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Thinking about Joy & Ubuntu

There are not many books that focus on Sixth Form, and so I was delighted as I dip my toes into edutwitter, to have come across this fascinating book, A School Built on Ethos. It is both a collection of ambitious assembly speeches, and the story of the birth of a sixth form, going from assembling an SLT to developing a school identity, the challenges faced and overcome.

This first term in a pastoral leadership position has been one of enormous professional satisfaction and I have learnt, and continue to learn so much, but one area I had not thought an enormous amount about was assemblies. The assemblies I had delivered thus far were functional, notices were given, they were an opportunity to pray and reference were made to current affairs. This book prompted a change. The book shone a light on an alternative world. Here, assemblies were an opportunity to build an ethos, to spark curiosity and model the love of learning for learning's sake that we want pupils to emulate. I opened Microsoft Word and began to type.

I began the assembly showing this remarkable video with Desmond Tutu without introduction. Here, Tutu explains what is meant by ubuntu. "I am, only because you are. A person is a person only through other persons." This message about our common humanity and inter-connectedness, is I think incredibly powerful, and told with Tutu’s unique blend of humour and grace.

I then began to talk about joy, something Tutu had written about, and in his book, The Book of Joy (co-written with the Dalai Lama and Douglas Abrams - and which I will borrow from quite a bit!), I found lessons and resonances that I think were incredibly important for our pupils to hear as they begin a new year, having faced so many challenges. Five years ago, I introduced the VESPA programme into the Sixth Form, and this assembly is all about the A in VESPA, attitude. It is about buoyancy and resilience.

As we enter 2022, we might naturally reflect on what has come before, and what comes next. We do a lot of looking back and looking forward in school. Looking back, you would have reflected on your November mocks, and completed your mock exam review. Looking forward you should have put in place targets on what you need to do to improve on those results in the summer. As you returned to school, Year 13 have now sent off their university applications and Year 12 will soon be researching university options. You may be thinking ahead to the start of your careers, with the thought of moving on from school triggering relief in some of you, excitement in others, and others still nervousness.

This year started with the death and funeral of Desmond Tutu. As a student at King’s College London, I spent much time in the student bar that bore his name, but it is only recently that I have began to read his work. Tutu was a South African Anglican cleric. He was born of mixed Xhosa and Motswana heritage, trained as a teacher, married, became ordained. He fought against apartheid, one of the most evil political systems ever conceived, advocating for non-violent protest and economic pressure that helped to bring it down.

One of the remarkable things about Archbishop Tutu is how he approached life with a certain joy, which made me think how can we experience more joy in the year ahead. He wrote a little book with the Dalai Lama called the Book of Joy. In it, they describe the obstacles to joy; fear, stress and anxiety, and the pillars of joy; humour, compassion and generosity.

When the Archbishop was asked how he managed the fear during apartheid, when he would receive frequent death threats, he said, “Well, one did not do silly things like stand in front of a lit window at night, but one had to say to God, ‘If I’m doing your work, you better jolly well protect me.’ We don't often hear about the internal challenges, the doubts and worries, of leaders. Sometimes we understand courage as the absence of fear, but rather, as Tutu shows, courage is instead the ability to act despite fear.

As we look forward to the challenges ahead, the exams that are five months away, we may feel stress and that is human. Psychologist Elissa Epel has explained how stress works. Stress evolved to save us from danger. If I see danger, cortisol and adrenalin courses into my blood, my pupils dilate causing me to see more clearly, my heart and breathing speed up so I can respond faster, and blood is diverted from my organs to my large muscles so that I can either fight or flee. Stress should be temporary response, but for many of us, it is constant.

In order to be more joyful, we need to develop stress resilience. We must change our perception of a ‘threat’ into a challenge that will help us grow. We need to train our brains to perceive the challenges ahead of us, the exams, less as threats and more as challenges and opportunities.

We need to think of Ubuntu, of connection and our common humanity, and support each other.

In the final chapter of the Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu, the authors, go through five practical ways to be more joyful:

· Reflect on the day.

· Pay attention to your emotions and accept your experiences.

· Feel gratitude.

· Rejoice in your day.

· Look to tomorrow.

So as you write your manifestos for tomorrow's VESPA, and we think of the V in VESPA, vision, and our vision for the year ahead, I want you to have these things at the back of your mind.

I wish you all a joyful new year.

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