Ch. 23: What has changed, and what has not…

change verb\
ˈchānj
to give a different position, course, or direction to
to make radically different

I wrote this essay before the COVID pandemic descended on the world, which has changed how we think about many things, including schooling, and before racial and economic injustice became part of our collective consciousness. 

Since March I have thought about what education would be like if there were no Internet. Would teachers or others go door to door dropping off assignments and materials they would collect on their next visits? Would they check in with students and families on the phone or in front yard conversations?

Technology has been a valuable resource, but it has also underscored this country’s racial and economic divide.

Having acknowledged that times are now different than they were just a few months ago, students and teachers remain the same in important ways, or so it seems to me.

Here’s what I had to say on that subject before the pandemic. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

I recently drove down a road which early in my teaching career was my route to school, a route that required crossing a train track that was often and unpredictably blocked by trains for extended periods of time. 

Because in those days there was not a viable alternative route, I dealt with the situation by leaving early and trying to remember to bring a pile of educational journals and books with me to catch up on my reading.

Being well supplied would be much simpler today because many, if not all, of those articles and books would be available on my pocket computer, otherwise known as a mobile phone.

This trip down memory lane, or in this case, memory road, led me to think more deeply about how students and teaching have and have not changed during the past 50 years.

I also found myself thinking about the social and economic forces that affect families and children.

“Technology addiction,” “nature deprivation disorder,” and “helicopter parenting” were not part of anyone’s 1970s lexicon.

While the Internet brings a world of information and opinion to adults and children, it has also brought online bullying and shaming, threats to children’s privacy, and, according to some experts, an increase in mental health problems.

But what was most striking to me, as I thought about the past 50 years, is the persistent, intertwined problems of poverty and race that continue to affect a significant number of families and schools, problems that are exacerbated by widening income disparity and declining social mobility.

Rafael Heller, in a April 2019 Phi Delta Kappan “Editor’s Note,” eloquently describes current reality this way:

[I]n Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2016), the political scientist Robert Putnam measures today’s childhoods… against his own childhood in the 1950s, a time when rich and poor families lived in the same neighborhood and most poor and working-class kids counted on growing up to be better off than their parents. From that vantage point — and having pored over a massive amount of data on changes in the labor market, residential patterns, family life, and student performance over the last five or six decades — Putnam sees a fracturing of childhood along economic lines, with the lives of rich and poor kids divided by a deep and ever-expanding opportunity gap.

Because housing segregation, often caused by government policy and banking practices, concentrates poverty, some schools have a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students who often require additional assistance for which funding is usually inadequate.

Anna Clark underscores this problem in a June 2019 Detroit Free Press op-ed piece about the neighboring West Michigan communities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, where she grew up, “…one white and richer, the other poorer and mostly African American, with the St. Joseph River curving between them.”

Michigan ranks 50th for funding growth in public education, with total revenue declining 30% since 2002. Not coincidentally, it also ranks low for math and reading proficiency. But in St. Joseph, millages help. In May, my hometown renewed a millage for support services, technology, transportation and maintenance….

Poverty is concentrated in Benton Harbor…. It’s a challenge to keep teachers, when salaries are among the lowest in the state. Average annual pay was $34,761 for the 2016-2017 school year, and fell during a statewide teacher shortage. In St. Joseph and nearby Stevensville, average salaries increased to more than $63,000….

[I]t is outrageously painful that some look across the river and suggest that Benton Harbor’s children don’t have the same advantages because their parents love them less.

It also misses the obvious: inequality perpetuates itself. It can’t be forgotten that in living memory, segregation was law. Through redlining and racially restrictive deeds, enforced by every level of government and private enterprise, we designed a system where homes owned by African Americans were worth less. Then we tied school funding to property values.

Clark concludes: “On the other hand, students continue to have the same basic physical and emotional needs, although it is likely that economic and social forces make it more difficult for parents and other caregivers to meet those needs.

“Young people desire the attention of meaningful adults, to know that they matter, qualities that may be in short supply in affluent and low-income homes alike.”

While children and their families are often profoundly affected by technological, social, and economic changes, young people remain the same in the most fundamental ways, as Anna Clark points out.

