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  • David OMalley

Covid and community in schools

Sustaining a new sense of community post covid

One of the values that may be stimulated by the pandemic is interdependence. Many parts of our culture value and celebrate rugged individualism, the alpha male hero who gets his way, gets the job done, gets the girl and accumulates money. That model seems to be embedded deeply in the world of business and is justified by economic logic. It is justified in the social sphere by a sense of success that provokes admiration and envy.

But in the pandemic economic logic has not been followed, the economy in most places has been put on hold by governments that cannot face the alternative. The alternative of course was to put the economy first, let the elderly die, save huge revenues in pensions etc and gain an advantage over competitors. Most governments did not take that option because it would have been political suicide in a democracy. The loss of an older generation would devastate the social fabric of society creating a collective grief that would lead to a deep and sustained anger against the administration that might last for a decade. Government had to choose between the economy and the people. Our leaders chose the people over the economy and challenged them to disciplined collective response to manage the pandemic.

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he experience of taking responsibility for one’s own behaviour because it could have wider impacts in the community is one of the things that has begun to erode that independent macho myth. It has woken us up to just how socially and biologically connected we are. You can fit over 8,000 individual covid viruses in a one-millimetre space. The virus is impossible to see and we share it as we share the other bacteria that hang around each person as a unique bacterial cloud. The fact that I can absorb this virus simply by walking past a person and breathing their air is a reminder that we are not independent or macho. We can all be brought to our knees by a virus that is 0.12 microns wide.

That fact shatters the illusion of independence. None of us can be immune from community. In fact, our body is made up of 50 trillion cells which all communicate with each other and have evolved a cooperative strategy for survival. Our bodies are a community and our society is a community. Even Margaret Thatcher who is famously misquoted as saying there is no such thing as society says,


“they never quoted the rest. I went on to say: There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour. My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations. “[1]

That living community structure, obscured by a narrow economic outlook and by an over-emphasis on the individual, is being revived by Covid 19. Across the UK there has been an outbreak of altruism, a recognition of mutual need and a willingness to sacrifice independence to support strangers. The emergence of compassion on a new scale reveals the possibility of a different kind of community and a pathway to well being for all people. It is here that the insights of positive psychology can support a sustained development of interdependence beyond the covid horizon. I will focus the following comments on the task of schools and the needs of the covid generation although most of them will apply to us all in every group and at every age.


Some focal points for teaching

1. Have fun! We often imply as educators that fun is not important compared with exam grades and studies. We are wrong. Fun is a vital part of being human and being social beings, we are not simply educating cognitive skills but the whole person. Positive psychology has discovered that having fun strengthens the immune system that will make us less susceptible to viruses like covid. It helps to celebrate and renew the interdependent networks within and around young people making them stronger and more balanced. Fun is part of the post covid cure and not an option. It links in with the Salesian wisdom that play is central not only to a happy life but also to a holy life.


2. Train for gratitude. It sounds simple but there is wisdom in the often-repeated instruction to young people, “say thank you.” Gratitude is a reminder of interdependence. Someone has done something for you and when you acknowledge that kindness you also raise awareness of a sense of belonging to the other person. That aspect of gratitude has been voiced thousands of times in our own Angels project in Battersea where hundreds of volunteers have evoked gratitude in isolated people through shopping and befriending. Gratitude therefore creates community. Positive psychology identifies gratitude as a key trigger for well being. Visit their web site: https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-exercises/


3. Help others. Sounds simple, and it is. What many people fail to recognise is that when I put myself out for others my own mood changes into a more positive key. It also benefits me. Of course, you can help others so much that your own energy and priorities can be depleted but in general, choosing to help others brings individual blessings too. The “pay it forward” movement is an example of how to get young people engaged. Here it is the recognition that some good has been done to you and you do something good for someone else, you pay your debt of gratitude forward to support or surprise someone else. The UK site is here: http://payitforwardday.com/countries/uk/


