Lockdown and Secondary Schools – “The Solution is to be Found in Getting the Balance Right”
By Alan Cox, Principal of Temple Carrig School, Greystones. [This article first appeared in the May issue of The Church Review]
Someone commented recently that the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ was currently at an unprecedented level. And certainly, from an educational point of view, the remarkable circumstances in which we faced the Covid–19 shutdown this term have been like nothing and else in any existing teacher’s career.
However, schools and their communities all experience seismic and memorable moments from time to time and they thrive on the challenges that are thrown up by crises. I suspect a great many Church Review readers have been known to wax nostalgic upon meeting former schoolmates, and to regale them with tales that invariably begin with the words, “Do you remember the time when…” Lately, I was reading the 1919 edition of a school magazine and it talked about the provisions that they were having to make to deal with the Spanish Flu – one day the school shutdown of 2020 will be a similar memory and a challenge schools will have survived.
It HAS been an interesting challenge for schools. Remote teaching and learning, even with all the new technology that most schools are accessing, is novel to us and we’re having to learn as we go. In the first week of the school closure, our teachers, in a fit of well–meaning diligence, churned out far too much work, which left students reeling and the teachers themselves up all night marking. Online live lessons via platforms such as Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts, etc, seemed an obvious replacement for real school, but we soon found that this idea militated against the many students who were now left minding younger siblings while parents were still out at work. The solution is to be found in getting the balance right and every school principal to whom I’ve spoken accepts that we’re only feeling our way in the dark at the moment. But we’re getting there. As I write, the new Summer Term has just started and we’re getting ready to go again, hopefully at the right pace and in the right manner.
The tributes paid to the country’s heroic frontline workers are well–justified and well–documented. For me, it’s the extraordinary bravery they have shown in knowingly going in to a perilous situation every day that stands out. However, I think it’s important that Ireland at some stage also pays tribute to the sterling way in which its teenage population has supported social distancing measures. Naturally, there were one or two high–profile cases of gross idiocy, but, in general, younger people have been absolutely terrific in acceding to the instructions to stay at home. They hate it; they’re just at the stage in their lives when it is innate in them to want to get out into the world and explore it, but in Temple Carrig we challenged our students that this was the most patriotic thing they’d ever been asked to do and they deserve credit for how well they have supported the lockdown.
I must also pay tribute to the stoic attitude of our Sixth Year students as they approach the Leaving Cert exams. Written off so often as snowflakes, this generation has been calm, strong and resilient during the crisis. The Leaving Cert, which, let’s face it, feels especially life–changing when you’re actually doing it, IS stressful to go through, there’s no doubt about it. So to have it moved around, prolonged and no certainty that it mightn’t be changed further is hard luck. Moreover, there is a degree of inequity in the (albeit unavoidable) changes that have been made. However, most students have been remarkably public–spirited and understand that the disruption to their lives is minor compared to the tragedy that the virus has inflicted upon countless other families or to the contribution that frontline workers and others have had to put in. So there has been remarkably little whinging and self–pity and a fantastic resilience and willingness to keep going regardless of whatever happens.
It has also been a challenge to schools to support their students pastorally as much as academically. In Temple Carrig, we have an unusual Chaplaincy arrangement – rather than one Chaplain, we have a team of young people who come in to support our students. This “Chaplaincy Team”, as we call it, is always available to our students for counselling and support throughout the year and they have simply switched over to working online at the moment, with face–to–face meetings proving rather successful as a means of checking in with people.
There is the need for the school to maintain a sense of team spirit and togetherness too, of course, so for this reason, we have held an End of Week Assembly on Zoom at 3.20pm every Friday, the time when the school week would normally be coming to a close. Again, the Chaplaincy Team and other staff have been wonderfully creative in driving these short, prayerful services and you may have seen one particular project we did where students and staff sang an alternative version of the Lou Reed song, Perfect Day, when it was posted on the Diocesan Facebook page recently.
Finally, alongside the academics and the pastoral, we issued a significant challenge to our student body. There were a lot of other people who were famously stuck at home. Isaac Newton had to self–isolate to avoid the bubonic plague and while he did he discovered Calculus and the Theory of Gravity. When St Paul was under house arrest, he wrote encouraging letters to other new Christian communities, letters (or epistles) which form much of the New Testament. William Shakespeare had to stay at home, again to avoid a plague, and while there he wrote the play King Lear (I do appreciate that many Temple Carrig Fifth Years probably wish he hadn’t…). Meanwhile, Anne Frank wrote a journal of her enforced and lengthy time in hiding that is now the second most widely read non–fiction book in the world ever (behind the Bible)
So we challenged our students that for the many weeks they were likely to be facing this new style of living they could mope about and throw tantrums about how unfair it all was that they were stuck at home or they could challenge themselves to do something truly incredible like those guys did.
As an incentive, a new series of prizes are going to be given in Prize Day this year – the Temple Carrig 2020 Challenge. The person who (in the opinion of the Board of Management) manages the most remarkable achievement between now and August 31st will win the Temple Carrig Challenge Cup and a €200 cash prize. There will be three runners–up prizes of €100 each and TEN third–tier prizes of €50 each. As we said to our students, not only can they do something incredible while they’re stuck at home, we’re actually going to find the funds to let them turn their achievement into cold, hard cash!
Parents, staff and friends have also been invited to join in by challenging themselves too (although only TCG students can win the prizes listed above). So, at a time when Church Review readers are starting to go demented with boredom, why not take on this challenge to find something that appeals to YOU and really go for it?
Have you read your FREE online May 2020 edition of the Church Review yet? If not, take a look here.