Dr. Mary Ashun’s thoughts … Forget the New Normal: The transition to a New Normal is a bigger beast!

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Everyone is talking about the New Normal. Presumably, this New Normal will be our new way of life after several periods of lockdown and other uncomfortable restrictions have been lifted. The New Normal will determine how we eat, how we fly, how we attend funerals and weddings…and even how we meet new people.  May I posit, right out the gate, that this New Normal will take a while to reach us? That there’s another phase before the New Normal that we should perhaps be discussing?

As an educator, I am plagued by what the New Normal means for me and other professionals in the sector. We deal with the most vulnerable members of our communities (children) and while decisions made are primarily to protect them, they don’t have much of a say in any of these decisions. Parents speak for them, and while that isn’t a bad thing, what a parent wants for their child may be very different from what works for the child when it comes to learning.

Talk to any educator and see if they won’t have several examples for you of a situation where they were left scratching their heads, wondering what parents were thinking in the demands that they were making. But I digress; this short paper is to share an opinion I have, that we are preparing for a so called New Normal when we should be focusing on something else.

AU Day is when we celebrate African Unity. It was raining heavily as I look out from what suddenly became my office on Monday 16 March, 2020 when our school moved online and I moved home – literally. I’m one of those shameful people who lives at work, you see. And I’ve been trying to move back home for a long time and been unsuccessful. Now I have no choice – COVID-19 made me move back home!  Rain in our cultural context is a blessing and water bodies tend to be deified.  A lot of African rain is washing down the dusty streets, cooling us down from the searing 30+ degree temperatures, and more or less ‘cleaning things up’. I am also preparing as a panelist for a webinar on the New Normal as it pertains to schools.

One of the questions I’m likely to get, has to do with whether the New Normal will be temporary and my simple answer is yes…depending on how long you can tolerate temporary – 3 months? 1 year, 2 years or 5 years?  Once we have reached that New Normal, I believe we will continue in it until another global or local crisis hits.  As I’ve read, watched, and spoken to several ‘experts’ in almost every field that I can think of from whom I seek advice, I am convinced that what we call the New Normal will not be scary at all.

It will be a change from what we called normal – yes, and it will likely be even welcomed. It will also be something that we can relate to because throughout our existence, we have had New Normals even if they weren’t heralded with as much fanfare. I recall when we started having to remove our shoes at airports – definitely a New Normal. We were very irritated with the young man who decided to carry a bomb or other in his shoe but we complied; we reasoned it was better to suffer the discomfort of taking off our shoes, passing through a machine, and then putting them back on again, than to sit next to a shoe-bomber in a plane thousands of feet above ground!

When it comes to schools and their reopening, those of us who have a few months to go by reason of ‘donating’ our entire term three to online learning are seeing some very interesting, some would call them uncomfortable, new ways of ‘doing school’. I cannot understand it being called school when a child has to sit in a circle at recess time, and stay there. I also cannot understand it being called school when children have to wear space-like head gear with spokes to ensure that no other child comes close. Or was that fake news?

Enter the Transition

While we are all excitedly discussing the New Normal, I think we are getting well ahead of ourselves when there’s a more difficult, destabilizing, disruptive phase we should be focusing on because that next phase we are all touting as the New Normal won’t be here for a while. The mother of all phases, big on discomfort is the Transition phase which will come before the New Normal.

The transition space is not very pleasant, will cause some discomfort, and will make us wish for our old normal with all its warts.  ‘But we loved our warts’, I hear you say. This is not true. When we did admit we had warts, we just didn’t think getting rid of them was entirely necessary so we lived with it.

Now the transition phase is here to force us to look at our warts, figure out a way to excise them, determine how to prevent them from happening again, all the while hoping and praying that the process does not last forever. The good news is that we won’t stay here for long. But that length of time will differ for you and me, our school contexts, our cultural contexts and the sophistication of our economies and the systems that run our economies.

Allow me to use a few religious terms I’ve found have eerily similar parameters to this transition place. Many of us have probably heard of purgatory even though we don’t subscribe to Catholicism. Purgatory is that place where you’re supposed to go when you’re not quite ready for heaven. It isn’t a pleasant place so those who subscribe to this belief system aim to pass it and head straight to paradise. Given the choice of going straight to hell and purgatory, most of us would choose purgatory even though we are told that it is a very uncomfortable place.

Purgatory is meant to punish you and cleanse you all at the same time so that you’re worthy of heaven and all its goodness. In some schools of Buddhism, the period between death and rebirth takes just 49 days and this time consists of three BardosBardo is what is used to describe existing between realms – a neither-here-nor-there, but a prelude to a next phase or place that brings new opportunities.

Transitions that are painful, preparatory and that open us to new opportunities are found in virtually every aspect of our human lives so these two aren’t the only examples; I am using them to raise some points about the next phase of schooling for all of us given what we are going through with Covid-19, what we have learned from it and are continuing to learn from it, as well as a questioning of the goals of education.

Why do we want to educate? Are we ready to change how we have been educating?  Is it important enough for us to be uncomfortable as we change? How will we know when we have changed enough to have a New Normal as we pursue the education of our citizenry?

