“Create a school community in which every child can experience unconditional love (care), and feels listened to, respected, valued and special; a community offering a relevant and meaningful education.” (Robin Cox)

How our global community has changed since the advent and impact of the Covid-19 virus. The world will never be the same. Education institutions – especially schools, universities and other tertiary institutions – have an opportunity to review how they operate, and to explore whether or not they have the courage to implement more relevant, fresh thinking, and more dynamic education and leadership ideas.

The greatest change I witnessed occurred during the lockdowns when children openly stated that all they wanted was to return to school to be with their peers. It was not about social media, online learning, more time at home, rather the importance of face-to-face relationships. The message was one of connection.

While there are many well-intentioned groups promoting more and more online learning programs—and there is a place and time for these—nothing can effectively replace the face-to-face relationships with peers, their teachers, coaches and other invaluable non-teaching staff who play such a critically important, often under-valued role in our schools. I spoke recently with a school principal who is doing superb work in his school. He seems to see his role as implementing effective learning using modern technology, and the work he is doing sounds fascinating. Yet, when I shared ideas about implementing an authentic holistic education and shared some of my experiences to show how this could be done, I sensed that he felt it might not be for his school.

Nothing can effectively replace the unconditional love and care which every child has the right to expect from their parents. The pandemic has brought many families closer, while at the same time reminding other families of the areas to work at to develop close family bonds and relationships.

Of course, many of our youth will also have been affected by the impact of the pandemic on individual members of their families—job losses, reduced work time, business closures, struggles to repay debts (finances), deaths as a result of receiving the virus. The early research on the impact of lockdowns and the pandemic on young lives points to higher levels of anxiety and depression, especially among young girls, yet many (or most?) schools seem to be returning to their pre-pandemic education programs and methods. Surely it is time for a ‘new normal’ environment in schools?

A fresh post-pandemic education narrative

Who will have the courage to develop a desperately needed fresh education narrative for a post-pandemic global community? Are there a few school principals willing to work together to lead this overdue transformation? Will the teachers, parents, employers, and others who believe in promoting 21st century skills like creativity, innovation, teamwork, entrepreneurial thinking, and self-learning come together as an army of agents of change demanding a more effective and relevant education system for our youth?

During the next few years, all schools can aspire to:

  1. Have a clear sense of purpose and values.
  2. Revitalize and inspire their communities.
  3. Regain the goals of goodness and authentic community service.

The spirit of mentoring includes the development of tips and strategies, understanding the qualities and characteristics of a non-judgmental cheerleader, and appreciating how almost anyone with some life experiences can move alongside a young person and encourage them to reach their unique potential. This is where the Vertical Tutoring System, as advocated for over twenty years by retired visionary U. K. school principal Peter Barnard who developed the system and has seen it transform many schools, can totally transform school communities.

The Vertical Tutoring System is transformational. I currently live in in New Zealand where there are significant challenges facing youth and educators. If every high school implements a Vertical Tutoring System our country’s culture will also be positively transformed. Many of the youth mental health issues that cost governments millions of dollars each year—truancy, stress, anxiety, bullying, irresponsible use of social media, youth suicide—can be considerably reduced. Happier, healthier youth create less stress for teachers and parents. We can observe our young people living healthier and more balanced lifestyles with the non-judgmental support of their school communities. Staff and student morale improves, while parent partnership is integral to learning and support. My teaching experiences took me to Southern Africa, Australia, and India. The same results can be achieved in any of these countries where a holistic education is valued more than simply churning out academic ‘results’.

The beauty of this Vertical Tutoring System is that it is so simple, yet incredibly powerful, and focuses on the recognition that every young person is unique and develops at a different pace. The movement is away from trying to change teachers – we can stop blaming teachers, which is all too easy to do – towards a system that determines so much of their behavior. The most important system challenge in any school community is to provide the organizational conditions for all school staff (teaching and non-teaching), student and parent collaboration and enjoyment. Self-management, self-reform, and self-organization is built into the system to allow schools to create a system which builds their community within a proven framework.

