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.

 

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?

Skimming vs. Absorbing Meaning & 3 new Rs

It was not THAT long ago that smart phones were a rare luxury found in the hands of high-powered entrepreneurs and financiers. Today they fall out of the half-zipped backpacks of young children and are left forgetfully behind by over-scheduled adults. We touch them within minutes of waking up, and turn screens off just moments before falling asleep. We fear missing out. We fear a great catastrophe if we aren’t instantly accessible….but didn’t nearly everyone who can read this post grow up in an era where if you left your house, you weren’t reachable until you returned?

It begs the question: what are we teaching our children and students about meaningful living and learning?

Two articles related to this question (links and excerpts shared below) recently caught my attention. As per usual, the most balanced perspectives on digital tools and media at all levels of education and in daily living are those that advocate for wisdom, moderation, and well-informed intentionality in the lives of both children and adults. If research shows that meaningful living and learning happen in the context of relationships, resilience, and reflection…how are we cultivating THOSE 3 Rs? It behooves us all to think carefully about what we are modeling for children about balance, presence, and self-care.

New York Times: A Conversation With Goucher’s New President

“Transparency improves learning. If you tell students that what they’re doing is critical thinking, they retain it more than if you don’t name it. We know a lot about what works. For example, using a highlighter when you read doesn’t increase student learning; what does is reading the chapter, then taking out an index card and putting it in your own words. We talk about the three Rs: relationships, resilience and reflection. If you increase those things, students will learn more, and teaching content becomes less important. We don’t have to teach you the periodic table because there’s a guy online who teaches it. But those guys online don’t know the names of their students. And there’s hard evidence that students learn more when they feel you know and care about them.” – Dr. José Antonio Bowen

Washington Post: Are You Really Here? Or Are You Skimming?

“It is hard to be okay with letting things drop: being late, or messy or uncomfortable or letting little ones feel impatient. It is hard to feel that you cannot help them all or do it all. It is a hard truth borne from a slowly evolving realization that doing less can, in fact, mean more…As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning…Do you know this feeling? It is the difference between sitting at the table versus being at it, or putting them to bed versus tucking them in. It is the difference between eating your food versus tasting it or raising your kids versus enjoying them.” – Jennifer Meer

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.”

 

Big Ideas, Big Discussion

“Big ideas deserve and require big discussion…Let’s have the grit to NOT swallow a great-sounding idea without beating it up a bit, and let’s be thankful that we have the slack in our lives to be thoughtful educators.” – Grant Lichtman

The call for fostering children who are resilient and approach real-world challenges in their learning and in their lives with “grit” has been charging through the worlds of educational leadership, parenting, and child development. Read Does ‘Grit’ Need Deeper Discussion? by author Grant Lichtman, as well as the valuable resources linked within his post, for some additional thought-provoking fodder on the topic. His reflections remind us to pursue reflection, innovation, and reform – but not without doing the hard and important work of examining closely and inquisitively multiple perspectives.

Feeling stressed?

Listen to Kelly McGonigal (a health psychologist) share research studies that are changing the way scientists think about stress, it’s impact on the body, and how our mindset about stress in our lives makes a profound physiological and pyschological difference.

“The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience…Stress gives us access to our hearts, the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others and yes, your pounding physical heart working so hard to give you strength and energy. When you choose to view stress in this way you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and you’re remembering you don’t have to face them alone.– Kelly McGonigal

Fear & Spanish Sausage in the Chilean Andes

chilean sausage

I have written at least eight different blog posts in my head reflecting on my recent experience skiing in the Chilean Andes, but this one today honors the beauty of how adventure – and the challenges and triumphs resulting from it – can connect to your everyday professional and personal life.

As I met with a colleague this morning we discussed hopes and anxieties for the year ahead. It quickly became an interesting discussion on the role of fear, which can either paralyze & consume you or fuel your change and growth. We discussed whether or not communicating about nervousness and fears was worthwhile or counterproductive. Similarly, we moved into a discussion about support and professional growth and how to accept both compliments and constructive feedback with grace and confidence. In both these conversations I found myself having one of those classic light bulb “A-HA!” style moments and sharing anecdotes from my recent skiing experience with PowderQuest.

Fear – Work With & Through It

It was not until halfway through my trip that my trip-mates and guides knew that I had never been off-piste skiing before. I was not actively trying to hide this information, but neither did I volunteer it. I stood at the top of varying levels of backcountry chutes and bowls with fear pounding in my chest. And I held that alone. I don’t think that made me brave. It made me isolated. It wasn’t until a particularly long and harrowing day that I finally said “I have never done this before, I am terrified.” It was only then that the women on the trip were able to more fully be the amazing women they are in support of me. It was only then that Ingrid Backstrom & Leah Evans could really put their expertise and coaching talent to maximal use. I was able to get the help I needed to become a better, braver skier because I wasn’t trying to hide what was going on inside. In our professional and personal lives I think we tend to connote fear with cowardice. Fear is neither brave nor cowardly. Fear is a rationale response to risk, to uncertainty, to the new. Whether you are standing at the cusp of a narrow snow-covered chute flanked by rocks or on the cusp of a new job, a changing relationship, or something else big or small….I am more certain then ever that if you find the right people to share your fear with that you will find yourself capable of more than you imagined.

Spanish Sausage – Love It & Yourself

Midway through our trip, Leah & Ingrid turned to our group of beautiful, smart, talented, and successful skier chicks who were ripping up the slopes and made the following pronouncement:

 “Here’s the deal. For the rest of the day if you say anything negative about your skiing or yourself you have to stop at the entrance to the lift, raise your hands in the air, do a dance, and yell ‘ME GUSTA LA LONGANIZA CHILENA!”

Meaning, “I LOVE CHILEAN SAUSAGE!” This certainly gave the lift operators a good chuckle. Many of us had to do this, sometimes multiple times, and even our superstar guides Ingrid & Leah were not exempt…going to show the pervasive problem we (and I think particularly women) have with two things:

  1. Accepting compliments without using self-deprecation or criticism to deflect them. Instead of saying an authentic “Thank you” we instead resort to the “Yes, but….” Or “Except for when…” We assume that compliments are just the sweet tasting, disingenuous preface to what someone else really means which is the criticism that is sure to follow (or secretly lurking within them).
  2. Absorbing feedback as a growth opportunity rather than a devaluation of our skills, talents, or self-worth. We are the first to say “Nobody is perfect, and I certainly am not” and so susceptible to crumbling inwardly upon receiving suggestions for improvement.

Sure, some people will compliment you in order to wound you. Some people will give feedback that is not constructive and leaves you feeling scraped out inside. But we all know how to differentiate between THOSE people and the allies and supporters around us who mean what they say.

So….whether on a ski slope, in your office, or at home….WHAT IF?

What if we chose to live with our fear instead fighting the impossible fight to live without it?

What if we chose to let fear propel us to new heights alongside those who can champion us along the way?

What if we chose to accept gratitude and compliments with a smile and earnest thanks?

What if we chose to hear feedback with an open mind and heart rather than disappointment and self-criticism?

What could we then be capable of – independently and together?