They want adults to pay attention to them and to show them in word and deed that they matter.

In that sense a primary responsibility of teachers and other caregivers hasn’t changed, although the conditions in which they are asked to assume that responsibility have. 

And those who step up to that responsibility in difficult circumstances—day after day, month after month, year after year—deserve our deepest admiration and respect.

What do you think—how are students and the society that surrounds them the same or different from a generation or two ago?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 22: Stretch yourself and invent

stretch verb
/streCH/
be made or be capable of being made longer or wider without tearing or breaking.

Fifty-two years ago I began my teaching career. Over those years the challenges and opportunities of teaching, learning, leadership, and public education gradually became a part of my daily consciousness, whether I was “on the job” or not.

When someone I don’t know asks, “What do you do?,” my response is often “I am a teacher.”

While I have not been responsible for a classroom of students for several decades, as I discussed in my previous post teaching has shaped how I think about the world and the lens through which I view most problems large and small.

I began teaching in 1968 in a high school with team teaching and modular scheduling that allowed for the flexible grouping of students, which by their very nature immediately engaged me in collaboration and job-embedded professional learning, although both terms would have been foreign to me at that time.

In 1972 I was invited to participate in designing and implementing a public alternative high school for “disaffected youth.” I had not heard the term “teacher leader,” nor was I aware of how rare it was for a teacher to be meaningfully engaged in creating such a school.

In 1978 I became director of a teacher center, again as a teacher leader. A year later I became a member of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward).

And in 1984 I became executive director of NSDC, a part-time position with an organization that at that time had just a few hundred members. For the next 23 years I had the privilege of working with outstanding educators from around the world and abundant opportunities to think deeply about all aspects of professional learning.

I did not then know how my career was being subtly and irrevocably shaped by this succession of unique and important experiences.

What all of these things had in common is that they stretched me in ways I could not have anticipated and often at the time did not desire. And, because I frequently worked outside my comfort zone, the fear of failure was a near constant companion. 

While I had not yet heard of the “imposter syndrome,” I lived it.

And in each setting —an innovative high school, an alternative program, a teacher center, and NSDC — I benefited from the support of respected colleagues who offered encouragement and mentoring along the way.

As a result, here’s what I would say to a teacher near the beginning of his or her career: 

Look for and be open to opportunities and mentors who will challenge and stretch you. If you do, and if you walk through the doors that open to you, I predict that you will have a rich and fulfilling professional journey. I wish you well wherever you may be along that road….

What would you say to a beginning teacher?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 21: I dream of teaching

dream noun
drēm
a series of thoughts, images, or emotions occurring during sleep

teach·ing noun
ˈtē-chiŋ
the act, practice, or profession of a teacher

Last fall I began to share a serialized version of my professional memoir. But in mid-March, near the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote: 

“My goal at the beginning of the school year was to publish several chapters of my professional memoir each month through May. But at this deeply troubling moment when so many things in life have been upended that goal doesn’t seem very important. So while I will not be publishing additional chapters for the foreseeable future, I will occasionally share thoughts with you on other subjects, as I am today.”

The foreseeable future has arrived, and, if for no other reason than to have a sense of closure on that project, I will return to the final few chapters that address several of the broad themes of my career.

I begin again by explaining how classroom teaching has lingered in my conscious and unconscious thoughts across the decades.

I’m told that it’s not uncommon for college students to have anxiety-filled dreams in which they are about to take an exam for a class they had not attended.

Over the decades I have had a similar dream, but its setting is the high school at which I began teaching in 1968.

In my dreams I may be a substitute teacher for the day who is unable to find my classroom and teaching materials. 

Or I may be a teacher who is beginning the school year as someone new to both the school and the subjects I am teaching, not unlike how I felt in September 1968. I rush to the office of the assistant principal where I am to pick up the mail I’m told is important, but I cannot find my mailbox. I cannot determine what courses I am to teach nor where I am to teach them. Then I seek a longtime friend with whom I began teaching and who is now a counselor at the school. But I can’t find his office.

Or I am teaching a lesson, but I can’t find my notes or materials. My lesson ends abruptly after just a few minutes and I look helplessly at my students.