Peter Barnard writes about how a teacher has a genuine sense of commitment. “Teachers are connectors, purpose seekers, and learners who wish to contribute to a better, more ecologically minded and safer world by sharing knowledge.” Committed teachers strive to make a positive difference in their communities, not to make things worse. How are they being supported and encouraged?

In a Vertical Tutoring System school every student learns to lead, and leads to learn; well-being is assured; grit is nurtured and supported; their own horizons expand and for a time they feel safe and protected from any negative peer pressure, and develop resilience. Peter Barnard highlights an important outcome for an effective and meaningful 21st Century education experience: “The students in a mixed-age setting are the first to learn how to use the group to change the group in ways that support learning, the start of a domino effect. … In collaborative professionalism, everyone gets the big picture. They see it, live it, and create it together.”

The reality is that all that is required is an open mind, a change of heart, a positive mindset, selfless leadership, and communities can be transformed within months. Peter Barnard stresses that this mixed-age model does not create a learning organization, but is the first critical step toward one. “It is the learning gateway through which schools must pass, and has the better chance of designing in collaborative and social professionalism, a paradigm that extends leadership and engagement in learning to include parents, students, and community.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu indirectly encourages the Vertical Tutoring System visionaries, who are eager to develop and create a new, more meaningful education narrative focused on building positive community relationships: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

The global community desperately needs paradigm change, one that not only places the idea of family life at the heart of the holistic learning journey, but also raises the status of teachers in their community. The challenge is how to reprogram the current system, to stop it behaving like a machine, and to enable it to develop as a living system. The mixed-age model does no harm and is entirely built on principles of child development and social psychology.

I had the privilege of working first-hand with Peter Barnard to facilitate the implementation of this system. My work involved consulting with school principals and deputy principals who had been involved in implementing this system in their schools. They were inspiring conversations. Click on the cover of the ebook below to access copy of my story. May it serve as an encouragement to anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the lives of our youth.


Choices matter and have consequences

We also need to teach our youths that the choices they make have consequences. While they might not be able to choose the environment in which they live, they can choose their attitude to life in their environment each day. They can also be significantly helped when our teachers (and volunteer adult mentors) move alongside them, speak to the unique potential many of these young people fail to see for themselves. and provide them with some empowering tools and strategies to give their lives the meaning and purpose every young person inwardly craves.

At a recent international academic conference in the United Kingdom I shared a proven framework which I have developed during my career and which would certainly be one method to empower, motivate and inspire our youth. It would go hand-in-glove with the Vertical Tutoring System, for example, and has the power to transform millions of young lives. The CHOICES framework is common sense, fun, and potentially life-changing. The concepts are supported by research linked to mentoring and the holistic education of young people. It respects and understands the developmental brain processes youth are experiencing, and how these impact their choices and behavior, and explains how a significant adult can become the surrogate prefrontal cortex (the compass) in the life of a young person for a season of their lives.

I shared true stories of young people who unknowingly embraced the CHOICES framework and included their thoughts as they saw their lives transformed. Rachel (not her real name) wanted to become a nurse, but had given up on this dream because her academic results, lack of self-discipline and antisocial behavior tendencies created too many challenges for her. We worked together for the final nine months of her school career and embraced the CHOICES framework. Looking through the lens of a seventeen-year-old tells a story. At the end of Rachel’s year, she presented me with a card in which she had written:

“Thank you for helping me get through school! I guess school just wasn’t really my thing. I really appreciate all the time that you gave up to ensure I attended classes, got my work done, that I was on the right track with my life, and so much more! Thank you for inspiring me to be a better person! You give me hope that I will still have a chance in life when I graduate with [grades] that reflect not even half of my potential! I don’t think I can express enough how grateful I am for everything you do for me! Even if I don’t always show it! But, most of all, thank you so much for never ever giving up on me and always pushing me to achieve my best! You have made me a better person!”

Rachel received the grades that allowed her to study nursing and, today, is living out her dream working as a nurse.

I unpack the CHOICES framework and share a variety of true stories in my recently published book, CHOICES, Encouraging Youth to Achieve Greatness. This was the topic of my recent presentation at the international academic conference, a wonderful opportunity to share how over forty years of research shaped and influenced my thinking and my career.

Blog cover photo: Duy Phaum (Unsplash)