4. The common good is an emerging awareness that young people in school will benefit from. It has its origins in Catholic social teaching but has spread well beyond that starting point. The schools programme aims to encourage young people to take responsibility and helps them to form their character in shared reflection and action in their local community. This is not a self-help programme but an introduction to the experience of community in practice. It aims to heal the fractured society in which young people are growing up and, through character development it opens the pathway to a vocational approach to each students’ unique path in life. Its basic principles prepare young people to become prophets for a new and better world.

https://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/training/common-good-schools


5. Teach realistic optimism. Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesian educational movement, saw optimism as a grace but also something that can be learned. This is not the optimism that believes that everyone must appreciate me all the time. It is the optimism that knows that everyone makes mistakes. The pessimistic pupil who is late for school can moan because they will be in detention, be in trouble at home and lose confidence. The optimistic pupil will photograph the traffic and send it to school in advance in the hope of a bit of compassion. The skill of thinking positively about tough situations is one of the vital life skills that will guard the mental health of young people many years into the future. There is a link here to the kind of resources you might develop in school. https://schools.au.reachout.com/resilience/optimism


6. Unlearning learned helplessness. Teachers are well aware that some pupils don’t really try in class and don’t seem bothered when they don’t reach the standard. This learned helplessness may be more marked in some pupils as they return from lockdown. These are the pupils who will typically answer questions immediately with “I don’t know” and they would rarely ask a question or become energised by a lesson. If they get a bad score in their work, they aren’t that bothered, if they get a detention, they just shrug their shoulders. They believe that they cannot do anything to change their situation. They believe that there is something in them that is not good enough so why bother trying.

The teacher needs to challenge their core belief if they are to take the risk of trying.

It is a sign of progress when they blame the situation rather than saying “I’m not good enough.” Often Salesian tradition of the quiet word in the ear is the best way to build confidence but it will be a long and slow process for many pupils. You can see more about learned helplessness here. https://nobelcoaching.com/tag/learned-helplessness/


7. Be still. I have heard it said that busyness is an anaesthetic that can dull a deeper sense of oneself. Schools today are all busy and complex places where movement and changing faces can be mesmerising for some pupils. At times they may feel like components moving around a factory, anonymous and switched off from the overload around them. Until they are asked to be still and silent. Initially this may be a disturbing experience in a classroom as they no longer need to react to outside stimulus or defend themselves from confusing noise or activity.

Practised silence opens up the doors of self-awareness in a pupil and allows them to discover that they do actually have an inner and spiritual life. It is there that they discover, in their memories, the great things they have experienced, it there in their hopes that they can discover their dreams for their future and the world around them. It is there, in the mystery of their own story, that pupils can encounter what many of us call God. For more resources visit: https://leftbrainbuddha.com/5-mindfulness-practices-bring-classroom/


A conclusion- Grace

Our Salesian head teachers met with Baroness Hollins who is an advisor to Pope Francis on mental health in young people. She spoke to us at length but left us with this formula for mental health that is practical tool to give to young people as they return to school in September.

So what can young people do practically to look after themselves and build a sense of community in the post covid days? Baroness Hollins says we should live with GRACE.

Give something –time, prayer, something you made

Receive-be loved, love yourself-then love others. It's hard love someone else unless you learn to be loved yourself.

Active-swim, run, dance - cannot be depressed when you are on the move

Create- learn something new every day, make something - art, music. Enjoy God’s creation. A teenage mum said to me that her baby daughter gave her life meaning.

Engage-with life and with people in the real world. You can't hug a computer! But we all need a hug every day.

As educators I hope we can use the tragedy of covid to build a stronger and deeper sense of community, one that embraces generations and will last. A sense of community that we will need to ease racial tensions and tackle the world climate crisis. Let’s put the losses and confusion of lockdown to good use and generate new hope and a new community.

[1] second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography in 1993

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