Two or three years ago I started a blog to talk about educational topics. While I did not keep that blog going, I wrote this piece about turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones for some of our most vulnerable students. I have edited this piece, and refocused it a little. Forty-Five Things has really been about taking those things that hold me back, the obstacles that I have experienced as stumbling blocks and turning them into my own stepping stones to the life I want to lead. I hope as you read it, or if you have already, that as you re-read it, you will ask yourself what is holding you back? What obstacles are your stumbling blocks? How can you turn those into stepping stones, for yourself, for your children, for the people you lead? Enjoy.
I do not generally watch award shows but at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards, Meryl Streep gave a moving speech when accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award. She spoke eloquently, using her moment in the spotlight to draw attention to her concerns for the political climate in the United States, and in particular, a certain world leader and his style of leadership.
If you want to watch her message, please go to https://youtu.be/EV8tsnRFUZw
I don’t want to get into the political piece that was cleverly embedded in her message. Though I think everyone should be politically informed, what was more interesting to me as a parent and school Principal was her message on Empathy. In her speech, Streep referenced that the job of the actor is to “enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.”
Working in education, this message of empathy reminds me of why I chose to teach, and later, to work in school administration. Streep’s message makes me wonder if the job of the educator, the parent, the leader, is to, above all, enter the lives of those we lead, those who have experiences that may be different from our own, and to strive to feel what they feel. Yes, our job is to deliver curriculum, to lead, to raise responsible children and to model successful behavior. But there is so much more to being an educator, a parent, and a leader.
Every young person who steps into my school comes with a unique experience. For some, the path to learning is easy. It makes sense to them. They have learned how to make the system work for them. They coast along, rarely encountering a problem. Some have tremendous support at home with supports already in place to help them to navigate the obstacles they may face.
Then other students who come to my school have experienced unthinkable trauma, with roadblocks and obstacles that seem so overwhelming I wonder how they manage to come to school each day. Poverty, addiction, mental illness, learning challenges, and instability in the home are only some challenges they may face. Still, other students have obstacles they themselves put in their paths. Let’s face it, kids and teenagers (and adults too) sometimes make choices that have serious consequences to their learning, their work, and their lives.
I was a good student. I found school easy. Doing well in school gave me a sense of accomplishment I rarely felt elsewhere. But I also faced serious challenges in my life, some of which were out of my control and a number that were the direct result of the poor choices I made. My educational (and career) path could have taken a different turn. Fortunately, I had a mother and teachers who took the time to enter my life, to learn about who I was and what mattered to me. I had teachers who respected me, even when I couldn’t respect myself, and cared enough to tell me the difficult things, to hold a mirror up for me, so I could see where I needed to change.
I had friends parents, a mom, teachers, counselors and administrators who understood that the obstacles in my path could either be stumbling blocks or stepping stones and that their job was to help me to navigate my way over or around those obstacles. In my professional life I have had supervisors and colleagues who supported me as I navigated through the various stages of my career. In my personal life, I rely on a team of friends, family and professionals to keep me focused on what matters most to me. I so value those who have both courage and love for me, who will call out my poor choices and negative attitudes. They keep me focused on what is truly important.
Are we showing such empathy to those in our lives? I know I have days when a student is in my office, yet again, with behaviors that frustrate and confuse me. If you are a classroom teacher, a parent or anyone who works with young people, you know that sometimes humans, particularly those who are still developing, need to learn lessons many times before the lesson sticks. My therapist recently told me that the common belief that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit, may be a myth, and that, in fact, it takes anywhere from 18-300 days.
It can be draining, and it can be tempting to wonder why a person still doesn’t “get it” and to want to give up. Even more frustrating is when we are the person not “getting it.” When that happens, we need to step back, and instead of focusing on the behavior to ask ourselves how we can show kindness and compassion. Are they trying to give me a hard time? Or are they having a hard time? In those moments, we need to have empathy, to be slower to hand down consequences and quicker to offer support and guidance.
I need to help my students understand that the choices they make do have consequences but that those consequences don’t define who they are. I need to remind myself that I am human, and that failure and falling short are good learning opportunities. One of my amazing teachers told me, during my most difficult year, that we are not required to be the same person we were a year ago, a month ago, yesterday or even fifteen minutes ago. We are always free to change our minds, to be more of who we want to be. That is turning an obstacle, a stumbling block, into a stepping stone.
Beyond showing empathy, I believe we have an obligation, a moral mandate to teach empathy. It begins with modeling. It moves into creating an environment where every person from parents and children in our homes, from the Principal to the teachers to the support staff and the students in schools, feels seen, valued and understood. We must make our homes and our schools and our workplaces safe, to disagree without disrespecting and to invite different points of view. We must welcome the opportunities to hear differing opinions and to understand that I do not need to tear apart your opinion to defend my right to have my opinion. We must encourage the telling of stories, for in the telling of stories we learn to feel the emotions and understand the experiences of others. We must name those values we share, for when we see we have more in common than not, we are more likely to value, celebrate and defend the differences we hold. The differences make our shared experience much more interesting and colorful.
And we must learn how to communicate. We need to learn how to say what we feel and believe without disrespecting others, without vilifying, without making another feel wrong, and without shutting down when sharing our feelings feels uncomfortable.
In your life, in your home, in your workplace, in your school, how are you turning potential stumbling blocks into stepping stones?