There is a story told:
Some fifty years ago a shoe factory in the United States sent two scouts to a region of Africa to study the possibility of expanding their business. One of the scouts sent back a telegram:
Situation hopeless STOP No one wears shoes here STOP
The other sent a different telegram:
Amazing business opportunity STOP There are no shoes here STOP
The story may be a little dated in more ways than one, but it is an example of how two people may encounter the same experience and leave with very different perspectives. One, seen through a pessimistic lens, the other observed through an optimistic position.
What influences our lens, and informs our perspective is what we question and consider every day in our work with little children. We are so conscious of our own capacity to influence the thinking of the children at the time in their lives when their neuropathways are rapidly being formed, and their personal and social identity is being shaped. Our responsibility is deeply felt and most carefully implemented.
When the world feels more precarious and our global community shaken to the core, we fine-tune our language, we thoughtfully consider our actions, and we turn to each other as we stretch our safety net and take care to create an atmosphere of trust, respect, and kindness.
Our everyday experiences, across our Early Learning Centres, require that we be discerning; that we filter information and help children make sense of the world, as they gradually develop their own personal identities as well as grow in their feelings of belonging. Each child’s emerging concept of self is influenced and shaped by so many factors. As children form a strong connection to others, grow to feel more confident and competent, progressing their play-based participation with their friends, so they are able to develop a meaningful ‘membership’ of a group.
What supports this feeling of belonging in our Early Learning Centres is the deep collective connection to both our Jewish and Australian cultural experiences.
We know that culture is an important factor in the overall ability to develop one’s own identity; culture is multi-dimensional, made up of different contributing elements such as language and literature, traditional practices, history, story-telling, music, food, rituals, clothing, art, humour, as well as the core values embedded in our lives and what informs us as a people –values that guide our actions and triage our priorities such as the importance of family, education, community, tzedakah, purpose and making the world a better place for the next generation.
Recent events, that have stirred up our need to gather together as a community have compelled us turn towards our common values, our collective hopes and our commitment to making the world a safer place; global citizens, across continents and countries have had to muddle through the containment of the silent, invisible and highly contagious Coronavirus; and for us, as Jews across the world, we have had to watch the unfolding of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, and face, wide-eyed the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric and mounting hatred of our people. Two very different but strangely similar experiences, have triggered enormous stress and dread, and, also, demanded our need to gather together, to form alliances, to think creatively and to truly look at ourselves, and our capacity to face our fears, and reclaim our peace.
Dora Pulido-Tobiassen and Janet Gonzalez-Mena in their article ‘Supporting Healthy Identity Development, A Place to Begin’ (published in California Tomorrow in 1999) write:
“A positive sense of identity is crucial to the development of self-esteem and confidence. Children who feel worthy and capable are more likely to be optimistic and do well in school. A healthy sense of identity also helps children be more open to people…a strong and positive feeling about their parents and grandparents helps children feel safe and confident about themselves and their roots…creating a strong and positive group identity is particularly important for providing [children] with resilience and moral support for challenging the biases they may face in that larger context that devalues them.”
Scrolling down over our social-media feeds we can all see a school that celebrates our children, their personal and cultural identities, and their efforts to be the best versions of themselves. Children across our College have demonstrated this in their inquiry as curious and interested students, their discipline when it come to their exceptional music performances, their commitment to mathematics, their sporting achievements, their heart-felt messages sent to Israel, their interest in leadership opportunities, their exploration of iconic children’s literature, their personal emotional health and the wellbeing of others, to name a few. Our school offers dynamic and diverse opportunities for wider connection by inviting special visitors in or arranging for our students to venture out. The emphasis on what happens outside of the formal classroom is deliberate and encourages children to take measured risks, to find learning in their mistakes and to step up to new challenges. Our children are (for the most part) adaptable, flexible and enthusiastic because they have a very strong sense of belonging to our school and community.
There is a subtle but serious relationship between resilience, belonging, cultural connection and emotional wellbeing. There is an urgent reliance now, of the partnership between school and home, the growing of authentic and reciprocal relationships between educators and parents. It is in our collective DNA, to educate and ‘future-proof’ our children, against all odds, in the best way that we know how. We are a community committed to continuous growth and improvement.
Now is the time to stand together as a school, a community and a people, so that our children are able to be inoculated against a pessimistic perspective and rather protected and strengthened in an optimistic outlook (seeing the opportunities to provide shoes to people in Africa) and making our world a better place for all. We, the parents and educators, need to demonstrate our commitment to this preferred position and show our loyalty to this collective hope because, when this happens, we will stand together, proud and pleased, knowing that the future is bright because our future is our beautiful, bold and brave children!
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Director of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW