Archive for the 'courage' Category

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?

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?

Ch. 13: Deepening the conversation

con·ver·sa·tion noun
/ˌkänvərˈsāSH(ə)
a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged

In the mid to late-1970s I was teaching at ALPHA and finishing my doctoral dissertation, which investigated what high school students shared with others about their lives. I also taught introductory counseling and group counseling courses at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University.

I believed then and now that trust is the bedrock of a strong learning community, no matter the age of the students.

I also believed that trust required a deeper understanding and respect among community members, and that those qualities flowed from authentic conversations.

So I sought a rationale and organizer for such conversations that I hoped would appeal to students of all ages, and found one in Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? by John Powell, a Jesuit priest, who described five levels of communication:

5: Cliche Conversation, which is shallow and filled with factoids. Trivia is shared and the conversation is “safe.”

4: Facts About Others, rather than about ourselves. This level also includes facts about events and things.

3: Ideas and Judgements, a level at which we are beginning to share more deeply about ourselves, but in a guarded way.

2: Feelings, a level at which through our emotions we begin to offer our uniqueness to others, especially when our feelings are paired with our ideas and judgments. Such disclosure is riskier because it answers the question posed in the title of Powell’s book, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?—I am afraid because if I reveal my deeper self to you and you reject it, you are rejecting the real me, not a facade.

1: Peak Communication, the deepest and most authentic form of communication, in which one person’s disclosure evokes similar disclosure in others as participants progressively reveal more of themselves.

Powell’s organizer explains that the simplest and most direct way to deepen conversations, whether with colleagues, friends, or family members, is by revealing something of significance about ourselves and inviting others to do the same while listening carefully and nonjudgmentally to their responses. 

Of course, just as some crave more authentic conversations, others for a variety of reasons are content with Powell’s levels 4 and 5, finding the deeper levels more emotionally demanding or riskier than they believe the effort is worth.

I recently came across a blog post by Brett MacKay and Kate MacKay about the role of conversation in character development and other forms of learning, benefits I had not considered in the 1970s.

The MacKays argue that such conversations:

• are a mental discipline that require that we pay attention to what we say, “…abstaining from non-sequiturs, excessive negativity and complaints, gossip, and inadvertent insults to the person to whom we are speaking and those they know.”

• are “…a singular exercise in being present in the moment. To engage it fully you must shut down the distractions of the outside world and disentangle from devices. To listen attentively to another, you must continually bring the mind back to the present each time it wanders. You must commit to the idea that there is nowhere else you’d rather be, than right there, right then, with this other person…. In the give and take of conversation, each partner offers responses that address and build on what the other person says, and the deftness of those responses can only grow out of attentive listening. 

• require courage because “…every step into conversation is a step into the unknown. How will it go? Will it result in connection? Intimacy? Embarrassment? Hostility?”

• promote deeper clarity and increase our influence as “We find that opinions which seemed crystal clear in our heads, emerge as a confused jumble when we attempt to articulate them…. People rarely change as the result of being lectured. A direct haranguing produces defensiveness rather than transformation.”

• can have long-term effects because “…something you say can strike another with meteoric impact. Indeed, sometimes a single conversation can change the entire direction of someone’s life.”

• “…fulfill the most basic of human needs: to be recognized, acknowledged, seen.”

I believed then and continue to believe now that we can choose the kind of conversations we want to have and extend invitations to others to participate with us in the adventure of enriching relationships, building character, and deepening learning.

What types of conversations do you find most satisfying, and what do you do to evoke them? 

Have you ever had a conversation that struck you with “meteoric impact,” that changed you in a significant way?

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

Ch. 9: We built it, but will they come?

hope noun
/hōp/
a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen

In the summer of 1972 our team of four relatively young and inexperienced (although we didn’t see ourselves that way at the time) high school teachers was given the opportunity to design an alternative high school, which would later be known by the acronym ALPHA (Alternative Learning Program for the High School Age). (See previous post for more details.)

