Reflections on 2016

Hi-res Safety Pin , isolated with clipping path

2016 was declared an annus horribilis by a friend in academia. I am not aware of any reasons besides the US election results for her despondency, neither am I going to pry, but it does feel the same for me. Not quite a year marked by any personal disasters or losses, yet a very disappointing one. All despair relate to my field of work.

Only three years ago I was handed a dream job on a platter. For someone like me who started off being an outlier, this invitation to head both the kindergarten and primary school was an opportunity to reconnect with a beloved community, a professional endorsement, and a promise of a heady experience lying in wait.

I was back in that school nestling in a beautiful estate; old tropical fruit trees, thriving animal life, luxuriant green fields in the middle of an urban jungle. The work was an exciting mix of freedom to reinvent with challenges of constantly seeking stakeholder buy-in. Some of the work was met with quick and easy steps, some required climbing a steep learning curve. Exhaustion and burn-out loomed but it didn’t quite unravel that way.

I was supported the most by a tried and tested, but highly inspiring pedagogy. A pedagogy that professed the most exalted outcome for its beneficiaries. An opportunity to negotiate thought and action while increasingly becoming architects of their own learning, then this leading to an inclusive world-view. I must quickly add though that the students did come from protected and privileged backgrounds.

Then there was a team of diverse, progressive colleagues beholden to this way of thinking, being, and teaching. There were many hurdles too, but even as we settled down to a ‘two steps forward and one back’ routine, the dance never ceased to be enjoyable. The results showed in the children, they started responding to real world issues, campaigning for countries with water shortage, visiting neighborhood communities to work with the less privileged, promoting the cause for migrant workers, spontaneously forming anti-racism clubs and so on. This was work designed to bring immense satisfaction, even joy.

It was short lived though and something of a debacle began to unfold. We were nudged out of the property we were in. The transition to a much smaller property was seen by many as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and become even more cohesive. Few of us mourned the verdant surroundings, the monitor lizards, the hornbills, and to a lesser degree the spitting cobras we were leaving behind. The color we would behold would no longer be overwhelmingly green; red, black, and gray instead! Many of the families from the already small and close-knit community did not move with us. There was panic and knee jerk reactions from those who had their investments at stake. Culling of staff numbers may have been inevitable, but decisions and actions were unfortunately tinged with stains of bigotry, racism, divisiveness, and negativity, and not on merit. Was this the wrath of the trees and animals we left behind as feasts for the real estate vultures?

Even among the staff that was to stay there was a loss of trust and educators were keenly aware of the huge chasm between the values we held and what came into play. Many decided to leave, I was among them. I put my energy behind securing an Ed.D admission, this was the time to take recourse in my own education. We banded together and helped each other find the best options forward. The children had their parents to protect them and make decisions for them. But as we packed our cardboard boxes there was a deep sense of failure at the subliminal messages sent to the little minds, for all our exhortation and preaching to the highest values, the adults did not protest when the opposite was being displayed. This inaction had a label – professionalism!

The horrible school year ended and immediately after I was on a flight to the UK, for a course that would start on the 22nd of June, 23rd was the day marked for the Brexit referendum. I woke up on that fateful day to witness the shock, and dismay, of colleagues. Taking the early morning bus to the university I overheard many conversations, among them a young university student who was dreading a reunion with his family that weekend, particularly how his fifteen-year-old brother was sure to ‘lose it’, and be rude to his grandparents who voted ‘leave’, he said. The newspapers soon started reporting the hate slurs and rise in racism and suddenly even my seasoned, well-traveled self, felt a little insecure being on my own so far away from home. I don’t want to feel this way, I loathe my own reaction when I avoid eye contact with the older, grungier looking people I catch looking at me – I don’t want to give them an opportunity to project prejudices if there were any, I am alarmed when I realize these are the very people I would’ve normally reserved my warmest smiles for.

The academic world was visibly shaken, every classroom discussion somehow led to the bigotry, the hatred, the seemingly moving back in time we are experiencing. I seek solace in the company of people who have risen above these biases. The world of educators; the ivory tower is different, I conclude. Yet there is the opinion that the less educated have not been served and have been negatively impacted by the changing demographics of the world. There is much to understand and ponder over, but my thoughts keep going back to the young man on the bus, does this generation, which has begun to embrace a more diverse world, not have a say in the future they want?

Returning home, I plunge into my studies, there is little in the way of distraction. The US elections become the biggest discussion point in social circles, the media will not have it any other way. I am heartened that every person I know is opposed to a leader whose campaign rests on divisiveness and hate mongering.

The election results definitely create shockwaves, even deep sadness among people I know. In every social or academic gathering I attend, I encounter people who express their shock and dissatisfaction at what happened. I am deeply affected too. Slowly, I tune out and try to find reasons for this, it is important to read/listen to several arguments and analysis, I hear about the disenchantment of the under-served, those affected by forced acceptance of diversity, somewhere in the middle of all this rhetoric I hear one phrase that feels like a slap in the face; “the cause for economic progress trumped over the ‘academic silos’ that the elite resides in”.

Academic silos? This is not the intent of education, as I know it. Education is meant to help put food on the table but also teach us to adapt, connect, and empathize. I need to pick up the pieces after this disappointment and keep working to break down the walls that education creates – if it does! I need many years of annus mirabilis, for this.

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