It’s not personal

“Carol, Don’t you ever get upset about anything? You never seem to get mad even when people are mad at you!” This comment came one day from a teacher during a particularly difficult time in my 2nd year as a principal. At the time I laughed, because of course I get upset like everyone else when situations are stressful, fraught with negative emotions, or seem personal. But there are a few core principles that, upon reflection, I hold that led to this teacher’s observation. I thought I’d share some of them with you.

Mindfulness
The concept of mindfulness was something I practiced before really knowing of it explicitly, through my interest in yoga as a fitness activity. Later, learning about mindfulness in the context of education (for example with the MindUp program for students) led me to a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, mindfulness as a technique and way of being that helps me manage my own reactions (what I can control) to stressful or difficult situations (that I can’t control). I love following and sharing the tweets from @mindfuleveryday to keep myself on track.

The Four Agreements
I was first introduced to this book by Don Miguel Ruiz through a short video from Aboriginal artist Roy Henry Vickers. The book summarizes ancient teachings of the Toltec people that lead to a happy life. One of the agreements is “don’t take things personally”. In essence, this means that each of us sees a situation through our own lenses and it is real to us. If someone else is upset with a situation and thinks that you are the cause, that is their reality but it does not need to be yours. If you believe in you own reality, and believe that you are doing your best and being honest and acting with integrity, that is enough. They are upset – that is their reality. You are fine and confident in yourself – that is your reality. This is honestly one of the most powerful things I have ever read and I come back to it often when I find myself in a situation of conflict.

Getting mad doesn’t get us moving forward
This one is just a part of my personality. I’ve never gone in for arguments, never had the need to prove I am right or try to change someone else’s mind. I don’t see the point of getting angry and making a big fuss. It doesn’t help solve the problem or move us forward; it may actually just make the situation worse by leading to words or actions that we soon regret.

So with all of that being said, of course I still sometimes get upset. I am human, after all! But I use these principles and techniques to work through it in private or with a trusted friend, or my husband or my daughter, all of whom know me well and allow me to talk myself around to a state of acceptance and calm. Like all skills, the more they are practiced the more easily they are used and the more effective they can be. In a human and relationship-based profession, conflict or disagreement is inevitable. I just don’t take it personally.

How do you deal with conflict? What strategies do you practice to maintain relationships and your own serenity in difficult times?

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Reflecting with purpose

20130127-102025.jpg “Being a reflective practitioner” – what does this mean? Donald Schon developed the phrase and framework in 1980s, essentially describing a process of inquiry into one’s own actions, through identifying a situation, floating hypotheses, testing them, and evaluating results. I believe I am reflective (and this blog is one of my outlets for reflection) but sometimes I feel stuck in a soup of thinking about a situation, my thoughts turning into worry or anxiety rather than assessing a way to move forward in acting to resolve a situation.

I need to reflect because I encounter problems and situations each day that are never exactly the same as previous ones. We all have a “solutions database” of answers to problems we’ve already solved (what Schon calls the “fix-it” or single-loop learning model), but I find that I can never just input a new problem and have an answer spit out at me because each situation is as unique and variable as the human beings (including myself!) that are involved. It takes time and reflection.

But wait, I sometimes say to myself, I don’t have time to think! This article by Joseph Raelin captures the high-paced trap too common in leadership and management in many sectors, including education. Our brains are capable of 50,000 – 60,000 thoughts in a day. How do we sift through and act in a way that is aligned with goals, purpose and philosophy?

Our district leadership has always been explicit that “there are very few true emergencies in education” and our site administrators are encouraged to take time to reflect. When a crying student, angry parent, or great teacher at the end of their rope with a challenging student are standing before me, however, it’s hard to slow things down.

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I’m working on learning explicitly how to focus my reflections in order to achieve my purpose – not just to solve problems as quickly as possible, but to validate and support the importance of every person with whom I work. (This purpose came out of my reading of “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek and led to one of my earlier blog posts.) Here are a few steps to help with that process and make the most of my reflective time:

1) Reflect on one thing at a time. This is difficult for me when I get in the soup of everything that happens in a day. But pick one. It may encompass several situations (ie How am I managing conflict with colleagues?) or single incident (student, parent, teacher concern).

2) Reflect externally. Enunciating thoughts helps to clarify and sort them. Journal, blog, talk to a partner, colleague, or friend. This process helps to get rid of irrelevant data and begin to focus on the relevant parts of the issue.

3) Run your “celery test” (Sinek). Even though I wrote about this earlier in the year, I sometimes have to force myself to back right up to this point to work out the knots of a situation.

4) Act, test, evaluate, repeat. The reflective process is ongoing.

Social Justice in Schools – Pt. 1

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Attending the Ontario Principals’ Council Leadership Summit on Social Justice was a great learning experience. It’s unfortunately rare that principals and vice-principals get a chance to talk with colleagues outside of their own district, let alone the province. This first of two posts about the round table discussions I participated in highlights issues related to expanding horizons for our First Nations students.

1) We need to make sure that the conversation around achievement of our First Nations students continues. In an era of political correctness it’s necessary to look critically at whether what we are doing is working or not, with regards to student achievement. In BC this is happening with Enhancement Agreements in districts setting and monitoring progress towards shared goals.

2) Changing the narrative – Interestingly, this echoed the discussion held at our Leading the Learning session in October in SD36. If we can move away from a deficit model to a strength, achievement, positive progress model then we can move forwards towards true equity for First Nations students.

3) Racism and stereotyping exist in a significant way in our schools still. We might wish it doesn’t, or try to ignore it, or want to deny it, but that isn’t the way forward. As hard as it is, we need to address and confront these when they happen. “Be relentlessly fearless.”

4) First Nations people have experienced about seven generations of colonization and generational trauma. How do we help our children and their families overcome the impact of this? Can we teach about the residential schools tragedy in our social studies and history classes? When is the right time, and who should tell this story?

Best practices, ideas, and supports from across the country:
Confront racism, assumptions and stereotypes. Don’t keep silent.
Ask questions to understand cultural nuances – we can’t be afraid to offend or be offended. The goal is just wanting to understand and combat ignorance.
Tap into student leadership – confront issues of equality that students are experiencing for a variety of reasons (Racism, homophobia, bullying, etc.)

One good resource that was shared is a youtube video – Justice for Aboriginal People – It’s Time. I would recommend it as a starting place for opening the conversation.