Power Struggles of a Different Kind

For those of you who are first year teachers, I know that you will understand my lack of a posting on this site for what has been an embarrassingly long time.  In my last real communication here, I shared my thoughts about a new job that I might have the opportunity to try – and I got it!  It has been an incredible year of learning for me, and I’ve loved every minute of my teaching.  But, WOW!  Was this an exhausting year!

Now that my term has come to an end, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on my experience.  In many ways, there were not any massive surprises that I faced this year – I’ve always worked closely with teachers and I’ve heard about the challenges and rewards that come with this position.  But there is always a deeper level of understanding that comes from living something, and not just understanding it through someone else’s experience.

One of the things I’ve thought a lot about was power.  Power is the one need that we seem to have the most uncomfortable relationship with.  While choice theory identifies it as one of the basic human needs that we all have, its also one that many times people don’t like to admit they desire because it so often has been used to oppress and harm others.  But power is a big part of what makes teaching so amazing – you have the power to truly change lives.  I will always treasure those “Aha!” moments that I got to witness with my students this year where some new learning rocked their world.  I can hardly think of anything so rewarding as knowing that you have played some small role in  changing the future because of the ideas you shared with a student.

But the responsibility that comes with that is something that I hadn’t grasped at such a core level before.  Standing before my students,  I not only had the power to do good things,  I also had the power to embarrass, minimize someone’s experience, destroy trust, diminish motivation or even crush someone’s dreams.  And while I would never intentionally do any of those things, I also know that this can happen without awareness.

I attended a conference today where we were discussing the concept of creating “safe spaces” in schools where everyone feels valued and respected.  This is something I really wanted to achieve in my classroom.  But many of the participants shared that this idea is a fallacy – that there are always going to be times where people are afraid to speak because of the reactions that they’ve experienced before when trying to have their voices heard.

This is the messy world in which we live.  Those of us who have power are often blissfully unaware of the experience of those who do not possess it.  I am certain that I have hurt my students this year – that I have been dismissive towards a student’s ideas or did not step in to support a student who was being silenced by others.  It is a scary thing to recognize that I have so much power, and that in spite of my desire to create safety in my classroom, I still let people down.

I appreciated the words of one of the participants today who said that for them it is not about people “getting it”.  Every person has a complex story, and the best position to take is to recognize that you don’t “get it”.  The best we can do it to be open to trying to understand others’ experiences, and to recognize that sometimes we are going to screw up.  And when we screw up, we can say sorry and do better next time.

I only hope that my students learned half as much this year as I have learned from them!

 

 

 

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Reaching a Crossroads


An amazing opportunity has presented itself. Although I’ve worked in the field of education for over twenty years in a variety of different roles, one thing I have never done is filled the role of classroom teacher. Sure, I’ve spent countless hours observing and assisting in classrooms, co-taught lessons, created and done presentations for students and facilitated lots of inservice days and training programs for teachers – but I’ve never had the total responsibility for a classroom for a whole school year. So when a term position opened up for an instructor in my college’s Social Service Worker program, it seemed like a no brainer. My two loves – social work and education – married together. What could be more perfect?
Except that I love my job. I work in a Mature High School program with adults who have often had to overcome incredible challenges to get there. I get to watch them learn and grow – often discovering that they are much more capable than they ever realized. It’s truly a magical place – how could I leave that?
As I struggle to make the decision of whether or not to apply for this new position, I realized that what was really causing me difficulty was not which job I wanted to do – but rather, being in limbo not knowing what picture to focus on in my head. I was reading William Glasser’s biography this morning, and was struck again with the idea that the outside world doesn’t cause feelings and behaviours – it’s our internal world that creates these. And my problem is that I have two clear pictures in my head – one of me working as a classroom instructor, and one of me working in my current role – and they both are incredibly need-fulfilling in their own way. I know that no matter what happens – whether I am chosen for this position or not – that I can choose happiness and fulfillment. I just don’t know what decisions are going to be made by external forces outside of my control. If I’m not offered the new job – I know I have the power to choose thoughts and behaviours that will make me feel relieved that I can remain with my current colleagues and students and continue the important work we do. And if I am offered the teaching position – I will feel excited about the opportunity to face a new challenge and expand my experiences and skills.
I could choose the opposite. I could focus on feelings of rejection and lost opportunities should I not be offered the position. And if the opposite were to occur, I could lament all the extra time and work that is going to be required, not to mention my lost hopes of a winter vacation this year!
This is the gift of control theory – having the knowledge that no matter what the world throws at me, I have the control to determine what I’m going to do, think, and feel about it. And with that knowledge, I can always choose happiness.
I’ll keep you posted! I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next school year – but I know it will be a great year!

