Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Change

Change ... this is a big topic.  The past few years have seen so much change - we've had a global pandemic, schools have closed, lessons have shifted online, some of us have had to deal with hybrid teaching with some students in school and others at home.  And we have survived .... but for some of us only just!  We are tired.  Change has sapped our energies.

Some change is welcome, some change is not.  Some change happens instantaneously, some is much slower.  For me there have been times when I've chosen change - a new job in a new country - and other times where I'd much rather have stayed but circumstances were pulling me in different directions.  One of the hardest changes for me was to leave my school in Amsterdam and to move my entire family to Thailand.  I think I cried almost every day for the last year I lived in Holland.  I knew it was coming - after years of free tuition I was counted as local and needed to pay for my children's education at the school, which I could not afford on a teaching salary - but gosh, it was hard.  And yet ..... it turned out for the best - I became an international teacher. Having made one "tough" move, I knew I could (and did!) make many others.  This led to opportunities that I'd never thought possible before.  Fast forward many years when circumstances again made me move - this time from India to the UK to take care of my mother after she was diagnosed with dementia.  Everything was uncertain:  no job, no home and so on .... but again tough circumstances led to me setting up as an independent consultant to schools, and again the impossible became possible.  My Indian friends told me it would all be OK in the end - this sense of karma - and it was, though it wasn't always easy.  As Elena Aguilar writes, "the key to resilience is learning how to get back to the surface when a ferocious wave knocks us over, how to ride those waves and perhaps even how to find joy when surfing the waves."

There's another kind of stress associated with change too - the stress we feel when we feel change is too slow.  I identify with that too.  I remember being at a school - a school that had employed me to bring about change - and then being blocked from changes I wanted to make.  Learning to navigate these obstacles, challenges and setbacks is also important.  Learning to deal with feelings and responses when things don't go as you want is also important.

I like the model of The Spheres of Influence that Elena shares in Chapter 11 of Onward.  She writes about what you can control, what you can influence and then everything else which is outside your control and influence - and therefore not worthwhile spending time and energy on.  I know that even when I could not to control or influence a situation, I could certainly decide how I felt in those times and how I responded to adversity.  It's all about deciding where I want to put my energy.  And even when times are really bad, we can hang onto the hope that we can emerge from these times stronger than before.  For example teachers around the world have told me of how their students have gone backwards in social skills, self-management skills and even communication skills during online learning, and yet they also tell me some students have thrived and they have noticed an increase in agency.  I think we need to be open to different outcomes - to have a growth mindset and be flexible and adaptable, to be able to manage our uncertainty and to live with the unknown.

Change causes a lot of fear.  I know now that when I got impatient at the pace of change that was unreasonable because teachers had spent years becoming the teachers they were and here I was, a newby, asking them to become different teachers.  I think they felt threatened - perhaps they thought that I thought they were not doing a good job.  I think, looking back, that I did try to develop more of a culture of learning but it wasn't until I became a coach that I realised that if we want people to do something different we have to change their beliefs - because all actions emerge from our beliefs.  Looking back I think I could also have been more patient (something I'm not very good at).  I should have been more fully present for people.  Elena writes:

In order to cultivate perseverance and tenacity, you must look beyond short-term concerns and toward long-term goals.  You need to put off immediate gratification and manage your impatience.  You also must venture beyond your comfort zone and take on challenges of different sizes so that you can learn and can increase your confidence .... you'll have to view setbacks as opportunities for growth.

The truth of it is that I had a lot of growing to do.   

Photo Credit:  Elias Schäferle on Pixabay

Creativity and the benefits of play

Time has been running away from me the past couple of weeks, but it is coming up to the time for another PYP Book Club so it's time to read on in Onward by Elena Aguilar.  I'm now on Chapter 10 which is called Play and Create.  The basis of this chapter is that creativity and play unlock inner resources for dealing with stress, solving problems and enjoying life - so of course they will help us to become more resilient.  Here's now Elena describes the link:

Our experiences interact with the creative world on a continuum: at one end we consume or appreciate art; perhaps around the middle we play; and at the other end we create art.  At each point on the continuum, we activate different parts of our minds hearts and spirits; it's likely that the greatest opportunity for cultivating resilience lies in the most active point - in creating art.

