Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cutting A Break

A recurring challenge for a principal—?  Adults who can’t seem to get along.   

Adults are, of course, all grown up—so we can’t just shake our pointer finger and demand that they STOP IT, like we would a petulant child.  We can’t force “time out” or send them to their rooms until they have an attitude change.  It’s much more delicate and layered than that—and difficult to get beneath the snark and pot-stirring to reveal (and address) the real issue.

Besides—basic truth, here:  it’s really, really hard to change the way adults interact with one another. 

But it can be done.  Not by force or threats—but by helping adults see why it’s important (and easier) to get along. Why we’ve got to give one another a break and find the good in one another.

In a lot of ways, the people we work with are like family.  Think about it:  How many times have you felt so mad at a family member you want to flee the whole scene, go to anyplace on earth where you can be alone?  How many times have your flashes of love and hate been impossibly intermixed?  Isn’t it true that your family can drive you, in equal parts, toward your best self—and to the point of black rage?

But… who do you call when you are low and alone?  When you have the flu?  When you need a ride, a fresh start, someone whose love is guaranteed?

Family, that’s who.   

I was visiting a school recently in which I was, ironically, speaking to teachers about working through conflicts with parents.   In this particular school, teachers were feeling as though they didn’t know how to deal with parents who were pushy or aggressive with them. 

When I arrived early in the morning, the principal asked me if I’d like a cup of coffee.  He led me to the Kuering in the lounge.  As I filled my cup, by eyes fell on a sticky note someone had put on the cabinet above the sink. 

I felt my eyebrow rise up. 

“I know,” he sighed.  “That’s really why you’re here.”   Sheepishly, he admitted, “It’s not just a parent problem we have.  It’s a big, fat, adult problem.  Not just us with parents... it's also us with one another.”

Working closely with other adults is really hard; I get it.  I’ve been as furious as the next guy about filthy dishes in the sink.  I’ve had that flash of hot anger when someone doesn’t fill up the copy paper.  When someone talks over me, or under me, or through me.  I have gotten spitting mad and had the urge to reach for my Post-It notes and my angry Sharpie.  And it has taken a good bit of time to learn how to self-talk my way toward letting it go. 

But over time, I’ve come to learn this: As many times as I’m right, I’m wrong.  As many times as I think someone else is being a real jerk, I’ve been a real jerk.  It’s a humbling realization—but empowering, too.  We’re all right, and we’re all wrong, and sometimes it’s just easier to take a moment and wash the dishes and move on with things. 

Here’s the thing, people.  We need to take care of one another.  This job requires teamwork and camaraderie and the loyalty of family.  We can’t live in a resting place of anger, especially not at the people who are in the trenches with us.  They are our tribe.  They might be any number of things—annoying, selfish, frustrating, rude, passive, aggressive but so are other people in the world.  (Insert self reflection here...)  

We can get along if we do one thing:  Cut one another a big fat break.  

Once we do that, we can work through almost anything.  Including dirty dishes. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

No horn, no hollerin'

Twenty-five-plus years ago, I sat in driver’s education class and dreamed big.  Just like every other sixteen-year-old, I imagined the freedom of a driver's license.  I fantasized about the car I would get.  A Pontiac Grand Am, perhaps, or maybe a cute, zippy Ford Escort.  My father and I had made a deal—he would purchase the car, and I’d pay for insurance and gas to drive it around.  He assured me he would find a good deal, something safe, something reliable.  “Something affordable,” he said.

I knew him well enough to know there was sure to be some rust, and a few dents, and maybe a clunking engine.   But still—silly me!—I imagined I would end up in a car whose undeniable flaws would actually be endearing.  Charming, even.

I should have known better.  “Something affordable,” he’d said.  We were not a well-off family.  That’s putting it mildly.  My father took “affordable” very, very seriously.

My “new” “car” was decidedly not cute and zippy.  It was a 1972 Chevy pickup truck—a mess, for sure, ancient and old and rusty.  Embarrassing.  It had nicks and holes on every square inch, and sounded like an airplane hanger.   It was quick to slide out of gear; I often had to get under the hood to move a lever back into place before the truck would move.  When it did, it took real effort to get the thing going a decent speed.  Worst of all, in an effort to stop the creeping rust, my father took to it with an old wire-bristled paintbrush, covering it thickly with a coat of powder blue paint—an obnoxious color left over from one of his construction jobs. 

I knew my father well; no amount of whining or pouting would change a thing.  This ugly, broken thing was mine to keep.

And then:  There was hope.  The first time I took it out for a drive, I discovered that the horn was broken.  I was giddy—I thought I’d found my golden ticket.

“Dad?  I’m not going to be able to drive this truck.”  I shook my head regretfully.  “It doesn’t have a horn that works.”

“You don’t need a horn.”

“Of course I need a horn.  It’s not safe to drive around without one.”

He looked at me.  “If you pay enough attention to everything that’s going on around you as you drive, you won’t need a horn,” he said.  “All a car horn does is give you the ability to holler at people with it.”