The Games We Play

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We all spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get people to do what we want them to do.  How can I make my boyfriend commit?  How do I get my kids to clean their rooms?  How do I stop that guy at work from coming in late every day?  There are so many different tactics that we attempt to use in order to get what we want.  We try to give someone “a taste of their own medicine” with the hopes that they’ll figure out how we feel.  We try to buy someone off, or punish them by giving them the cold shoulder.  There’s a million games that we play in relationships – and often they backfire.

For example, huge issues quickly arose when a dear friend of mine and I moved in together, but had never discussed what it meant to each of us to be roommates.  Her picture was that we would do everything together, and she was very upset to find that I carried on my life much as I had before we moved in together.  The angrier she got that I was leaving her out, the more frustrated I became that she was trying to control me.  Looking back, I realize that the whole situation could easily have been avoided if we’d actually had a conversation about our picture of what living together would look like, instead of us each lashing out and getting angry with each other.

One of the things that can really help prevent problems from arising in relationships of any kind is to have a clear understanding of the social contract which establishes the “rules” for the relationship.  When we actually make these rules explicit, it ensures that everyone is on the same page.  Often, the problems that arise are simply because there is a difference in expectations. 

I heard a story about the staff a daycare centre that was frustrated with parents who were picking up their children late.  They decided to implement a late fee – a certain amount for each minute the parent was late in picking up their child.  To their surprise, instead of solving their problem, it actually made it worse.  Instead of parents feeling like they needed to be there on time, parents felt that as long as they paid the fee, it was ok to be late now.  Daycare staff and parents had very different pictures of how the relationship was going to work.  How different might this have turned out if instead of implementing the fee, the daycare staff had simply talked to the parents about how important it was to have the children picked up on time so that staff were not working overtime and being forced to miss out on their own family obligations? 

How often do conflicts happen in life because we just haven’t really talked?  Instead of playing games, trying to understand and be understood? 

This IS My Job

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I used to get frustrated about how much time got wasted in my workplace.  People would interrupt me when I was working to chat about the weekend, or things going on in their lives.  I welcomed the odd storm day that forced me to work from home, as I could get so much accomplished when I was able to work without all those distractions.

But if you really want to talk about efficiency, email has been an amazing time saver.  I’m part of a diminishing group of people who used to work before there was such a thing as email.  Looking back, it’s mind boggling to think of how much longer it took us to do business when you actually had to catch someone on the phone to talk.  I can fire off a dozen emails in the time it used to take me to make one phone call.  And when things had to be done by phone, you couldn’t just get straight down to business either – that would seem rude.  So you had to do the small talk, chit-chat thing before moving on to your real reason for the call.  What a massive waste of time!

Except that it wasn’t.

I’ve seen good ideas wither on the vine because people could not work together to make them happen.  I’ve seen how simple tasks can become incredibly complex because people are playing games, or don’t want to put in any effort for someone they feel doesn’t respect them.   

I appreciate now that everything about work is really about people.  Without relationships, very little happens efficiently.  Differences of opinion do not turn into battles or become personal attacks when opposing sides know and respect each other.  Good ideas can turn into great ones when people go the extra mile with their contributions to a project. 

So I’ve changed my tune.  Spending time building relationships does not interfere with my work.  It is my work.  Although I still appreciate the time saving that things like email have brought, I’m also aware that I need to attend to the people I work with – not just our tasks.  After all, belonging is a basic human need, and without it, things go off kilter. 

I heard a great line recently that I think sums this idea up very well:  We need to loiter with intent.  We need to hang out with people, get to know them, build relationships.  Sure – it can be a break from work, but remember – it’s not a waste of time. 