This is interesting to me on a personal level.  A couple of years ago, shortly after my mother died, I joined a local art class.  For me, spending time each day drawing and painting, I came to manage my grief and to build resilience.  The creating definitely worked! 

Let's think about play - this is something we do for fun, not because it helps us to reach a goal.  We know that play shapes our brains, makes us smarter and more adaptable, fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups.  In humans play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.  Children are experts at play because it's natural and instinctive to them.  However when we get older, we often come to see play as a waste of time - we focus instead on being productive!  The interesting thing about play, however, is that it's improvisational, so we are open to doing things in new ways and we get new ideas from it.  We know that play relieves stress, improves relationships by fostering empathy, compassion and trust, and that it improves brain function and so can prevent memory problems.  Play boosts creativity and also helps us to learn new tasks quicker because it's fun.  I think about the years my son was "forced" to learn Spanish in a traditional way at school (it failed - he didn't master it) and yet as an adult he was motivated to use Duolingo for 15 minutes every morning to learn Spanish through play.  

Creating art is also important - our early ancestors decorated the walls of their caves, made music and danced.  Today we know that art is also a vehicle for connection and empathy; it combats loneliness, alienation and dehumanisation and it has long been an essential tool for social justice.  Numerous studies also show that creative activities such as drawing, knitting and writing raise serotonin levels and decrease anxiety.

As many of you know, I visit a lot of schools.  I'm always sad that the arts subjects have been pushed out of the curriculum and are seen as optional as opposed to the "real work" of schools.  I see this happening with play too - with schools cutting back on recess time.  With what we know about the importance of both creativity and play being important builders of resilience, perhaps it's time to reverse these trends.

Photo credit:  Elissa Capelle Vaughn on Pixabay

Sunday, April 17, 2022

How do we learn? How do we change? How do we improve?

These are three big questions that are addressed in Chapter 9 of Onward by Elena Aguilar.  She opens the chapter with the following statement, 

If we see challenges as opportunities for learning, if we engage our curiosity whenever we're presented with an obstacle, we're more likely to find solutions.  This habit and disposition help us not just survive adversity but thrive in the aftermath.

When I was working at ASB I was part of the Research and Development Core Team.  This team was set up the year before I arrived to study, prototype, design and develop new teaching and learning environments.  We looked at faculty design, project-based learning, alternative school year calendars, the library and mobile technology.  The action research we did led to real transformations by creating new physical spaces for learning and new learning approaches, supporting and enriching student learning at the school.  We often asked the question "What if ...." and we discovered the joy of inquiry and learning for ourselves as teachers.

Having an R&D department is not usual in schools, but teachers can use their own classroom to inquire into what is happening and why, and to ask the question, "What would happen if I tried ...."  

At various times in my life I've struggled to be a learner.  For example I remember when I moved to The Netherlands I attended evening classes to learn Dutch.  It was hard - but it was also good for me to put myself into the role of the learner as it gave me a lot of insight into what my students were going through.  Elena shares two frameworks with us that help to explain the process we go through as learners.

The Conscious Competence Ladder - this has 4 rungs on it:

