Decision-Making Made Easy

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I was stuck.  I didn’t know what I should do.  On one hand, there seemed a clear course of action that I should take.  I have always considered myself an advocate, and there was certainly an issue on the table that was worth fighting for.  Yet, on the other hand, there was something that didn’t feel right about this.  I had this nagging feeling that I might be doing more harm than good, and that perhaps there was another way of tackling this problem that might yield more effective results.

Or was that a cop-out?  Was I just rationalizing so that I could avoid a struggle?  After all, how many worthwhile causes were won without some personal sacrifice on the part of those fighting for the cause?  Was I just being a wimp?

But at the same time, I’ve seen people completely ignored and written off as crazy when they take on a battle only to have someone else come along and attack the same problem with a grace and skill that wins people over and achieves the desired outcome.

What to do?

I’m fortunate to have a very smart friend with whom I was sharing my woes who, instead of telling me what to do, asked me a question.

“What would a leader do in this situation?”

I didn’t even have to pause to answer this question.  My choice became crystal-clear.  And I haven’t had a moment of doubt since.

The problem was, I’d become hung up on a label that limited me.  Now, it’s not that being an advocate is a bad thing.  In fact, it’s still something I strive hard to be.  But when I got stuck, it was like being hit by a lightning bolt to try on another label that describes another characteristic that is part of the person I want to be.

This experience has made me think about how I might be able to support others in finding the answers to their own struggles by connecting them with the kind of person they want to be.

When someone is fighting because he wants to be strong, what would happen if I asked them what a kind person would do in this situation?

When someone is reacting because they want to be heard, what would happen if I asked them how a thoughtful person might respond?

What labels have you seen drive the behaviour of others that, while on one hand are very valid, on the other, are restricting their possibilities?

What labels may be doing this to you?

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The Power of the Picture

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I fell in love with Wab Kinew after I had the chance to hear him speak.  He was smart, funny, and was able to challenge the audience’s thinking and assumptions about First Nations people in a spirit of true reconciliation.  I first remember him from his days working as a reporter for the CBC, and became a fan after watching the 8th Fire series.  So when his book, “The Reason You Walk”, was released, it became number one on my “must read” list.

His journey from a reserve in Northwestern Ontario to Member of the Legislative Assembly in Manitoba has been an interesting one, and the path has not always been easy.  One of the things that intrigues me is how someone can live through so many challenges and traumas to become such a strong and centered advocate, educator and leader.  So many people are not able to see themselves through the suffering they have faced.  I was curious to see if there was a hint in his memoir that could explain how he became the person that he is today.

I know that there is never one simple reason to explain how a person becomes who they are.  It’s a blend of experiences, opportunities, genetics, luck…. A million different factors influence our personal development.  However, there was one part of Wab’s story that fascinated me.

From the very beginning, he was told that he would grow up to lead his people.

I can’t help but think that the fact that he heard this throughout his life didn’t shape him.

It makes me think about some of the messages our kids hear.  From simple statements like “You just aren’t a math person” to more cutting remarks like “You’ll never amount to anything”, I do believe that the pathway someone takes in their life is greatly influenced by the messages that they hear that help to form the picture of what they see as possible.

Wab talks at the end of the book about how important it is to him that his own children have a picture of what it is to be a strong, proud indigenous person because this will help carry them through the difficult times in life.

Do your words and actions paint an image of strength and hope for the children in your life, or do they limit their possibilities?

Being Grateful for the Garbage

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With the end of the school year quickly approaching, I was reflecting with one of my students about all that she has gone through this year. It hasn’t been an easy road for her. There are many things she had to tackle that I wish had never happened. She’s had pain that no person should have to deal with. It would have been easy for her to become bitter, angry, and throw in the towel in the face of such adversity. It would actually be quite understandable.

If either of us had the power to change what happened, we certainly would. But as we talked, I realized there was another side to her experience. She didn’t give up; in fact, she has grown a lot this year, and not just academically. She’s learned a lot about relationships, coping strategies, leadership, and the skills and strength that she possesses. I do feel some sense of comfort as she leaves the walls of our little school and heads out into the big scary world that she is leaving with the knowledge that she has the ability to handle whatever the world throws at her.