Letting Go of the Past

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I can’t believe 2017 is here!  This time of year always makes me thoughtful about the year that has passed, and excited about the year that is about to begin.  The words of one of my clients came back to me today… he told me that he’d decided that it was time to look forward and not backward in his life.  This makes so much sense – after all, we can’t change what’s already happened, but if we put our energy into things we can control, we can make amazing things happen.  Yet, so often, it’s not that easy.  I hear people talk all the time about wanting to move forward, yet in reality, I see people struggling to do this.  What is it that keeps drawing us back into the past when what we really want is a happy future?

I’ve felt this pull myself recently.  This year, my youngest child turned 18 years old and moved out.  My life has been incredibly rich because of these two amazing people that I got to be a mom to.  I’m so proud of them, and excited for the lives they have ahead of them.  But at the same time, it’s the end of an era.  I’ve found myself looking through old home movies and picture albums, and it’s bittersweet.  What a wonderful life I’ve had!  It’s hard to believe that those childhood years are gone. 

I used to get belonging from cuddling up and reading bedtime stories to my kids; from packing picnic lunches and spending a family day at the beach; from roasting marshmallows together over the fire while camping.  I felt pride when my children showed kindness to others, when they achieved success in school, when they nailed their part in the musical production or stood on their head goaltending on the hockey ice.  We joked with each other; we laughed together; we played together.  We had amazing family vacations.  It’s easy to let myself get overcome with sadness of those days that I will never have again.

As we travel through life, we find ways to meet our needs.  And being a mom was very need-fulfilling.  And I think that’s the draw to the past.  It’s hard to find new ways to get your needs met – especially when the old ones were so darn effective. 

But I’ve also learned that even when they aren’t that effective, it’s still hard to figure out a new way.  The alcoholic knows that drinking is destroying their life, yet can’t find another way to relieve their stress.  The abused woman knows that her life is in danger, but goes back to her partner because she is so incredibly lonely without him.  It’s hard to move forward when you can’t even picture another way that you could find happiness.

            So whether life has changed on you – with the death of a partner, the loss of a job, or your children growing up – or whether you want to change your life – going back to school, leaving an unhealthy relationship, learning to control your anger – the key to achieving your goals is in creating new pictures for yourself.  You will need to let go of how you did things in the past, and find new ways to meet your needs. 

So – my wish to you in 2017 – may you allow yourself to be creative, try new things, take chances, and create many new pictures for yourself that will bring much happiness and joy to your life!  Happy New Year!

How To Truly Help

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I’ve been working my way through a really cool course… it’s all about how those of us who work with Indigenous people can cultural safety in our practice.  I have to admit, I was skeptical about how painful it might be to do an online course – but it’s really well done, and I’ve quite enjoyed it  If you are interested, you can learn more about it here.

However, it’s not to plug this course that has led me to this post today.  I had a bit of an “aha” moment when I was working my way through a section today that I really wanted to share.

They were talking specifically about the experience of Indigenous people with the health care system, and how so many times, people’s different experiences, perspectives and beliefs are not valued.  The comment was made that we should not approach Aboriginal people as if we know what’s best for them.  The importance of listening, and working to understand where a person is coming from and what is important to them is key in truly helping a person.  For example, it’s easy to tell a person that they should be eating a healthier diet, but without listening, you might not find out the challenges of doing so in a remote community where fresh fruit and vegetables are not readily available or financially reasonable to purchase.

What struck me is that this is really true for every person in a helping relationship.  It’s so easy to think that we have all the answers and know what’s best for a person.  But each person is truly unique – with a different balance of basic needs, and different preferences about how to achieve these needs.  What works for me to fill my need for connection with others may totally backfire for someone else.  The things that make me feel powerful and like I can make a difference in the world are not the same as they are for others.  My idea of fun and freedom is not skydiving out of an airplane – but it is for many other people.

Yet, it’s so easy when we are working with people to make judgments and think we know the answers to people’s struggles.  I know I catch myself all the time thinking “If only this person would….”, without really honoring the fact that whatever they are doing they are doing for a reason.  If only I was able to slow down and explore the reasons, perhaps I could be a better helper….

Perhaps those of us in the helping professions need to ask ourselves – are we simply telling people what to do, or are we seeking to truly understand and help people find what’s right for them?