In the design we would present to the school board, students would be offered a variety of learning options, including independent study with the guidance of an adult, usually a teacher or other expert in the subject matter. They could also attend one or more carefully-selected traditional high school classes with the permission of their schools.

In addition, students would be required each semester as a group to select, plan, and implement a community service project.

One of the few “givens” as we began our planning was that half of our students would be those removed from two traditional high schools because of chronic attendance problems, which meant they would likely bring with them a host of negative attitudes about learning, school, and themselves.

We wanted to balance their views by recruiting other students who were academically capable and efficacious and who would be attracted by ALPHA’s unique learning opportunities. 

To that end we incorporated into our design a daily 2-hour required “workshop” in which groups of 20 would meet for academic and personal goal setting and planning, the identification of strengths, the clarification of values, and the teaching of various interpersonal skills essential to success in school and beyond.

We believed that these skills would also enable students to trust and support one another and, when appropriate, to confront their peers’ self-defeating behavior.

We would start small, which meant 40 students, half of whom would have attendance problems and the other half selected by a lottery because we believed that this school would attract a wide-variety of students who would far exceed in number the slots we had allocated for them.

While at the time we didn’t realize it, we had created a school that in many respects would have pleased John Dewey based on this description by Larry Cuban:

“The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets. Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change.”

In August the Board of Education approved our plan, and immediately we had to make our first important decision—who among the four of us would be the two teachers to initially staff the school.

We were all surprised to learn that all of us for various reasons wanted to stay in our current teaching positions. For me, teaching psychology to seniors, which was how I spent most of my day, was a dream job.

Finally, two of us (me and a teacher from the other high school) succumbed to the reality that if we didn’t volunteer for this new and uncertain assignment the school would not open and our summer’s work would be for naught.

There would, however, prove to be unknown and unintended consequences in accepting the position that would affect both my personal and professional lives for decades to come. I’ll have much more to say about that in the near future.

But in the fall of 1972 I could only see the challenges that lie immediately ahead, challenges that would stretch me in both expected and unexpected ways.

The first of those was implementing what we had created, which meant coming to terms with what the plan would require of us in the weeks and months ahead.

Have you ever accepted, perhaps with ambivalence, a new position that stretched you in both expected and unexpected ways, and, if so, with what consequence?

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

Addressing the “final 2%”

Learning produces physical change in the brain. —James Zull

I once read a critique of strategic planning that said it too often failed in its “final 2%,” that is, the part of the plan during which new ideas and practices are implemented by the people who do the frontline work of the organization.

That critique seemed equally valid for large-scale efforts to improve professional learning in schools.

Here’s a metaphor that may be helpful:

Imagine the United States investing trillions of dollars on a new and massive interstate highway system. 

Imagine all the time and energy and resources required to create legislation to authorize and fund the project and to pay engineers to design it and surveyors to lay out its course. Land would have to be purchased, contractors selected, and the roadway constructed.

Now imagine after years of planning and construction, the highway is complete, east to west and north to south in every state in the land.

But only one thing is missing—the off-ramps into the tens of thousands of towns it bypasses. It is essentially a highway to nowhere.

Those off-ramps are the final 2% of the highway project, the part that if not successfully executed negates the value of all that preceded it.

Like the first 98% of the illustrative highway system, schools and schools systems do a great many things in the name of professional development that may be important and even essential but in and of themselves do not affect learning and relationships in schools. 

Among these activities are establishing policies, forming planning committees, creating new positions, hiring individuals to fill those positions, and adapting union contracts to promote professional learning.

Unfortunately, leaders are often so exhausted by these activities that little energy remains for the most demanding work of all—implementing the new ideas and practices that are the final 2%.

In addition, leaders may underestimate the demands of designing and conducting the cluster of sufficiently robust learning activities that, as Zull points out, literally change the brains of teachers and administrators for the purpose of continuously improving teaching and learning.