The Transition phase is therefore that time period when schools reopen to when we have a defined set of structures that we will not deviate from for a while in the running of our Schools – the so called New Normal.

Realities of the Transition to a New Normal

The Transition to a New Normal for Schools is a phase characterized by some or all of the following:

  • Some Time Spent Off Campus
    • It has an element of distance learning incorporated. This may take the form of online learning via the internet (robust learning apps as well as messaging apps), terrestrial TV and radio.
    • The realization that a great divide exists when it comes to accessibility. How many children worldwide have access to online platforms that use the internet to access learning? What does that mean for all of us – privileged or underprivileged?
    • For schools that support the feeding of children on campus, this temporary phase presents us with the challenge of reaching children and their families who subscribe to these feeding programs. This applies not just to the global south but to poor communities in the global north where there is growing evidence that when schools close, children lose much more than learning. Their lives may also be at stake.
  • It is temporary and location specific
    • It is too difficult to remain in this space for a long time and therefore all attempts will be made by governmental powers to reduce the time frame.
    • The length of that temporary time will depend on several factors, chief of which are: a school’s location, the host country’s economic systems and societal expectations as interpreted by the Government.
  • It is a very uncomfortable space.
    • Mental health zooms to the top of priority conversations in this transition phase.
    • There will be pushback from all stakeholders.
      • Teachers will envisage larger workloads and agitate if communication does not reflect the fact that this situation is temporary. Tough questions will need to broached such as whether compensation matches this new perceived workload.
      • Parents will push back if anymore is required of them beyond paying tuition fees, providing a safe home for children where food, clothing, shelter and some academic support is available. They cannot and will not tolerate long periods of ‘doing the work of the teachers whom they’ve paid’.
      • Many children will be bored and this will lead to disengagement from studies especially since many ‘survive’ school because of the social engagement with their peers. Other children will thrive: ‘I see you’  bullying[1] is reduced, distractions from other children are minimized considerably, and focus is improved. How does one serve both groups of children – those who thrive in a virtual learning environment and those who wither?
    • It is meant to refine us in readiness for the New Normal:
      • It will force us to review our school’s so-called best practices e.g. why do we talk about differentiation in the classroom but hesitate to think of how this applies to a whole structural approach to how we do school?
      • Parents have to rethink the term ‘parenting’ after spending more time with their children than they’ve ever had to do. What is good parenting and who determines it? Are you content to continue paying others to provide services and dropping in periodically to check in on your ‘investment’, making the teacher (and school) the equivalent of fund managers? How can one balance the knowledge that our children need their parents now more than ever with the pull towards making an income with which to give them a comfortable lifestyle?

New term I am using to describe bullying that happens just because a student is physically present.

How should schools be preparing for the Transition?

  1. Academics: Learning must continue but educators must look at ways of achieving the same goals with less stress. Learning is difficult for many students and in some of our schools that subscribe to external exams, the stress level of teachers and students in the race to complete syllabi can put undue strain on the learning process. Are there perhaps better ways to expect and achieve excellence while being patient about the learning process? Can we be practical about timetables and breaks enough to have a more fluid and dynamic learning experience for our students? What would this look like in each of our schools given the myriad of expectations that parents and teachers place on students towards the achievement of goals that at times seem sacrosanct?
  2. Safety: Conversations with School Leadership Teams need to focus strongly on structures and restrictions needed to ensure safety on campus and online when children are learning. How much is too much? Please note that excessiveness is one of the hallmarks of this transition phase since fears need to be allayed and assurances need not be necessarily communicated; they must be seen and felt very clearly.
  3. Finance: Since it is a temporary phase, purchases of equipment that allow us to perform and execute our duties don’t all need to be of a permanent nature until we know what the New Normal will be.
  4. Technology: A technology roadmap that focuses on the end goal of educating the whole child needs to be mapped out. This will require discussions with all stakeholders in order to present a plan that is defendable given the ethos of the school, and the demographics of the community members who will be accessing the school’s programs.
  5. Human Resources: A better informed workforce will have members who are positive ambassadors during the Transition. Change can be very good, and in communicating with those who will experience it first, much care needs to be applied to the process of sharing information, the embedding of the need for change within structures that are well understood by everyone and an open mindedness that welcomes questions from all members of the workforce.
  6. Facilities: Last but not the least, we must understand that our surroundings create the environment where positive thinking and momentum can flourish. Schools must look for cost-effective ways of enhancing our learning areas to ensure that with each new stimulus, a neural pathway is created.  This may involve going back to concepts that were deemed uncivilized and are now termed eco-friendly learning…in layman’s language, learning outdoors and under trees!

I have focused primarily on the Transition phase to the New Normal because I believe it is the more difficult one to work through. In the current pandemic, it is widely believed that a flattening of the curve, and the discovery and testing of a new vaccine will herald the dawn of The New Normal.  It will be more bearable than the Transition phase primarily because most people would have learned to adapt somewhat to all the restrictive and uncomfortable measures imposed during the Transition. By the time we reach the New Normal, the vestiges of the transition will seem like they’ve always been with us, and we will gladly operate and record successes in the New Normal with little fuss.

Until another crisis hits…

>>>The writer is the Principal , Ghana International School. Email: [email protected]

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