Accepting What Is Can Set You Free

One of the parts of my job is serving as a mentor to new faculty hires in the upper school. For eighteen years I have been hanging around this place as a parent, room mother, PTO volunteer, board member and most recently, a teacher. If anyone should know the school culture, I should.; and hopefully, I help our new hires navigate the first year of working in it. As is true in any good teaching relationship, though, the learning goes both ways. My new teachers teach me while I am formally supposed to be leading them.

Last week we sat down at lunch to chat about some of the ups and downs of their first two months on the job. One of the teachers began to talk about how a certain class, who had been difficult to train under her preferred classroom style. She and I had talked earlier in the year about strategies to deal with the group, about some of their history as a class before she came to this school, and why they might be challenging her in ways her other students at another grade level were not.

Somewhere in her reporting that things were going better with this group now, she made the statement, “I think I’ve begun to accept what is.” As soon as she said it, I had the ‘lightbulb in my head” experience. Accepting what is in front of you as a teacher is the most liberating and creative-unleashing experience, even if there is initial grief in that acceptance. We all want students who are trained to attentiveness and show up prepared for our classes every day. We all want students who learned and sufficiently practiced all skills from the previous year so that they are ready for the curriculum we are prepared to lead them through. But…they are real people, and so was the teacher that had last year, and real people have problems and bad habits, and sometimes just life happening to them. And what shows up in our classroom is not always what we wish it to be.

“Accepting what is” is one of those phrases that sounds like compromise but has freedom on the other side of it. As soon as the teacher said it, I responded that this realization would carry over into her parenting, marriage, and most any other relationship in life.

We had one child for whom “time out” was not effective at all. Why? Because he is a natural introvert who loved nothing better than being alone in his room studying what made his ceiling fan turn or the light switches come on. If that got boring, he proceeded to take the back off his toilet and study the inner workings of the float valve. The other child rarely needed more than the threat of a few minutes of solitude. Gregarious and fun-loving, she would self-correct almost immediately rather than be banished from the group.

I had to rethink technique constantly in parenting as my two children, a boy and a girl, an introvert and an extrovert, were two completely different creatures. Moving from frustration to the truth -accepting what is in front of you – can set you free.

Am I saying give up or give in? Absolutely not. I’m still goal-oriented in my classroom. I train toward what I want. I keep the standards high. But I surrender the ideal – which is the theories they taught us in education courses – for the real, those flawed human beings who show up in front of me every day. They do the same for me, I hope; and then the creativity begins.

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Honor the Edge

Different teacher. Different class. Same word. 

Last week I wrote  about honoring the transitions, inspired by a phrase I heard in a yoga class that week.  This week, in a different studio with another teacher, I heard a  similar phrase: Honor the Edge.  The teacher went on to say that the whole class was going to be about edges.  Turns out my whole week was going to be about them.

To honor the edge in yoga is to stretch to the point of discomfort, but not to the point of actual pain, a ‘good hurt’ as the teacher described it.  You want to go to the edge, to the place where the muscle is stretching and working and pushing the boundaries of what it normally does for you.  You stay there, breathing into that place, trying to create more space and elasticity.

I couldn’t help but think of this phrase when I read Donna Lamberti’s blog  about remaining silent and letting her students stumble and be frustrated because they’d refused to follow directions on a project.  She disciplined herself not to step in and rescue them, going for the larger life lessons and seizing the opportunity to help them grow.

I watched  “honoring the edge” play out again at my school with a student who struggled on an initial assignment in a rigorous course.   Because of a scheduling problem this student is taking a class normally reserved for students an entire year older, thus she finds herself sitting among students with an extra full year of knowledge, practice and experience in that subject. She has heretofore been a straight A student, but the rigor of this class is challenging her and she is not having the instant success that she, her parents, and her previous teachers are accustomed to seeing, rather she’s playing ‘catch up’ to her peers for a few weeks or months.   This challenge actually should be expected and is a good thing…if you can stand the stretch at the edge.

To push to a point of discomfort, not to pain or shame, just to a bit of frustration of confusion is usually where the learning takes place.  Problem is, as parents and teachers, we sometimes have a hard time letting our children or our students stay in their discomfort. For that matter, we probably don’t allow ourselves to stay in it either.

