An introductory post from Mary Ryan, Head of Department, Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University.
When Michael and Bernie asked me to write a blog, the phrase that immediately came into my mind was ‘Hello and Goodbye’. Interesting – why that phrase and why now? When I google it, I find the words to a song – ‘Hello and Goodbye ‘sung by Jill Ireland. I have no memory of ever hearing the song, I look up the lyrics.
“Some have a lifetime, some just a day
Love isn’t something you measure that way
Nothing’s ever forever, forever’s a lie
All we have is between ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye”
March 12th 2020 – suddenly and shockingly we say goodbye to face to face contact with our students, colleagues, and many of our families and friends. Overnight we transition to remote teaching delivery and struggle to find new ways of saying hello and maintaining relationships. It reminds me of being in the Gaeltacht – total immersion in an unfamiliar language, perpetually anxious.
Suddenly broadband emerges as the significant criterion for inclusion and exclusion. The reflexive dialogue at the heart of adult learning was compromised by remote delivery as the focus was on connectivity and staying connected. I found it very difficult to adjust to working with learning groups online, how to get a feel of the group dynamic and emotional temperature. My pedagogical model of group facilitation, crafted over 30 years, seemed no longer appropriate to remote learning. I am forced to be more structured and directive, there is less opportunity for members to engage spontaneously with each other. At times it feels we are forced to revert to the banking model of education despite our deep commitment to a more collaborative and participatory Freirean approach.
We search for ways to stay connected and support each other – daily remote coffee breaks where we anxiously explore possibilities for more participatory approaches to remote delivery. We stay in remote touch with students, offering opportunities to make sense and meaning of their ongoing experiences of COVID. We offer a weekly mindful session remotely. We encourage students to include their experiences and reflections of living with COVID in their research and assignments.
All that is familiar is disrupted but together we do our collective best to support students to complete their studies. It was a privilege to read assignments and research which explored themes in adult development such as loss, the meaning of life, life choices and collective responsibility for a just and equal world.
We have no collective opportunity to say goodbye. We miss the rituals that celebrate the ending of a course, that acknowledge the unique contribution of each member in creating a learning community. Endings provide an opportunity to celebrate achievements, acknowledge the learning and insights, take leave of valued colleagues and friends, and internalise the rich learning experiences and relationships. Endings can also encourage us to name what has not been achieved, acknowledge loss and sadness and in the process begin again, engage in new learning and relationships.
Amid completing courses, despite COVID restrictions we focus on gathering new students remotely, “Though we live in a world that dreams of ending, that always seems about to give in, something that will not acknowledge conclusion, insists that we forever begin’’ Brendan Kennelly – ‘Begin Again’.
September 2020, first semester – no tea and coffee – social distancing, yellow X’s marked on the floor and face masks the norm – a new unfamiliar beginning. And yet some of it is familiar, we move chairs, find flasks, set up tables and ensure despite all the restrictions that we create a welcoming learning environment. We encourage learners to share their experiences, talk with each other, make sense of the last few months, and explore possibilities.
One of the narratives in COVID is that we are all in this together. However, COVID has been experienced very differently by individuals, groups, and communities. Some of us have been lucky to maintain our incomes and health, others have lost loved ones and their livelihoods. Many on the margins and who are disadvantaged have been most negatively impacted, especially so in regions and countries impacted by global climate crisis, war, inequality, human rights, and political instability.
Living with COVID is disruptive and anxiety provoking, it can impact on our thinking, relating, and feeling. It can be a relief to believe that those in power can provide the answers. Yet in adult education, we believe we are responsible for our individual and collective actions. We need to be able to reflect on our experiences with others, ensure that all stories are heard and learn from this knowledge to create a more just and equal world.
And what about love – relationship and care are at the heart of adult education. Freire reminds of the need for ‘courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world on behalf of the increasing liberation of people) (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1972, p. 144) and “because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation.”
During all this uncertainty and anxiety, I know the value of being connected and in relationship. I know the power in people meeting together, reflecting on our experiences and creating knowledge. Freire reminds us that to be human is to engage in ‘relationships with others and with the world … knowledge is built up in the relationships between human beings and the world’ (Education the Practice of Freedom, 1974, p. 3).
In this year of Covid, I am struck by the kindness of many people – there is a deeper appreciation of the fragility of life, and that we live creatively with uncertainty.
Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us that
‘Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow,
You must speak to it till your voice
Catches the thread of all sorrows
And you see the size of the cloth’.
As Christmas approaches, I am reminded of the importance of hope, of light and new birth. This time will pass, it is important to consider any learning that we can take into the future. Issues of care, health, housing, life work balance, human flourishing and climate change are now to the forefront.
More than ever I am reminded of the significance of hello, goodbye, love, and the preciousness of time. COVID may provide us with opportunities for new learning and insight if we take the time to reflect on our experiences with others and apply the knowledge in creating a more equal and just world.