Archive for the 'Motivation/creating energy' 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!


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.


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.”


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. 


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?

Ch. 20: Hospice volunteering

hos·pice noun
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. 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.”]

Ch. 17: NSDC II: Settling in for 23 years

settle verb
set·tle | \ ˈse-tᵊl
to place so as to stay
to establish in residence
to furnish with inhabitants

It is hard to capture the essence of my almost 30-year association with the National Staff Development Council, my NSDC II. (In a previous post I noted that my previous employer was the Northwest Staff Development Council, NSDC I.)

In the late 1970s and early 80s I served the organization as a trustee and president. 

Then, in 1984, Pat Zigarmi, the Council’s executive secretary, decided it was time to move on, and the Board of Trustees sought a new executive secretary at an annual salary of $13,000. 

I was selected and immediately “promoted“ to Executive Director because the Board of Trustees wanted me to have a title on par with leaders of other professional associations. 

I maintained that job and title for the next 23 years before deciding, like Pat Zigarmi before me, that in 2007 it was time to move on. 

In 1984 NSDC had about 800 members. It published a monthly newsletter, The Developer, and a semi-annual journal, the Journal of Staff Development. It also sponsored an annual conference and offered institutes around the country on effective professional development.

The only other employee then was Shirley Havens, a part-time administrative assistant, whose office was in her Oxford, Ohio home. In that tradition, I established an office in my home from which I worked throughout my tenure with the organization.

That pattern of housing staff members in their homes continued for almost 20 years as Stephanie Hirsh was added in Dallas as deputy executive director, Joellen Killion in the Denver area managing special projects, and Joan Richardson near Detroit overseeing publications. Eventually, office suites were established in Oxford and Dallas. 

I learned many important things in my 23 years with NSDC, some of them looking inward at organizational leadership and others looking outward at the field of professional development.

About organizations, especially those with multiple work sites (not unlike school systems), I learned: 

• first and foremost, to hire well, as illustrated by the staff members mentioned above, and to follow that hiring with a generous amount of autonomy within a guiding structure. That hiring included a careful consideration of the complimentary strengths each person would bring to NSDC’s leadership team.

• that disciplined action required a thoughtfully conceived and ambitious strategic plan, the first of which was adopted in 1986 and updated every 5 years thereafter. This series of plans provided a blueprint for our work, and it also allowed for improvisation based on what we were learning in the process of implementation.

• that a meaningful strategic plan begins with a clear statement of beliefs; is motivated by goals so ambitious that they require individuals to leave their comfort zones to make deep changes in their beliefs, understanding, and/or habits; and concludes with strategies that guide staff members’ daily work.

It took many hours of serious, candid discussion to reach consensus among board members and participating staff regarding a relatively small number of beliefs that would serve as the foundation of the plan. 

While this extended discussion of beliefs meant that we moved slowly at the beginning of planning, we quickly picked up speed because many decisions were much easier to make with a solid foundation of shared beliefs.

The Council’s stretch goals took us into the realm of the highly improbable but remotely possible. These goals required that we think differently about our structures and processes, which is always challenging when current practices and results seem “good enough.”

• that teamwork among staff members and with trustees was essential to the achievement of the organization’s stretch goals. We continuously aspired to use team members’ strengths to their best advantage within a clear and focused strategic structure.

• about the power of consensus decision making that extended beyond the strategic plan to all important decisions made by the Board of Trustees and staff. 

We defined consensus as everyone being able to authentically say, “Although this decision may not be my first choice, I can live with it and will support it when I leave this room.” That definition meant that when someone said they could not live with a decision the group took those objections seriously and sought to find a win-win alternative. When such an alternative could not be found, which rarely happened, the group’s leader, sometimes me, would make the final decision.

• about the value to educators provided by professional associations that connect them to a larger purpose and to like-minded people. For many NSDC members the Council was one of the few places in which others “just got it” without a need to explain or justify the importance of their work.

Looking outward at the field of professional development I came to:

• more deeply understand the fundamental role of school and system leaders in continuous improvement. It is simply impossible to have professional learning that benefits all students in all classrooms without knowledgeable and engaged system leaders, principals, and teacher leaders, all equally involved in its planning and implementation.

• better appreciate the power of school culture to determine the quality of teaching and learning across classrooms. Culture truly does trump innovation.

During my final years with NSDC I became increasingly aware that I missed the sustained, direct contact I had previously experienced with teachers and administrators in their schools.

Much of my work at NSDC was with groups formed for a brief moment in time whose members I would likely not see again. While such groups are appropriate to introduce a topic for expanded study and practice, they are insufficient to change the quality of professional learning, improve teamwork, alter the culture of a school, and, most importantly, affect teaching and learning.

That awareness, after 23 years of employment with NSDC, led me to conceptualize the next phase of my professional life as one that would enable me to work directly with administrator and teacher leadership teams over time focused on a relatively small number of essential leadership skills. 

And so in 2007 I left the security of a job I enjoyed with people I admired for a new chapter in my professional life that I could only see in outline, much as I had done 35 years earlier with ALPHA and then with NSDC I.

Have there been times in your career when you knew it was time to move on, and how did you navigate that transition?

(I had the privilege for most of my employment at NSDC II to have as my colleagues Shirley Havens, Leslie Miller, Stephanie Hirsh, Joellen Killion, and Joan Richardson, who each in their own way strengthened our leadership team, contributed to the quality of Council work, and enriched my life. For all of those people I am appreciative and grateful, as well as for countless NSDC presidents, trustees, staff members, and volunteers too numerous to mention.)

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

Ch. 13: Deepening the conversation

con·ver·sa·tion noun
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.”]

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