I have also had dreams about working with adults in which I couldn’t find the hotel ballroom in which I was to speak, or I would realize at the last minute that I had prepared for the wrong event.

As they say, Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with those dreams.

My interpretation is likely simpler than Sigmund’s: Persistent deeply-felt anxieties have endured across the decades—confusion, powerlessness, and fear that my incompetence would be found out.

Not that I haven’t ever felt competent or pleased with my accomplishments. But those feelings don’t tend to be the subject matter of dreams.

My dreams are not the only way teaching has stayed with me across the decades.

I continue to think that most problems can be prevented or solved by thinking of them through the lens of teaching and learning—prevented whenever possible by shaping behavior in advance, and solved by diagnosing and providing missing knowledge and skills.

An example: In my neighborhood there has been a perennial problem with cars not stopping for pedestrians in marked crosswalks. I talked with a senior police officer whose solution was to step-up enforcement by writing tickets. My proposed solution was to improve community education and to make signage across the city more consistent and less confusing to drivers. While the city’s ultimate solution combined both approaches, from my perspective it was the improved signage that has carried the day because police officers cannot be stationed 24/7 at every pedestrian crossing.

Another example: My last two books were both intended to be “instructional”: Leading for Results and Leadership 180 both included written exercises to help readers examine their beliefs related to the content, deepen their understanding, and develop new behavioral habits. Likewise, these posts conclude with requests to think more deeply about their content.

While I left the day-to-day responsibilities of teaching relatively early in my career, teaching didn’t leave me.

Have you experienced similar such dreams, and to what do you attribute their source?

How has your life been shaped by the experience of teaching?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

A conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner: Embracing self care

With this post I conclude my 5-part conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner, author of Less Stress Life.

Dennis: For several years I co-facilitated grief support groups for a local hospice. 

In addition to their profound grief, participants had one thing in common — difficulty practicing “self-care.”

The only homework assignment participants were given each week was to do at least one self-caring act, no matter how small. 

The other facilitator and I would offer self-care practices from our own lives, things like reading, walking, feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces, or cleaning the house (not mine!). The group then brainstormed possible actions, and we gave participants handouts with dozens of examples.

At the beginning of each session, we asked participants to share the self-caring acts they had done in the previous week. Week after week, they reported very few.

Grief robs people of energy and sometimes even of the desire to live, so that certainly was one reason.

Another was that participants often had been caring for their loved ones for some time, which made it difficult for them to think about their own needs.

Many participants also said that they had little overall experience with self-care.

Through these groups, I learned that self-care may begin with simple, seemingly small acts like buying seeds in anticipation of planting a garden, using fragrant bath oil, or calling a friend.

Self-care is obviously of value in a wide variety of situations, including pandemics.

I’m curious about your personal experience with self care, Jamie.

Jamie: So, cleaning isn’t your idea of self-care, Dennis? I happen to feel calmer after a good sweep of the kitchen. This shows how differently we each define self-care.

It can be surprisingly tricky to know what kind of self-care we need in a given moment. I suggest we start by checking in with our bodies and our beliefs. Here’s a little example of how this showed up for me.

During my first few years as a school principal I was constantly running on fumes, like a car with a nearly empty gas tank. Refilling my tank felt kind of selfish when the school needed so much caretaking, too. In 2001 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That wake-up call prompted me to figure out how to take better care of myself. It took years for me to fully embrace self-care. 

With an hour-long drive to and from school, I couldn’t make it home for a dinner break on the days when there were evening events. I didn’t believe naps were professional (though thankfully my views have changed since then). So, instead of caring for my sleep needs, I’d pop a piece (or more) of candy to help keep me going. Of course, that just gave me a quick rush of energy and an even bigger crash later. 

My exhaustion showed up in unfocused thinking. I wasn’t at my best when sleep deprived. So I finally gave in to my need for sleep and made a bold purchase of a recliner for my office. After the students left the building, and when that yawn arose, I taped a note to my office door saying, The principal is napping. Please come back in a half-hour. With soft music playing, I tipped my recliner back and drifted off for a delicious 10-15 minutes.  

