Archive for the 'Emotional Intelligence' Category

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?

Ch. 20: Hospice volunteering

hos·pice noun
/ˈhäspəs/
a program designed to provide palliative care and emotional support to the terminally ill in a home or homelike setting so that quality of life is maintained and family members may be active participants in care; also a facility that provides such a program

I didn’t belong here at this intimate moment, perhaps life’s most intimate moment. It was not what I had planned, but here I am.

The patient I had come to see was actively dying just a few feet away as a relative, perhaps a sister, crouched next to her softly singing hymns into her ear.

I am there as a hospice volunteer. 

Earlier that morning her husband had asked me to visit to record his wife’s life story not realizing that her death was imminent. 

Now he was looking at me hoping I could help him understand what was happening or perhaps even to prevent it.

Not for the first time I wondered how I found myself there at that particular moment at this time in my life.

I can’t say why for sure, but I have long had a more than ordinary interest in death and dying.

Long ago I had intellectually accepted that death awaited us all, and I never considered it “morbid” to acknowledge and discuss the significance of that reality.

Perhaps that was because my grandmother would often tell me when we parted company that we might not see one another again because she could die, even though there was no obvious reason for that being so.

In my 20s I read several books about death and dying, and as part of a graduate school project I interviewed morticians, elderly people, and religious leaders about their perspectives on dying.

I knew that when I eventually left my job at the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward), which required a great deal of travel, I wanted to be a hospice volunteer. I also knew that I wanted to support hospice patients and their families in telling and preserving their life stories.

I have always admired those who do hospice work. Nurses, doctors, social workers, and spiritual care providers. In my view they are as close to angels as I am likely to encounter.

I felt drawn to hospice volunteering because I believe that people can learn important things throughout their life spans, even until the very end of life, and because it would allow me to meaningfully apply skills I had spent a life-time developing—particularly being fully present and listening deeply. 

In addition, I thought it likely that hospice patients and their families would teach me important lessons about living life fully now, and that those lessons would support me when it became my time to navigate that passage.

I was not entirely confident about what to say or do around dying people and their loved ones, but I eventually learned that human presence was sufficient and that words were often unnecessary.

In 2010 I created a volunteer position for myself that enabled me over the next several years to make dozens of video and audio recordings of patients’ life stories, often told in conversation with family members.

That was how I found myself in a living room with a dying woman whom I had never met, knowing that it was too late to do what I had come to do, but not too late to offer whatever comfort I could to her husband, taking my leave a few minutes later as family members and friends began to fill the house.

Have you ever felt “called” to do a particular thing, and, if so, what effect did that calling have on your life?

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

Ch. 19:  I walk a step behind

so·cial class noun
a division of a society based on social and economic status

I experienced social class before I had a name for it, and I developed habits to address it without consciously knowing I was doing so. Some of those habits have lasted a lifetime.

For instance: The room is very large and filled with round tables covered with white tablecloths. It is likely in a restaurant or hotel banquet room. 

Or the room may be smaller, located in, say, a country club or perhaps the dining room of a large home.

Everyone is dressed appropriately depending on the type of event and the time of day.

Such places were not a part of my childhood.

Because these settings were unfamiliar to me in my early years I learned to walk a step or two behind others as I enter the rooms, watching what they do, a now unconscious habit I developed during my university years as I learned to navigate a new social world. 

Do people stand or sit? If standing, do they form small groups? What do the people in those groups talk about? 

When they sit what do they do first? When the meal is served, which fork do they use?

The first such room I remember entering was in my senior year in college when my high grade-point average led to an invitation from an honors society to a dinner at the town’s premier restaurant at which I had never eaten.

While the dorms at my university socialized young men by requiring that we wear jackets and ties for dinner on Wednesday and lunch on Sunday, I had had no experience with such formal dining.

I was watchful, not doing anything until someone else did it first, which was likely the beginning of my lifelong habit.

When I began college in 1964 neither my father, who hoped I would someday have a job to which I would wear a suit and tie, nor I, could have guessed what it would mean for me and for our family to leave a blue-collar life to live in a white-collar world.

Like many others who were the first in their blue-collar families to attend college with hopes of white-collar lives, I never again would feel fully at home in either world. 

In college and especially later as a teacher in an affluent Detroit suburb I began to occupy a strange new territory, a social and cultural limbo in which I had left one world to become a participant-observer in another, a cultural anthropologist in a kind of foreign land in which I felt like a perpetual outsider. 

In my new white collar world I spent time with people who usually assumed that my upbringing and early experiences were like theirs, a background that today might be called “privileged.”

In their presence I often felt like an imposter who didn’t understand the unwritten rules of my new world and whose false identify might be exposed at any moment by a mistake or what my white-collar self might call a faux pas. 

Decades later I came across a book that helped me gain a better understanding of the unease I often felt.

In Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, Alfred Lubrano describes the often invisible power of social class:

“Class is script, map, and guide.… It affects who we marry; where we live; the friends we choose; the jobs we have; the vacations we take; the books we read; the movies we see; the restaurants we pick; how we decide to buy houses, carpets, furniture and cars; where our kids are educated: what we tell our children at the dinner table.… In short, class is nearly everything about you.”

Social class was not a term I would have used in high school, although I had experienced it then in the school’s social strata and in the differences between my family and the family of my mother’s sister who were members of both the country and yacht clubs.

Similar to Lubrano’s description of himself in Limbo, I preferred to read books than to talk about cars and their repair, subjects of endless fascination to my friends.