  • Unconscious incompetence - we are blissfully ignorant of what we can't do therefore our confidence exceeds our abilities.  At this level we need to figure out the skills we need to learn.
  • Conscious incompetence - we know we don't have the skills and that others can do things that make us struggle.  It's easy to give up at this stage as we lose confidence.
  • Conscious competence - we have the skills and we need to put the knowledge and skills into practice to gain more confidence.  We need to concentrate when we perform the skills.
  • Unconscious competence - we use our skills effortlessly and perform tasks without conscious effort.  In order to keep growing at this level we need to teach these skills to others.  If we don't regularly use these skills we can slip back down the ladder.
Putting this into context reminds me of learning how to drive.  At one time I didn't need to drive because as a teenager I relied on my parents for lifts to places.  In my 20s I learned to drive and found it really difficult - at one point I gave up and only took up driving again having moved to Miami where it was vital I had a car to get around.  My challenge as a driver has been moving country, as each time I moved (USA -> UK -> Netherlands -> Thailand -> Switzerland -> India) I had to drive on the other side of the road and at times it felt like learning all over again as oftentimes the rules were also different.  Even worse, in some countries I didn't drive for long periods of time so I got out of practice, and I definitely slipped back down the ladder from unconscious competence to conscious competence each time I got into the car again.

Let's give another example from teaching.  I lead a lot of Category 1 workshops and the most challenging thing teachers face when new to the PYP is writing strong conceptual central ideas.  Having been doing this for over 20 years I can often look at the wording they come up with and suggest simple tweaks to make the central ideas more conceptual and more open to inquiry.  I'm probably at the unconscious competence stage, but I need to keep teaching this skill to others to keep it sharp in my own mind.

The second framework for learning is that of fixed -v- growth mindset.  Here the important thing is to keep using the word "yet" (you can't do it yet) and to keep people focused on the skills they need to develop and practice.

With a fixed mindset people believe that success is the result of a fixed intelligence and with a fixed mindset people avoid challenge as they are unable to take criticism and give up early.  With a growth mindset we assume intelligence and talent can change so we thrive on challenge and see failure as a way to learn and grow.  Having a growth mindset allows people to thrive during challenges.

In this chapter I was really interested to read about learning needs and the Mind the Gap model.  


I can see that in order to improve we need to identify where the gaps are that we have in different areas.  Emotional intelligence and cultural competence at the foundations of all others - without these we cannot close the gaps in other areas.  However in schools we are focused mostly on the uppermost areas of skills and knowledge.  All of us have gaps - this shows us we can still learn and grow and as you dig into your gaps you can discover the actions you need to take to close the gaps.

One of the things I love most about coaching is that it gives us the space to really explore these gaps.  We know that coaching is an effective way for professionals to continue to refine their skills and so a great mechanism for teacher improvement.  We also know that it's important to have time for teachers to improve their skills and coaching can form part of that time as it's a form of PD.  

Our aim is that schools are learning organisations - places where everyone is learning (not just the students!). We know that teachers can excel when they work in learning organisations, and so these schools thrive. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Eat chocolate during meetings

Yes I thought that would grab your attention!  All will become clear as we look at the next chapter in Onward by Elena Aguilar where she inspires us to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.  But first a few definitions since I wasn't totally clear about the difference between empathy and compassion:

Sympathy - when you feel sympathy you care for someone who is suffering but maintain your emotional distance.

Empathy - when you feel empathy you place yourself in someone else's shoes and feel their pain.

Compassion - when you feel compassion you are moved to take action to relieve someone else's suffering.  Action is what distinguishes compassion from empathy.

If we find ourselves relating to others from a feeling of frustration and judgement eventually this will wear us down.  However when we exercise compassion our hearts soften, our relationships strengthen and our perspectives broaden so we can see possibilities.

Elena tells us that in most schools one of the primary challenges teachers face is a shortage of empathy and compassion.  It's so important to develop compassion as it strengthens our learning communities, is good for our physical health, allows us to collaborate more effectively and also helps us to deal with difficult people.  Physically when we are compassionate our heart rate slows, our stress hormones decrease and our immune response strengthens - it's preventative medicine as it releases oxytocin which makes us more willing to take risks in interpersonal exchanges and it promotes long-term bonds and commitments.  Getting back to the title of this post, eating chocolate also boost oxytocin - therefore it's good to have some during meetings!!

Before you can develop compassion for others, you first have to develop self-compassion.  This includes acknowledging the impact that others have on you and setting boundaries around someone else's behaviour that is causing you suffering.  Basically it's about extending kindness to yourself so that you have have the strength and energy to make changes:  it's about talking to yourself as you would talk to a close friend, without rejection, criticism and judgement.  It's about opening the door to learning and growth.

