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The red wool: on leadership, community and learning (part 1)

After the state government recommended children stay at home last month, we went to pick up an ‘Adventure Pack’ for our 6 year-old from our local school. Four teaching staff had worked solidly for two days putting together guided tasks, learning games, recipes and even a packet of sunflower seeds for each child (for planting, not eating!). Within the folder of goodies to help us through the last few weeks of Term 1 was also a tiny piece of red wool, with a note attached:

“This piece of string is cut from one ball of wool. It ties all of Abbotsford together in spirit, until we are together again” 

In a follow-up email, our school principal explained that when we ‘get to the other side’ and students were all back safely at school, they would join the wool together into one piece again. It was a small gesture, but signified the importance of community, connection and hope at a time of massive confusion and uncertainty. 

It’s still not clear what ‘the other side’ will look like, and those hundreds of pieces of wool, when they finally get together again, will look nothing like the original ball. Some will probably fall apart, or at least be a bit frayed around the edges. 

In the meantime, it’s up to us to muddle through, reflect, and try to pick up learnings as we go. Here’s the first of a few I’ve been considering.

Leading with empathy and vulnerability

Brené Brown would be proud of some of the ‘daring leadership’ demonstrated in arenas large and small over the last couple of months. Faced with shifting circumstances and no precedents to draw on, many leaders have been refreshingly open about their uncertainty and willing to pivot without apology. 

Communication has been frequent, friendly and forgiving from our primary school principal, trying to take the pressure off stressed families. Links to free learning resources and activities are great, but even more valuable is the relaxing of rigid protocol, and reminders to ‘breathe… then breathe again’. 

On reaching the end of our first week of remote learning, parents were emailed a ‘Certificate of Completion’ to stick on the fridge in recognition of surviving our first week of ‘Navigated Learning’. Another small gesture, but the message of partnership and support was not lost.

Layers of community

There’s been more chat about community on social media in recent weeks than I’ve seen in a long time. People are forming partnerships, collaborating on fixes and articulating that we’re #InThisTogether in so many ways, locally and globally. At a school level, community has been firing on multiple levels too:

  • Teachers and parents: Teacher communities have had to work exceptionally well together to prepare shared resources and consider what parents need to support students in remote learning. Teacher-parent connections have become much more frequent, especially where younger learners and more hands-on supervision are involved.
  • Parent communities: Without face to face drop-offs and pick-ups, our existing WhatsApp groups and individual messaging are valuable connection points where questions, up-to-date information and practical advice are exchanged. This also includes sharing messages on behalf of those too young to have their own device, usually in the form of photos and videos to much-missed classmates (“Mum, can you just send this picture of my Lego car…?”
  • Student communities: Student-student interactions and mini-communities are hard to reproduce from a distance, and also some of the most exhausting digital interactions I’ve ever had to facilitate. If you thought work meetings on Zoom were painful, try supervising six year-olds as they compete for who can shout loudest and abandon you with their friend as they sprint to find another toy they absolutely must show them RIGHT NOW.

The most memorable and meaningful ‘community’ moments, however, have come from the personal check-ins and interactions; the phone call from the school librarian to make sure we were okay after the first week; the kind and encouraging voice recording from the teacher sharing feedback on a piece of written work; the parent you didn’t know that well before, checking how you’re doing four weeks into lockdown. 

Each layer of community counts, from the broader leadership and communication right down to the individual links that hold us together. Communities also enable learning to happen; part two of this post will consider what’s happening as we balance structure and freedom, digital and ‘real life’ in our current remote learning and working worlds.