In Stories, Endings Matter: The Experiencing Self & The Remembering Self

I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine & What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. His book, and all his writing I’ve read thus far, is both rich with research and elegant in its storytelling. Being Mortal is largely about how we grapple with mortality, both as people who will ourselves confront it at some point…and people who will likely have to journey alongside loved ones as they confront it. It’s a beautiful, raw, and important book.

I’ve been really stuck on a portion of the book towards the end, the irony of which is not lost on me (keep reading and you’ll see why). Gawande explains some research that led scientists to understand more clearly how humans both experience moments, and how they remember them. He writes about something called The Peak-End Rule. Essentially, the research shows that an individual’s overall impression of an experience, from something as consequential as surgery to something as commonplace as watching a sports game, is the average of the most intense moment (the “peak”, and this can be positive or negative) and the feeling they have at the end. Gawande writes,

“People seemed to have two different selves–an experiencing self who endures every moment equally and a remembering self who gives almost all the weight of judgment afterward to two single points in time, the worst moment and the last one. The remembering self seems to stick to the Peak-End rule even when the ending is an anomaly.”

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about: What implications does the Peak-End Rule have for my work with children? In my role as Division Head I deal mostly with problems. Rarely are faculty, children, or parents stopping in to chat about “That decision you made that I love!” or “That student who made a great choice!” or “That really great feeling I have about everything the school is doing!” Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positive moments and people do make efforts to share what’s going well. It’s just the exception rather than the rule. I don’t love that the feeling connoted with my role is that of “in trouble” (with both adults and children!). In fact, my husband tells me “In Trouble” should be the title of a book I write. Contrary to popular wish, I do not have a magic wand or a hidden easy button in my office that will remove, cure, or discipline away what is hard about growing up and learning. I did not get or take this job because my angry eyebrows and disappointed voice are stronger or more influential than yours. They aren’t.

What I do have is a deep, abiding, and passionately held belief that, as Ross Greene writes, “Children do well if they can.” If they can’t or aren’t, there’s always a whole lot more complexity to the why behind it than the angry eyebrows or disappointed voice would ever facilitate uncovering. In my role I have the privilege of trying every day to make decisions and act in a way that preserves and protects the dignity of each child. I am not in the business of “trouble.” Rather, I am in the business of assisting little humans through childhood. I’ve had a lot of intense, difficult moments with children and families in my years as a division head. There’s ones I’ve handled well, and moments I wish I could do-over. I’m encouraged by the Peak-End Rule and what it might mean for how children, particularly those for whom the rules and rituals of school do not come easily, ultimately walk away from their school experience feeling about themselves, about our school, and, yes, even about me. Gawande writes,

“In the end, people don’t view their life merely as the average of all its moments — which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story.  A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens..we have purposes larger than ourselves. Unlike your experiencing self–which is absorbed in the moment–your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery, but also how the story works out as a whole. That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.”

CMS reading to kinderI hope the idea that Gawande is sharing, as it might pertain to education and growing up, means that when we’re in our hardest moments with a student, a family, a whole class, a colleague…that our Experiencing Self can acknowledge “Ouch, this is hard and it hurts,” but that we can also take comfort that the story continues, we haven’t arrived at the ending yet. And the reality that an ending remains unwritten is such a cause for hope! In fact, according to the Peak-End Rule, endings are so powerful they have the capacity to counter-balance even the hardest of journeys. Gawande finishes his reflections on the role of the Peak-End Rule in living, and in dying, by writing,

I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories.”

As an educator, I have the privilege to walk with each child and their family through this growing up journey. Our Experiencing Selves endure every moment of that journey equally, all the joyful highs and all the excruciating and confusing lows. The Peak-End Rule reminds me that it is, in fact, a journey. And as all great journeys do, childhood eventually comes to an end. It is my hope, with each child and family I walk with along the way, that when my involvement in the story comes to an end we’ll be able to look at each other with warmth and trust as we pass the reins to our Remembering Selves and cheer, “We made it!”