My own child, a college junior studying abroad this semester, decided to buy herself a train ticket, make a hostel reservation, and travel alone to a coastal town in her host country for a weekend adventure.  I was quite proud of her as I would have never done this at her age, but at the same also worried about her traveling alone in a foreign country, staying in a hostel with strangers, and navigating her way around a town where she knew no one.  When she arrived there the first day, she sent me a few texts indicating things were not quite as she expected to find them.  I immediately sent back that if she felt unsafe or the hostel was unclean that she should get on the train and go right back to her flat in the city.  She said it was neither unsafe or unsanitary, “just weird”, which told me she was experiencing the discomfort and stretch of traveling alone in a strange place, going to a restaurant by herself, figuring out what to do and settling in to the idea of sharing it only with her journal and her camera.  Still, she didn’t sound like her usual confident happy self and my mother’s heart wanted to tell her to go back to the comfort of the city she has become accustomed to, even though she was clearly in no danger.  My next move was to go online and start researching the destination.  I had the idea that I could could send her links of where to go, what to do.  I’d stay in constant communication with her so she wouldn’t feel lonely.  I was going to try to have the experience with her if she stayed.

Then I caught myself.  This was a “growth mindset” moment for her and I was trying to prevent it.  I need to be available only if she asks my advice, but she needs to figure out whether to stay or go, to stick it out or hop the first train back to familiarity.   The confidence or the regret needs to be hers.  Turns out, she stayed, pushed through the first day and night of uncharted territory,  went to museums, galleries, and dinner alone and the second night sent me a text saying she was 180 degrees from where she was the previous day. Text messages couldn’t mask her confident tone.  She honored the edge, breathed into the stretch, and grew stronger for it.

Last year our faculty read Carol Dweck’s Mindset as a summer read. It made me want a ‘do over’ for many days of both parenting and teaching that are already behind me, but it also inspired me to stay in the moments of discomfort, lean into resistance, breath into the stretch, and see what it can teach me – and to do that for my own children and my students.    Like on my yoga mat, the stretching and staying at the edges in life create the strength and flexibility I need to face the next challenge.

Honor the Transitions

Recently in a new yoga class, I heard the teacher say, ‘Honor the transitions.’  She went on to say how important it is to be mindful  of how one moves from one pose to the next.  This is a time for your body to ‘reset’ itself after intense stretching or working of muscles on one side before you move to the other. The transition is important for preventing injury and gaining maximum benefit from the poses both before and after it.

That short sentence, Honor the Transitions,  got me thinking about transitions beyond the yoga mat, mainly because they are all around me right now.  My own child, a junior in college, is transitioning to another country for studying abroad this semester.  A close friend just sent her firstborn off to college. Another friend’s child has changed schools.  My students and I are moving from summer to fall,  from holidays to school days.

As I think about transitions,  I remember a coupIe of years ago I had a young teacher completing her internship experience with me.  Her university sent a supervisor out to observe her on a few occasions.  She was a natural in the classroom and had a well-prepared lesson, so about the only critique he had for her after the first observation was this:  Work on your transitions.   He went on to explain, and I agreed with him completely, that this is the hardest part of classroom management for an inexperienced teacher. Nothing in the textbooks can teach you how to do this; you must get in front of the students and practice.  You learn how to do the transitions in the classroom with the students.    New teachers have the tendency to either move too quickly through them, not anticipating the time the students need to shift from one activity to the next,  or they fail to give specific directions opening the door for chaos to erupt.

Here the classroom and the yoga mat are reflecting life back to me.  Transitions should be approached with time, space, and intent, recognizing what was before and what is to come.  They are also messy –  in and out of the classroom. Even with the best of plans, the transitions sometimes yield up confusion and turmoil,  at least temporarily.The place where we most feel the loss of control is in the transition points. Only the oldest, wisest among us are really good at them and that’s because they’ve learned from  experiences – many of those difficult ones.

If you’ve walked a child into kindergarten or moved one into a dorm room, you know the conflicting emotions of grieving an ending and celebrating a beginning at the same time. If you have bought car insurance for a sixteen-year-old or a corsage for a prom date, you know the feeling of ‘first time’ and ‘end of an era’ at the same time.   Those rites of passage are worth attention, not just for the pictures to post to social media; but to pause in gratitude, awe, and humility at what has gone before and to prepare for what is to come.

Both as mother and teacher, I’ve barreled through many transitions without time for myself or those around me to segue from one thing to the next and I’ve entered ‘the next thing’ too often without reflecting upon what I left behind. My lesson this week from my classroom and my yoga mat:  Honor the transitions.