I am a planner. I like to be organised. Friends laugh (fondly, I hope!) at my ’80s’ style file-o-fax’ which I use in preference to an electronic appointments diary. Usually I have commitments pencilled in for more than a year ahead – work, holidays and social engagements. I have reminders of various tasks I set for myself, and I enjoy ticking them off – it gives me a sense of satisfaction and purpose. This is how I have structured my time and kept track of my professional and personal responsibilities since I stepped down from headship after ten years, at the end of a thirty-year career in schools, in 2010.
But the world changed a month ago. Since the middle of March, and in common with everyone else in UK, and many across the world, I have had to adjust to a very different rhythm in my life. It was sobering to sit down with my diary and to erase everything I had planned for the weeks and months ahead – work in Belfast, London, Harrogate and Bath; holidays in Tallinn and Valencia; theatre visits, concerts and a large number of social events, including trips to visit friends, meals, drinks, and a day at a health spa. Looking at the empty pages before me felt unnerving – I realised what we faced was going to be an extraordinary (I’m developing an aversion for the word ‘unprecedented’…) experience.
A month into this experience, I’m reflecting on how my life is now – what is different, what is challenging, but also what is positive. I recognise that we are, in many respects, fortunate, and I don’t take this for granted. I’m not separated from those I’m closest to, as many are. We have space here, and are especially enjoying the garden and local rural walks in this beautiful spring weather. Although there are many things I miss – particularly seeing friends, fulfilling the work commitments I had, and our planned holidays – I know that all those things will happen again when we are through this. We are well, eating healthily and, perhaps strangely, sleeping soundly – which may be because we are actually getting more fresh air and exercise than we usually would. And, of course, we are fortunate to be healthy, at the moment, and that those we love are also well and safe.
I think I may be more adaptable than I have given myself credit for in the past – as someone who likes to plan, make lists, and tick things off. I have replaced my usual commitments and engagements with a different schedule, and there is something quite restful and soothing about this. I fully understand that for many people life at the moment is presenting all kinds of new challenges, and we all have different contexts to navigate, but these are the things which I have found have helped me, and I share them in the hope that reading this may encourage others to reflect on, and process, what they are learning from the new rhythm in their own lives.
- I am making exercise a priority. I spend half an hour on Wii Fit (another blast from the past!) when I get up every morning, and feel physically and mentally better for that. During each day, I sit out in the sun, work in the garden, or go for a local walk, often down to the river and back across the fields. I have osteoarthritis in my knees, diagnosed several years ago now. I am experiencing less pain than I have ever had, and have stopped taking painkillers or using anti-inflammatory gel. The combination of sun and moderate exercise are doing the trick.
- I am reading a lot – good fiction, and educational books (and I tweet extracts from the latter in case this is of interest to those educators who follow me). I love reading – it’s my favourite form of relaxation – and I have more time for this than I have ever had.
- I am writing – blogs and education pieces, but I am also working on a novel which I started in January and am about half way through. I don’t know whether I will be able to get it published, or whether others will want to read it (and enjoy it if they do), but I love the process of writing, and meeting the challenge of creating something I can feel proud of.
- I am connecting with educators on Twitter and using Zoom, (for example in #SLTchat and the TDT’s #CPD connect up sessions – and I look forward to leading one of these with Kathryn Morgan on Saturday 2nd May). I am reading and sharing blogs, articles, podcasts and videos about education. I support any of my educator contacts however I can if they ask for help or guidance. I have always relished the chance to do this, but now I have greater opportunity to do so and more time to give to it. I am pleased I can continue with my Skype coaching, and I am looking forward to facilitating the next cohort of our online course on ‘Leading an Independent School’, which starts on April 27th and which can, of course, go ahead as normal.
- And I am communicating with family and friends. I have several WhatsApp groups with whom I engage daily, including as we work through the 30 day song challenge:
which is leading to interesting discussions and reminiscences, especially among the group of school friends with whom I am sharing my choices – we have known each other for over 50 years now and have a huge amount of shared history. We add links to the songs we choose, which is encouraging me to revisit music from several eras, and introducing me to some new material.
I have regular phone conversations (an hour each week) with two friends in their 70s who live alone, and I have had WhatsApp video calls with a number of other friends, including Hannah Wilson and Shirley Drummond over Easter weekend, so I made and wore an Easter bonnet (with real flowers and an image from the front cover of the Radio Times…) for the occasion!
I am writing letters again – something I haven’t done in recent years, and sending texts and emails to share news and support. The Book Club I am a member of held our most recent discussion on email last week, which worked surprisingly well. I have never had such frequent contact with so many people, and it is energising and joyful.
Twenty years ago this week, when I was a deputy head in Nottingham, I was on a school trip to Florida – we had the BEST time. As I reread my year 2000 diary, I am sharing each entry by email, day by day, with three of the friends who were there too, and we are reliving memories which make us laugh and bring us joy.
6. I am listening to music, watching some television – not a huge amount, but I have enjoyed the National Theatre live productions, and catching up with films. I am spending times on puzzles, which is something I find relaxing – sudoku, crosswords and other word puzzles, and we’re on our second jigsaw. I have never learnt to play chess, but my husband has promised he will teach me. We have never known a stretch of time like this, when we are at home for such a long period. It has brought opportunities rather than frustrations.
I do understand that many people are dealing with much more difficult challenges than I am, and fully accept that, for some, it is harder to find the positives in this different pace of life. I sympathise with those who have anxiety about their loved ones, and/or about their work, or their finances. I appreciate that some people have far less space, and can understand how this must create tension and pressure. I know that many people are unwell, or have family and friends who are suffering. Some are dealing with bereavement. This is an extremely worrying time for many, and experiencing stress and fear is a very natural response to this highly unusual situation. I was very much impressed with this piece, recommended by Emma Kell, which is written by Dr Jenny Murray on the subject of how it is OK not to be OK. (I can also recommend this TEDx video by Dr Helena Temple, which deals with the same issue). If you are struggling, I hope you feel you can talk about it (perhaps using resources such as the Education Support Partnership), and that you have support in your homes and among your communities.
These are extraordinary times. Find joy and peace where you can.
Photo credit: John Berry
When mum died in 2018 we planted her ashes beneath a weeping flowering cherry which we planted in our garden, which was what she had requested. Its blossom, this spring, is beautiful.