As we continue to adjust to new ways of teaching and learning in the age of Covid-19, there is no doubt that the challenges we’re facing this year are unlike any we have ever known. The management of expectations and fears, effective communication practices and safety measures on campus all make for a unique new year at ISB. And yet, we can be reassured by the knowledge that we are not alone in our struggles; that beyond our gates, other international schools are feeling that same weight, and grappling with those same dilemmas.

We spoke to Mark Ulfers, Executive Director of the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE), about the struggles we share and the practices that are helping schools all over the world become better places to learn during this time of crisis.

He begins by reminding us that we must first and foremost recognize that we have changed, and that our students have changed along with us

Mark Ulfers, Executive Director of the AAIE

"During distance learning, children of all ages had to demonstrate that they had the time management skills and executive skills needed to do their work. They had to demonstrate integrity and honesty and self-discipline. In this sense, student agency has become much more prevalent across all schools. It is no surprise that when students return to campus, they have different expectations of their teachers and their learning in general. More importantly, we have a rare opportunity to be working on, and evaluating, not just their foundation skills but all these new skills they’ve developed. As a school, you need to be able to evaluate that which you value the most, but I don’t see enough conversation on whether this is happening."

There is no doubt that the pandemic is beginning to take its toll on many international schools around the world. Ulfers explains the importance for schools to recognize that we are in it for the long run.

"Many schools are grappling with Covid-19 fatigue on the part of all stakeholders. The hybrid learning model is proving a very difficult pedagogy to implement. Our school heads clearly know that their first priority is safety, but they are also discovering that their definition of safety may be very different to that of a board member, or of another member of their community. It’s clear that we’re not going back to normal, and yet if you look at any school website today, there is no evidence whatsoever of a pandemic going on. I worry that some schools are not responding quickly enough. Those that announce both on-campus and digital campus approaches are finding the most common ground across all stakeholders."

For many international schools around the world, one of the greatest threats posed by Covid-19 is the threat to community loyalty. The pandemic has led many families to feel more disconnected from their school communities than ever before. It is for this reason, Ulfers tells us, that we must commit to transparent communication based on compassion and continuity.

"As human beings, we have a capacity to understand that which is bad and that which is going well, but we have no capacity to deal with ambiguity. Ambiguity creates the greatest tension and fear. At first, schools were afraid of talking about what they didn’t know or were struggling to understand. But this was a mistake. We should have taken the risk of saying “here’s what we’re struggling with, what we’re learning and what we need your help with”, as well as sharing what we absolutely knew to be true. Successful schools have been very efficient in increasing that sense of ownership across their communities. We must also never forget to communicate with compassion. If school leaders forget that they’re actually managing fear, then they’re not going to be able to create that sense of community."

Arguably the greatest challenge in keeping school communities united and engaged during a crisis is that there is no one-size fits all solution. But even though it’s impossible to please everyone when it comes to the subject of safety, schools can still ensure that the principles of wellbeing and compassion remain central to every decision that they make.

"Now more than ever, schools need to have a clear set of guiding principles based on their values as a school, and everyone needs to understand that every decision being made during this time is driven out of those very principles. The international schools that have embraced their guiding principles this way have communities that are showing solidarity, loyalty and support. And then there is what we call a ‘committee of experts’, which is probably the single, most important point of leverage in gaining the support of a school community. A committee can be made up of medical experts, security experts, and governmental experts who advise the school whenever big decisions need to be made." There is no doubt that we all have a lot to learn from each other. The AAIE community, along with many others, is no longer relying on its annual conference to bring together members of its community from around the world. Conversations with School Heads are now taking place every week. Ulfers says that schools are learning to share ideas with each other.

"There’s an ease of conversation that has developed. We share our dilemmas and reflect on actions we can take around them. These conversations often result in considerable debate, but also in a lot of learning. Many reopening plans for our schools were founded on these discussions. We know each other better than ever before, we enjoy each other’s company and we can rely on each other. I think that this is the real silver lining of it all."

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