These activities engage teachers and school leaders in solving challenging problems within the unique context of their schools and deepening their understanding of new practices.

The final 2% also includes the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation. These activities address the interpersonal challenges of leadership—the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden experiences that have a significant effect on human performance and relationships.

Four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, writing, and having critical conversations—are fundamental in both promoting professional learning and in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

While speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker, teachers and school leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words (a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for confusion, unexamined assumptions, and logical inconsistencies) and the effects those words have on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by educators deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes educators’ learning as they make comparisons with what they already understand and believe, raise new questions for exploration, and thoughtfully consider implementation challenges. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling teachers and school leaders to refine and examine the logical consistency of their ideas and to determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to open their minds to the perspectives of readers who offer their views in response.

Critical conversations are the means by which respect and civility are practiced, trust is established, diverse perspectives are shared, and cultures shifted. Without them, it is impossible to initiate and sustain continuous improvement efforts.

The goal of these learning activities is to produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and leaders, to enhance professional judgment, and to create school cultures that enable quality teaching for the benefit of all students.

In your experience, what activities produce lasting and meaningful change in the brains of educators and in their professional relationships?

Words matter

We need look no farther than current news headlines to see that leaders’ words can cause harm by inciting hatred and provoking fear.

But we can also can find examples of words that uplift and inspire.

My February 2016 post spoke to this issue, and my next post will address what administrators and teacher leaders can do to create and sustain civil school cultures.

Here’s what I said in 2016:

Words can injure, or uplift and inspire

A hospice patient in her 60s whose life story I was videotaping told a sad story from her childhood about an adult who had said cruel things about her, words that produced a depth of pain that was still sufficiently strong that she felt compelled to talk about it at the end of her life.

“Some people say that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” the patient told future generations of her family. “I want everyone who sees this to remember that that is not true. Words can hurt us.” 

Words matter not only because they affect our feelings but because they can alter how we view ourselves—whether we see ourselves as valued or unimportant, respected or disrespected, competent or incompetent, included or excluded.

While words can injure, they can also uplift and inspire. Most of us can recall things that significant adults in our lives said that encouraged and sustained us—the right words at the right time.

The words spoken by teachers, principals, and parents can have a particularly strong resonance across a lifetime, for good or for ill.

Which words encourage and sustain you? Which words disempower?

What is resilience, and how do we get it?

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. That line of Hemingway’s is famous for good reason. What sticks in most people’s minds is the phrase “strong at the broken places.” It’s also important to remember his qualifier: many. Not all. Not all of us are strong at the broken places. To be strong at the broken places is to be resilient. Being broken, by itself, does not make us better. Hardship can create a helpless person or a heroic one. – Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life

Is resilience simply a synonym for perseverance or strength in the face of hardship? Or is it just another way of looking at concepts like grit or emotional intelligence?

Is resilience something we are born with, inherit from the early modeling of elders, or acquire as a result of challenging life events?

Does it mean “recovery” to a previous way of being after a disrupting event, or does it mean “growth” to a stronger, more resourceful way of life?

Can we cultivate resilience in ourselves in preparation for life challenges by intentionally stretching ourselves into a new and even transformative way of being?

What is resilience?

The Resilience Research Centre defines resilience as a return to normalcy:

“Most commonly, the term resilience has come to mean an individual’s ability to overcome adversity and continue his or her normal development,” the organization says.

Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, see resilience as learning how to live effectively in a “new normal”:

“[A]ny number of sudden and serious disruptions might cause you to be ‘flipped’ over the threshold separating your present context and a new one…. Unfortunately, many of these thresholds may be crossed only in one direction: Once forces have compelled you into a new circumstance, it may be impossible for you to return to your prior environment. You’ll have entered a new normal.”

An example: Individuals who have lost a loved one to death often use the term “new normal” to describe their lives after the loss.

On the other hand, Eric Greitens, in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, views resilience as an expression of growth:

“Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength—if we have the virtue of resilience….