I worried at first teachers or parents might ridicule me or decide I wasn’t working hard enough. I weathered some gentle teasing from the custodian but continued to muster up my courage to stick with my plan. I knew if I didn’t get adequate sleep I couldn’t sustain my best service to my school community.  

Embracing self-care gradually became one of my central beliefs, and in turn, one of my priorities.

So, I suggest that we first check in to learn what we believe about self-care. Believing that self-care is selfish blocks us from making good choices and produces guilt when we take care of our needs, which in turn diminishes our emotional well being.

Whether your self-care involves exercise, sleep, a movie break, or even cleaning, remember that self-care is essential—not selfish. Then when you get in touch with what your body needs you’ll be on your way to a more balanced and less stressful life.

Dennis: On behalf of our readers and myself, I want to thank you, Jamie, for the ideas, practices, and personal experiences you have shared to support all of us during this difficult time. Hopefully, we will continue this conversation at some point in the future….

What self-care practices are most important to you?

A conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner: Minimizing loneliness

My dialogue with Jamie Sussel Turner, author of Less Stress Life, continues.

In a Washington Post essay Amanda Ripley offered four ways we can minimize the coronavirus pandemic-related loneliness many of us feel.

Surprisingly, at least to me, some of her suggestions seemed to have little to do with other people. Here, placed in bold for emphasis, are her suggestions:

“[A]nyone who can exercise should do more of it now, every day. Physical exercise reduces stress and boosts immune functioning. “Outdoor activities are good. Going for a walk, riding a bike, those are all great….”

[P]ositive social relationships gave people a 50 percent greater chance of surviving over time compared with people with weak social ties. This connectedness had a bigger impact on mortality than quitting smoking…. To keep your relationships active, the phone is your lifeline. I’ve set a personal goal to talk (actually talk, not text) with one or two friends, elderly neighbors or family members by phone every day until this pandemic ends.”

“The third antidote is mindfulness…. Meditation reduces inflammation and enhances our immune functions, literally undoing the damage of self-isolation. There is evidence that prayer can have a similar effect.”

[D]o something small for someone else.”

Ripley includes: “Wherever they strike, disasters have a way of revealing our preexisting weaknesses. But they also open up opportunities.”

I liked all of Ripley’s ideas, but especially her emphasis on exercise and mindfulness, probably because they are two practices that I value and have practiced for some time.

Walking, especially in nature, and other forms of exercise not only improves our physical health, it can lift our spirits.

Her mention of mindfulness, which in its simplest form is a kind of mental training that enables us to more clearly view whatever is happening in our minds, reminds me of our discussion regarding the importance of becoming aware of distress as it arises.

As an introvert, reaching out to others using the telephone (or FaceTime) is a bit more challenging, but something I know is important to my physical and emotional health. So I’ve set a goal to reach out to at least one person a day through text, email, the phone, or FaceTime, and I made an ever-growing list of people I want to contact (typo: not contract) from which I select one or more each day.

Given your research and work with clients, Jamie, I’m curious what you think of Ripley’s list and what, if anything, you’d add to it.

Jamie: It’s definitely a list worth sharing, Dennis. I especially like how you’ve adapted the list to the practices you’ve learned will help you most. I encourage my clients to start with unleashing their options when feeling stress. This list offers a great start.

The suggestion regarding exercise really resonates with me. Walking is absolutely my favorite way to improve my mood and even have a better quality of sleep.

My recent blog is about walking with my 88-year-old neighbor. Sheila has never walked or exercised! She jokes about her favorite t-shirt which sums up her exercise beliefs. It reads: Eat Healthy, Exercise, Die Anyway. Knowing Sheila’s not the stay-at-home type (pre-pandemic she worked five days a week at a travel agency), I worried about her isolation stress. So, I offered a suggestion: Let’s walk. We meet at 2pm every day (even walking through light rain). Recently she said, “This is almost euphoric. I didn’t know what I was missing.” It’s been a dramatic change in her life, especially now, and an unexpected benefit in mine.

In the stress research they call this “tend-and-befriend.” By caring for and connecting with Sheila, I’ve also lowered my stress. So, I encourage others to reach out and connect, especially with those you think might be struggling.