Practices of Resilient Leaders & Teachers

Originally published on the Leadership + Design Blog on April 25, 2018

Let me set the scene for you. It’s 11:30am on the Friday before Spring Break. The sky is clouded over and the trees are rustling overhead. Leaves shake raindrops that have collected during the day’s sporadic downpours onto the ground below. On the sidewalk, two grown adults sit on the ground. I am one of them. I am aware we look ridiculous and out of place. I am aware this is not the best spot for a strategy session…but here we are. Behind me is a classroom of 11-13 year olds I am responsible for. They are busy trying to compile short videos that tell the story of their expeditionary learning experience that week. A short distance away is a young child who desperately wants to be successful, but for many reasons on this particular day is not. A series of bad choices have resulted in removal from the classroom….and now my colleague and I are stuck. What does this child need right now? What do the classmates need? What does the teacher need? What decision best balances the tension between necessary logical consequences and compassion? How will we enact our decision in a way that protects the child’s dignity? Also, how am I going to help my group of middle schoolers finish their summative project when we can’t properly format the video files? How many emails are piling up in my inbox that will need attention and thought after these things are done? Did I forget to eat something today? Are my jeans going to be all wet when I stand up from this concrete sidewalk? Is it Spring Break yet?

reeds

This scene, while unique in specifics to me on April 6, is representative in nature of the challenges of teaching and educational leadership today. Working with humans in community has always been both incredibly rewarding and (unsurprisingly) complicated and sticky. Add to that the proliferation of email and smart devices that, while making many aspects of life and work easier and more efficient, have also made everything faster. It is increasingly difficult to do just one thing at a time. It is increasingly complicated to prioritize tasks when there are so many avenues by which a new potential problem or proverbial fire might present itself. As leaders and teachers, how do we survive the fast-paced, ever-evolving, and multifaceted nature of our work? The authors of Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, suggest that the answer is resilience over strength. They write, “The classic illustration of resilience over strength is the story of the reed and the oak tree. When hurricane winds blow, the steel-strong oak shatters, while the supple resilient reed bows low and springs up again when the storm has passed. In trying to resist failure, the oak has instead guaranteed it.”

I would add that in order to truly be of service to children as educational leaders and teachers we need to cultivate a form of resilience that allows us to do more than just survive the work. The day I described above is excruciating and exhausting if I am merely seeking to survive it. Instead, I propose that there are 5 key behaviors that resilient leaders and teachers can practice to maintain balance and thrive in our profession.

Resilient leaders and teachers anticipate disruption. We expect that things will not always go according to plan and are agile enough to pivot quickly. We start “from the assumption that however strong your system is, it will be compromised…Resilience doesn’t necessarily mean anticipating failure; it means anticipating that you can’t anticipate what’s next, and working instead on a sort of situational awareness.” We recognize that no matter how skillful a leader or teacher we are, we WILL face opposition, challenge, and people who just plain don’t like us. There will be difficult parent meetings, students who challenge and confuse us in new ways, and lessons, meetings, or projects that don’t go quite according to plan.

This means that resilient leaders and teachers also normalize discomfort. They accept that in life and work they will encounter the disruptiveness of friction, frustration, and challenging emotions. They do not lead, plan, teach, or coach with the goal of avoiding or preventing uncomfortable moments. As Jeff Howe writes, “By trying to win, I’ll always lose. Only when I accept that there will be no winning or losing, just events unfolding and the way I choose to react to them, do I succeed.” Resilience is not an easy muscle to build. Like everything it requires practice and, by nature, truly practicing the art of resilience requires discomfort. Growth requires feedback and feedback requires a healthy level of familiarity with uncomfortable moments and feelings. Brené Brown puts it best in her book Daring Greatly:

“I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not ‘getting comfortable with hard conversations’ but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: ‘We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here — you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.’”

Accepting and normalizing the sometimes uncomfortable nature of existence allows resilient leaders and teachers to cultivate mindsets that are open to possibility. This is the heart of the “teachable moment”, the opportunity that presents itself that is, at best, peripherally related to the original plan but more often than not is completely tangential. An openness to possibility allows for creative, positive, and unforeseen new strategies, connections, insights, and more.

As Ito and Howe point out, “A resilient organization learns…and adapts to its environment.” When we are open to possibility, resilient teachers and leaders are able to adapt through listening and reflection. As poet Alice Duer Miller writes, “Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us.’ When we are careful, vigorously interested, present listeners we are able to more deeply understand and empathize with those in our care. Habits of reflection keep us from stagnancy and reflection is the practice most likely to safeguard against repeating the same mistakes and failures time and again.

