School improvement off the beaten track
I’ve just had my third Rabies vaccine and am checking my water sterilisation tablets are in date; I’m preparing for a school visit, obviously.
I have a text from the headteacher,
‘I couldn’t send you message as the lightening damaged our transformer, we had no electricity for 3 weeks, please forgive me. The children were very happy receiving gifts of stationery and are very curious to see you soon… ’
The Swedes have a word for it, ‘resfeber’, ‘the restless beat of a traveller’s heart before the journey begins, a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.’
Soon we travel to Kathmandu to deliver some CPD for the leadership team at The British School. After this we return to the secondary school we visited in the Himalayan mid-hills of Nepal two weeks before the 2015 earthquakes. No lives were lost here but the damage to buildings was severe. The classrooms are damaged beyond use and bamboo temporary shelters are in place. Villagers still sleep in shelters outside of their homes and contend with monsoon rains and sand storms. Kamal Bikram (headteacher) welcomed us to his school and home whilst we were trekking last year. We were moved by his unassuming yet well-articulated commitment to education as we listened to his story. He trained and worked in Kathmandu returning to his home village in 1997, driven by the desire do more for the community there. During the civil war he was threatened by communist rebels but remained steadfast to his call and vocation as a school and community leader.
We’ll travel to Taar by Jeep, 6 hours over rutted roads and a river to cross. The welcome will be warm and ceremonious. Our visit is much anticipated and an affirmation that the children and teachers of this school are known, cared for and ‘kept in mind’.
With the help of schools, friends and family we’ve been able to steadily raise funds for this school providing a drinking water supply, books, stationary, and soon compost toilets will be built. This school for over 120 children has never had toilets, (just hold that thought!)
We’ll stay for a couple of days, (sleeping bags at the ready) and we’ll join the four hour walk to the Shiva Cave (local shrine) with Kamal. It’s this I feel the need to prepare for; not the walking, the conversation.
The walk will create the time and space to listen, dialogue and experience the literal change of perspective that comes with increased altitude. It’s a great leveler; we’re human and we walk together. We struggle with the climb, we tire, and at the cave we will rest a while before we return, better for having walked.
School improvement in this context may appear basic; books, water, toilets. When the resources, structures, policy, legislation and systems are no longer there, what kind of school improvement learning is valid and relevant? Perhaps, ‘ontological learning’; an enquiry into the study of being and learning. The process of entering into a learning partnership in which you serve by being deeply attentive to the needs, interests and concerns of the other and encounter mutual learning through being fully aware, attentive and present. Accurately observing your own ‘way of being’ whilst open to challenge, learning and change in the presence of another. Perhaps by switching off the internal monologue and mindset long enough to expand our own way of being, so we can learn and change. Embracing the challenge to step away from received wisdom and preconceived ideas of what another needs, and be prepared to really listen.
What is the very best I can offer? How do I help build hope, strength of focus and confidence for the leaders there during our short stay? How can I be most open to learning from those leaders and communities with their reservoir of experience?
These questions translate well into any school improvement relationship. What is the essence of who we are and what we bring when all the structures, policy and guidance don’t apply? ‘‘Real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human,’’ says Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline. ‘’Through learning we re-create ourselves.’’ No lack of challenge there.
‘Resfeber’ captures it well. Sometimes it feels as though I’ve accidentally picked up the wrong bag at an airport and by some chance begun to inhabit the life of another. But some things call you by name and a massive shout of ‘YES’ bursts from inside as you wholeheartedly commit, although the path ahead is unclear.
‘Rest in reason, move in passion,’ Khalil Gibran urges, good advice for all kinds of travelers.
Note: Kamal, the parents and children pass their thanks to those in England who have offered their helping hands.