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Principal's Blog - Riverside Reflections

The Power of Youth

 

You don't have to be a tennis fan to know the name Emma Raducanu - the first British woman to win a major tennis tournament in 44 years and achieve the extraordinary feat at 18 years of age without losing a set in the tournament.

Sadly, I have already heard it suggested that she is only deemed British because of her success this week.  Even more unfortunate was that the character who said this was unaware that she had moved to the UK at the age of two, attended UK state schools and holds full citizenship of both the UK and Canada. He would have been equally unaware that her Romanian grandmother taught her how to cook. Emma can speak Mandarin and holds a couple of As at A Level. Ignorance overlooks the talented young global citizen and instead asks, 'where are you really from?' Much work remains around some Jurassic attitudes, I'm afraid.

The concept of countries taking reflected glory in the endeavours of individual sportsmen and women is a debate for another time, but what all should celebrate is the power of youth. The capacity of an 18-year-old to step on a court, undoubtedly nervous inside but totally fearless in her tennis and in her aspect, is incredible to witness. As age and anxiety kick in, things will only get harder - as I'm sure some sage pundit will be quick to warn her.

In 1985 Boris Becker beat Kevin Curren to win Wimbledon at 17 years and 227 days old. A year later, he demolished the world number 1, Ivan Lendl, to retain his crown. A powerful, all-action player with a booming serve, he became the darling of the media and the sporting world.  Fame and fortune followed before the almost inevitable fall from grace. Throughout his career, few people asked the German lad with boyish good looks where he was 'really from'.

Tennis has a habit of producing these wunderkinder. In 1989 Michael Chang beat Becker's record by winning the French Open at 17 years and 110 days. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, you can bet a few asked him where he was 'really from'. His mother was born in India, and his father in China before moving to Taiwan. Michael Chang was a global citizen, US citizen, devout Christian, a trailblazer for Asian Americans, and a tennis player from the US. He made a difference in the same way Emma Radacanu has just done - this is what we should celebrate.  

Tennis drives individuals to obsessive practice, and often parents confidently describe themselves as Tiger mums or the male equivalent. Then again, there isn't a male equivalent, is there? Is it somehow ok for fathers to obsessively drive their children to greatness (read Earl Woods and Emmanuel Agassi, who admitted to experimenting with his other children before getting it right with Andre) but not mothers? Another blog right there, perhaps?

I saw this drive in some young athletes I taught years ago. In understanding Radacanu's success, we should know that outrageous talent often falters unless the foundations of each skill are laboriously and slavishly learnt. With skills embedded in a maturing frame, it is truly extraordinary what can be achieved through the late teens and early twenties. You think you are indestructible, and that confidence reinforced with skill is what allows you to transcend your sport for a time.

Long term success is the goal of professional athletes, and it requires serious repetition. We crave that now for Emma - repeat, repeat, repeat.  We hope she learns and develops into an all-around great, not because it is good for Britain but because she dreams of what she has striven for. We also crave that those ignorant enough to ask 'where are you really from' learn something about and from this wonderful young athlete.  

Riverside Reflections: The Salt Path

 

I am truly blessed to have rather ignorantly purchased a house in the South Hams in Devon in 2014. This corner of South Devon was completely unknown to me then, but over seven years, we have come to love the rolling hills, views of Dartmoor and access to the sea as we are only two miles from the nearest section of the South West Coast Path.

That coast path is held together by associations through Somerset, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.  A national trail that enables visitors or residents to walk non-stop around the entirety of the southwest of England.  This unique treasure is 630 miles of joy and pain.  Joy from the stunning scenery, pain because you would effectively summit Everest four times over the course of the walk.

It was then, with some enthusiasm, that I began reading The Salt Path on the flight back to Bangkok in early August.  Raynor Winn and her husband Moth were evicted from their farm in Wales after a series of bad business decisions, a toxic investment and the trickery of a former friend.  Left homeless and with nothing to do, Raynor persuaded Moth to walk the southwest coast path, having read about it as a child and again as they were packing up their home.  Just as they were preparing to do so, Moth was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease with a prognosis of only two more years of life.

