Professional Development Platform

June 18, 2020 Reading Time: 15 Minutes Contributor: Sally Apps

Towards Recovery – A Think Piece

Education Team | Author: Sally Apps | Cabot Learning Federation 

Covid-19 has thrown the world into crisis in a way that could hardly have been imagined six months ago, and in the education sector leaders have supported staff, students and families to adapt to a version of school closure with empathy and clear-sightedness. After six weeks, we face the challenge of re-opening schools by degrees and decrees. As a profession we have so much to consider as we prepare to recover from this period. Re-joining is one thing, re-opening buildings and getting the right people in them for the right periods of time in a way that is safe and effective: this is a massive logistical and operational feat that we are shortly to contend with. But once we are ‘joined’ again, in whatever form, how do we all recover?

Collective recognition

As a headteacher, whenever there was a significant traumatic national or international event, I would consider carefully the impact for my students, and the best way to help them to navigate their thoughts about it. Sometimes, it needed simply marking out, flagging to them as something that might concern them, and as a result we would signpost them to different modes of support. Sometimes it would require a discussion, which I would help to script and shape, and which would occur in a small group tutor setting. And occasionally it was the stuff of a whole school assembly – something where I would manage the message first hand, and help to set up the boundaries within which the whole school community might explore it further. Always in mind during such preparations was the question of how to help a group of (young) people process something terrible, tragic, senseless, cruel – often something sudden and incomprehensible like an act of terrorism – in a way that would enable them to explore the breathless anxiety of it in all its fullness before helping them to ‘repackage’ it, to relocate themselves in their own world and in the end to feel safe.

“By taking our goodness out into the world, and that by looking after one another, we were weaving thread by thread a safety belt which would hold us all in future”

This tended to centre on locus of control: helping children to understand the things that were out of their control as well as reminding them of all the things that were within it, and as deftly as possible moving some of the unknown and unpredictable into scope as something they might influence. At a very basic level, the Prevent agenda focuses on the fact that with more inclusive communities, fewer people will be driven into the isolation that makes them vulnerable to extremism. In the midst of unspeakable barbarism, I found myself in assemblies reminding my students that by taking our goodness out into the world, and that by looking after one another, we were weaving thread by thread a safety belt which would hold us all in future: terrorism wouldn’t be born among us. Usually at such times I would take them back to the school values and to our individual ability to live them out and to see change in the world, to be successful in school and to be influential beyond…and through that narrative I would take them from the horror of the outside world and into the safety and predictability of our own routine.

Locus of control

At times of trauma and difficulty, control becomes a hinge on which so much else hangs. For a survivor of sexual trauma, for example, having control over the telling of the story is perhaps the only control that survivor might have. As they live out the experience of surviving the trauma, they might experiment with the story, the telling of it, the content of it, and critically who gets to hear it and when. There are few things more damaging for someone who has survived such horrors than to have the story told for them without their consent, which gives some tiny insight into the painfully low conviction rate for rape, a crime we know to be much more prevalent. Locus of control is so important to psychological survival, and an understanding of how to work with it critical to us now. So how do we work with the locus of control in our recovery from Covid-19 in education? How does recovery work on an individual child level, within a class, a school, a group of schools, a sector?

The painful reality we face is that for some children, the period of school closure is deeply, unspeakably traumatic. During closure they may not have been physically, sexually or emotionally safe; they may not have eaten well or often; they may not be living in a space that is acceptable; they may not have had a single moment of privacy or aloneness since March 20th. All these things were true for them before lockdown, but once schools stopped fully functioning, they lost their daily access to something safe, secure, known. For other children, they are missing the emotional availability of some key trusted adults who were based in school; for others still, it is resource they cannot access. For all children, there has been sudden loss: of routine, of structure, of friendship, of opportunity, of freedom[1] and the recovery from this loss will prove challenging in different ways.

Starting with ourselves

We need to consider how we prepare ourselves as leaders and our colleagues around us for the period of recovery. We have all experienced the same losses of freedom, routine, structure, opportunity, professional and actual friendship. Just as is the case in the student population, some of us have been locked into domestic arrangements that are at best unedifying and at worst extremely harmful; some have been locked into extreme loneliness and isolation; some locked in with their own or others’ worsening mental health; some have been ill, and in both the staff and student population alike, some have experienced the loss of loved ones. As we step back into our buildings in earnest, many are anxious about their own and others’ safety, health and well-being, and preparing our colleagues for this is a critical step we need to take now. We need to help ourselves to understand and process our own losses, our own fears and anxieties and we need to find our own locus of control through whatever means necessary. We need to put these things within our locus of control. We then need to work together to quickly up-skill in the areas of recovery that our children will need us to lead them into, using Carpenters’ five levers

relationships – community – transparent curriculum – metacognition – space

We must experience and cultivate each of these five levers in ourselves alone, and then together, and only then can consider together how to create these for our children. We need also to consider how long this period might last – when does ‘recovery’ start? Is this in itself a distance learning activity for some? Has it started already for others? Is it something we only embark upon once we are all together, or do we manage phases on a cohort level? Is this something that must be traversed individually – and if so, how do we enable this to happen meaningfully for individuals within a school system? When children return to learning in the school building, we know that we cannot simply try to cover both the planned curriculum for that period and everything that was originally planned for the recent period of absence. We need to find a way, instead, to help them to navigate their way across the stream using as few stepping stones as possible, before reaching that ‘other side’ and being able to continue on a surer footing.

