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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

School Leadership, COVID-19 and the Poetry of Exhaustion

As schools began to close in the first weeks of 2020, we all rushed to the starting line.

Filled with confidence, we launched our crisis management teams, distance learning plans, and virtual admissions experiences. We were praised for our agility and our commitment to the safety and wellbeing of everyone around us. We were in our stride.

And then it dawned on us. This is going to be a marathon and not a sprint.

And few of us were prepared for what happened next.

Over the weeks that followed, the crowds that cheered us at the beginning of the race had dwindled to a few loyal supporters. We were running on our own now, struggling to catch our breath between promised updates.

Away from the relatively familiar terrain of those early days, we drew each week on support from one another to navigate our way around the foothills of scenario planning, budget predictions, and the future of our industry.

We made decisions, when the path ahead seemed unclear. We tried to reassure, even if we were worried every time we stepped outside our front door. We planned a return to campus, when everyone was offering a different opinion about what that plan should be.

And all the while, as weeks turned into months, we longed for the finish line - even if there was never any chance of a medal.

A black and white photograph of men running a race
How are you approaching the finish line of this school year?

In 1967, American novelist John Barth published an Essay entitled The Literature of Exhaustion.

Sometimes referred to as a manifesto for postmodernism, Barth was not so much interested in the experience of tiredness as what he called ‘the used-upness of certain forms’. When it comes to the act of writing, he explained, all of the storylines of modernity have already been explored, exploited and explained many times over. The rise of postmodernism is therefore little more than admitting to ourselves that our words have run out of steam.

Over the past few weeks, particularly as we started the final ascent towards the finish line, there can be no doubt that many of us have begun to feel that same ‘used-upness of certain forms’ we once described as school. And this, I would argue, is why we are so tired. The lexicon of learning (and now distance learning) has been explored, exploited and explained so many times, but the words no longer resonate in the way they once did. As educational leaders, some of us might even say that we’ve started to run out of steam.

In 1980, John Barth published another Essay, this time entitled The Literature of Replenishment. It was an attempt to clarify a misunderstanding in his previous work. Just because we’ve exhausted our storytelling within an old paradigm, he said, doesn’t mean that we need to stop writing altogether. On the contrary, it just means that we need the courage to step away from these used-up storylines and seek out stories that are fresh, relevant and have the capacity to replenish the conversations we have with one another.

As another school year ends, we will all cross the finish line exhausted. This is a year that has taken its toll on students, parents, faculty and staff alike.

We may also look back and say that this was the year in which the poetry of education was also exhausted.

And that it is time for a period of replenishment to begin.

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