Finally, resilient leaders and teachers need to prioritize effective self-care. This means something different for every individual, but I firmly believe that unless we take care of ourselves by setting and respecting the boundaries we need for wholeness, rest, well-being, and joy then the siren song of notifications and news feeds and updates and email and other people’s “emergencies” will almost always end up dictating your inner world and priorities, and at worst color your perception of your own effectiveness. Intentionality has impact. Resilient leaders and teachers are intentional about what we give our life’s time and energy to.

These practices don’t promise resilience, but I do believe, as with all things, that practice makes better and will result in a steadily replenished well of stamina to joyfully, thoughtfully persevere in the profession. Empathy, flexibility, and gratitude are more powerful sources of fuel for the journey than rigid, uncompromising rules and systems.

 

Advice to My Younger Self

This week, at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference, I have the opportunity to co-present on women in leadership. I have spent a lot of time reflecting, revisiting notes from conferences and seminars I’ve attended, and attempting to synthesize my own thoughts as I dig deeper into the research on women in leadership. The work of educational leadership is something I’ve been doing for seven years now and in that time my job has changed, the world has changed, and I’ve changed. I stand at this moment in time, preparing to share what research shows about the obstacles that exist to women in leadership (both systemic and of our own making), and what my experience as a female leader has been…and I started thinking about what I wish I knew at the beginning of my road. And while that list is extensive, there are a four gifts of insight I would give my younger self if I could.

Lesson #1: Did you leave things better than you found them?

I’ve been very fortunate in my school career, both as a child and as an adult. Learning and the rhythms and routines of school have generally come very easy to me, which meant that, if and when I added a strong work ethic to the mix, I experienced a great deal of success more often than not. The work of leadership is frequently complex, sticky, and ambiguous. There is rarely a clear, right answer and even when there is, navigating relationships amongst many constituents is very public and humans are, by nature, opinion-prone creatures. Early on in my leadership journey I too often evaluated my effectiveness by whether or not other people approved of my decisions, work, and performance. Don’t get me wrong, in a heavily interpersonal career garnering trust, respect, and confidence from those I am bound to serve (children, families, and faculty) is critical. I believe in striving for excellence. However, my measuring stick is no longer “Did everyone think I made the right call, or led a great meeting, or handled that conflict appropriately? Did I get everything done on my to-do list today?” Instead, my “bullseye” is creating and contributing to a culture and an educational experience for children that will last long after I am gone: day by day, conversation by conversation, through all the seemingly inconsequential moments of interaction and care that slowly, over time, change the course of children’s lives.

Lesson #2: Own your value. Know your limitations.

One of the patterns that you see as you begin to look at qualitative, empirical data collected from women in or aspiring to leadership roles is that we are often our own worst critics. It is absolutely a systemic problem that women are frequently passed over for leadership roles that equally qualified (on paper) males are asked to fill. What I/we can get better at is developing the skill of confidently, articulately, compellingly speaking to what makes us excellent. We have a lot to offer, and too often women (self included) wait too long to decide we’re ready for leadership or we wait for others to reaffirm that we are. It’s time to step out and own it. It is unfortunate that culturally we have equated women publicly speaking to our own strengths as brazen or arrogant. Self-awareness is powerful. We also have limitations, and I can speak to mine with equal clarity, including how I continue to seek to understand the nature of them, investigate where blind spots exist, and expand upon my skill set.

Lesson #3: Listen to what other people value about you.

As I have grown as an educator, leader, and person the things that people tell me they appreciate about me have grown and changed as well. In recent years, I have often been told how calm I am in the midst of what seem to be anxiety-filled, complicated, contentious, or stressful situations. Until recently this feedback has often confused me. First off, because I definitely do not always feel that way inside. Secondly, because this was not the feedback I received early on in my leadership career. I was much more apt to wear my stress and worry on my sleeve…and for many reasons that was not helpful. I’ve decided to believe people. This must be something I am much better at now. I’ve decided to believe them because in doing so I can name and nurture strength (see above), I can celebrate the growth I made in what used to be a relative area of weakness, and I can put my energies towards other areas of leadership development with confidence that growth is possible. Women often avoid accepting high quality positive feedback by dismissing it as invalid (“Oh, you’re too kind.”), diminishing it’s value (“It’s nothing, really.”), or deflecting it with self-deprecating humor (“Non-anxious! That makes up for what a nightmare I am when I’m hangry!”). I am most often guilty of the latter. We get in our own way by failing to graciously accept, appreciate, and reflect on positive feedback.