“What about if someone is stopped at a red light, and it turns green, and they won’t go, and I need to remind them?”

“Work on your patience.  They’ll be ready to go soon enough.”

“What if I need to warn another driver? About… I don’t know… something?”  It sounded feeble, even to me.

“If you pay attention, no warnings will be needed.” 

“What if someone does something really stupid?”

“Give yourself five minutes.  By then, you will undoubtedly do something equally stupid, and you can just hope no one uses their horn on you.”  He stood up and moved to leave.  Over his shoulder, he said, “Remember:  Horns are for hollerin', and excellent drivers rarely need to holler.”

And so it was.  I drove that truck for three years, never once having the option of a horn.  And it was all fine.  Old habits die hard, too; in the years since, as my cars have gotten increasingly operational, I doubt I’ve used my horn even a handful of times.  I’ve wanted to—no one is immune to wanting to scream at someone on the road—but I just… haven’t.

I’m not advocating for not having horns—I am sure they can warn and alert drivers of impending danger.  That’s not my point at all.  I’m just realizing that along the way, starting with driving a truck without a working horn, I figured out something important:  Hollering at someone—whether it’s with an automobile horn or a crazy, angry voice—doesn’t  work.  Ever.  Being on the other end of someone’s fury and having it blast into your ears is the fastest way to stop all conversation, because it becomes a battle between the mean and the meaner.

As teachers and administrators, we have all types of horns.  We have red pens.  We have snarky comments.  We have the ability to administer impossible tests and tasks; divvy out negative feedback and low grades; shrug our shoulders and be dismissive. Rather than own our mistakes, we can refer to policy and procedure; we can shift blame; we can look for mistakes and missteps in others.  We can point angrily when we speak, deflecting the problem to someone else. In other words, since we’re often in charge, we can figuratively holler our hearts out.

But as I learned from my father all those years ago:  Horn or not, there is no need to holler.  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Trauma and Empathy

Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi, professors at University of North Carolina Charlotte, have researched and written about the concept of Posttraumatic Growth—the idea that most of us experience some sort of trauma in our lives, yet we vary widely (wildly is probably a better word) in how we respond to it.  Some people are scarred by a traumatic experience and find their lives defined by it; others naturally grow from it, learning to use it for a greater good.  Their work—particularly “The Foundations of Posttraumatic Growth:  New Considerations,” published in Psychological Inquiry— is fascinating and (if you're so inclined) well worth a deeper look.  (Calhoun, L.G., and Tedeschi, R.G., 2004).

I have read their work with the open pores of a dry sponge, absorbing every drop until my brain is heavy.  The act of thinking about trauma (and its affect) takes an open mind, because “trauma” is a broad term, and we all define our it differently.  There really is no way to quantify an experience that shakes us and hurts us.  Traumas that present themselves as similar in strength and scope just don’t feel the same between two people.  Said differently, my trauma doesn’t equal your trauma, and my response shouldn’t mirror your response.

And all the while ...
I struggle to make peace with the word “trauma.”  One of the character traits, entrenched in my genetic makeup—a weakness or strength, depending on your perspectives— is my aversion to being a bother, my avoidance of being troublesome to anyone, in any way, at anytime.  So I hesitate to even use the word.  It seems… attention-seeking, somehow.  To say it feels deliberate, like the only reason to even say “trauma” is because it’s a powerful word.  It is guaranteed elicit sympathy and rage by proxy.  And I would never want to identify trauma and then have it used as an excuse— a reason to always apologize, or act like a jerk, or be mean, or make foolish decisions.

And the big, difficult, breath-stopping things that have happened to me—?  Were they trauma, per se?  Watching my parents’ marriage disinigrate and implode… was that trauma?  Dating a drunk asshole… was that trauma?  Enduring and then breaking an engagement to a decent but controlling, angry man… was that trauma?  Watching someone I love die, in a painful and undignified way… trauma?  Those halts in life when I felt loneliness and despair beyond all logic… again, is that trauma?  In retrospect, they probably would fall into some sort of definition of the word, but I still hesitate to define them as such, especially because I know they pale in comparision to some of real trauma other human beings experience.  Actually, I don’t know, I suppose, but I do know that I reallllllly don’t know the depth of awful-ness some people have endured.

Circling back, though:  I try to keep my eye on the whole trauma thing, by reading research and by observing and collecting the stories of other people. If I’m going to be a decent school principal, I need to understand trauma and the different reactions that come from trauma so I  can react accordingly.  Not intervene, mind you—it’s never my job to jump in, judge, or try to alter someone else’s trauma.  It is my job to be aware of it in others, if possible, and feel it, and acknowledge how people react to their traumas, and recognize we are all living through choices that begot themselves through it.

All of which is to say:  In my job, it's simply not possible to have too much empathy.  Genuine, true, in-the-gut empathy.  That's it, really—accepting and supporting people as they stagger and sulk and sass their way through trauma.  I'm thrilled that empathy is becoming a fashionable word, these days, because I really believe it needs to be the biggest word ever—bigger, even, than trauma—a word that explodes, large and loud and full of powerful action.  

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...