Monday was an interesting day at the Castle as we encountered a small group of anti-mask and anti-vaccine protesters determined to share their opinion about our school policies. To quote one insightful Grade 5 student: “Why do they care what we do?” Thankfully, it was an uneventful protest but as I explained to students when I spoke to them Monday morning, we recognize and respect the rights of citizens to lawfully protest in public. It was, admittedly, my first public protest as Head of School and I am sure everyone will understand if I say I’d like it to be my last.
I’m a researcher and a sociologist by training. That means I spent many years at university learning what constitutes high quality data and thinking about what makes society tick. The more I studied, the more I realized there was an awful lot I didn’t know. It’s like the quote by Einstein who said: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” My years in academia taught me to be intellectually humble, to remain open to further learning, and above all, to be highly suspicious of anyone who claims to know the definitive truth (particularly if they’ve come upon it second or third hand from a source they can’t identify).
The evolution of society’s relationship with science and data during COVID has been both fascinating and disturbing to watch as the persistent nature of a mutating virus has eroded our collective patience and faith in expert advice. Social media and the ability to Google just about anything imaginable with little quality control has created a cottage industry of armchair epidemiologists and public health experts who’ve never studied science but feel certain they understand hepatic sequelae as well as the next guy. Cherry picked data, readily found on the internet, serve to entrench pre-existing beliefs and confirmation bias runs amok on all sides.
There’s enough information in the public realm to support virtually any position one wishes to argue. But does that mean that any position is right? As an educator, I vehemently argue, no. Some things are simply incorrect. But I harken back to 2005 and Stephen Colbert’s brilliant coining of the term “truthiness” to suggest that versions of the truth are now being argued with vehemence and at great cost to our sense of shared community and ability to critically assess. Society’s deference to scientific expertise has waned and with it, our willingness to differentiate between fact versus opinion. We’ve become so frustrated with the way things are and the way things have been managed on a national or regional or school level, that some have decided to take matters into their own hands. I understand that. I see the dilemma we’re in. When even the experts can’t agree, what’s a layperson to do but pick a side and double down hard.
As a school, we’ve tried hard to navigate the pandemic as best we can. I point out to staff that it’s our first pandemic and the School’s second, but little to no advice was left behind by the administration in 1918 so we’ve looked to – yes, you guessed it – the experts. And there’s the rub. Experts were trusted in the beginning and although we came to realize that some of what they told us at first turned out to be false – do you remember forgoing uniforms because we feared fomites on buttons? – we gave them the benefit of the doubt and maintained our trust as understanding of the virus grew and expert advice shifted. Perhaps it was fear that kept us united in the fight. People were dying in 2020, not just those with pre-existing conditions but healthy adults. It was a frightening time for the world with no vaccine on the horizon but Canadians and Ontarians came together in the belief we would prevail.
Two years later and here we are. Fear of COVID has not necessarily gone away but with vaccines and anti-viral treatments readily accessible, its primacy has been supplanted by frustration, anger and (I would argue, for some) a different kind of fear that sees a world changing in threatening ways. We are less prepared to follow the experts because they’ve been shown not to get it right every time – remember Einstein? – but also because the stakes feel lower. We can thumb our nose at public health guidelines we no longer like because the calculus of us getting it wrong suddenly feels a lot less risky.
Where does that leave school leaders in all of this? For Trafalgar Castle, we committed early on to follow expert advice and to determine which group of experts to follow when differences arose. (In our case, that’s been Sick Kids, the Ontario Science Panel, Durham Public Health and, of course, our wonderful Nurse Michelle, who’s been my sidekick for the past 26 months as she’s toiled deep in the trenches of her Provincial school nurse network, gleaning what’s worked and what hasn’t in different school settings.) I’m not going to argue that we got it right every time or even that we’re getting it right now, but we’re making decisions in a challenging social context as best we know how. And most importantly, we remain open to feedback prompted by a healthy dose of humility.
In a society that feels increasingly binary, where one side pits itself against the other, I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to prepare our students for what promises to be a bumpy road ahead. I am blessed to work with students who are passionate, burgeoning social activists, each determined to change the world (or at least change our school). Like generations of young people who came before them, it is their developmental and generational duty to push back against the mores of a society built by old folks. It’s the way it is and the way it’s always been, and old folks (myself included) who forget that fact need only harken back to their own youth. Oftentimes, a student may express frustration because others don’t see the world in the same way. They’re amazed that anyone could disagree with what they think and feel because, to their mind, they’re right. No doubt about it.
I’ve learned that telling an adolescent they may be wrong is a real conversation stopper and a wholly ineffective strategy if your goal is to help them become more reflective, more insightful and better able to consider different points of view. My role is not to tell young people what to think. My role is to help them learn how to think and how to use their thinking to affect the change they want to see in the world. So rather than addressing the opinions they hold, I often simply question: Do you want to be right or do you want to be in relationship with others?
I explain that social change rarely happens overnight. That people are more able to evolve in their thinking when they feel safe. That shaming leads to reactivity that leads, in turn, to greater distance. And that not everyone in life will agree with them. I wonder aloud – a much better approach than telling – whether building a relationship based on mutual respect for differences is perhaps a better starting place to explore these differences. I also muse aloud whether small conversations that take place over time aren’t more effective in the long run than a diatribe, no matter how principled or impassioned.
The notion of staying in relationship is a fundamental one for young people (and adults) to learn. It requires we forgo the need to convince others we are right (and they are wrong). It asks that we consider why our emotions run so high when we encounter opinions that differ from our own. It encourages us to perspective take with reason and empathy. It does not, it must be stated, demand that we all agree.
As we approach the end of another pandemic-afflicted school year and look to the future, it is my sincere hope that our Trafalgar Castle community works hard to stay in relationship with one another and with our broader community (even when they protest). The world around us is conflict laden, and while we cannot stick our heads in the sand nor shirk our responsibility to tackle the challenges we face, I believe that Trafalgar Castle students can emerge as beacons of positive social change if we, as adults, work to challenge each mind, strengthen each voice, and nurture each heart.