In the last few years, my son has become an avid climber. He loves to scale the indoor climbing walls as well as make his way up to some actual mountains. Of course, I found this terrifying as his mother. One look at the heights and steep climbs and I was scared. He took me once to an indoor climbing gym and I watched as he took one small part of the wall at a time, sometimes trying the same foothold and spot multiple times. I found this to be an intriguing and valuable lesson. One mistake I often make in my life is that when I want to make a change, I start with a BIG idea or vision and leap in with lots of energy trying to get directly to my end goal. As I watched my son practicing securing each foothold, I realized that he was teaching me something important.
Balancing effort and ease is one of the paradoxes in leadership and in life. I first heard this phrase in yoga class. Recently, I have developed a yoga routine that has been helpful for me not only in terms of my body but also my mind and spirit. I often feel that the things I learn from my yoga teachers are applicable to life and leadership. This lesson of balancing effort and ease is one of many I am currently learning.
Balancing effort and ease is one of the phrases that the teachers often mention when holding a difficult position or trying a new pose. As my teacher explained, the challenge should be enough to be interesting and require a certain amount of effort and still, you should be able to breathe and have an awareness of what is happening. When we find the middle path, we find success.
How can you have both effort and ease?
Self-care is not selfish. Growing up I learned a different message. As a child in an immigrant family, I was raised watching parents who worked tirelessly for the good of others, building and supporting our small but growing Sri Lankan community in New Jersey. My parents did not take time for haircuts, manicures, exercise, or even an indulgent moment with a hot cup of tea and a good movie was rare. When I was a young mom and teaching full time, the last thing I spent time and resources on was self-care. I hustled to do my best at my job and take care of my family. I did indulge in the occasional haircut, soaking in every moment of the luxurious hair wash and scalp massage. Although when I returned home, I worked extra hard to cook, clean, and spend time with my kids. I almost felt guilty for getting a haircut, for taking care of myself, and for having time alone.
Which is more helpful when making decisions, using your intuition, or grounding yourself in your intention? Let’s define intuition as your ‘gut’ feelings, which are usually based on your past experiences and personal values. Let’s define intention as your grounded purpose or mission. I believe intention can also have its roots in what you value. Which strategy do you use when making decisions, intuition or intention? Do you lean on your experiences and your gut feelings when making a decision? Do you ground yourself in your original purpose and mission when making a critical decision? For example, when it comes to hiring in schools, we often decide to go with our ‘gut‘ feelings about a candidate: intuition. Yet, when we take the time to have an intentional process that honors the mission and values of the school and takes into account possible biases, and includes multiple voices, we may find ourselves with the right candidate for the position.
Are you creating a culture that honors knowers or learners on your team or in your classroom? When you honor knowers, you honor answers. When you honor learners, you honor questions. Knowers value being right. Learners value being curious. Knowers are often quick to come up with answers. Learners may take their time to find the right questions or identify the true problem. As a child, I grew up in a family system that valued ‘knowers’. I quickly became silent, discouraged, and less confident not only at home but also at school. Many of my childhood classrooms and adult work environments honored ‘knowers’. When I finally reached a work environment that created a culture for ‘learners’ to thrive, I also began to grow and thrive. Brené Brown describes being a learner as having the courage ‘not to know.’ Which culture are you promoting? These are just some ways you might be creating a culture that values ‘knowers’ or ‘learners’.
When you heard about the tragic murders of Asians in Atlanta, did you ask why? When you watched videos of police brutality against Black Americans, did you ask why? When you learn about the violence and oppression of marginalized people in this country, do you ask why?
Did you ask why or were you simply shocked and surprised? I hear people saying, “This is so surprising! I can’t believe it!” We need to believe it and we need to ask why. We need to educate ourselves and know our history. We need to stop being surprised and understand the systems. The reasons for something happening today are deeply connected to the past. It’s not about ‘having a bad day.’ If we don’t understand this, we can’t make a change.
What can schools do?
Schools have a duty to teach students accurate history that holds many narratives, not just the narrative of the dominant people of the region.
It is imperative that we stay in discomfort. Discomfort is a feeling of anxiety, uneasiness, and embarrassment. We must acknowledge this feeling and learn from it. Embracing discomfort is a form of compassion, learning, and honesty. Discomfort is a sign of something happening. Pay attention to the feeling. Do not fight it or feed it.
A recent article highlighted how the people who have historically experienced power, privilege, and comfort in independent school communities are now feeling uncomfortable with the way these schools are educating their kids. Independent schools, many of which are founded on serving and educating white males, are now serving very different communities. Schools need to change when their communities change. The curriculum needs to change. Approaches need to change. The distribution of resources needs to change and so much more.
What can schools do?
- Schools need to move forward with their decisions and stay the course.
- Stay in your discomfort as well.
Are you finding joy in your work? Does it matter? I answer with a resounding ‘YES!’
A few years back, I was chatting with my nephew who was teaching middle school students. He was at a crossroad wondering whether to keep launching his career in education or pivot towards a career in law. There were many things to consider. Both his parents and grandfather pursued the law as a career. He considered the financial sustainability of a career in education in the U.S.A. There was the matter of time to think about as well. How much time did he want to spend in graduate school and working his way through a profession? There was definitely a lot to consider in both these choices.
As the conversation went on, I asked him one question: What brings you joy about working with middle school kids? His eyes lit up as he talked about how each child’s personality and story was different which brought something dynamic to the classroom each day.
The beginner’s mindset can be an essential tool when approaching leadership. What is the beginner’s mindset? When you approach leadership as a beginner, you see possibility and free yourself of imagined restrictions. You embrace the idea that you do not know everything. You show humility and listen intentionally to your collaborators. You see yourself as a learner and not solely as the holder of knowledge. You ask questions from a position of inquiry, rather than a position of certainty: I wonder, what if, how might we?
The beginner’s mindset invites a sense of wonder that we often see in our children. You look at things as though you are seeing them for the first time. This allows you to find inspiration and see the awe in the seemingly ordinary.
The “I don’t know mind’ allows us to embrace being uncomfortable and the unknown. This year more than any other has taught us to expect the unexpected.
The tragic events at the Capitol building in Washington D.C. further highlighted the rampant racism, injustices, and inequities that have plagued this nation. There are few moments in school leadership where there is absolute clarity of right and wrong. Now is the time to take a close look at who you are, your values, your aspirations, your hopes, dreams, and intentions. What you do and what you say matters and should be grounded in an understanding of our human interconnectedness.
Every new year, we try in our personal and professional lives to start anew, making resolutions and promises to ourselves about how we will be different and who we will become. We make exercise and diet goals. We promise to spend more time with loved ones and be more productive and efficient at work. By February, we tire out and have dropped all resolve to accomplish our new tasks. What if instead of creating these long to-do lists each new year, we think of our intentions and start from there?