A Call to Action: Let's focus on what really matters in education

14 May 2020

A Call to Action
Let’s focus on what really matters in education: the people and our relationship with them
By Clark Wight, Head of Preparatory School
Below is an excerpt from an email written by Daniel Burton from Educated by Nature.  I believe it captures the essence of what we have gained in this time of loss, sickness and change. It also causes me to pause and reflect on what this period of time has meant and will mean for us as a school and for education as a whole. I don’t write missives often, so I ask that you bear with me by reading the following and reflecting on my call to action at the end.
“We have found such comfort over the past few weeks in noticing nature's routines. 
Sunsets and sunrises.
Rain and rainbows.
Birds in our local area that seem to have playful patterns to their day.
Bees and their specific roles to support their hive.”

This feeling is summed up in one beautiful sentence penned by Rachel Carson almost 60 years ago:

“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature - the assurance that the dawn comes after night and the spring after winter.”
Rachel Carson, The Silent Spring
We call schools words like “institutions” and “facilities” and in some respects they are. They seemingly last forever and have generations of graduates who return to look through halcyon glasses at their younger selves. They are institutions, facilities too long bound in an outdated philosophy that has lasted, often for centuries. Schools are a part of the cycle of our lives. They are, for the most part in our world, a given for the young, an opportunity for many, and a way to transfer knowledge from one era to the next. They are unchanging despite the new faces and influences of students, teachers and leaders.
But where to now?  We have had nine days (so far) of learning from home and separation from school.  Nine days after which parents, students and staff were harried and rightfully exhausted.  Nine days. It felt like nine months. Friends, family and teaching colleagues in the US have been doing this for eight weeks. I can’t even imagine eight weeks of learning from home, working from home and not leaving the home. Institutions and facilities lie empty except for a small group of cleaners and maintenance workers. Schools went from unchanging to possibly being changed forever. Schools and teachers have tried mightily to push content and theory through a virtual space and kids have rightfully lost interest. Content is not king; content is not education. The curtain covering the educational Wizard of Oz who has preached since the last century that we must learn X in order to attain Y, has finally been exposed.
What has become even more apparent and more crucial is the core of what schools are, should have always been, and will be in the future. They are places of relationships, of stories and of deep learning through exploration. They are places driven by laughter and excitement, not fear and failure, of people, not programs, of time and space, not periods and bells.
Our students and our future now require that we change. We can become more flexible; less caught up in pushing content for assessments and, instead, focus on rigorous, deep learning with experts in their field. Not for a meaningless score on a test, but for life and the wonders it holds for us.
What did we all miss from our nine days or eight weeks of being away from schools?  Simply, we missed each other.  And that is our call, our catalyst for change, for renewal and for the growth of education.
We need to focus on what truly matters in education - the people and our relationships with them.
Our call to action is more important and timely than ever. We need to learn.  We need to learn about people.
We need to stop and see our students and fellow teachers and administrators through new eyes. If anything has become more clear in this global crisis, it is the opportunity for us to learn from it. And we can learn a lot.
Let’s start with our students. Let’s stop and take the time to notice their gifts, their strengths and their unique self. Let’s use this time to get away from an approach to school where we put students into very specific and criteria-based boxes. An A, an F, a ‘good kid’, a leader, a troublemaker. There are no boxes.
What we have and what we can hopefully now see is the awesome potential and gifts in every person. So, let’s name it. This reporting period and hopefully forever more, let’s write personally and emotively about each child’s uniqueness, each child’s gifts and strengths.
We can make a substantive change in the language we use about our students and, in doing so, explicitly reframe the value of attending our unique school. This is our moment in time, given to us through tragedy and change, to chart a new course and start anew. Let’s not miss this opportunity.
In the “new normal” we still need to teach. This is what we are good at doing; it is our gift. We still need to teach, to assess, to measure growth; but now we can do it NOT because of the content or pushing a set syllabus, but because it enables our students to grow and develop their own ideas and patterns of thinking. The focus can shift from being content/curriculum driven to student focused (this is different from student led). It may seem like a subtle shift, but like this pandemic, it actually changes the world of schools. It brings us back to the core of what schools need to be – a place where great teachers are driven to learn about their students and to engage them through this knowledge in the individual and collective pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and experience.  To learn how to contribute to each individual student’s unique growth and path into this life and their future.
Do you hear this call?  Can we do this at Guildford Grammar School now and beyond to create real and lasting change?
Will this be the moment when we realise that student and cultural wellbeing and growth have been negatively impacted by the very thing we hold dear – education?
If we can make this shift with our students and truly see each one for their strengths and talents, can we do this with one another, with the stranger we meet, with our parents and for humanity?
With great respect,
Clark Wight