Quiet is easier

Schools are rife with professional conversations, committees, and meetings. Each one of them is an invitation to contribute. Sometimes we’re compelled to contribute, sometimes obliged, and sometimes we can choose to contribute or not.

Some meetings, of course, are mundane, some are informative, and others are confronting and provocative. It’s in the latter kind that we matter most. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be there.

And it’s in those demanding engagements – at times when we feel elevated emotions and moved to comment – that we are forced to make a choice. Share our view and risk being shouted down, embarrassed, or challenged? Or keep our thoughts to ourselves?

After all, remaining quiet is easier – it helps keep the meeting moving along nicely ­– it helps maintain the status quo – it’s less complicated, trouble-free and painless.

And so we should keep quiet – if uncomplicated, trouble-free and painless is our aspiration.

Hitting the nail near the head

Last summer, my friend and I built a wooden play house for my kids. Somewhat surprisingly, seven months later, it’s still standing and getting lots of use.

I noticed today that a couple of the nails fixing the weatherboards (clapboards) to the frame are bent over 90 degrees near the head – they weren’t hammered in straight. They look a little bit shabby compared to the other nails and I was tempted to pull them out and replace them with straight nails.

But I checked, and they’re holding firm. In fact, they’re just as effective as the straight nails. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing their job perfectly well.

When we hold ourselves to high standards in our work or home life, sometimes it can be difficult to remain focussed on the bigger picture – on what really matters. Our lives can easily become full of little tasks and errands and seemingly-important repairs while the most important things become neglected. We can end up fixing nails that don’t need fixing, and miss out on playing a game with our kids.

It certainly feels good to hit the nail on the head doesn’t it! Bang. Straight in. We can stand back and admire the beauty and bask in the sense of achievement. But sometimes, it’s enough to hit the nail near the head. Whoops. A little bit wonky. But fine. Effective. Enough. Go play.

Who’s around you?

We are hardwired social beings. As such, our lives are enmeshed with the lives of the people around us. Our fate is only partly in our own hands. Our inner social circle affects not just the trajectory of our lives but the way with live it and who we are in it.

One of the great 19th century American education reformers, Elizabeth Peabody, once wrote in a letter that:

“No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.”

And so, perhaps we do become the average of the people with whom we most associate.

Look around you. In spaces and lounges in which educators gather in our schools, we see the temptation to cling to people who see the world the same way that we do, or who applaud the same things, or who reflect and amplify a shared sense of injustice. And that’s fine. Or maybe it’s not. It all depends on how you are intending to ‘turn up’ every day and who you hope to become.

To change or not to change?

There’s a reason why we tend to be resistant to change. Change requires time, energy, and often, struggle. We have to be prepared to leave behind an old, comfortable version of ourselves – and to travel to a different place.

We have to acknowledge that there might be a better way. And we have to be prepared to try something new – and to accept the risks that come with that choice. What if the change doesn’t make things better? What if we invest in change and it’s not worth it? What if we waste our time and energy? What if we can’t go back to the old way?

All fair questions. Change isn’t always good. There are risks and costs. But there are also risks and costs of standing still.

So, to embrace a change or not? Is there a right choice?

Yeah, there is. It’s the choice informed by our values and fuelled by courage.

Shadows fall behind

There’s a slightly quaint quote that appeared on a banner at the World Anti-Bullying Forum in Dublin last week:

“Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

The quote is often attributed to the poet Walt Whitman, sometimes to the social activist Helen Keller, and occasionally to English poet Charles Swain. No one is really sure who first said it or wrote it.

But it has endured because it’s profound. It’s a reminder that in amongst the buzz of our lives, we continue to make fundamental choices that shape our experience.

Even when we are at our best and going well, we can’t escape the shadows. But when we immerse ourselves in what really matters to us, our lives feel brighter, and the shadows fade.

What’s the most valuable thing you own?

Your story.

“When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Old African proverb

By the time your children or your students are in high school, they will have clocked up nearly 100,000 waking hours of experience. And by the time we’re 40, we have about a quarter of a million waking hours under our belt.

Somehow our incredible brain has the capability to synthesise thousands and thousands of hours of experience containing millions of unique events and piece it all together into a coherent narrative.

We don’t think about ‘our life’ as a list of sequential events. But rather, we synonymise our life with our story.

So what a shame it is, that in the rush of our modern, campfireless life, we give ourselves such limited opportunity to make sense of and to share our stories.

And I wonder how many of our students feel like they are a secondary character in someone else’s story?

As filmmaker Rick Stevenson, a man who has interviewed over 5,500 kids, says: “There is no higher calling than to help our kids fully understand their stories and to learn how to use them…There is an empowerment that comes when kids realise that they are writing their own biography – in real time.”

With this realisation comes a shift in perspective. When we realise that life is about writing our own story, we are compelled to ask: “What story do I want to write?”

It’s hard to think of two more profound, powerful questions to explore with a child than: “What is your story?” and “What story do you want to write?

Learning from what you hate

There is so much talk, in the field of wellbeing, about values: in our deepest heart, what kind of person, teacher, colleague, friend, parent do we want to be?

And we now have so much evidence linking long-term happiness and success in the workplace to a life lived in-line with our values.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about values. And so I know that my four core values are connection, caring, contribution and adventure.

But if you struggle to articulate your deepest values, try this little exercise…

Part A — What is it, about other people’s behaviour, that really ticks you off, or really annoys you? (eg  arrogance, or dishonesty, or entitlement, or prejudice, or…)

Part B — Take your answer from Part A and identify its opposite trait. (eg arrogance : humility, dishonesty : honesty, entitlement : gratitude, prejudice : fairness

Did you discover, in Part B, values that are very dear to you? You may even have stumbled on your core values.

When we get annoyed or angry or frustrated at other people, it’s almost always because they have violated one of our core values.

So the better we understand what we value most, the more effectively, mindfully, and healthily we can respond to situations or people that might compromise our values.