As we tentatively peel back the regulations, lower our guards (and masks), and welcome families back onto campus and into our classrooms after being wrapped up in a Covid blanket for more than two years, we are having to re-think how best to do this, returning to a close face-to-face connection, whilst maintaining a little distance, making sure we continue to keep everyone safe and well.
For most of our children and many of our educators, this transition is not as easy as one might imagine. The children, for one, have missed out on big chunks of natural, expected, developmental opportunities. Some young children may have little recollection of what life used to be like, and their view of the world now is different in so many ways. For others, the new norm of living in a quasi-bubble, has provided them with a different experience, one that may feel safe in some ways, but also, one that may have left them feeling lonely and alienated.
All around the world, as we slowly emerge back into the world together, teachers and parents are reporting on a whole new set of challenges, of increased anguish, aggression, disconnection and what has been referred to as ‘general misbehaviour’ presenting in children of all ages.
This, of course, is upsetting and a careful response is going to be our best chance to set things right. We need to be with our children, guide their responses, and gently support their passage through the coming weeks and months.
Children, and adults, are having to be reminded of the idea that we become a person through others; we are only able to find our true selves because we are in relationship with others; and we are only able to become the best version of ourselves when we acknowledge and see the important role of others in our lives. Living a life that focuses only on our ourselves, our own happiness and worthiness, leads to a lonely and diminished life.
As humans, we rely on, depend on, and are beholden to the need to be connected with others, to belong to a group, to be involved with and participate in collective experiences. We have also seen and experienced first-hand that we do not thrive when we are not given the chance to be with others; being with others does not mean one continued virtual connection, but rather, it must be being together with others, in person, literally, in the same real space and time. And only then is there the further consideration about the quality of our interactions and connections.
This became very evident to me in a recent visit to South Africa where the philosophy of Ubuntu is so present – the idea of living a life that includes the essential human virtues of compassion and humanity.
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, explained Ubuntu as “the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”
What I witnessed during our visit was that despite being a people so immersed in human tragedy, a country riddled with many deep and complex challenges often resulting in raw heartache, there is a resounding and unexpected atmosphere of kindness and respect. People are patient, helpful, and authentically interested in each other.
When former president of the United States, Barack Obama, visited South Africa and spoke at the Nelson Mandela annual lecture — he said:
“Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit… Ubuntu…the word that describes [Mandela’s] greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”
When I returned to Sydney, I was so comforted that, as a school community, we have similar values in play – children may feel overwhelmed, a little out of their depth, may possibly act out because finding the words is really difficult, insisting that we, their parents and educators, step up to think about what is happening and how best to respond.
If we acknowledge this challenging time, share our ideas and memories, and move towards our children with kindness and tolerance, then perhaps their anguish will be soothed, their capacity to be with others enhanced, and their feeling of a hopeful future restored. If we turn to one another, rally our communal spirit, reach out to one another, then we have the chance to make this time not only manageable, but the chance to continue to create a truly remarkable community.
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Head of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW