Teachers are our first responders

I can no longer listen to the names and abbreviated life histories read out on radio and TV after yet another massacre of children

A New York Times article offers this straightforward explanation for mass shootings such as the one that occurred last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida:

“After Britain had a mass shooting in 1987, the country instituted strict gun control laws. So did Australia after a 1996 incident. But the United States has repeatedly faced the same calculus and determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society….

“‘In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,’ Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. ‘Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.’”

I don’t know if the United States has crossed a line from which there is no return because too many politicians have calculated that the sacrifice of children’s lives is an acceptable cost to bear so that Americans can possess 300 million guns, many of which are designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible.

When elected leaders lack the political courage to place reasonable limitations on gun ownership because of their fear of the gun lobby, teachers become this nation’s first responders both during and after these tragedies.

I try to imagine what it is like to be be a teacher who knows that no community is immune from gun violence as he or she seeks to reassure students that their schools are safe places.

They cannot help but see the faces of their students and of their own children in the  images they view on television.

How, I wonder, do teachers take care of their students and themselves and each other during times like these?

5 “truths” about teaching as a career

Resilient teachers understand that:

1.Those who can simultaneously do many complex tasks, teach; those who can’t go elsewhere (or at least we hope that they do). Teaching is intellectually, emotionally, and physically demanding. When done well, is a career-long marathon, not a sprint.

2. It is better to teach as part of a high-functioning team than alone. Having respected and trusted colleagues, preferably as teammates, makes the intellectual, emotional, and physical requirements of teaching  sustainable across decades.

3. Continuously changing circumstances (student characteristics, curriculum, and so on) require new understandings, beliefs, and skills.

4. Therefore, teachers have a professional obligation throughout their careers to improve their knowledge and skills through deliberate practice and feedback from students and colleagues.

5. All of the above require skillful leadership on the part of both teachers and administrators, particularly in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

What have I missed?

If ignorance is not the problem, what is?

[I]gnorance is rarely the problem. The challenge is that people don’t always care about what you care about. And the reason they don’t care isn’t that they don’t know what you know. The reason is that they don’t believe what you believe. The challenge, then, isn’t to inform them. It’s to engage and teach and communicate in a way that shares emotion and values and beliefs. – Seth Godin

It is common to blame ignorance for what we view as someone’s wrong-headed behavior.

Not knowing something important, of course, is sometimes the problem.

But more often than not when people argue about ideas or goals or strategies, especially with strong emotion, they are as likely arguing about underlying beliefs, which are often invisible to participants in the “conversation.”

Resilient people listen attentively for the beliefs that are often hidden beneath the surface of conversations, and they engage others in respectful conversations about their beliefs.

Such listening is challenging, of course, because of the emotions that may be attached to often invisible beliefs.

But unless we listen deeply and have dialogue about our beliefs we will continue to repeat the same frustrating conversations, conversations that not only diminish our influence but may damage important relationships.

What skills or processes enable you to “engage and teach and communicate in a way that shares emotion and values and beliefs”?

“Everyone can relate to a story”

“[O]ne of the best ways to relate to somebody is not to lecture them, but to tell them a story….” —Mitch Albom

“The reason that I never fear when they say journalism or print journalism is dead is that the world has always told stories, and it will always have to tell stories. The first thing I would say to leaders of any kind is everyone can relate to a story, and if you learn how to tell a story, whether that is your vision for a company, or just a way to be empathetic toward your customers or a way to just understand the world, if you put it in a storytelling form, as opposed to a didactic, factual PowerPoint presentation, everyone will be able to relate to it.” —Mitch Albom

A village was having a celebration on the banks of a river when someone noticed that a child was being swept past the picnic grounds in a torrent of water. A line of citizens was quickly formed, and the child was pulled to safety.

Moments later someone observed that several more children were being swept past in the river. Again a line was formed, and the children were rescued.

But soon more children filled the fast-moving river, so many in the fact that the villagers no longer had the strength to pull them out.

In their exhaustion a citizen of the village pointed out that aerobic and strength training should be offered in the village hall so that should this happen again they would be stronger and better prepared. Someone else said that a CPR class should also be scheduled.

A final voice was heard with the suggestion that the village should quickly make its way upstream to find out who or what was throwing the children into the river.

This story, which I heard told many years ago, illustrates at least two points:

  • “System problems,” that is problems that have their source in interacting variables larger than the current circumstance, cannot be solved by training alone.
  • The power of a story to make an important point about a complex idea. People tend to “lean into” stories and away from fact-laden lectures.

What is your experience in using stories to make important points?

5 things I know now I wish I had known then

Last fall’s PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick evoked in me, as it did in many others, deeply emotional memories from that era.

