16 Feb 22

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: Lessons Worth Learning from the Covid Crisis

Communications | Principal's Message

This article originally appeared in The Christian Teachers Journal February 2022.

ABSTRACT During the past two years needing to work within a range of social and physical restrictions due to COVID-19, relationships in schools and a sense of community have been under strain. Through reference to a number of film characters and plotlines, a selection of lessons worth learning from this time in history are prompted for consideration. We are reminded of our critical need for community and our undeniable reliance on one another as part of God’s creational design. We need to be able to be vulnerable with each other and know our limitations. If we want to succeed long-term in our work in Christian schooling, we need to humbly assess our situation and context, prayerfully decide, and act faithfully to the teachings of Jesus.

A damaged volleyball with bloodstains on it is drifting on the sea. You know the scene. A ragged caveman with a lean and hungry look is struggling to swim to it, then in Tom Hanks’ huskiest-ever voice he cries out, sobbing:

“I’m sorry Wilson. Wilson I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Wilson! Wil-son!”(Zemeckis, 2002)

Rekindling relationships has become an utter priority workplace skill for all of us.

Tom Hanks, as Chuck Noland, desperately tries to save Wilson. Wilson won’t survive without Chuck and Chuck can’t survive marooned on his lonesome island without … well, without somebody. That somebody ends up being Wilson the bloodstained volleyball.

Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2002) is a film about relationships. Ironically, the theme of relationships is exposed through the plot by isolating Chuck Noland without human relationships for four lonely years. The film stirs us as viewers because it exposes our critical need for community— our undeniable reliance on one another. Alone, truly alone and forsaken on his island, Chuck creates companionship because he can’t survive without it.

Building relationships

Here in Melbourne, through lockdown-imposed separation from colleagues and family, the Lord has revealed that we have been created to thrive in relationships. We need God and each other, presumably God’s good lesson from our isolation is His good plan for community. The pandemic’s suddenness meant for schools that organisational relationships already formed were all we had. For example, in our Victorian schools, if we hadn’t already a strong sense of partnership with our school’s parents, we weren’t going to be able to build it while they themselves were scrambling for meaning and for toilet rolls.

Building relationships within and alongside our school communities is our everyday, non-pandemic task. We also needed pre-formed strength in our professional networks, because when the pandemic hit, those relationships were either in place, or they weren’t, and we needed them for genuine collaboration. Suddenly, being a person to other people was an organisational obligation.

Chuck Noland’s primal isolation, and our pandemic isolations raise the question: which of ‘head, heart, and hand’ cannot be replicated by modern technology? Which is the workplace skill that only a human can bring to the workplace? Our desperate need to rekindle our hearts for one another has been exposed by the pandemic. Our human hearts’ need to live, love, and learn in community, has been uncovered by the no-hugs, no-holds, no-handshake rules that leave even an introverted germophobe craving closeness.

For some of us, being a person to other people might be the first time in a long time. Some of us don’t guard our heart, we hide our heart. The pandemic has shown us that we can’t work in Christian schools and be invulnerable, we can’t fake it in a crisis, so we shouldn’t fake it anytime.

Practically, in my own work, to be a person again to other people means I’m a lot less hesitant to speak openly of my vulnerabilities. There’s less wariness in my professionalism, I’m more ready to be honest. The pandemic has purged us; and as He does, God has used our situations to teach us needful lessons. One of God’s lessons through our isolation is that we can’t lead or teach at a distance anymore. Everyone we come across is a person and our only option is to be a person in return.

Knowing our limitations

Police officer Harry Callahan is dirty. Dirty Harry is a dirty cop; dirty, but honest, whereas his boss is corrupt. His boss, Lieutenant Neil Briggs first tries to co-corrupt Callahan, and then tries to kill him. Near the end ofthe film Magnum Force (Daley, 1974) Lieutenant Briggs gets careless, and right after the car  explosion that kills Briggs, Harry Callahan states his famous line:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.” (Daley, 1974)

Knowing our limitations is a life-saving lesson.

We are His people, and He is our God, it’s not the other way around. Nor should we be our own gods. Our God is limitless. We are limited by our humanness, and further limited by our fallen humanness. So, for school leaders’ work to flourish in crises, they have to self-assess. Leaders who self-assess and then change nothing will be like the character in James’ epistle, who after seeing his flawed reflection in the mirror, changes nothing about himself. We must ask God to search our hearts.

Jeremiah tells us to guard our hearts, and importantly it isn’t to guard our hearts for our own hearts’ sake. We are to guard our hearts so that the wellsprings of life that flow out of us in the service of others will flow freely. Self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-care for Christian school staff is not actually about self at all. For Christian school staff, self-care is for service. We care for ourselves so that our service to the Lord can be unimpeded. And we should do that regularly. Rest is a commandment; a mandate that makes it into Moses’ big ten.

