OPINION – Rachel Fink: We must recognise various types of loss for our students

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OPINION – Rachel Fink: We must recognise various types of loss for our students

As JFS welcomes 2,000 pupils back into classrooms, its head reflects on students missing out on rites of passage - but why it's essential education remains a priority

Rachel Fink
Rachel Fink

Just as lockdown was being imposed back in March, I heard a comment on the radio that said that after Covid, people will remember less about what they did, said or learnt, but how they felt.

Having just commenced the new school year, we stand at the crossroads between one Jewish year and the next, a time traditionally associated with reflection in advance of the future.

Even the most resilient among us will have had fluctuating moods and days where we wished ‘it would all just go away’ like a bad dream and the world would return to the days of old.

What will the new year hold for us all?

This period has been extraordinary in so many ways across the world, here in the UK, and particularly for schools. When I consider that we generally start planning the next academic year six months ahead and that schools were given not much more than 24 hours to adapt to lockdown, it is remarkable what we have achieved.

Each school has had to make judgements about what would work for its community, and in that I include students and staff. The key to this period has been maintaining contact with students, and where it has been strong – whether through live lessons, online assemblies, weekly email contact from form tutors or teachers giving written feedback – it has enabled everyone to maintain a sense of belonging and keep the JFS spirit alive.

Delivering education to 2,000 students is no mean feat. Managing the balance between concerns around ‘too much and not enough work’ reflects the diverse student body, both in terms of background, ability and access to online learning. I hope that in addition to their learning, students will reflect on the many online initiatives in which they had the opportunity to participate – we have celebrated chagim together, been fortunate to hear from some highly regarded speakers and, most notably, been impressed by the huge amounts of chesed and charity work with which students have engaged.

We generally think about people through the lens with which we encounter them.  Most students and parents will think of their class teachers as just that – teachers who deliver education. What this period has revealed is that teachers are also parents with children at home learning. They are spouses or single parents, carers for elderly or shielding relatives, and people who have sadly experienced grief and loss, just as students and their families have done. In this we have shared a common experience.  As a headteacher, my duty of care is as much to my staff as it is to my students.

Some of the most moving and profound school experiences for me have been the letters of support in the early days from so many JFS families, the vast number of teachers who received ‘thank a teacher’ cards from their students, and the continuous outpouring of gratitude from which we are creating a special display so we don’t forget the very best of this time. When things have not gone to plan, the collaborative way in which parents and staff have worked together is something I would bottle and sell. There have been so many occasions of the best examples of a true home school partnership over the past six months, and my fervent wish is that this will continue.

With school reopening, the planning for a school like JFS has been immense. Every aspect under consideration had to be scaled up. Under the new regulations, we have year group capsules of 300 students, whom we need to ensure can get to school, can be educated, are fed and supported pastorally while doing our best to reduce any potential spread of the virus. This has required physical changes to the building, clear and extensive information packs to staff and students and a willingness to work together and to be mindful of those around us so that all can stay safe and well.

I hope students, having stepped back into JFS this past week, feel as if they have come home and that our new students feel warmly welcomed.

It is important as a school that we recognise various types of loss, not only associated with bereavement but also related to rites of passage, lack of social interaction, loss of routine and structure and loss of celebrating important milestones with family and friends. At the same time, it is vital we focus on education, identifying and filling any gaps in student knowledge and helping new students settle into their surroundings.

It is important as a school that we recognise various types of loss, not only associated with bereavement but also related to rites of passage, lack of social interaction, loss of routine and structure and loss of celebrating important milestones with family and friends

I want students to return to the JFS they left and to the school their parents chose for them. Schools, like businesses, have been hit financially through Covid and I hope the parental support we have received will also extend to voluntary contributions, which are a vital lifeline for the school. These contributions enable us to provide outstanding Jewish education, both formal and informal, provide special well-being programmes, and offer clubs and societies, school productions, music and sport enrichment beyond the regular curriculum. All of these contribute to the holistic education I believe makes for a well-rounded and well-prepared future member of society.

As staff, we need to demonstrate a combination of compassionate leadership with effective teaching methods. While not forgetting for one moment families who have been severely affected by the pandemic, for the vast majority of our students this has not been a trauma but a serious life challenge. How we frame the experience for students will have a huge impact on them now and in the future. It’s about balance – we cannot focus entirely on the negative aspects of lockdown, but cannot ignore them.

The inside pages of my machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are covered in names and prayers for family members across the years. Every year when I open the covers, I reflect on which prayers have been answered and for what I might request of the Almighty for the coming year.

I have been fortunate that many of my personal prayers have been answered, but this time last year, in synagogues across the world, nobody could have foreseen the year that has passed. A secure environment that will enable every student to flourish despite many future unknowns will be added to my list this year. And just like the ending of the Etz Chaim prayer, I hope ‘all our days are renewed as of old’.

Humanity has suffered terrible losses. May we all be inscribed in the book of life and may we take us with the positive lessons learnt through adversity about what really matters. G’mar Chatima Tova.

  • Rachel Fink, Headteacher, JFS

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