An example: After a traumatic life event such as a divorce or loss of a job some people say in retrospect that “it was the best thing that ever happened to me” because it enabled possibilities that were not previously seen.

For my own purposes I have synthesized this working definition:

re·sil·ience\ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\ noun: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful after misfortune or disruptive change

That is, resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, sometimes in a new and stronger form, to not only survive, but at least in some circumstances to thrive.

In many ways resilience is an organizer for understanding and integrating the qualities that enable individuals and organizations to persevere and sometimes thrive in the face of change and even hardship.

Those ideas and practices include but are not limited to emotional and social intelligence, positive psychology, a growth mindset, and grit, ideas and practices that can be found in many of my posts.

Perhaps the most important question is: Can we develop resilience in preparation for life’s inevitable challenges?

The Mayo Clinic says we can:

“Resilience won’t make your problems go away — but resilience can give you the ability to see past them, find enjoyment in life and better handle stress. If you aren’t as resilient as you’d like to be, you can develop skills to become more resilient.’

In Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy reach a similar conclusion:

“New scientific research suggests that personal, psychic resilience is more widespread, improvable, and teachable than previously thought. That’s because our resilience is rooted not only in our beliefs and values, in our character, experiences, values, and genes, but critically in our habits of mind—habits we can cultivate and change.”

Perhaps resilience is no more complicated than this:

• In life we have hard times. Sometimes we recover from them, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes when we recover we are as strong or even stronger than before.

• Resilience may stimulate growth. Such growth requires reflection on our experiences and perhaps actively seeking and acquiring new ways of thinking and behaving.

• If we are fortunate, we learned along the way from role models—for instance, family members or mentors—who teach us through example and provide encouragement and hope.

As you think about your own resilience or the resilience of those close to you, do you see examples of growth to new levels of strength and competency? 

In your experience, can resilience be intentionally cultivated?

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?

Do you believe in epiphanies?

epiphany/[ih-pif-uh-nee] 

noun: a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you

Do you believe in epiphanies?

I do.

I’ve had them while doing things as diverse as walking or driving, reading or staring out the window, having a conversation, or even while listening to keynote speakers at conferences.

Sometimes someone said just the right thing to me at the right time.

But epiphanies are not a change strategy that I would count on for me, for others, or for organizations.

Few epiphanies alter what we think and how we behave on a daily basis.

While guidance and inspiration can be drawn from epiphanies, they are seldom sufficient to produce meaningful and lasting changes in beliefs, understandings, and behavior.

Such changes almost always require sustained learning about complex subjects that includes deep and often courageous conversations within a strong team or other community about the implications of the new ideas and practices and how to solve the inevitable problems that arise in their implementation.

Anything less is simply insufficient.

Nothing I am saying here is new. In fact, it is decades or even centuries old.

But, inexplicably, it is far from common knowledge, yet alone common practice, except, perhaps, by resilient people.

Two questions:

What epiphanies, if any, have made a lasting difference in what you think and do?

In your experience, what structures (like teams or learning communities and dedicated time for them to meet) enable epiphanies to become standard practice?

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a wonderful 2018….

Taking personal responsibility

We teach children to take responsibility for their actions.

And we expect the same from adults.

A hallmark of resilient people is their willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

But what exactly does that mean?

A person I regard as wise once told me that he found it very useful to hold himself 100% responsible for whatever happened in his life.

Not that he didn’t believe that others had a share of the responsibility, nor that “fate” hadn’t played a role, but rather that when he assumed 100% of the responsibility he did a much more thorough job of searching for the things that were within his circle of influence.

When he did that, he told me, others were far more likely to own their appropriate share of responsibility for the problem.

I have found that advice helpful over the years in countless situations.

While not all problems benefit from that way of thinking, most do, at least in my experience.

So, for today, assume 100% of the responsibility for a problem.

Within your circle of influence, what specific actions will you take to prevent, minimize, or solve a problem that would otherwise be easy to blame on others?


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