Lesson #4: This is your job, not your life.

In education, as with many “helping” professions, it can be easy to over-identify with your work. I am increasingly aware that it is possible to do a job well and with strong heart without it becoming the whole, or even the majority, of who I am. I am also a wife, an artist, a writer, a lover-of-mountain-sports, a beginning golfer, a daughter, a surprisingly skilled foosball player, a sister, an athlete, and more. These parts of who I am deserve care, attention, and effort as well. In my work I can take ownership of problems and mistakes without personally tying them to my identity or self-worth. I can say “This went wrong, let’s fix it. I have the skills to help us do that.” In doing so, I am motivated to look forward rather than backward and to seek resolution and growth. I believe in working hard and playing hard, and regularly work to remind myself that philosophy only thrives when I maintain balance.

If you are a woman at some phase along your own leadership journey, remember that someday Today’s You will be the Younger Self that you have wisdom for. And since you can’t actually share your wisdom gained with Younger Self…maybe there’s a woman around you who is hungry for it. Let’s lift each other up.

The Pain of Patience

We live in an era where there is very little that we have to wait for. With the advent of the smartphone we can summon any knowledge almost instantaneously. Lately, we don’t even need to pick up the phone we can just say “Hey Siri, what is 276 divided by 3?” or “Google, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?, or “Alexa, order me some more paper towels.” I can have almost anything I could ever think of needing or wanting delivered to my door in 2 days. Patience is becoming an increasingly untested and under-practiced virtue. More and more we are able to quickly eliminate the feeling of discomfort that comes from not knowing, not having, or not doing. As a culture, we are increasingly unable to tolerate uncertainty and the unsettled moment.

I wonder what the impact of this is on children. I wonder how our culture’s relatively new discomfort-avoidant habits, ones we are largely still unaware of, are subconsciously governing the way we design educational experiences and make decisions.

I am growing more confident each year that, as parents and teachers, we are inflicting unnecessary discomfort on our children because WE are feeling uncomfortable. We are demanding that children master skills sooner and faster when research shows that children’s brains are not developing any more quickly than they were twenty years ago. The lie we are telling ourselves? If we require them to show mastery sooner, then it is good for them. When we approach sticky and complex developmental milestones (walking, speaking, reading, numeracy, etc.) by trying to get it out of the way more quickly we run the risk of limiting the development of a growth-mindset and we rush childhood, at potentially great loss to the child.

We are afraid of the discomfort that comes with setting a boundary that a child is unhappy with…so we agree to let them keep their iPad in their bedroom or get them their own phone – giving them unmonitored access to images and words they might not have the skills to process. We are afraid of the discomfort that comes with choosing to slow down when the world around us is speeding up…so we sign them up for another activity – increasing exhaustion and the inability to enjoy and sit with “down time”. We are afraid of the discomfort we feel when a neighbor’s son or brother’s daughter is reading more advanced books than our same-age child…so we send them to a tutor after school even though they are still well within the developmental norms for progress and growth – increasing anxiety and a fixed mindset around learning.

There is nothing inherently wrong with screens, after-school activities, or tutoring. There are many wise, thoughtful reasons to include them in our lives and our children’s lives. I am urging us to examine our motives. We want to do right by our child, but many times we falsely equate that with ourselves feeling comfortable and confident. In doing so, in many instances, the discomfort of the child is increased as their brain and body are overloaded in our increasingly fast-paced and achievement driven world. And the additional truth is: we are not any more comfortable as parents or teachers.

What if we did things differently?

Parenting, and teaching – but more-so parenting, is incredibly vulnerable. Being a parent is public, and with that comes a fear of judgment and the desire to “parent” correctly so that your child will never needlessly struggle or suffer or hurt. This is an impossible standard. Life will always show up, and what shows up at some point will always include some measure of struggle and hurt. We can all agree on this, because we have all experienced it in our own lives. Not one of us has had a bump free road.

