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.

 

So She Wants To Be A Scientist?

Despite efforts to raise awareness and turn the tide….girls and women are still significantly underrepresented in the sciences. Do we need more role models? More female accessible toys and science related products? Increased girl-only classes and programs? This article suggests those approaches, while well-intentioned, aren’t effectively addressing the problem. The typical interventions treat it as though it is a result of lack of interest…as if science as a field for women to pursue their learning, passion, and profession isn’t being “sold” in a feminine enough way. Worth a read…and perhaps ongoing conversation with the science-driven girls/women in your life.

“A researcher measured the effect of a handful of common interventions on students’ interest in physics: single-sex classes; having role models including women physics teachers, women guest speakers, and women who made contributions to the field; and discussing the problem of underrepresentation itself. Of these efforts, only the last one succeeded in making high-school women more interested in pursuing a career in the physical sciences…I’m still all for Legos featuring women scientists, engineering toys that cater to different learning styles, and tales of academics who don’t look like a narrow slice of America. What I object to is that these things are used to pitch science to girls as though they aren’t naturally inclined to care about science in the first place—or as if they have to be as knowledgeable as a two-time Nobel Prize winner in order to participate.

Children Have Big Feelings

Children’s book author Kevin Henkes has a new book out called Waiting. This NPR article/interview with him is a beautiful window into the mind of an author who is transparent about his work, deeply aware of the human experience that children share with adults, and able to translate that experience into story and picture. This quote from the interview resonates deeply with me, and I find in my experience to be profoundly true:

Sometimes I think as adults we think of [children] as — because they’re small in size that they’re small in all ways — and they’re not. They have big feelings, and they have big eyes, they see things, they hear things, they’re living life just the way an adult does and I think sometimes as adults we forget that.

Becoming a More Grateful Parent/Teacher

Regaining Gratitude This Thanksgiving by Madeleine Levine, PhD

Some good nuggets in here on modeling gratitude by living gratefully, patiently, kindly, & flexibly in front of children.

“I will remember the success trajectory is a squiggle … not a straight line. Few of us become successful by simply putting one foot in front of the other. Most of us encounter a multitude of twists, turns, direction changes, and stops on the way to our goals.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

137,160 Minutes of Homework

In an era in which children are increasingly scheduled and information absorption is increasingly rapid, how much and what type of homework is a perennial topic of discussion amongst educators and parents. Is Homework Helpful? The 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask provides some thought-provoking questions for teachers to ask themselves when assigning homework, and parents to consider if/when they find themselves wishing for more. Additional practice to support mastery is useful…and research shows that quantity does not equal quality; there are equally developmentally rich experiences that children can have post-school hours (like PLAY!). From the article:

“The National PTA recommends 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for 12th). If you follow these guidelines, students will spend 137,160 minutes doing homework from first grade to 12th grade. That equals 2,286 hours or 95 straight days of homework.”

95 straight days of homework IF we are abiding by the 10 minutes per grade rule. “Is homework helpful?” seems to be the wrong question. Is 95 straight days of homework what we most desire for their development and growth into individuals of intellect and character? Food (but not homework) for thought.

Play Hard. Learn Better.

In his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, author Peter Gray, an evolutionary developmental psychologist, examines the nature of play and the scientific research associated with it’s powerful educational benefits. It is simultaneously a very engaging and highly informative read. It’s worth buying a hard copy, it’s worth reading, and it’s worth taking seriously as we work as parents and educators to create environments, learning experiences, and opportunities for our children to become smart of mind and good of heart. Some quotes to highlight:

“Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other young mammals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like ‘self-motivated practice of life skills’…”

“Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends. In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.”

“In play…children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them.”