I agree that meditation is wonderful, though I’ve never been able to maintain a consistent practice. I’ve practiced yoga for over 20 years. The first time I became aware of my breath and began to learn to be comfortable with stillness was on my yoga mat.

The difficulty for many of us is transferring our meditation and yoga developed awareness to stressful moments when they occur, which is why it’s so helpful to establish the habit of challenging ourselves in those exact moments.

I really like Ripley’s notion that disasters provide opportunities because it acknowledges that we can learn and grow from our experiences.

Positive social relationships are very important to me, and I use the phone and other means to stay in touch with people.

You mentioned that it is challenging for you as an introvert to reach out to others by phone or other means. My husband, Wayne, is an introvert who is way more talkative on the phone than in person. Any insight about that, as a fellow introvert?

Dennis: Wayne and I prove that introverts can be very different from one another. One of the things that introverts have in common, though, is sensitivity to stimulation that causes us to more easily feel overloaded than extroverts. All of us introverts seek ways to manage that overload within the context of our lives. As a teacher I always appreciated the quiet of the school before students arrived and after they left. And that’s why I will sometimes drive for hours without playing the radio in my car and savor the silence of my home after becoming too absorbed with daily or even hourly news events.

Jamie: Thanks, Dennis. You’ve helped me understand how Wayne could spend the last month painting our home without a single sound other than the swish of the paint roller!

[TO BE CONTINUED]

Are there ideas on this list that particularly resonate with you?

A conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner: Spotting stress before it overtakes us

My conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner, author of Less Stress Life, continues.

Dennis: Your approach to stress management, Jamie, begins with an awareness of distress in the moment you’re feeling it, and you use a journal to note it and to identify a strategy to address it. That is a wonderful and very specific use of a journal!

Many of us are unaware of our stress until we are some distance down the “psycho path.”

Do you have any hints about how we can become more conscious of our stress before it begins to possess us?

Jamie: You’re so right, Dennis. When we’re not conscious of stress it’s like noticing a few weeds in our garden and letting our weeding task slide. Pretty soon our garden is so overtaken by weeds we can hardly see the flowers. 

When we don’t spot our stress it can overtake us and we can hardly find joy.

What’s worked for me is to start spotting stress—right in the moment that it happens. 

Here’s what that looks like. I might notice, as I’m reading the newspaper, that I’m nearly holding my breath from worry. I’ve learned that shallow breathing is a sure sign of stress in my body. That observation puts me on a stress alert so I can move to unleashing some options.

Like your “news diet,” I might shift from the news to the crossword puzzle, put the paper aside, or skip over the coronavirus stories (as compelling as they are) and read the latest book reviews instead. But if I haven’t even spotted my stress in the first place, I won’t have the option to consider what might make me feel calmer.

Knowing how stress shows up in our bodies is different for each of us. Look for things like fluttering in your chest, crunched up shoulders, a clenched jaw, or tightness in your neck. We each tend to have our “go to” stress patterns.

Stress also pops up in our thoughts. When we learn to spot those worrisome thoughts the moment they occur, we can create a habit of talking back to them by reframing the thought in a positive way. 

So, when you catch yourself with a thought like this, That darn cat litter really stinks, consider reframing it to this thought, Well, at least my sense of smell is still intact and I don’t have coronavirus.

You may notice in my above examples that stress often shows up around things we can’t control. So also be on the lookout for when frightening thoughts are outside of your control. Stay present and focus on what you can control. Like purchasing toilet paper! My hunch about the current toilet paper hoarding is that people feel out of control with fear of contracting the virus, so they are looking for things in their lives they can control. Buying paper products is one of them.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

What do you do to become aware of your stress before it overtakes you?

A conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner: How can I think or behave right now to feel less stress?

My conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner, author of Less Stress Life, continues.

Dennis: A recent local newspaper headline said “Michiganders deal with fear, death and isolation during coronavirus.”

That is what a pandemic feels like to most of us, a reality that cannot be denied or minimized.

And when you add to that the “ordinary” pre-pandemic problems of life, the stressors of families thrown together 24/7 with no end in sight, and the financial burdens that many are facing, it is hard not to worry or catastrophize, especially if we are already prone to those mental habits.

