pick up their language skills by spending one day focusing on learning through speaking and listening. You can find out more here and here. I’m certainly not advocating this as an everyday approach, but as a focus for returning to education in March 2021 or just after the Easter holidays, it would make for a way to get everyone talking and connecting. It’s a lot of fun too! Speaking gives a voice to the views, feelings and wishes of learners. Section 19 of the Children and Families Act 2014, makes this a statutory duty for us as educators.
It is the first day back – 8th March 2021: How are you going to greet your learners? Is it business as usual? Or is there a need to listen? I have been thinking about the power of stories and personal narratives. Each one of us is part of the COVID19 story. Each one of us played our part. In the classroom, how can we utilise these historical lived-out narratives (possibly intertwined with the curriculum) to create a broader picture of the community experience, at large.
I have trained several new teachers and those new to leadership, throughout the pandemic, as well as those more experienced. Whilst it is a challenging time to be in education, it is also an exciting time to be part of the rebuild. As educators, how much of our own story will we share?
In 2014, I was asked to sum up the SEND Reforms in one word. My word was: relationships. Research has shown time and time again, the heart of good teaching, that has impact, is ‘relationships’. The educator knowing not just their subject and effective pedagogy ,but knowing the learner too. It is the dynamic of these two that make the learning environment come to life. Therefore, as you start planning face-to-face lessons consider using a one-page profile person-centred tool. You can find out more here. Also think about the different ways to differentiate and personalise. Again, you can find out more here.
On a practical level, do look at the Public Health England (online course) on Psychological First Aid (PFA). This is a straightforward way of delivering psychosocial care in the immediate aftermath of emergencies, including infectious disease outbreaks.
In my own mind, I am clear on the strategic leadership and embedding an institution-wide ‘new’ culture. I led a roundtable with executive and senior leaders in education on this last week. I do not claim to have all the answers, but certainly the framework of thinking I shared resonated with leaders in the field. For this blog, however, I decided to revisit what the DfE has to say. I was delighted to note … remarkably like my thinking. In Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools (2018), it says (DfE, p9)
- Define the vision. As leaders, what is your vision going forward? What elements of pre-COVID19 will you keep? What elements of the pandemic experience will you sustain? How will these mesh together? To give an example, I know some schools are considering an onsite blended learning curriculum from September 2021. Recognition that online learning benefited some learners, due thought and consideration is being given to how this is fitted into the timetable. Other schools have taken onboard how at the start of Lockdown 1, they did not know if the parents of their children were key workers. These school leaders are looking into stronger home-school links. This is such an opportunity for us to learn from the past and build anew.
- Emphasis on positive mental wellbeing for all (DfE p9). Are there aspects of the organisation that lead to excessive stress for learners and staff? What can be changed or undertaken differently? How will high-quality teaching embrace a focus on positive mental wellbeing, not as an add-on, but a central theme for progress?
- Action 3 (DfE, p9) is a whole school approach to behaviour policy. Yet in the current political thinking, this has been placed as a priority. Can I be bold to say, what was before isn’t the same as is now! I agree, we need a behaviour policy, but equally we need to recognise the experience we have had. Behaviour (individual and collective) is born out of beliefs. Have the beliefs of our community and world changed, because of the pandemic? What impact will this have on our behaviours? I do advocate clarity on boundaries. However, COVID19 has blurred the distinction on boundaries and barriers. So collectively, we need to redefine (using a constructive theory of change) what we do and how. Prior to COVID19, the focus on behaviour was (or certainly appeared to be) from a place of coercion and bringing institutions into line. We are no longer in that space.
As learners return on 8th March 2021, reminding them and staff of the expected behaviours and boundaries is going to be vital. The question is how it is done, to have impact, whilst still being sensitive of individuals coming through, what for many has been a traumatic experience. Relationships of trust will need to be re-established. Plotting the academic calendar against the government’s four steps for coming out of lockdown is helpful for defining key time markers.
I started Part 1 with a quote from Nelson Mandela. I’ve been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela recently. Just over 30 years ago, he was released from a 27-year prison sentence, based on racial prejudice. On his release, in his first public speech, he cited a poem by Marianne Williamson called, “Our Deepest Fear”. This poem is from her book ‘Return to Love’ (Reflections & Principles of a Course in Miracles, 1976).
Born & brought up in London, I faced a fair amount of racial discrimination (overt & covert), during my childhood days. The ‘Our Deepest Fear’ poem had a significant impact on me, as a young adult at the time. It is something, I still revisit, as a reminder of what was, what is & what could be. As we emerge out of the prison sentence of the pandemic, what will we share with world? What will be our Return to Love moment?
(For any readers who are not sure on what love has to do with leadership, I suggest you look up recent research (published in academic journals) on ‘Loving Leadership’ or even watch my presentation at the recent #GettingItRight Conference 2021).
It’s time for change!
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About Anita Devi
As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning. Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose. In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs. Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers. #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.