The book is a marvel; beautifully written, true to the coast's beauty and the pain as feet were blistered and Moth's illness delayed progress.  The book is also a marvel as the themes resonate so well with the tough times we have all experienced in recent years (hard to believe we now write of the pandemic as impacting years, but it does).  

A key reflection is that having become homeless, Raynor and Moth were subject to prejudice and scorn.  The message is clear. They are not bad people - they are farmers and proud providers.  However, without a home, they became nameless and worthless.  Maybe we should reflect on the ease with which any of us could end up in this state and treat people a little more kindly as a result?

Perhaps more predictably, the experience of camping wild each night provided immersion in nature and a reinforcement of the notion that the environment works in perfect balance, constantly upset by our presence.  In Raynor's words, the environment is not a 'separate thing'. It is something we are 'in' and should respect it more - humbling terms from a former farmer.

The tale of determination to see the project through is like many others in this genre, though the physical impact on Moth was astounding.  The walk was undertaken in 2013, and he is still alive today.  More profound was the sense of purpose they gained from having this task complete.  This purpose was the foundation for completion, continuance and enjoyment.  It gave them hope and a destination. It saved them.


This story has been the focus of my assemblies to Junior and Senior year groups this week as we reflect on starting the new school year online.  We need purpose, determination, understanding of our environment and strong collaboration to make this work well. The Salt Path is an inspiration for us all to find a way forward in challenging times.  Stories like this are also reminders that perhaps we are the lucky ones?

Riverside Reflections: When to Forgive and Forget?

 

This week sport has offered us another wonderful life lesson.  Although many of our students know little about cricket, the game that consumed me for 30 years, they may be aware now of the name Ollie Robinson.  After making a very promising start to an international sporting career, he is suspended from the team after the discovery of racist and sexist tweets from a decade ago.

There has been much debate in the UK about the tweets and the sanction.  Politicians and the media arguing about when it is that teenagers should be forgiven for their past misdemeanours.  This is the perfect fuel for programmes like our own Learning for Life, or Personal Social and Health Economic Education as it is often referred to in the UK.

Excellent professionals like Karl Hopwood have been delivering the same message consistently and entertainingly since then, and I can sense his ‘eye rolling’ at another prime case for his updated powerpoint display.  It was with a strong sense of deja vu that I watched a middle aged man laboriously mansplain on one news channel yesterday, that social media posts are a permanent record and should be treated with care.  This was the mantra of all those involved in the support of young people a decade ago and more, with Facebook on the scene by 2005, it felt baffling to me and I’m sure younger members of the audience to be patronised on this again. 

Being smug about it doesn’t help though.  Teenagers get it wrong.  Jackie Cox did an amazing job for decades through her work in the UK boarding sector in explaining why this happens and she was one of the first speakers to interpret scientific finds about brain function into sound advice for staff and parents.  The brain’s recalibration, and fluctuations in chemistry through the teenage years suggests that there will be mistakes, mishaps, misunderstandings and literally mindless behaviour.

This is why social media is such a challenge.  All of my teenage moments were played out in the mid 1980s when the closest I got to transmission of my views were the odd outbursts aimed at my parents when I was especially disgruntled with a perfectly reasonable decision of theirs.  Now reactions to events are swift, public and permanent.  We have been advising, cajoling, reminding and supporting for over a decade now, and nothing has really changed for our young people - or has it?

In my view, students have got better at regulating themselves in this space.  Maybe not much better, but better.  This came through more widespread and higher quality education, a creep similar to the inexorable increase in grades as we got better at teaching towards the outcomes desired.  The Ollie Robinson case will serve as a reminder and schools should use it as such.  