I am fortunate to have valuable pandemic-management resources at hand that are not available to everyone.

I walk several miles a day in a city amenable to walking, read books and newspapers on my digital devices, watch Netflix and other streaming services, and like others, try to stay connected through FaceTime and Zoom. 

Nonetheless, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by recent events and flooded by sadness at the images I see on cable news.

But like you, I see life as a series of choices that affect my well being, although I regret to say that I am too often unaware of my options at the moment of choice.

I remember a cartoon in which hikers were looking at a marker that named the two trails ahead, the “scenic path” and the “psycho path.” I think we determine which path we walk through the countless decisions we make each day.

I see the psycho path in front of me when I find my mind projecting too far into the unknown future, creating a tension that reminds me to return to the present moment by simply paying attention to my breathing or to the sensations of wind and sun and to birdsong when I walk.

I also feel the psycho path arising before me when I become too absorbed or even obsessed with daily news events.

My remedy has been to put myself on a “news diet” which limits my consumption to news headlines and occasional op-ed pieces. I have learned that the news coming from the radio is less stressful for me than that provided by cable TV with its unrelenting, repetitive images of tragedy in its many forms. 

But I know a lot of people, as you likely do as well, Jamie, who feel resigned to their current reality rather than empowered to shape their lives.

In your writing you often illustrate your points with personal stories. What other tools do you use?

Jamie: I’m laughing out loud at the image of “psycho path” and “scenic path.” But, it’s so apt, especially for these trying times. It’s a humorous reminder that we each have choices in how we respond. Some choices will lead to a calmer state and others will keep us on edge and feeling anxious. 

Here are three tools that can help us stay on the scenic path.

  1. Appreciate what’s good along the path. We could stroll along a beautiful path in the woods with our heads cast toward the ground, filled with worry. Or, we could look up and see the budding trees and cloudless sky. Choose to look up.
  2. Decide who to walk with. Stress is contagious. Some people bring out our worry while others help us feel calm. Remind yourself of the typical feelings you have when interacting with each person in your life. Then, depending on your stress level and what you need, choose wisely with whom to spend your time.
  3. Recognize it could be worse. Maybe the weather is colder than you’d like as you walk the path. Take a moment to consider how much colder it could be and appreciate that you’re able to walk the path at all. 

It takes some practice to have these kinds of tools kick in when we need them. But, after a while they become our default way of thinking and behaving in the face of stress. 

Dennis, you have great tools that show how well you know yourself and what will help you maintain equanimity. That kind of insight is a key part of what it takes to shift our thinking and behavior. 

Imagine if when we felt stressed, we looked within and asked ourselves this question: How can I think or behave right now to feel less stress?

That’s what I did starting in 2017. I challenged myself to look for a moment of stress every day. Then when I was in that moment I thought outside the box for how I could think or behave differently. I committed to asking this question daily for one year. 

It was easy to find stress, as I imagine it would be for you. There were little moments like my printer jamming and bigger moments like my dire health diagnosis. Each day I jotted what happened in a journal so I could capture and dissect what I was feeling and learning. 

Just three months into my challenge I was surprised to find this new way of thinking had become habitual. I saw stress as an opportunity to try something new, like tackle the printer when I had plenty of time and wasn’t rushed. 

The changes in me didn’t happen overnight, but I gradually began to feel empowered. I’m now consciously choosing the “scenic path” while avoiding the “psycho path.”

[TO BE CONTINUED]

What methods do you use to stay on the “scenic path?”

A conversation with Jamie Sussel Turner: Seeing stress as a choice

I have known Jamie Sussel Turner for perhaps 20 years. I first knew her as a principal and then as someone who wrote and taught about stress and ways to address it.

As a regular reader of her blog, The Less Stress Coach, and more recently her book, Less Stress Life, I recognized that there was Jamie Sussel Turnerconsiderable overlap between resilience and how individuals perceive and respond to the stressors in their lives.

And so I invited her to begin a written conversation in which we would share our thinking and experiences related to those subjects.

Dennis: In Less Stress Life you discuss, among other things, a two-decade journey with cancer that continues to this day. 

