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Some Reflections As We Start Remote Learning in the Time of COVID-19

Some Reflections As We Start Remote Learning in the Time of COVID-19

As Margaret Wheatley once observed,
"It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be.
The primary way to prepare for the unknowable is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another."
Here, blessedly, is where Episcopal schools are at their best—in knowing and trusting one another, in adhering to a clear purpose, our very reason for being.

-Dan Heischman, Director of the National Association of Episcopal School

"If ever there is a tomorrow when we're not together," Christopher Robin said,
"There is something you must always remember."
"And what might that be?" said Pooh.
"You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you."

-Christopher Robin, A.A. Milne

Hope locates itself in the premises that, 1) we don't know what will happen, and, 2) in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.

It's the belief that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, and who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same.

-Rebecca Solnit, from "Hope in the Dark"

Welcome to Window 4! Wherever you are connecting from, know that we are St. Mark's, a school united and still under one roof, even though that roof is largely conceptual right now.

Participating in Chapel, although in a different format, is one of the routines that our revised schedule is maintaining. Experiencing St. Mark's this spring will be very different for all of us. Maintaining some of our routines, like Chapel and also advisor meetings and School Meeting, provides some normalcy, which I hope is comforting, in these very unsettled and unsettling times.

I love seeing so many of your faces in these small Zoom tiles, and I hope that you enjoy seeing many of your fellow community members' faces as well.

I would like to start my remarks by offering some appreciations. First of all, for every member of the St. Mark's community, those participating in this virtual Chapel and those not. We have all needed to employ patience and to overcome inevitable frustrations with resilience, flexibility and adaptability. Thank you for all of that, and thank you for continuing to approach our life together by calling upon your patience, resilience, flexibility and adaptability.

I would also like to offer appreciation for members of the St. Mark's staff who have kept St. Mark's operating well during this challenging time—a time that will continue to be challenging. Some staff members have needed to leave their homes and families to keep the St. Mark's Main Building and other facilities clean and safe and functioning, which is hard. Other staff members, whether at school or at home, have attended to their administrative and support functions under conditions that are harder than normal.

I would like to offer appreciation, too, for St. Mark's faculty who have been working very hard to develop a new approach to teaching which has required time and ingenuity and creativity. This work has involved hours of Zoom meetings and hours of retooling curriculum and figuring out how to offer needed teaching materials in a virtual format—all hard! I know from watching and listening to Dr. Warren how long it can take to adjust a syllabus simply for one week for each course if you are going to do that work really well. And our faculty are doing that work really well.

And I would like to offer appreciation to the remote learning team of faculty that has taken the lead on guiding faculty through the steps for teaching in the new way we will employ this spring. That remote learning team and other supportive members of the faculty and staff have provided individual tutorial help and troubleshooting for colleagues with expertise, patience, and creativity.

I benefited from that tutorial help myself last Saturday afternoon in order to create a virtual background for some of my Zoom work. After doing my Google research and looking at the YouTube tutorials, trying to create this feature myself, I was stumped—very humbling, since I saw Monitors toggling back and forth between virtual backgrounds with ease on a Zoom call last week. So, I reached out to a member of the remote learning team during the Saturday office hours and received very calming helpful guidance to solve a problem that was really quite easy, as a number of you who are already proficient at creating virtual backgrounds already know.

Finally, I would like to offer appreciation for the Senior Administrative Team and the COVID-19 Task Force which met daily, via Zoom, during the break and throughout last week. The team has overseen very important practical tasks, like ensuring that as many of you boarders as possible could get your necessary supplies from your rooms, a task that also involved many faculty and staff volunteers.

Also, the Senior Administrative Team and COVID-19 Task Force, relying on the best factual evidence possible, identified the right decisions about a large number of topics, including when we would try to regather physically, which, as you know, is May 18, and what would happen to Lion Term. The answer to Lion Term is that we will not do it this spring. Rather, from May 18 to June 6, we will engage in some combination of intellectual and academic enrichment and community building. It is my greatest hope that this program can take place on campus and culminate with an in-person Prize Day for those who can make it. If we cannot regather physically this spring, we will figure out something else very good.

There have been so many issues to address in order to get school up and running today, and every member of the St. Mark's community has gone above and beyond to get us to this point. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

There are a couple of St. Mark's values that I would ask we all keep at the forefront of our minds as we move forward this spring. The first is gratitude for other members of the St. Mark's community and for the others in each of our lives who are trying so hard to make things work as well as possible for each of us. I also ask gratitude for each person who is following the shelter in place orders and practicing social distancing because we will only be able to regather in person if each member of this country engages in this practice to help "flatten the curve." Having gratitude is not only right, it is also a good way to maintain one's own mental balance.

Another value is empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and its close relative, perspective-taking, the habit of mind to try to understand how the world looks to someone different from yourself. These twin values lie at the heart of community and equity and global citizenship.

When I think about empathy and perspective taking, what I mean is that in addition to thinking about yourself, and attending to your self-care, which is so important at this challenging time, please do the best you possibly can to think about how others are experiencing life during this pandemic. Think about other members of the St. Mark's community you know and think about others beyond the St. Mark's community, those you know and those you do not know. Reaching out and asking how others are doing—and really listening to the answer—is an excellent way to begin the practice of empathy.

And as for imagining how the pandemic is being experienced by people in cultures different from yours, above and beyond checking in with people you do know, I encourage you to spend time some time following the news in an effort to gain a greater sense of understanding of what is in fact a global event.

I do not recommend spending an inordinate amount of time following the news, because the enormity of what is happening can feel overwhelming. However, spending some time following the news is important because you will learn a lot of information that will help your ability to employ empathy and perspective-taking.

Another St. Mark's value I advocate employing is recognizing the interconnectedness of people and places. This value is part of community and equity, global citizenship and our School's Episcopal identity. Everyone, from members of your local community to people in the geographic location farthest from you, is experiencing the impact of the pandemic in some way shape or form. Simply remembering and reflecting on that point is important. When I reflect on that point, I immediately feel a sense of awe at the magnitude of what the citizens of the world are experiencing. I also recognize that the actions of every single one of us makes a difference to those physically close to us and also to those far away from us. That interconnection creates a sense of individual and communal responsibility to act responsibly.

The final value that I would ask each of us to employ is generosity of spirit, or grace. First of all, be generous to yourself: none of us is going to be perfect as we do our St. Mark's work in these next few months and as we carry on our lives. There will be moments when we fall short of being our best selves. We need to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings and simply commit to doing our best and, as usual, learning from the mistakes we will inevitably make.

And we also need to be generous to others, approach others with grace. Recognize that everyone is doing the best that they possibly can under very challenging circumstances and be understanding when something is not perfect or when a mistake happens.

In closing, please remember that we are a very strong school community. Day by day, we will work our way through the challenges of this pandemic. This strong school community has many resources of support, support from the very practical to the emotional. Please call upon those resources if you need them, your advisor, your peers, your teachers, school administrators, Health Services, and the counselors. Do not be at all reluctant. Fellow St. Markers are here for you, with lots of skill, expertise and caring.

So, Age Quod Agis and onwards to a spring that will surely have moments of joy and reward along with moments of challenge. I am confident that when we look back on this time, we will feel a sense of pride in how we pulled together and accomplished a lot, impressively and with grace and generosity.

To view a recording of my Chapel Talk from Monday's Zoom Chapel service, select this link. The Chapel Talk begins at the timestamp 00:16:50.
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