Posts Tagged 'hospice'

Why it’s important for leaders to maintain a “learner’s mind”

Over the past decade as a hospice volunteer I have supported dozens of patients in telling their life stories and preserving them for future generations.

More often than not, patients were energized by the process of reviewing their lives. In addition, as they reflected on their experiences they often discovered an overarching sense of purpose that was previously invisible to them. 

And almost always they would tell stories that were meaningful to me, such as this one I offered in an April 2015 post.

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

“There’s an ego looking for a place to inflate,” my table mate at a Washington, DC meeting of high-level officials whispered to me as a prominent member of the education establishment entered the room, a prophecy that unfortunately soon proved itself to be true.

I was reminded of that meeting when Jean, a patient I was visiting in my role as a hospice volunteer, shared with me a simple but profound poem she had recently written:

“The long, dark corridor of life narrows at the end./And those whose ego grew too tall will have to learn to bend.” 

While Jean was describing the “long, dark corridor” of her own life as it narrowed in her 90s, her warning regarding egos that grow too tall without learning to bend also obviously applies to education leaders.

Signs that a leader’s ego has grown too tall include:

• Enjoying hearing himself or herself talk, usually at great length, rather than listening to others.

• Believing that he or she generally knows more than others, including being the only one with the wisdom to understand problems and how to solve them.

Ways in which leaders can learn to bend:

• Maintaining a “learner’s mind.” Leaders with such mindsets assume that they may not know what they don’t know.

• Recognizing that the perspectives of others are essential in identifying and solving problems.That means that they seek first to understand by spending far more time listening than speaking.

• Remembering that while leaders have unique roles and responsibilities, those who are successful cultivate a community of equals rather than one of  privilege and hierarchy.

What have I missed?

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 are our “basic” needs?

As I have spent time in recent years listening to the life stories of individuals who were in hospice care I realized that their stories of resilience often had roots in the unmet needs of childhood.

Many of those needs clearly fit into Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” which began with the physiological requirements of life and continued with safety, love and belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization needs. (He later added cognitive, aesthetic, and transcendence needs to the list.)

But some of their stories revealed unmet “needs” that, while implied in Maslow’s hierarchy, are worthy of special emphasis:

• Being seen and known for who we really are,

• Feeling accepted and appreciated for those qualities, and

• Being treated with dignity and respect.

Because those needs emerge during our earliest years, they have important implications for schools.

Therefore, it is essential that principals and teachers:

• Create classrooms that ensure that all students are known, appreciated, and respected; and

• Establish school cultures that satisfy teachers’ needs in those areas because without such a culture young people are far less likely to have those needs met in their classrooms.

In your experience, what do people “need” to lead physically and emotionally healthy lives, and what roles do schools play in satisfying those needs?

Our last good day

A hospice patient very near the end of her life after an extended illness told me that she regretted not having been aware of her last good day until it was well behind her.

That day went unnoticed because it was likely the same as many other days that also went unnoticed.

What she was sorting out for herself, I think, was that like most of us she had not really appreciated what she had until it was gone.

That conversation encouraged me to develop the habit of reflecting each day on the things for which I am grateful, a very simple exercise that draws my attention to the presence of many things I would otherwise take for granted.

Living in the moment with an awareness of appreciation requires vigilance and discipline.

Fortunately, when we drift away from the moment, as we inevitably do, each new moment is an opportunity to reclaim that awareness and gratitude.

What do you do, or might you do, to notice and appreciate the moments of your days?

How school leaders and hospice patients may be more alike than you think


My work has two parts. In my “day job” I serve as a “thinking partner” to school leaders and leadership teams as they seek to continuously improve the quality of leadership, teaching, learning, and relationships in schools.

My second “job” is that of a hospice volunteer, a role that is at least as rewarding as my paid employment. As a volunteer I have two primary responsibilities—supporting hospice patients and their families as a “personal historian” so that they can capture and preserve their life stories on video, and facilitating grief-support groups for those who have lost loved ones.

While my professional and hospice responsibilities may seem quite different, they have important similarities:

Both offer possibility and expand human potential. As a thinking partner I enable educators and students to learn and perform in ways that they may previously have thought impossible. As a hospice volunteer I support patients and their families in experiencing their remaining time together in the highest-quality way possible.

Both involve systems that are often severely stressed. Outside forces such as state and federal policies and declining resources can stress the systems in which educators work and their relationships with one another. Likewise, hospice patients and their families are often stressed in understanding and meeting insurance requirements, managing doctors’ appointments, and addressing family relationship issues, among other challenges.

Both require that those involved experience the inevitability of change, whether or not they choose it. Impermanence is not an abstraction to educators and to hospice patients and their families as they grapple with the choices they have been given to find the best possible path forward.

Both remind me of the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt’s counsel: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” While there are times to challenge the “givens” and to advocate for new ways, sometimes the realities of situations require that we accept, as the Serenity Prayer reminds us, the things we cannot change, at least for the time being.

What will be your legacy?


“You are doing this not only for your children and grandchildren,” I explain to hospice patients and their families as we begin to plan a video of their life stories. “This video is for generations not yet born, those who will follow you but will never know you personally.”

The stories patients tell during the videotaping typically describe the events of their lives.

But they are also stories of legacy in which patients discuss the challenges they faced, the lessons they learned, and the wisdom they offer to future generations.

Educators also have legacies that begin to accumulate from their earliest days in the classroom or principal’s office. Sometimes we only learn of those legacies many years later when  students seek us out to tell us about the positive effect our words or actions had on their lives.

While some of our words and actions arise spontaneously in the moment, our legacies need not be totally left to chance.

We can intentionally affect our legacies by:

  • Periodically reviewing the purposes and values that drew us to teaching and that may have continued to evolve since then.
  • Reflecting on the extent to which our daily words and actions match those purposes and values.
  • Preparing a “legacy statement” explaining the values and personal qualities we want to exemplify in our work. We can remind ourselves of our intentions each day by posting the statement in a planning book or by using digital tools. And we can further clarify and strengthen our commitment to those purposes by sharing these statements with others in the school community.

Whether we intend it or not, principals and teachers leave their mark on countless students across their careers.

By reflecting on the nature of the legacy we want to leave and by taking deliberate steps to cultivate those qualities in our lives, we are more likely at the end of careers to look back with satisfaction and to be able to articulate and offer our wisdom to those who follow.

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