Of course all of us will encounter difficult people that we have to work with.  Elena offers us good advice here such as listening to the complaints of others without commenting, not getting hooked up in someone else's story or with their attitude, being curious about what is going on for them and never taking their behaviour personally.  She reminds us that it's possible to find connections, it's possible for people to change but at the same time we have to be clear about our own values and give ourselves permission to step away or even ask for help.

It's also important to forgive.  There are many world figures who have exemplified the power of forgiveness but I saw this happen personally in a school I once worked at when the spouse of a teacher who was being treated poorly decided to speak up to the management and offer them her forgiveness.  She explained to me it was important for her to do this because of her Christian beliefs, but in fact it's also important for ourselves because it helps us to move forward from the unhappiness.  Forgiveness doesn't mean reconciliation or reestablishing relationships with the person who has done wrong, but it does mean you have drawn a line between forgiveness of the wrongdoing and acceptance or approval of it.  Forgiveness is for yourself - it's connected with letting go of our expectations about another person and is the only way to free yourself and take back control of your own feelings.  

Another emotion that Elena addresses in this chapter is envy or jealousy - the pain of something you don't have and the fear of losing something that you already have.  When we feel these emotions we compare what we have with others.  It's important to realise that we are not in competition - if someone else accomplishes something it doesn't mean we are less successful ourselves.  To combat these feelings we can try to practice gratitude and perhaps also use envy as the motivation to improve our own situation.

Finally we also need perspective:  we need to look at situations from multiple perspectives and points of view.  We need to try to look at things within the bigger context, to expand our vision and to see the long view.  Remember, changing the way you see changes the way you feel and act.

Image Credit:  Public Domain Pictures on Pixabay

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Look for the light

When I was teaching in India I did the Strengths Finder survey from Gallup.  This is what emerged and I feel it is absolutely true:

Your mind is open and absorbent. You naturally soak up information in the same way that a sponge soaks up water. But just as the primary purpose of the sponge is not to permanently contain what it absorbs, neither should your mind simply store information. Input without output can lead to stagnation. As you gather and absorb information, be aware of the individuals and groups that can most benefit from your knowledge, and be intentional about sharing with them.

Reflecting on this strength put a lot in focus for me - it helped me understand why I blog, for example, as a way of sharing my knowledge and continual learning.  I also came to realise that I was happy in schools that recognised this strength, and unhappy in schools that didn't.  

Chapter 7 of Onward by Elena Aguilar also calls on us to focus on our strengths, assets and skills.  This helps us to boost our levels of self-efficacy and to feel more empowered to influence our surroundings.  It also helps us to respond to challenges more effectively.  In the workplace, people who focus on their strengths are more engaged, more productive and happier, and those who are given the opportunities to focus on their strengths every day are 6 times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and to be more productive both individually and in teams.  Research has identified 34 strengths that exist within everyone, but Gallup defines the "signature strengths" which dominate a person's actions and behaviours. Once you discover and develop your strengths, this helps you to achieve your full potential. In addition, knowing and developing the strengths of the people you are working with helps you become a better leader and allows you to maximise the full potential of the team.

When I worked in Amsterdam we had a Director who would leave us "happygrams".  These were bright pink slips of paper where she would write on things she'd notice us doing around the school and then would post them in our pigeonholes in the staff room.  It was always exciting and affirming to get one of these and to see that someone had noticed our successes.

The idea of making change is that you can focus on what isn't working and decide to do less of it, or focus on what is going well and do a bit more of that.  Focusing on what is working can give us energy to make changes to things that are not going so well.  It allows us to gain confidence and to direct our positive feelings to the areas where we are struggling.  However it's hard to focus on the positive because our brains have a built in negativity bias - we perceive negative stimuli faster and more intensely than positive ones.  Research shows we must focus on a positive experience for 12 seconds before we can retain it in our memories - however danger lodges itself in our brains in just 1/10th of a second.  It's one way our ancient ancestors survived, by overestimating threats, but not so useful perhaps these days.  