I think about how often I get angry at the situations in my own life that I think are unfair. The difficult people that I have to deal with that frustrate me. The obstacles that get in my way. I don’t feel grateful for these experiences…. but maybe I should. I’m far from perfect, but navigating through these circumstances has taught me to be more patient, kind, and understanding. I’ve learned to be a better listener, and to be more collaborative in my work. I do think I’m a better person because of the tough times.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to muster gratitude the next time life kicks me in the teeth. It’s tough to see the positive when the negative is so overwhelming.

But I hope I can. I think I could find a little more peace in my corner of the world if I could remember that my life might be richer because it doesn’t always go the way I want.

Our Amazing Brains

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I LOVE this time of year. There is nothing I find more inspiring than an early morning bike ride. The world is still asleep, everything is calm, the air is fresh, and the view amazing as the sun creeps over the horizon in a million shades of colour. I feel strong and healthy with the physical exertion.

And then suddenly – WHAM! My front bike tire kicked up a huge stone, which hit me directly in the eye! I didn’t even see it coming! End to that peaceful, picture-perfect scene.

After the initial shock and realizing I was fine, I started thinking about what an amazing thing the human brain is. Because even though I had no conscious awareness of this thing flying towards my face, somehow my body knew enough to blink. Imagine how ugly this could have been if that stone had hit me in the eyeball!

It’s so cool that our brains have developed this ability to protect ourselves. We don’t have to stop to process and think about what to do. Our reflexes just kick in and defend us from harm.

The thing is, sometimes this wonderfully adaptive feature backfires on us. I think about the many students I’ve worked with over the years who lived in situations of constant fear. Their brains were always on high alert. And their reflexes were firing like crazy to try to shield them from danger.

These kids were in constant “fight or flight” mode. They would either shut down completely or strike out. And often they were labelled with such terms as uncooperative, non-compliant, bully, or violent. The adult response to these labels? Frustration, anger, punishment.

While I am a huge believer that the one thing that we truly control is how we choose to behave in any given situation, I do believe that there are some behaviours that are not chosen. I didn’t choose to blink – my brain kicked into auto-pilot to protect me.

And sometimes I believe that students’ behaviours are no more chosen than my blinking. They are the body’s response to danger.

And instead of creating safety for that child so that they can begin to relax and get in conscious control of themselves again, the labels we attach to them often serve to make them feel even more threatened.

What can you do today to help create the safety that your most at-risk students so desperately need?

Does Money Make The World Go Round?

I had the great pleasure of hearing Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band and the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation at a conference this week on the topic of Aboriginal education and business.  He passionately shared his experiences of the changes in his community that he has been a part of during the ten terms he has served as Chief.  His story is truly inspiring – the band proudly operates a vineyard, a winery, a golf course, a conference centre, among other things.  He has been central in creating economic prosperity that has benefited the community in many, many ways.

One of the statements he made was that when people talk about emotional, spiritual and physical health, that he thinks at the centre of that all should be a dollar sign.

At first, this statement shocked me a bit.  But then I realized, he wasn’t really saying money was all that was needed.  In fact, he argued that welfare is one of the worst things that ever happened to his people.  What he was talking about was the ways that economic prosperity can impact people.  He talked about the pride that he sees on the teenager’s faces when they earn their first paycheck.  He described the sense of purpose that the community has in creating something amazing that draws the world to it’s doorstep.  He talked about the ways these initiatives have brought people together.  He talked about the feeling of pride in being independent and self-sufficient.  In creating your own future and destiny.

He was talking about belonging.

Freedom.

Power.

Fun.

He was talking about how emotional, spiritual and physical health comes from people meeting their basic needs.

It made me reflect on the neediest students I have worked with.  Have I at times contributed to their feelings of inadequacy by doing too much for them in the name of “helping”?  Are there ways that I could instead have created opportunities for them to take control of their own lives, and feel pride in their achievements?  To feel that they are a part of a group that is doing something important together?   To become strong and independent people?

