At Verdala International School we often refer to Steve Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Academia, 1989) to help organise ourselves. He starts by urging proactivity – and then “Begin with the end in mind”.

The last three months have certainly needed both an imaginative response and a necessity to have a specific aim. But how to become proactive in a situation where the outcome is so uncertain has been our challenge.

In February, it quickly became apparent that the school might shut down and go online. It was essential to be pro-active, ready for what was fast approaching, and with a few students going into quarantine, we had a little practice at remote learning.

We “put the first things first” and developed a distance learning policy that ensured that our whole community understood what our approach would be; it clarified project-learning and expectations for students and parents. However, through application, we have since learnt that synchronous learning is not the only way to approach the learning day.

In some ways, although hard to bear, it was a relief that the government decided to close schools until June; it meant we knew what our time frame was, unlike some countries where schools lived week by week.

The author with a group of students.The author with a group of students.

We had ‘an end in mind’, an aim. We were able to commit to providing a report at the end of the academic year that would show our students would be assessed as normally as possible, and above all, be ready for the next academic stage.

Throughout this surreal experience, there have been concerns and worries and if we are honest, gripes, usually for valid reasons. We were thrown into an unknown scenario creating anxiety; a sense of loss for what we had, and a concern that what lay ahead would not be enough.

It was important to be compassionate and remind ourselves that underneath all this lies the fear of the virus, for friends and family, for each other.

Covey’s habit of “listening with our hearts and minds” would help us find a way through. Student welfare was our highest priority; we reached out to the students and took time to find out how they were feeling. We also listened to parents, in fact, our many parent Zoom meetings is another take-away as I certainly realised that through this forum more parents could contribute or get clarification.

“Thinking win-win” meant that we had to adapt on a weekly basis and take into consideration the feedback from parents and students, adapting and changing until things settled into a routine. But we must always remember that we cannot please everyone: for some home situations, asynchronous learning is better, for others, the routine via synchronous learning is more ideal.

The next three months would also be driven by the needs of the community and our priority is to get staff trained in the technology required to support students in a range of ways, such as upskilling Maths teachers to use Kami, or introduce our staff to online examination platforms.

Another urgent matter was safeguarding this new environment. Zoom has had some security issues and we have made it our priority to ensure teachers keep the classroom door closed and the lesson cyber-safe.

There is common agreement that the worst part for everyone is physically not being in school, for those catch-ups in the courtyard or social interaction in the classroom.

We have had to find ways for the community to synergise in other ways, through Zoom parent meetings, student council pet days, sharing of videos and assembly webinars. Somehow we have managed to keep our resolve and run a heartwarming, virtual high school graduation and recently our end of year assembly, where we all chose to reach out to each other from our homes and foster the VIS community through the network.

Covey’s final habit is to “sharpen the saw – renew yourself regularly”. Staff and students are due for a much-needed break; meanwhile the scenario-planning will begin for the next scholastic year. Let us all hope that we will be back in our schools, and whatever the scenario may be, we will be ready to foster and nurture our children’s learning.

Totty Aris, Head, Verdala, International School, Pembroke

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