What if, instead of rushing to act and make the uncomfortable thing go away (whatever it is)….we paused…to breath and to wait? What if we, as adults, took on the hand-wringingly difficult and uncomfortable task of being patient as a child reveals to us who they are and how their brain works? What if, instead of giving lip-service to the belief that we “prepare the child for the path and not the path for the child” we actually let the child experience the path…and walked it with them (instead of trying to do it FOR them) when it gets hard and uncomfortable? What if we collectively acknowledge that patience is painful….and agreed to try and practice it so that someday our kids will have models of patience to look up to?

I think we would be giving our children the incredible gift of an un-rushed childhood. Patience might be painful….but I think it could also be culturally transformative.

When was the last time you “wiped out”…and talked about it?

 

I can be incredibly clumsy. Anyone who is around me long enough knows I’m bound to run into something, fall off something, trip over something, or drop something. I’ve learned to embrace this aspect of myself and brush off the dust and ignore the bumps. I recently fell off my bike (ok…I fell off twice) – and while neither fall was serious or even stick-fallingwitnessed by many others….it was still horribly embarrassing. Getting back up on the bike still required a couple deep breaths and some inward self coaching. Other kinds of mistakes and failure (professional, relational, etc.) are no less comfortable, and they certainly aren’t welcome to the extent that I would willingly seek them out.

There are numerous articles citing abundant research about the growth mindset and the benefits gained when children make mistakes and experience failure. Research shows that when children are raised in reflective, supportive environments (at home and at school) they develop resilience and learn to view these challenges as learning opportunities. A recent article from Time called “Why Every Parent Should Suffer a Total Wipeout” goes a step farther by illuminating how little we may practice what we preach in a way that is transparent for children. Though the article is written with parents in mind, it’s not difficult to extend the message to teachers and any adults that interact with children in a nurturing capacity.

Do we recognize and appreciate the difficulty of what we are asking children to do when we urge them to persevere, try again, and keep their chin up? Do we empathize with how emotionally and physically exhausting it is to keep picking yourself up (literally or metaphorically) and throwing yourself into something again? Even if that thing is something you desperately love and want to improve at? How often do we truly try something that we have no idea how to do as adults? The author’s own experience of trying something new and finding it extremely difficult, watching others (even her own children) succeed more quickly around her, and needing to push through challenging emotions was a powerful opportunity for her to grow empathy for what we ask children to experience on a daily basis. Most, if not all, of their days involve encountering something completely new (a new math skill, book, idea, friend, game, conflict resolution skill, sport, and more). We ask them to try….and try again! We ask them to trust us that with trying and with time they will grow. We know this to be true…..but what if we also SHOWED them how it’s true for us as well?

When we’ve learned so much and spent so much of our lives trying, failing forward, and developing our skills, talents, and passions….it’s easier to stick to what we’re already good at and comfortable with than it is to try something completely new. But what is lost if our children and students never have a confident, articulate model to show them the healthy way through failure and challenge? What is the cost if we leave them with the false idea that perseverance is something only children need and failure when trying something new is only something kids encounter?

What Does Your Face Say?

Video

“Interesting to see, when a kid walks in the room – your child or anybody’s child – does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for! When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I would look at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed. You think your affection and deep love is on display because you are caring for them. But when they see you, they see the critical face. “What’s wrong now?” But then, if you let your face speak what’s in your heart, as I tried to do from then on…when they walk in the room they know you are just glad to see them.” – Toni Morrison

This is such a powerful clip to listen to and think on for teachers and parents alike. What does each child sense of their value from my face, tone of voice, and body language? What does each child learn about how they matter as a result of the quality of my presence? In the hustle and bustle (and sometimes chaos and pressure) of the holiday season (traveling! gifts! dinners! special events!)…who in your life (child or adult) needs to see your face light up? Who needs to see on your face that they matter to you?

On Connection, Devices, & Empathy

A recent New York Times article titled “Stop Googling. Lets Talk.” lays out a compelling case for greater intentionality in how and when we make use of our portable devices.

How can we purposefully create environments where children learn to make decisions about these tools and use them (or NOT!) for the good of themselves and others?

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

In schools and at home, how do we recommit ourselves to the priceless value of authentic human connection?

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

More than anything, our children and students need to know who they are and who those around them are. Without self-knowledge and awareness of others no meaningful or lasting difference can be made in the world.