Another difficulty is that focusing on the positive goes against some cultural norms, and that for many of us praise or appreciation can even feel uncomfortable.  For example if you are working in an organisation that values analytical and critical thinking then being positive is seen as rather naive.  Complaining is also cultural acceptable in many work places (staff rooms) and this can be very corrosive.  Remember that what we focus on grows - so it's much better to focus on something good!

Over the past year I've trained in the new IB evaluation protocol of appreciative inquiry.  I have to say this has had an amazing impact on the visits I've done to schools.  Our visits now take an inquiry stance and we observe with an appreciation for the strengths of the school.  It's not our job to assess or solve problems - though we do recognise challenges that schools may have been faced with in recent times - but the idea is that we ask questions that focus the attention of the school in a particular direction so that they can evolve.  Elena writes, "the moment we ask a question we begin to create change.  If we choose positive questions, we lead ourselves to positive change. " Here are the 5 steps of appreciative inquiry:

  • Define the topic of the inquiry
  • Discover what is already working (strengths and successes)
  • Dream about what could be and what are the hopes and wishes for the future
  • Design - what might happen if we combine what is already working with what could be?
  • Deliver - what do we need to do?
PYP teachers use a planner to develop their units of inquiry.  The great thing about the planner is that reflection is built in.  Before, during and after the unit we meet together to think about our experiences and consider future choices of action.  The prompts help with decision making and reflecting with colleagues through talking and writing on the planner forces us to put our experiences into words, which helps us recognise patterns and trends over time.

It's also worth noting that in order to build resilience we must feel that we have the ability to respond to challenges - focusing on our strengths helps us to feel empowered, to believe that we can influence our surroundings and events, and leads us to feel competent and confident.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Look after yourself first

 

When you travel by plane, in the announcements where it tells you what will happen if oxygen levels fall, you are always told to put on your own mask first, before assisting others.  In the same way, you might have heard the expression "you can't drink from an empty cup".  Basically, the meaning behind this is that when you take care of your body, you are better able to deal with your emotions - and those of others.

In Chapter 6 of Onward, Elena Aguilar shows us how our bodies and minds are intertwined - our physical state creates our emotional state, and our emotions are affected by our physical health.  If our bodies are strong, rested and nourished, then it will be easier to look after our emotions. 

The "danger time" for new teachers is October/November, when the high feelings of the new school year have faded and it seems like a long time until our next break.  This is the time that teachers start to question their commitment to the profession as well as their competence (as their hard work has not yet started to show results).  It's precisely this time of year that we need to spend time and energy on ourselves - to support each other, take walks, eat well and sleep.  Focusing on our self-care can prevent illness and enable us to continue to be effective in supporting students.  And yet as teachers we seem almost conditioned to put our own needs last.  The outcome of this is a lack of growth for us as teachers.  In contrast school leaders often find April/May to be the most challenging months as they are finishing off one school year and preparing for the next.

Things we need to take care of:

Sleep - A few years ago I read the book Why We Sleep.  I've recommended it to others as it's a great book for explaining how sleep is absolutely vital for our overall health.  If we are sleep deprived, our mental and emotional stability is eroded, because sleep allows our brain to process information, convert short term memories into long term ones, and it allows our bodies to rest and recuperate.  If you sleep more your resilience will be boosted.

Nutrition - In addition, sleep also helps regulate our hunger hormones.  We need to think about what we eat because this also affects our health and mood.

Exercise - brings more blood to the brain, providing energy. It's interesting to read that our brains developed during a time when our ancestors walked about 12 miles a day - our cognitive skills developed in conditions of movement!  Exercise is good for your heart and lungs, improves long-term memory, reasoning, attention and problem solving.  The risk of Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer is lower in those who exercise - and at the same time exercise regulates the neurotransmitters that govern our mental health so it's good for depression.