Schools are better at this too, they pounce on such posts and deal with it swiftly, trying not to stigmatize but educate instead.  That is the easy bit, the next part becomes much more challenging - when should these posts become ‘in the past’ in the way that the points ‘earned’ from your erratic and over zealous driving in your 20s disappears from the license?

This is the nub of the Robinson debate.  On one hand, these posts are a decade old, but if I cast my mind back to life in schools in 2010 this would have raised alarm bells then as it does now.  I worked in a school which had a very clear and enthusiastically enforced lack of tolerance for racism.  It is possible that the media is more sensitised to this issue now due to the events of the last few years and George Floyd’s grisly demise, but good schools were working hard to stamp racism out 10 years ago and well before.

The key to dealing with issues such as this then is the key now.  Is he contrite?  Has he learned from his mistake?  Will he refrain from this in the future and what support does he need to ensure he doesn’t slip back?  However, in focussing on Robinson, we miss a crucial point that colleagues at Riverside seized upon immediately - the damage done to others.  Whatever Robinson did or didn’t mean, whatever his intent, whatever his background - those tweets cause offence, hurt and despair now, as they would have done at the time.  Maybe we should think more about how we tackle that, rather than when he next plays cricket for England?  

It is perfectly possible that Robinson is a flawed character, and if so he will feel the wrath of the media and the governing bodies again - rightly so.  It is also possible he posted without thought about the damage he would cause and without malice, in which case he should be offered another chance after a meaningful and appropriate sanction - mistakes are how you learn, and if we live in a world where teenagers cannot make any mistakes then I fear for what is ahead of us.
 

Riverside Reflections: The Bigger Picture

Can’t see the wood from the trees?

This lovely English saying neatly describes a feeling that comes to many in education rather often.  Immersed in the detail of a timetabled day, the minutiae of each lesson, meeting or interaction, it can be a common experience to have heads in the weeds finding little time to take the view of the overall growth of the wood or forest.

It happens to us all, even those of us charged with setting the vision and direction of schools.  In recent months the third wave of infections in Thailand, the return to online learning, umpteen layers of communication through a range of platforms and the critical phase of Project 2021 has meant that the senior team at Shrewsbury has been somewhat preoccupied with the weeds and the trees.

The level of detail in Project 2021 is mind boggling.  The spaces are vast, and numerous.  The requirements of each classroom or laboratory are complex and require accuracy.  The spreadsheet begun recently to detail the moves through August is already fiendishly complicated.  

Then this week, we returned to the site.  Because of all mentioned so far, it had been a while.  The changes have been momentous, and the outcomes astounding.  Space and light is abundant as cathedral-like ceilings offer us the headroom for young people to grow physically and metaphorically.  The Stephen Holroyd Sixth Form Commons is a space to be enormously proud of, as we are of him and his legacy.  The Sir David Lees Innovation Centre is a building to lead education from in the coming years, just as he has led with distinction for so long.

‘A lion chased me up a tree, and I greatly enjoyed the view from the top’ - Confucius.  Anything attributed to Confucius requires interpretation, but this phrase is so apt this week.  The lion is the need to continue pressing on with the building, a number of details needing to be finalised, and once chased the view was spectacular.  In a wider context it reminds us that in any wood or forest, we only see it’s majesty from above - the canopy of the rainforest, or a flight high enough to see how the landscape works in the ‘bigger picture’.

As we move towards our next Governor’s Meeting we will continue to search for the bigger picture.  The senior team have been considering this for some time now, and recognise that Riverside will need some profound changes alongside the physical alterations being made right now.  More enrichment for all, more opportunity for all, better support of all and the infrastructure to deliver significant change.

I’m sometimes asked where the ‘bigger picture’ comes from.  In previous years flying has helped, long trips to the UK and US offer distance from Riverside and the challenges and benefits of this.  Perspective is key, and sometimes you have to be away from something, or above it, to gain a renewed perspective.  Literature is also a ‘go to’ for me.   

