I have discovered that one of the best things I can do to keep myself healthy is to walk or jog along the coastal path in Pembrokeshire. The combination of exercise, stunning scenery, conversation, space to think, strong winds and sense of achievement never fail to clear my head, help me gain perspective and just make me feel better. I have missed it enormously over the last few months, what with one thing and another.
In May, I spent time listening to groups of Dean Close parents as we shared our experiences of how young people were responding to spending every day at home. It was very clear that for some it was proving to be a real struggle but others were thriving. They were finding many of the things that I find on the coastal path. The parents told me about time, space, conversations over dinner, improved mental health, new forms of exercise and how their teenagers were starting to lift up their heads and gain perspective.
We spoke about the great benefits of being bored, of how impressed the parents were by the focus, discipline and adaptability of their children. Admittedly, we were still in the early days of lock down and the novelty may have worn off!
We are now planning for all pupils to return to school in September and the chance to restart. We will return to many of the same rhythms as we had before. But how do we hold onto those things that have been so good for so many. The current buzz words are “rebuild better”.
One day back in Pembrokeshire, I was jogging along the coastal path feeling pretty positive about life and looking at the scenery around me when all of a sudden I was face down in the dirt (the exact location can be seen in the photograph). My vision of myself as a graceful fell runner was given a sharp dose of reality thanks to a combination of a stray tree root, large feet and poor running technique. As I picked up my bruised ego, I was reminded of the need to focus on the next step. The path can be very uneven at times and the weather can change it from one day to the next. Whilst it is vital to take in our surroundings, it is equally important to make sure that the next step is a good one. We are living through uncertain times with some pushing to return to normal as soon as possible and others urging us to seek a new normal. Until we can be more certain of our footing, we need to make certain of each step.
Whenever I run along the path, I meet several people all using the same path but for very different reasons. There are the daily walkers, doing their usual route. The long distance hikers, on their way from St Dogmaels to Amroth. The families, the dog walkers, the geographers, the first daters and the life-long partners. I am frequently overtaken by men and women who eat up the miles due to their superior athleticism and fitness. It’s one path, but we’re all needing it for different reasons.
One of the biggest, daily lessons this time has taught me is the different needs our pupils, teachers and parents have for Dean Close. The extroverts and introverts, the local and the overseas, the ambitious and the unprepared. When you are forced to move into completely different ways of doing things, you suddenly discover new people thriving. In order to operate, schools need to move in blocks but in this time we have found that technology and need can drive us to find space for more variety. To deliberately find new ways of doing things.
The coastal path needs to exist for all its users. Now more than ever, schools need to help all of its users to flourish. To find space, variety, time for relationships and to listen. We will return to solid ground and when we do we should be able to look back at this time and see that the Dean Close that emerged was still Dean Close, but better.