Fifty years ago, in January 1968, newspaper headlines and the evening news, the CNN of that era, provided updates on the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

During the next 6 months, American troop levels in Vietnam were increased, Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations filled American streets, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered.

It was far more than many of us could absorb yet alone understand.

That spring I received a new draft status, 1A, which meant I was immediately eligible for the draft. Hoping for the best, I signed my first teaching contract in the Detroit suburbs. And in June I graduated from college.

Everything within and around me and in the country and world seemed foggy and frightening.

I could not see more than a few weeks into the future, and I could not have imagined then what it would be like to look back on those 6 months from the perspective of 50 years.

Reflecting on that intense period reminds me that sometimes things work out better than we think they will in our darkest hours. But 50 years of history have also taught me that sometimes for some people they don’t.

While I didn’t go to Vietnam, hundreds of thousands did, often not of their own choosing, and millions of lives were lost and others destroyed in the United States and Southeast Asia.

From the perspective of 50 years, I glean these lessons:

1. Our lives are shaped by powerful forces much larger than ourselves, which means that the life circumstances of any individual cannot simply be reduced to “personal choice.” Bad things do happen to good people through no fault of their own.

2. We can’t control everything, but we can affect many things that really matter, most of which are life-style related. Those factors include, but are not limited to, paying attention to important relationships and having a healthy diet and sufficient physical activity.

3. One of the most important things we can control is our attitude, with gratitude for things both large and small being first among the attitudes that can make a significant difference in the quality of our lives.

4. In the long run experiences we share with family and friends are far more important than things.

5. While life can be lived one day at a time (or hour or minute), there is value in both planning for the future (while holding those plans loosely) and on finding meaning, purpose, and a sense of continuity by reflecting on the past.

What has your life taught you that you wish you had known then?

“Next action thinking” + “just do it”

I’ve noticed that people who have important things they want to accomplish in their lives (like the self-care practices I discussed in my previous post) often lose momentum either because the next step isn’t clear to them or because they defer taking an action assuming that it can be done just as easily tomorrow.

I’ve also noticed that people who work in both large and small bureaucracies, which inevitably have their own build-in forms of inertia tend to postpone action, often passing decisions about next actions to someone above them in the organizational hierarchy or to a committee “for further discussion.”

In those bureaucracies, having a meeting becomes a substitute for doing the work that the meeting is actually about. Or, put another way, organizations confuse the activity of a meeting with the doing of the tasks that actually lead to accomplishing the goal.

As a result, at both the individual and collective level, action is deferred and personal responsibility avoided.

While there are many reasons important work doesn’t get done, two of the biggest ones are:

• a lack of clarity about the specific next action that must be taken, and

• the lack of a “just do it” attitude that breaks through individual and organizational inertia.

“Next action thinking” requires that we know the specific and concrete next step in accomplishing our goals.

For example, if it is essential that we talk to a supervisor, we may think that the next step is having the conversation. But the meeting is likely dependent on scheduling an appointment for it, on preparing for the conversation, and so on.

“Just do it” speaks for itself, and although it seems obvious, individuals too often wait for someone else to initiate action.

In your experience, what are the major barriers between the highest aspirations of individuals and organizations and the realization of those aspirations?

The importance of self-care 

For teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious trauma, is a big risk. —Emelina Minero

Self care is an important topic at this time of year as people make New Year’s Resolutions or set annual goals.

Emelina Minero underscores the importance of self care in “When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too.”

Minero explains the link between student trauma and teacher stress this way:

“Data shows that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have impacts that extend far beyond childhood, including higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems later in life….

“For teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious trauma, is a big risk. Sometimes called the “cost of caring,” vicarious trauma can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured,” according to the American Counseling Association.”

Minero offers several strategies teachers and administrators can use to address vicarious trauma:

Talking it out with colleagues, a life partner, therapists, and/or colleagues.

Building coping strategies to manage emotions (visualizing a calming place) and to identify and deal with more stressful times of the day.

Establishing coming home rituals such as turning off work phones or creating a to-do list for the next day before leaving work that provide clear boundaries between work and home life.

Minero’s suggestions promote self-care, an essential but often overlooked aspect of both physical and emotional well-being.

Three thoughts about self-care:

1. Self-care is not selfish. We cannot offer care to others if we don’t first care for ourselves.

2. Unless self-care is a routine and habitual part of our days it will quickly recede into the background when it is most needed.

3. To establish such routines and habits, it is helpful to view self-care as a promise to ourselves that assumes the same importance as promises we make to others.

What forms of self-care are most important to you, and how do you ensure that you engage in those practices on a regular basis?


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