Hope in a Covid climate

Jan 13, 2021 | Sector & policy | 1 comment

Each of us has a duty to help students rediscover hope, says Dr Paul Redmond, Director of Student Experience and Enhancement at University of Liverpool.

In clouds of exhaust fumes, I chugged past the waiting photographers and autograph hunters and turned into a carpark packed with gleaming super cars. After shoehorning my rusting ten-year old Ford Fiesta between two brand new, lipstick-red Ferraris, I ankled it to Reception.

“Will my car be safe out there?”

“Good morning, sir. May I ask who you are here to see?”

“I’m here to see the manager, Monsieur Houllier. I think he wants to sign me.”

The receptionist’s eyes flicked from me to the Fiesta then back to me.

“May I ask who you are really here to see, sir?”

The news over Christmas that Gérard Houllier, one-time manager of Liverpool Football Club, had died, took me back to one of the most inspirational meetings I’ve ever had. It’s a meeting that, one way or another, I’ve been reliving ever since we entered lockdown.

The meeting came about because I was writing an article for a student magazine. I’d heard that Houllier, Liverpool’s newly appointed French football manager, had studied English at Lille University. What’s more, during his second year, he’d opted to spend twelve months working as a teaching assistant in a Liverpool secondary school. Returning to France, he qualified as a teacher before rising to deputy head. It was at that point that he made what must have looked to his fellow teachers to have been the world’s worst career decision. He became a football manager.

That was enough for me. Degree in English, worked in education, lives in Liverpool: as I saw it, we were practically frères. I wrote to the club asking for an interview and to my astonishment was granted thirty minutes at Liverpool’s training ground with Le Patron himself.

Students have since asked me what it was like to meet the great man. I tell them it was like having a Starbucks with Socrates. He wasn’t a football manager; he was a philosopher who just happened to be in charge of a bunch of high-maintenance millionaires with expensive tastes in cars. Not that he wanted to talk about football. He wanted to talk about students, and how we should be preparing them for the future.

According to Houllier, there’s one thing everyone needs to be successful. Forget qualifications, skills, work experience, or contacts. All these are important, but not nearly enough.

What you need is hope.

Believing that things will eventually get better, that with hard work and you can achieve anything, requires hope. When the chips are down it’s hope that makes us ‘KPO’ (Keep Plugging On). With the enemy at the gate, it’s hope that gives us courage. Hope drives the entrepreneur to put it all on the line and inspires the activist to take a stand. What else but the sheer audacity of hope would prompt an unknown politician to stand for the highest office in the land.

And what else but (as Emily Dickinson called it) ‘that thing with feathers’ would prompt a French deputy head who’d never played professional football to swap teaching for the cutthroat world of football management – a profession so fickle that job tenure is measured in days not years.

When I asked Gérard Houllier, what he thought it was that made some managers successful while some failed, he was unequivocal. It was the ability to instil a sense of hope. Leaders are first and foremost dealers in hope. Everything else is a nice to have.

Hope is what we’re going to need this year if we’re going to help young people rediscover a sense of optimism and confidence.

The lockdown has had a kryptonite effect on young people’s aspirations and ambitions. In one study, three quarters of those aged 18-24 said their mental health had deteriorated over the past year, leaving them feeling lonely, isolated and demotivated. In other words, they were without hope.

And here’s the catch. To be employable requires hope. People can put up with endless adversities as long as they have hope. Applying for jobs, competing in assessment centres, putting yourself forward for online interviews – without hope, you’re toast. What’s a LinkedIn profile if not a testimony to hope?

This year, the year of the vaccine, each of us has a duty to help students and other young people rediscover hope. For as Dostoevsky wrote, ‘to live without hope is to cease to live.’

My time with Gérard Houllier flew by all too quickly – and we never once mentioned football. He went on to have a successful career at Liverpool, only leaving when ill health got the better of him.

As I was leaving, I asked him what his parents had said when he told them he was quitting teaching to go into football. He said they’d never quite got over it and kept asking him when he was going to get a proper job – even though he was managing one of the world’s biggest clubs.

That’s the thing about parents. They never give up hope.

Read more from Dr Paul Redmond

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1 Comment

  1. Andy Stainton

    brilliant blog Paul and very inspiring. Totally agree that we need to find ways to give hope to students, it’s getting harder to do without being patronising and pretending things will be back to normal and they just need to be patient.
    I still have hope for this generation of graduates but it’s going to need some very astute policy making and leadership to avoid a return to the early 1980’s or worse.

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