I also knew from my first jobs (paperboy, bagger in a small grocery store, and summer employment in factories and as a milkman for summer residents of Lake Michigan cottages) that I most enjoyed work in which I had autonomy and used my head as well as my hands.

My friends, on the other hand, seemed quite content doing the jobs I found most oppressive and boring, like 8-hour shifts running a drill press in a small factory, a summer job that lasted just two weeks for me.

Like Lubrano, I sometimes wondered why I was so different from those friends and was troubled by that difference.

Lubrano says that for ”Straddlers,” the term he uses to describe those who are in limbo, “there was a moment, a specific place and time, when the difference between the class in which they were born and the ones above it were made clear to them.”

There may well have been a series of such moments for me:

Perhaps it was as an early teenager when the only way I could play golf with a friend at the country club to which his family belonged was to pretend to be his caddy until we were out of sight of the clubhouse. (Golf ultimately proved to be as uninteresting to me as car repairs.)

Perhaps it was being invited to “dinner parties” at which I felt distinctly out of place.

Perhaps it was when someone who serves others, such as a waiter or waitress in a restaurant, was not treated respectfully by my companions. (My mother was a waitress.)

Or it may have been more gradual as I learned that many of the things I talked about in my white-collar world, like movies or books, did not interest my blue-collar family or friends.

A benefit of the struggle to find a place in the white-collar world was that I knew I could live without its trappings and that I could start over, if need be, or, as a Straddler in Lubrano’s book explains it, “I was always willing to say, ‘Take this job and shove it,’ because I knew I could survive no matter what.”

Another benefit was that because I invented my life as I went along and saw most things from at least two perspectives—blue collar and white collar—I had more independence of thought than others whose lives moved along largely predetermined lines.

I also found myself drawn to people who, like me, didn’t quite fit in, who had rough edges and a lack of pretense.

A doctor Lubrano quotes says “the patients he feels closest to are the ones who struggle to get somewhere, because he believes the struggle says a lot about a person.” 

I felt that way as a teacher, which was probably one reason I spent several years teaching in an alternative high school.

While I chose to live in the Detroit area rather than Western Michigan where I was offered a teaching position in 1968, I resonated with Lubrano’s description of those who can never totally leave their origins behind. “Every once in a while,” he writes, “Straddlers have to go back and touch the place that launched them…. They need to go back to the world they left to see what’s still there.”

As a result, I made near monthly visits home in the 1970s and 80s, a practice that more or less continued until my mother’s and father’s deaths, visits that often took me on solitary car rides along the rural roads I walked as a child not imagining the good fortune that would lie ahead of me. 

And the challenges and unexpected learning that were yet to be.

To what extent did you have to navigate boundaries between social classes, race, and/or other factors?

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

Ch. 18: Becoming a “thinking partner” to teams

think verb
\ ˈthiŋk
to form or have in the mind
to have as an intention
to have as an opinion
to determine by reflecting

partner noun
\ ˈpärt-nər
one associated with another, especially in an action 

In 2007 after 23 years as executive director of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward), I was ready for a change in responsibilities and new challenges that would enable me to apply what I had learned over the decades about school leadership, teamwork, and school culture.

In my years at NSDC I came to believe that the most powerful leverage point for continuous improvement was the professional learning of principals, teacher leaders, and system administrators.

I also knew that that work had to be intense and sustained for at least a year, if not longer, and to be focused on teams as well as individuals.

In addition, I had learned from several experiences with videoconferencing, which was fairly new in the early 2000s, and telephone-based leadership coaching, that I did not have to be physically present for every meeting. That process would mean that I could meet two goals simultaneously—maintaining relationships and momentum over time, and reducing my travel schedule, which had proven overwhelming in my final years at NSDC.

My book, Leading for Results, which I intended as a text on leadership development, had just been published, and I saw that it had a central place in the work I wanted to do.

I described myself as a “thinking partner” for educators, a kind of relationship in which we used the skills I taught to improve relationships, strengthen teamwork, create cultures of continuous improvement, and sustain momentum over time.

I would visit each site early in the school year for a 2-day workshop with the team or teams I would be supporting that school year. The workshop was followed by monthly videoconferences which were led by a local facilitator and to which I contributed.

The facilitator and I would prepare that month’s agenda based on the challenges team members were facing, what seemed to be the logical next steps, and the learning that would enable those actions.

Even the discussion of a relatively common practice like, say, teamwork, became very complex when we moved into the details of what that meant. A deep conversation about teamwork, for instance, inevitably led to a discussion of trust, which led to the subject of promise keeping and speaking honestly and respectfully with teammates. Each one of those subjects could take one or more videoconference sessions as we worked through the nitty-gritty of what that meant for their team.

My timing was not superb with the Great Recession beginning the following year, but I had a sufficient number of client schools and school systems to keep me gainfully employed doing satisfying work.

While I was enjoying the work and felt like I was making a positive difference, I knew that there was still something missing, a kind of connection with my community that had previously alluded me.

That missing piece proved to be volunteering at a local hospice where I was able to carve out a unique niche for myself by inventing a previously nonexistent service for patients and their families, which will be the subject of a later post.

What work for which you are uniquely qualified do you think would make the greatest difference?

(I want to express my appreciation to Corrie Ziegler of the Edmonton, Alberta schools who encouraged and funded my first videoconferencing experiments with administrators in Edmonton, which led to similar long-term work in her district and many others.)

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


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