How can we do a better job of this with our students?

Comparing Pain

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It was a really long day at work. There was a million people all demanding my attention at once. There were deadlines looming that I couldn’t envision possibly reaching. The computer wasn’t cooperating, and I couldn’t figure out why nothing would load properly. Couldn’t anything just go right?

And to top it off, I had an hour long commute after this crummy work day was complete. By the time I got home, I had a pounding headache and I still had to deal with a disaster of a kitchen before I could even start thinking about preparing some kind of sustenance for supper. By the time the family was fed and watered, I was thoroughly exhausted. What a day! My poor husband got an earful that night about all the stress that I was feeling!

Ever have one of those days?

Don’t we all?

Now, I know that I have a lot to be grateful for. I live in an amazing country, with amazing freedoms, and amazing opportunities. I am blessed with a fantastic family and a group of incredible friends. I love my job. I have a beautiful home. I have a wonderful life.

I am not fighting cancer. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I don’t have to live in fear for my life because of political unrest in my country. There are a million things that I take for granted every day.

But that doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t just feel overwhelmed and tired.

This week, our Prime Minister’s wife expressed that she is overwhelmed and feels that she needs some additional help. And a whole firestorm of public outrage ensued about how someone who leads such a privileged life has no right to complain.

And then I thought about my day. Did I not have a right to feel the way I did?

I often have students come into my office that share the burdens they are living with, who feel they have no right to their pain because there are people much worse off in the world. I always tell them – it’s not fair to compare pain. Pain is pain. It hurts. If you break your arm, does it mean that you have no right to feel that pain because there are people in the world who have no arms?

Of course, it’s good to keep things in perspective. It does help keep me grounded to remember that I have much to give thanks for. I don’t want to turn into a person who chooses to be unhappy and wastes their life with constant complaining.

But at the end of the day, when it’s been a challenging one, it does ease my load to share my thoughts with someone who cares, and have them wrap their arms around me and tell me they understand, and that it will be ok.

When someone shares their load with you, do you validate their feelings, or tell them they have no right to feel that way?

Does Adversity Damage Us?

Mental health has become a hot topic in schools.  We know that academic achievement is not just about good teaching.  If people aren’t mentally healthy, their ability to learn and grow will not be optimal.  So, we in the education system are spending a lot of time trying to find ways to provide a safe and supportive environment for students so that they can flourish.  And rightfully so.

I was involved in a conversation recently about advocating for increased mental health services in schools.  But there was something about the conversation that didn’t sit quite right with me.  In order to make the case for a mental health initiative, numbers needed to be gathered.  How many students had been diagnosed with a mental health condition?  How many students were living with someone with a diagnosis?  How many students had required crisis intervention?

I understand that this is the way the world works.  Money for new initiatives only flows when a need is identified.  But what bothers me about this is the assumption that support is something that is only required when someone has a diagnosis.  I know many people who have a diagnosis who are doing just fine, and don’t require a lot of extra support from their school.  And alternately, I know many people without a diagnosis who could really benefit from services.

I hate the assumption that just because you have faced adversity means you need help.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with needing help.  None of us can make it through life all alone.  We all need help sometimes.  And certainly there are circumstances that increase the risk that we will experience difficulty.  However, just because you were abused, or grew up in poverty, or live with an alcoholic doesn’t automatically mean you have been damaged.  Certainly those things create challenges in life that can be incredibly difficult to overcome, and it would be naïve to think that they don’t matter.  But living through adversity can also teach you how strong you are.

I often ask my students when they are feeling overwhelmed if they have lived through tougher times than this, and most often I can see this question helps them reconnect with that part of themselves that is a survivor.  They are able to remember the strategies that have carried them through before, think about the lessons they’ve learned in the past, and apply this to their current situation.

Ironically, as I was chewing on these thoughts, I came across this TED Talk about hiring practices, and why the perfect resume may not belong to the person who is best for the job:

You cannot judge a person based solely on their diagnosis or other challenges they may have encountered.  What’s much more important than what we have lived through is whether or not we have learned and become stronger because of it.