A fairly eclectic mix or reading has helped with this.  Books about the history of mankind can ensure that you draw out from your current place and time.  Sapiens, Homo Deus, and The Silk Roads have been key in this.  The first two are reasonably well known - a humanist view of the development of the world offering the capacity to draw conclusions about how we can move forward in life along what is a far greater continuum than we might usually think.  

Silk Roads is interesting because it offers the profound lesson that the world is seen from so many different angles, and a large section of our modern world is neither western or eastern - perspective being everything.

So in closing I urge our students, especially those coming to the end of a tough time with assessments.  Get to the top of the tree, have a look at what is beneath you and gain the bigger picture.  Read, explore, get lost in diversions.  Witness the forest in all its majesty, and enjoy it too. 
 

Riverside Reflections: Out of adversity comes Opportunity

        
'Out of adversity comes opportunity' - Benjamin Franklin

In this blog before I have written about the potential benefits of the pandemic. I realise this sounds strange - nobody wants COVID to run their lives, and we would all prefer to have the freedoms we felt we had prior to 2020.,

However, there are benefits.  Despite a number of ill-informed comments from politicians in the UK, students across the world have learned new and valuable skills - not least the resilience to deal with the vacillations of examination protocols and government policy. The way in which content is delivered and contact has been achieved, has altered education fundamentally and particularly offers us more options moving forward.

Families, especially in Thailand have spent more time together, as a result of the ‘work from home’ directive. Not all of this time is easy due to the rigours of online learning, but I sense that we might look back in years to come on this time as a chance to build stronger and more powerful relationships with our closest contacts.

In a wider sense, the innovation clear across a range of sectors has been humbling to witness. The speed of vaccination production, the technological developments, and solutions to fiendish problems have been truly groundbreaking. 

Benjamin Franklin should know. A key part of US history, scientist, politician, diplomat, author, and inventor he had a huge impact on the history of the US in the late 18th century. His famous quote has proved to be right in a legion of ways, none more so now.  A recent tweet by a Bangkok expat exposed another of these opportunities, ‘my kid doing swimming lessons online, this is nuts!’; adversity bringing hitherto unexplored opportunity.

In the absence of my attendance at HMC Conferences and the like, I shifted my expenditure on professional development this year and invested it in coaching.  No stranger to the idea of being coached, I have enjoyed the transition into trusting an external provider with my inner thinking.  The experience has been revelatory.  Rather than the acquisition of knowledge (hugely important of course), I have been challenged to think and through the form of questioning my coach has challenged me in a way I thought impossible.

Recently too, I’ve rediscovered my love of reading.  2020 tried to blow me off course, and away from a set of eclectic and interesting texts rarely anything to do with education, but always with messages that can be applied.  I’ve been able to replace long flights and UK trips with, ‘happy hour’ on the balcony (yes drinks are provided) and short breaks in paradise when Thai travel has been allowed.

My current read is a recommendation from a colleague.  Limits to Growth is an update to a project started in the 1970s to understand the impact Man was having on the world and whether economic growth was sustainable.  Not without controversy, the researchers asserted that there were serious limits to growth as the title suggests and that man should alter course to ensure sustainability in the long term.  Now fifty years on from the original assertion, the challenge remains a significant one as our impact on the environment continues to be profound.

In reading this text now, I am catching up on previous thinking but also finding optimism in thinking about my engagements with students over recent years.  More awareness of environmental issues, more determination to find sustainable economic solutions, and more appreciation of the need to alter course.  To me, this positivity can only be exacerbated by recent events, and innovation in the management of globalisation should be open and inclusive in the hands of the generation we are currently teaching.  

So, kids, we are all counting on you!  After you’ve revised for exams that aren’t exams, have a look at what a polymath in times of adversity and challenge looks like.   In 1737 Franklin argued that ‘well done is better than well said’, a great call to action and he also knew what the Shrewsbury Bangkok community knows - that as our motto says ‘if the heart is right all will be well’.

‘A right Heart exceeds all’ Benjamin Franklin - Poor Richard’s Almanack 1739