My son in Year 1, for example, is managing fine with most of what the teacher is sending home, but I can see that for him there is no real joy in writing. As a result I know he is not making the progress in writing that he might have done had he been with his classmates in the last couple of months. When he returns to school, his teacher will not take him through everything that he would have taught him – but he will, I expect, find ways to simulate the steps of progress that need to have been taken. I imagine flicking through his school books, comparing his writing in September with that in June. His teacher’s role on his return will be to help him to find that ‘June writing’, not by repeating the activities and the context within which he would have made that progress, but by considering the few careful things that my son and his peers might do to mature that writing quickly. A little like the hormone that is given to a pre-term foetus when early labour is likely in order to artificially mature the lungs, it is not as good as Plan A – natural development at the ‘usual’ rate – but it is preferable to the alternative – a threat to survival. The hormone does for the foetus what is necessary to survive and thrive in the next stage. In the same way, for my son the process of learning to write with more maturity will undoubtedly be less joy-filled, less organic than originally planned – but it will enable him to pick up the next stage well enough to benefit from what that next stage has to offer. The magic provided by the teacher in all this is the ability to put some of those steps within my son’s locus of control, so that he can be his own hormone, his own active ingredient in his progress story. Doing so will require of my son’s teacher an ability to use the five levers to meet my son where he is at and to coax him step by step across to safety.

Stepping stones

“The act of recovery is at least as much an emotional and social one as it is academic, and our ability to recognise and plan for this will be at the heart of our learners’ eventual success.”

Just as in this individual story, at class and cohort level we need to consider, then, what are the absolutely necessary, cannot-be-missed experiences that make up the recovery phase in the curriculum: and we need to ensure that together we think through exactly the right pedagogical methods to enact them and the best ways to assess progress within the teaching sequence so that no more moments are lost. This is work we can do now, ahead of our return to classrooms. In fact, it’s work we must do now, or our return to classrooms will be characterised by chaos and misfire. We must be thinking now as much about who our children are, what makes them tick and what will engage them back into a love of learning on their return, as we are about what skills and content they have missed. The act of recovery is at least as much an emotional and social one as it is academic, and our ability to recognise and plan for this will be at the heart of our learners’ eventual success.

It’s also important to remember that Covid-19 has changed the way we see the world: it has challenged our sense of self and our sense of place in the world and to miss the opportunity to reflect and learn within the experience would be another layer of tragedy. Sculptor Anthony Gormley states that, “There is no question that creative intelligence comes, not through learning things you find in books or histories that have already been written, but by focusing on and giving value to experience as it happens”. What can we help children to learn as it happens, within the five levers outlined by Carpenter and Carpenter? Taking into account these levers, how do we support and release our teachers to be all that they need and are able to be? As Salvatore Guiliano points out in a recent Guardian article[2] on the lockdown in Italy, “a teacher has to be a steadying influence, a social worker and a psychologist”.

“When our children return to us, in spite of our anxieties and our own journeys of trauma and loss, we will greet them with open arms and a sense that “we’ve been waiting for you”. We will provide them with all they need, both in our softness and our attuned-ness, and with a structure and a strength that speaks of security.”

As we think through together what our recovery curriculum might look like, it is important to remember the unique, special and trusted role we hold, and for good reason as a profession. When our children return to us, in spite of our anxieties and our own journeys of trauma and loss, we will greet them with open arms and a sense that “we’ve been waiting for you”. We will provide them with all they need, both in our softness and our attuned-ness, and with a structure and a strength that speaks of security. There is room for us to learn together with our children, and there is also a need for them to trust in us, the adults, to know what to do when no one knows what to do – and in so doing, to impart in them the knowledge they will later need in life to know what to do in yet other currently unthinkable scenarios. We could do worse at this juncture than to learn from those who are navigating these unchartered waters with the most grace and humility. Jacinda Ardern holds that “I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

As we prepare to recover for ourselves, and to help our children and their families to recover, we are able to be compassionate and strong. And just like in the assemblies I used to give in times of crisis, focusing on our ability to be so, on our own locus of control, we will find all that we need to ensure success together.

[1] Barry Carpenter, Matthew Carpenter


Related Content