Reopening Schools: Let’s Keep It Complex

Reopening schools and keeping them open is new and shifty ground. In Wuhan, after eight months of school closure and learning from home, our international school received permission to re-open campus September 1. Over half the faculty remained overseas, stuck in quarantine locations, waiting on government-issued invitation letters. Teachers did not at first make the list of essential foreign experts welcomed to return. Parents questioned reenrollment decisions. What was an international school without foreign teachers? The usual work of building class schedules and bus routes became lobbying government leaders for chartered flights, arranging visa applications, and finding classroom managers to monitor video lessons while teachers went for health checks and prepared for a two-week hotel quarantine before they could come back to the classroom.

We’re all working through an undulant wave of contingency plans. Learning methods must be more flexible. Stakeholder messaging on safety procedures must be more robust. Resources for students without a computer or internet or a supportive English-speaking parent at home must be arranged. It’s complex.

One evening’s attempt to catch up on the news brought me to an essay by American novelist, James Baldwin. While not a breaking news headline, his thoughts on education and citizenship resonated with some of the change and bewilderment of the last few months. Consider Baldwin’s submission on complexity:

“Complexity is our only safety and love is the only key to our maturity. And love is where you find it.”

Complexity hardly seems safe. These are complex days unfolding in layers of tension and eruption between families, neighborhoods, cities, and international borders. When Wuhan went into lockdown in January 2019, we had a few days to switch to online learning. The first weeks of lockdown in actual fact did not have much to do with reading or math or science. They mostly involved finding safety. My apartment-turned-office became a command center of beeps and clicks and urgent calls. Breaking news reports found a group of students on a Laos service trip unable to return home. They could not stay in Laos. They could not fly back to Wuhan. Staff on holiday travels became pariahs looking for a flight to take them somewhere, somewhere they could wait out the weeks, or months, the unknown.

Complexity is hard. Complexity may also what we need to become more effective school communities. Where there may be a way to retreat to assumptions or known habits of doing, the way forward is in asking more questions while truly wanting the nuanced answers – not only something to re-affirm what we think we already know. Complexity is part of the change we say we want but may be too tired or too scared or too overwhelmed to work through to new understanding.

I meet with a personal coach from our organization a few times a year to help check in on decision making. This month I was especially interested to explore how the time in Wuhan during lockdown had changed me, and subsequently my leadership. Last year, I considered how we might be more creative with our program, developing resources for a different student market. It wasn’t the right time. We didn’t have sufficient support or resources. And so on. At the end of this most recent session, my coach offered an observation. You are unafraid. The equivocation in tone and posture was gone. Complexity might be more accepted as the friend of growth.

As complexity’s partner, Baldwin says love is a key to our maturity. Love, not as a personal connection or feeling of happiness, but in accepting what is, whatever this year has handed us. It is easy to watch TV and point out all that is offensive and out of control. It is just as easy to look in the mirror and think the same. Love accepts what is and leads into renewal.

A colleague completed her 14-day hotel quarantine and returned to Wuhan after an 8-month absence. “I’m such a packrat,” she observed. After living with a handful of ragtag shirts and shorts from an airplane carry-on bag, she saw new simplicity in a complex situation. She accepted what she had, and found after all, she needed relatively little. She started simplifying lesson plans and her own expectations of what being a good teacher looks like. Even as working with students online and in person gives more to do than in years past, she is finding herself relax.

When I look to the work of schools, I see the months of separation in our homes and the technology that connects us, though oftentimes poorly, to the complexity of how to continue to make gains in math, reading and other grade-level achievements. More important, technology has remained the string of connection to one another. We can celebrate the teachers who push ahead into new ways to be loving examples to their students. We can also keep taking complexity and love into maturity in our own lives as school leaders. To be educated means to become more of an example worth seeing.

Our school communities can rise into what the year ahead may bring when complexity is taken up with a lens of opportunity instead of an anxiety to avoid or to manage. We can be more defined by our commitments to care for ourselves and one another, and in the commitment to lead one day at a time, the passing weeks and months become our renewal and our courage.