When the pandemic hit, we needed to know our limitations. Self-assessment, knowing our limitations, recognising our limits, and responsively changing our behaviour means that we are able to keep thinking clearly, and keep serving others. To keep guiding our next level of leaders is simply good leadership.

Assessing and acting

Courageous leaders assess, decide, act, and they do this in God’s strength not their own. Ironically it takes courage because we don’t have the courage to do this ourselves. In Him we live and move and have our being. The courageous assess the situation by seeking real data, and uncomfortable truths. Prayerfully and humbly, they decide the next steps on the basis of those facts, not denying the current reality, no matter how scary. Then they act. If you want to succeed long-term in your work in Christian schooling, then humbly assess, prayerfully decide, and act faithfully to the teachings of Jesus.

There’s delicately delivered foreboding in Judy Garland’s voicewhen Dorothy famously says:

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Fleming, 1939)

Her voice quavers, wavering on the edge of tears, but despite her trepidation, there’s not a trace of denial. Dorothy isn’t fearless, but she faces her fears and embraces the truth; and indeed, her discomforting data is right, she’s not in Kansas anymore.

Endearingly, Toto is indifferent to all fears throughout the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939). His pointy tail wags away but not because of courage, just dogged curiosity. Dorothy however is courageous, because although her data is disconcerting, she reads the room and responds. Dorothy dares to question what is really happening around her, and she listens to the answer even though it is so scary. That’s courage.

We need that. We in Christian schools must do as Dorothy did; take a deep breath and face reality. In fact, we have to seek out the information that will truly inform us. Seek out especially any uncomfortable, scary realities. The truth can set us freezing in fear, but we must respond with courage and data-driven decisions. Scripture guides us: “All who are prudent act with knowledge, but fools expose their folly” (Prov 13:16).

The pandemic has reminded us that if we will act on informed insights and make data-informed decisions that won’t be merely courage for courage’s sake, we will rectify what’s wrong. Whatever the surveys show, whatever our current reality reveals, these seemingly disastrous disclosures can be addressed with authentic, humble responsive action … and then we repeat. We start looking for the next bit of uncomfortable truth.

I have blind spots. We all do. And at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, let me say that we’re unaware of our blind spots; we’re blind to them of course. Finding them is part of the uncomfortable current reality that we must pursue. We each need someone else who cares enough about us, or someone who cares so little about us that they will truthfully point out our blind spots for us.

My own experience has been formative. I was fortunate that our school’s governance body required a performance review of my work. An external reviewer was appointed, and I looked forward to the findings. However, I had misjudged the procedure. I had not expected the pain. As my blind spots were extracted and shown to me, I felt like I was in the hands of a clumsy dentist without anaesthetic. I felt angry. I was hurt, affronted. I became defensive and stayed that way for weeks, but not forever. Eventually cool head brought good sense to my overheated heart. Once head, heart, and hands humbled one another, I was able to assess, decide, and act on that uncomfortable data and not let my blind spots continue to block our school’s effectiveness. I wish I could boast about this, but I can’t because it is only God’s work that humbles me to achieve anything worthwhile. Again, in Him we live and move and have our being.

Humble without humiliation

The pandemic has shown us that humility is critical if we are to effectively assess, decide, and act.

The evidence isn’t all going to be pretty. If your data-based assessment of where things are at doesn’t include a good dose of very unhappy reading, then it’s fake news. Real data won’t be all bad, but it won’t be all good either, and if it is all good we’re fooling ourselves.

Dorothy is humble even in her victory. After the wicked witch dissolves, there is guileless breathlessness in her voice as she says:

“I didn’t mean to kill her, really I didn’t.” (Fleming, 1939)

Acting on unearthed truth that hurts us, humbles us without humiliation. Then when we have victories, we are more likely to stay humble, comfortable in vulnerability, seeking the next data set.

In Melbourne, our city of longest lockdowns, there is a weary feel. When we were released out of 2020’s lengthy lockdowns, we were like calves let out of a stall. In 2021 there was no manic gamboling, just mumbled grumbling. As we start 2022, plenty has changed, but it isn’t all bad. There are great lessons. Dormant skills have been unearthed, and this article has explored just some of the lessons that the pandemic has compelled us to re-learn. The pandemic has been both cruel and kind.

Schools throughout Australia, but particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, have had to adapt and learn. That’s been hard, sometimes destructive, and other times only barely manageable, but adapting and learning are, in themselves, not bad. So let’s adapt and become people again to one another. Let’s learn to know our limitations. Let’s assess, decide, act, and repeat that reality-responsive cycle again and again and again so we are ready for whatever comes next.

Mr David Gleeson, Principal

References: Daley, R. (Director). (1973). Magnum Force [Film]. Warner Bros. | Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). The Wizard ofOz [Film]. Metro Goldwyn Mayer. | Zemeckis, R. (Director). (2002). Cast Away [Film]. Twentieth Century Fox.

Reprinted with Permission by Christian Teachers Journal.