You also need emotional and physical intimacy to promote wellbeing.  Being in nature makes us feel good as it improves mood, sleep and the ability to focus.  Sunlight provides us with vitamin D - many of us are deficient in this especially in winter.  When you are in the sun, your body releases serotonin, which elevates your mood and energy.  As you can see - everything is connected!

Another thing we need to learn to do is to say no.  Remember saying no is giving you the time and space to say yes to something else (for example prioritising your own needs).  Most of us say yes to things we don't like and don't want to do because we want people to like us, think we are good, smart, skilled and capable.  Also (and I'm guilty of this much too often) we fear that if we say no to something that people won't ask us again.  This leads me to totally overcommit and take on huge workloads.  It's interesting to read that at the heart of this issue is the sense of self-worth.  Like so many women, I struggle with the Imposter Syndrome no matter how successful I am.

This chapter is a great reminder that if we want to be resilient we must place more value on ourselves:  our minds, heart, body and spirit.  Resilient people set boundaries and take responsibilities for our choices, actions and mistakes.  And even more important - we forgive ourselves for our mistakes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Being present

If you have been following my blog for some time you will know that my mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2016 and as a result of this I moved to the UK to look after her as her mental capacities declined.  I was reading over some of the posts I made from 2016-2018 which were about using apps to both support her and to support my own wellbeing as a carer.  Several of these were mindfulness apps such as Buddhify and Calm, which helped me focus on the present and not to stress so much about the past or the future.  It was interesting to read through Chapter 5 of Elena Aguilar's Onward as the journey Elena describes about learning to be in the present resonated very much with my own journey these past five years.  I too have found that staying in the present can boost resilience and can help us to be accepting about the things that happen in our lives and how we respond to them, rather than worrying about the past or about things that might happen in the future.  

My journey into mindfulness actually started while I was working in India.  Our primary school counsellor offered a mindfulness course to teachers, and ran mindfulness sessions before school.  It was a great way to start the day.  As Elena explains, mindfulness is the "nonjudgemental cultivation of moment to moment awareness."  We begin by noticing our feelings, being aware of their origins, accept what is happening and are intentional about what we do or say next.  There is a fantastic quote here:

Practicing mindfulness is like hitting an internal pause button on the drama of life.

 Often while I was staying with Mum, I would take myself out for a walk, and listen to a mindfulness meditation on Buddhify.  One of my favourites spoke about the sky and how clouds came and went, and perhaps bad weather came and went - but the sky was always there - it was not the clouds or the weather.  In the same way our thoughts and emotions come and go - and we are not our thoughts and emotions.

Currently I try to do a yoga class each week and to meditate each day for about 10 minutes.  I can totally relate to the "monkey mind" which jumps around from one thing to the next, both past and present.  What I've also noticed is that it's become progressively easier to become and remain calm.  

I was really interested to read the research about teachers who practice mindfulness.  They experience lower levels of stress and burnout, report greater efficacy in their jobs, have more emotionally supportive classrooms and more organised classrooms.  It's interesting to note that if you are calm and focused and self aware that it's more likely your students will be these things as well - and mindfulness has so many other benefits such as improving attention, memory and self-control, boosting your immune system, helping with insomnia and the management of depression and chronic pain.

Another interesting section of Chapter 5 is the section about happy people doing better work, and how having "appropriate challenge" makes us happy.  We know this with our students of course, but as a school leader we need to consider this for our teachers as well!

Final thoughts - it was quite fascinating to read that people have about 65,000 thoughts a day.  I did the maths at that's actually 45 thoughts a minute - meaning we have just over a second for each one!  Elena writes:

Thoughts and emotions are visitors who knock on the door of our house.  With meditation we can learn to greet them, acknowledge them, exercise choice about how to relate to them, and then watch them go.  Those thoughts that make you anxious, insecure, irritated or ashamed don't need to stay with you.

Image Credit:  John Hain on Pixabay