For that reason, among others, your life has given you lots of opportunities to practice what you’ve learned about stress management.

In addition, as I write this we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that will likely prove to be among the darkest periods in U.S. and global history.

Many of us live within homes that are pressure cookers fueled by countless stressors, large and small, familiar and unfamiliar. We are frightened about our own health and the health of those we care about, while the daily news unrelentingly brings us more sorrow and uncertainty than we can absorb.

Given that you are living with the daily reality of your own illness within the larger context of a pandemic, I’m wondering what you have learned about stress management and resilience that is working for you at this moment, and what continues to challenge you.

Jamie: Well, I’m 68 years old with a weakened immune system from 60 rounds of chemo over the past two years, so I can’t be too cautious. And knowing that stress weakens our immune systems makes it even more important than ever to get a grip on stress.  

From 20 years of learning, writing, and lessening my stress and the stress of others, my overarching lesson is that we each have as much stress as we choose. I didn’t used to believe that. I would blame bad drivers, bad bosses, or bad situations for my stress without considering what I could do differently. 

Owning how I contributed to my stress led me to this understanding: A stress free life is not an option. What is optional is how we handle stress. We can fall back on lifelong patterns where stress triggers us to panic, not sleep, and have digestive disturbances, skin rashes, headaches, or any number of physical issues. Or we can choose to search for new ways to think and act in the face of stress. 

Once we see stress as a choice, everything changes. 

I’m not saying this shift in thinking and behavior is easy. As a natural catastrophizer, I’m continually challenged by staying in the present moment. When I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018 my son and his wife were five months away from the birth of their son. I instantly jumped to thinking; I’m never going to hold this precious baby. This thought brought me to tears until I caught myself and chose to shift my thinking. When my sadness would surface I’d say to myself, No one knows if they will be here in five months. And I have the best doctors who are delivering excellent care. 

And now that we’re in new territory with COVID-19 my fear surfaced quickly. I thought, What if the hospital is overrun with virus patients and I can’t continue my chemo? After spotting this catastrophic thought I asked myself these questions: Should I try to suppress this thought? Should I write about my fear? Should I try to understand my fear? I chose to share my worries with my doctor. Speaking it aloud helped. She expressed confidence that the infusion center would continue to function. I also consciously chose to talk back to my fear when it crept back into my brain. Now I say to myself: You can’t control how the hospital functions. Thinking about it is counterproductive. Remember how reassuring the doctor was. 

By spotting my stressful thoughts, unleashing some options, and practicing staying in the present moment I am able to remain calmer than I would have imagined was possible. I remind myself to stay out of the “what ifs” and stay with “what is.” 

When faced with stress we always have a choice in how to respond. 

[TO BE CONTINUED]

What methods are you using to more or less successfully manage the inevitable stress of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Feeling pride in our profession

My goal at the beginning of the school year was to publish several chapters of my professional memoir each month through May.

But at this deeply troubling moment when so many things in life have been upended that goal doesn’t seem very important.

So while I will not be publishing additional chapters for the foreseeable future, I will occasionally share thoughts with you on other subjects, as I am today.

Sometimes teaching was discouraging. At other times it was immensely rewarding.

And sometimes, like today, I felt immense pride in being a teacher.

I am watching resilient teachers and administrators around the country invent ways of supporting children during the unprecedented educational, social, and economic challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are creating ways of providing food for children and families in need, such as a Michigan school district using school buses to drop off meals at prearranged times and locations on their routes.

They are staying in touch with their students online and through regular telephone check-ins, particularly those students most in need of such support.

They are finding methods to continue to teach with little opportunity for preparation so that students have purposeful things to do at home and to minimize the academic loss that may result from this unpredictably long break.

And this is just the beginning. 

There will be more inventing ahead as educators care for their own families and their students.

What have you observed or experienced that is causing you to feel pride in our profession?

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes…

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would appeal to our worst instincts, especially fear.

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would denigrate science and expertise, telling us that he is the only source of knowledge and truth. Trust only him.

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would bully those who disagree with him, and, if necessary, destroy them.

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would distort, deny, minimize, redirect, and lie. He knows that if you tell a lie often enough it may become the truth.

What have I missed?


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