I feel blessed to be an educator. I have had the good fortune of working as an English teacher, an Assistant Principal, a Principal and an Assistant Superintendent. I currently serve as the Assistant Superintendent of Burlington Public Schools (MA).
One of my biggest takeaways from the Innovate Inside the Box Book Study that I just completed was not necessarily a new one, but it was an important reminder in the never-ending struggle to maximize productivity. What are the behaviors and routines that lead to a good day? Some people call these practices. But whatever term you use to identify these strategies, I think one of the biggest favors we can do for students is to help them identify which habits help them accomplish their goals.
I have to admit, I am a big fan of Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans because of the fact that it shares the habits of successful people across a number of professions. There are definitely some common threads in the routines of individuals who are world-class performers in their chosen fields. Yet, we don’t focus on this much in schools. In most cases, we are so busy with the traditional “routine” that we do not take the time to think about other ways to maximize our efforts.
The bottom line is that we don’t necessarily need schools to gain new knowledge or skills. This is both liberating and overwhelming. Yes new knowledge is at our fingertips, but the fact that there is an abundance of ways to gain this knowledge can be paralyzing. It is easy to get caught up in the weeds and spend way too much time choosing a pathway to new learning and lose focus on what the original goal was to begin with.
While I could ramble on here for a bit, I want to be sure to maintain my focus and go back to the quote at the top of the post. In order to foster innovation, we need to set the stage for learners to gain the right frame of mind for new thinking. What are the key practices that can help people get into this mindset? I think mindfulness and or meditation would be at the top of my list. In fact, Tim Ferriss noted “more than 80% of the interviewees (for Tools of Titans) have some form of daily mindfulness or meditation practice.”
In order to best help learners, I think we need to build in more time for them to practice and reflect what routines and habits put them in the best position to be happy and productive.
As I re-read chapter 12 of Innovate Inside the Box, I recalled a recent post from Tim Ferriss in which he discussed why he is not reading any new books in 2020. Tim’s thoughts echoed a struggle of mine where I tend to pile on with new books and never really give any of them the time necessary to dive deep and reflect in a manner that might allow me to create some new habits, pathways or focal points for myself.
I’m susceptible to fear of missing out (FOMO) when it comes to new and popular books. I’ve always found refuge in books, but being wedded to the identity of “the well-read guy” can breed keeping-up-with-the-Joneses consumption. Taking new books off the table for 2020, in a sense, also takes that type of FOMO off the table.
While I am not likely to take the same stance in 2020, I definitely understand how FOMO can lead to an imbalance of consumption and too little reflection and creation. I think I need to spend more time looking through my notes and reflections after I finish a book that I enjoy. This book group is a perfect example as it is providing an opportunity for me to review the wonderful insights and strategies shared by George and Katie. The first time I read it, I just wanted to finish it as fast as possible because it was new and I wanted to be able to say that I read it and share some citations on social media…(FOMO in action).
Beyond the consumption of books, I wonder how we can build more time for reflection into our work in education? As administrators, we can encourage and support teachers to provide time for students reflect and share representations of their learning in multiple forms (as Katie describes). We also need to find time for our teachers to reflect during the year and engage in this same type of reflection and creation so that we provide the structures for everyone in our learning communities to deep learning.
The focus of the chapter is supporting learners to become keen observers and to give them opportunities to find and develop their passions. Of course, we all become more empowered when we have the ability to go more deeply into areas that we find interesting. But before we can fully engage in this type of learning, we need to develop some mindfulness skills in order to tap into this type of deep learning on a regular basis.
I think the chapter makes this important point well under the headings Becoming More Observant in a World Full of Noise Is More Valuable than Ever and How Do We Become More Observant in Our Passions? With so much information available online and the endless amount that comes at us through social media “finding meaningful and relevant information feels a lot like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” We need to help students navigate this landscape effectively and efficiently and blocking out the noise is essential.
In addition, we need to model the aspects discussed surrounding being more observant and helping our students build their toolbox which will allow them to slow down, listen more, and limit negativity. They need guidance in finding what helps them best develop a sense of calm and focus. There is so much research on the benefits of mindfulness and positive psychology. If we can introduce this to our students when they are young, it will certainly have lasting benefits in their learning.
I had the chance to listen a speaker talk to a group of school district administrators about the importance of finding balance recently. A few were on their devices as he made his plea for the group to spend more time working at “finding margin.”
As I share this, I am fully aware that I am also in a constant struggle to ensure that I am the appropriate level of balance. Finding the best way to be fully present both professionally and personally is important. While I believe we can have both I also believe that we must prioritize the personal over the professional and come to an understanding that we are not our jobs. Ultimately, we will be replaced in our professional positions, but there is no one who can ever replace us in our personal positions as spouses, partners, siblings, friends, etc.
With this in mind, I think it is important that leaders model the importance of finding margin. There are so many ways that this can happen:
It can be a commitment to exercise a few times a week
“Self-awareness and self-love matter. Who we are is how we lead.”
