Life of a Locked-Down Electronic Progression Officer (LEPO)
A lot has changed in the past few months that has completely changed the way that work, society, and we ourselves function.
In this blog, I will detail a few challenges, unexpected positives, and what I think are important things to consider with taking outreach forward in the next academic year.
Challenges with Work and Life
With work, one of the hardest things was this sense of powerlessness that I felt when all the activities I had planned had to be scrapped pretty much overnight, as well as the dawning realisation that I may never run external trips again for the rest of the project.
Powerlessness also took hold in the sense of not being able to freely see friends and do the out of home activities which would usually re-orient me and provide a breathing space to not think about work and just have fun.
A ‘caterpillar about to enter a cocoon’ moment took place in early April where I knew that change was inevitable and so I went through the grief stages of Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Despair; Acceptance; and Moving Forward which was a painful but necessary process.
This said, I now want to speak more on the unexpected positives that took place.
- It is a shame that it took a global trauma to spearhead this, but the educational approach to key worker and vulnerable kids coming into school has been intriguing. There is a larger focus on play, and a move beyond a narrow rigid curriculum to a space where teachers have much more of a say in what gets taught. With the smaller class sizes, teachers have more personal encounters with students can offer more 1-1 support; something nigh impossible where you have a class of 30 boisterous students and a tight timescale to teach the curriculum. What has also been remarkable, is a move from a school where most hallways doors are locked so students cannot freely move around school, to now most doors being left open; making the students feel less trapped. Behaviour management has moved to a more rehabilitative model where there is more allowance for students presenting difficult behaviour, as we as educators are mindful of the high levels of trauma they will likely be experiencing due to COVID. Also, the loud, scary, school bells have been switched off which creates a more harmonious environment as you are not spooked out of your seat every time there is a lesson changeover.
- A recognition that grades are not the most important thing, and never have been. We as a society have pushed the idea to students that everything rides on their exam results, and the resulting increases in anxiety and stress among students with an increasingly harder curriculum has had large-scale negative effects. Grades are a helpful way of testing students but there are also other ways, such as coursework and teacher predictions that are also a valid way of testing achievement. With examining boards having to overhaul the way they assess students, it would be great if there could be less focus on final exams and more on coursework. There is now a chance to re-think of how we measure intelligence: IQ is only one narrow measure of a student’s intelligence and arguably Emotional intelligence (EQ) is more important to a student’s success. A curriculum that can better incorporate this would do wonders for our students.
- Know your Neighbour as you Know yourself. Like many others, I’ve got to know my local community in completely new ways. My bike bump seems always on loan to the local kids, I’ve walked my neighbour’s dog multiple times when she’s been ill, and I moved from only speaking to this neighbour every so often to now feeling like she is a good friend! I now know the names of a few more people who live in my street, and it does feel like a genuine community; something that still feels foreign to me as I’ve never experienced it before.
- Community over the individual. COVID has provided a welcome break from unthinking capitalism and consumerism where we think first and foremost of our individual happiness and needs. By engaging in lockdown, even healthy individuals have sacrificed personal autonomy in favour of protecting the greater whole; especially vulnerable members. It has been an awakening in recognising that we are not apart but inherently connected and that our whole ecosystem consists of small, micro interactions in an interconnected web that makes up our modern society. It’s also made us as a society re-value the importance of workers. Celebrities are now less important. And the previously invisible workers who are majority working class and from the BME community (post workers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, carers, and frontline NHS staff, have all suddenly become visible and “heroes” in the public eye.
- Work: we’re all in this together. Nearly overnight, it feels like I have bonded closer with my colleagues. They moved from simply weekday friends to more than that. New WhatsApp groups have emerged which has fast-tracked collaboration as responses are quicker, and there has been a new emphasis on wellbeing and how we are doing. The professional front is still there, but the shared trauma has helped us to drop it a bit more. I’ve connected more deeply with some colleagues and this has led me to have a higher willingness to collaborate with them professionally than what I would have done previously. Vulnerability and being real is so important, especially in times of crisis and I’ve created a 6 minute video to inspire others to be vulnerable too.
- Know Thyself. It’s given me time to re-think and re-calibrate. I’ve had a lot more time to reflect on paid work. Looking back, in pre-COVID I was doing too much and over-busy. With things on pause, I have more time to think through critical decisions, and all from the security of being in my own home. I now have more time to do evaluation of activities. This was one of the residual consequences of phase 1 which had prioritised running activities over tracking. In a recent team meeting, I was also reminded about why I do what I do: to reduce injustices and create opportunities for the young people with the hardest lives. The sleepless nights and stress when running multiple events is all worth it if I know that it has positively influenced just one student into considering a career they may have thought they were never capable for.
Moving to the future:
- Stepping up as a project. There are multiple reports such as this one which notes that COVID will have increased the gap between the poorest and richest students in the UK. The need for UniConnect is thus even more pressing as we as a project need to be even more ambitious as we consider new innovative models of connecting and engaging with students online. Shifting outreach to online was always going to take place, but COVID has jump-started this move. Digital literacy is even more important and there needs to be training to help staff who already struggle with technology to be able to gain confidence in running online programmes. Students are also now more familiar with online delivery so this could save a lot of staff time and give lots of opportunities that may not have been physically possible i.e. video webinars. Students can also more easily fill out online evaluations and we can also get students accessing online career platforms. By getting all year groups enrolled online with an online careers software, it can improve the outreach role in schools by allowing us to see trends in what students are interested in i.e. half of year 10 are interested in engineering. Thus, practitioners such as myself can put on trips and events in line with student interests.
- Designing a Recovery Curriculum. Mental Health (MH) was already on the agenda, but now will be even more so. As practitioners, we must be mindful that most students will need to recover from some level of trauma. At UniConnect, because we specifically focus on some of the most disadvantaged teenagers in the country, our students will likely be some of the most affected in the country. Parents may have lost jobs, and prevailing health conditions which are endemic in poorer communities exacerbated by poor housing conditions, may mean that they may have a bereavement in their close family. Their world has turned upside down. Going forward, we will need to be patient, understanding and thick-skinned to deal with potentially rowdier presenting behaviour from students who re-adjust to school life. We will need to look past this and see that inside is a kid who just needs to know that they are loved, protected, and safe. We can play a part in showing them that there is hope in their future, and that we care. It’ll be hard, but we can do it. Their future, our future, depends on it.
Judah Chandra is a Go Higher Progression Officer in a school where he runs careers programmes for disadvantaged students. He also works as a youth worker with young males through mentoring, anger management sessions, and various boys’ groups.