This article by Dan Green, World ORT Director General and CEO, first appeared on the UK Jewish News and Times of Israel website, here.
There is a line in Esther Marshall’s book ‘Sophie says it’s okay not to be okay’ which really resonates with me. She writes: “For those things that don’t go to plan, when you’re scared of failing, remember that you can.”
It is a feeling that has crept up on me regularly throughout the past year. Leading ORT, a global education network driven by Jewish values, is a privilege and opens my eyes to the experiences of children worldwide.
But when you are tasked with preparing people and communities for meaningful, self-sufficient futures at a time when the future itself is so uncertain, it is hardly surprising there have been days when things have not gone to plan.
Every day, across our network of schools, universities and vocational training courses on every continent, I see religious and secular children living and studying together; young and old learning robotics and AI skills; budding entrepreneurs setting out on their personal journeys to develop apps and programs to change the world.
But amid the challenges of the pandemic I heard the same concerns from parents in Panama as from teachers in Moldova, and from friends and family here in London, about the impact Covid would have on their children. And from youngsters themselves there has been daily evidence of the anxiety caused by the situation. We cannot underestimate the ongoing impact.
Speaking to colleagues has given much pause for thought. Initially students’ digital literacy improved rapidly and they quickly became experts at dealing with their online classes. But before long the toll of spending up to 30 hours a week staring at a screen started to show.
The students regularly complained of the same mental and physical exhaustion that has become familiar to so many of us who spend our working lives on endless Zoom calls and under an avalanche of emails. Some students were – only half-jokingly – threatening to go on strike and stop attending online lessons earlier this year.
This stressful period has brought many questions to the fore for educators: What will be the long-term effect of learning loss? How to ensure students’ mental health is protected – indeed prioritised – during a period of such intense worry? Can hybrid models work – both educationally and on public health grounds?
It is why our efforts are so relevant now and why this campaign is so vital. Putting thousands of copies of Esther’s book into schools around the world is a small but important step in repairing the damage done. We must urgently do all we can to encourage youngsters to understand, and be open about, their feelings.
There are some answers, too – by taking a holistic approach to education, offering students a combination of a strong appreciation of Jewish tradition and culture alongside high-quality teaching, providing the skills they need to thrive and an increased understanding of moral and ethical issues beyond their geographic boundaries promotes a stable, balanced upbringing.
There is an urgent need for children to learn the vital skills required to secure jobs and roles in the rapidly changing world of work. And as the father of three teenagers, I also know only too well the imperative of responding to their physical and emotional needs.
While things have not always gone to plan in the past year, we have shown that with innovation, imagination and co-operation ‘we can’ – and that is one of the vital lessons we must ensure our children learn as we face a new future.
Dan Green is CEO and Director General of World ORT