“At some point, if everything on the list is important, then nothing is truly a driver for you.”
While the focus of the session was on leadership, I know that all of this is equally true for classroom teachers who lead our students each day. The to-do lists just seem to get longer and on most days they will not get fully completed. Without finding some margin for yourself, the only thing you assure is that you will not be there for the people who most need you. I am always drawn back to the analogy of the oxygen masks on the airplane. We need to keep ourselves breathing first.
I recently finished The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and the implications of the work of Dr. Harris are something that every community needs to consider. The book delves into the work Dr. Harris has done in looking at the impacts that childhood trauma have on the the longterm health of individuals. The terminology that she uses for these traumatic events is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). The fact of the matter is more of us have them than not. Research show that nearly 70-percent of us have had some type of Adverse Childhood Experience. In addition, they have a proven impact on our health outcomes, 4.5 times more likely fo have depression and 12 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
What’s your score on the ACE Screening for Adults?
For those working in schools it is important to understand the research on ACES because of the effect of adversity on both brain structure and function in children. Children with ACES are over 30 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning and/or behavioral problems. With this in mind, how could ACE screening and subsequent interventions help us support students and their families?
As Harris states in her TED Talk below, “This is not a social problem or a mental health problem. As Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been widely quoted as saying,
‘Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”‘
The 15-minute TED Talk below from 2015 is well worth the time, as is an investment in reading The Deepest Well.
As we head into days with more darkness and “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the lyrics from the old Andy Williams song describe the holiday season, I can’t help thinking about the bumpier road that so many people will have due to the change in seasons, the decreased exposure to natural light, or just a raised anxiety level due to pressure that is either real or imagined. Whether you are talking about seasonal affective disorder or some other form of depression, one of the common threads is the increasing darkness, which at its worst, seems like it will envelop you. This darkness can appear to smother our last glimmer of light as one event seems to compound the next. When this occurs, the voice in your head can become imbalanced with a steady stream of negative messages about both your current state and the chances for optimism on the road ahead. I was reminded about this in a recent post by Jay Michaelson on the the 10-percent Happier blog. Michaelson described the voice in his head as a parade of monsters:
It was impressive to watch the variety of monsters that showed up. Some made me feel lonely. Others recited the superior accomplishments of my peers. A few accused me of being a bad parent — after all, good parents don’t have the luxury of self-loathing…my favorite monsters of all were the meta-monsters: the ones judging me for having a monster attack in the first place.
It’s important to realize that we all sometimes have those voices in our heads and it is equally important to remind ourselves that those voices are not who we are. As Eckhart Tolle stated, “What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am.” Even more important is our ability to assure ourselves that this darkness will pass.
Abbreviating Dark Days
There is one thing that is a certainty and that is the fact that we will all have dark moments. It is beyond our control. What we can do to be proactive is put down some insulation to try to minimize the depth of the darkness and muffle the critic who lives in our head. The antidote is building a routine of constructive habits when you are feeling strong. Whether it is a mindfulness practice, exercise, healthy eating, a social group or some other positive outlet that helps keep you feeling a sense of balance, these are the positive practices that can keep you going when the dark clouds approach.
While there are a number of important skills that we need to reinforce with kids, I am wondering where this one ranks in a time where seemingly non-stop consumption of social media is the norm. How do we get our children to take a step back and realize the power accessible to them if they can pause, reflect, and learn to enjoy minutes of solitude without defaulting so quickly to the all-to-familiar “I’m bored” mindset?
Well, for me and I am sure many parents, it starts with a look in the mirror. How are we setting up ourselves (and our kids) for success when it comes to the phenomenon that Mr. Rogers mentioned above. As Shawn Achor points out in The Happiness Advantage, “Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work.” We function much better under the confines of our professional lives where we are required to use our minds, set goals and be focused on our work. While we fall into our work routines rather easily, our leisure pursuits are a bit more problematic because we are not accountable to colleagues or a boss for these personal pursuits.
A great deal of the insights on this come from Csikszentmihalyi’s research on happiness in flow. It is clear that active pursuits like sports and other physical pursuits are much more likely to heighten levels of enjoyment for longer periods of time, but because the television clicker and the iPhone are so much easier to access, we tend to give in to these defaults.
Here’s the catch according to Achor, “Studies show that these (passive) activities are enjoyable and engaging for only about 30 minutes, then they start sapping our energy and creating what psychologists call “psychic entropy” – a listless, apathetic feeling…American teenagers are two and a half times more likely to experience elevated enjoyment when engaged in a hobby than when watching TV, and three times more likely when playing a sport.”
For me, there is a clear need for more mindfulness so that individuals can be more deliberate about their passive and active pursuits. We should spend a few days (or weeks) tracking our active and passive pursuits and how we are feeling on days when we do not have some balance. Are we being reflective about our own actions and reactions or are we so antsy that we can’t enjoy the moments of solitude that we all need to be able to handle the stress and pitfalls that are a normal part of life?
I have a lot more questions than answers, but I know that I am in favor of more wonder in my life and the life of my kids.