My principal always reminds me that the challenges inherent in schools are merely microcosms of our society at large. The struggles students face within the context of schools and social groups mirror the same struggles adults face in the context of their lives. When our country and those in power lead with fear, as educators, we can see the impact of that fear in our schools. Sometimes this looks like students’ anger and more discipline referrals, sometimes it looks like students’ social/emotional struggle, sometimes it looks like students’ increased anxiety or lack of focus and performance in academics. Challenges give us meaning and connect us to the very struggles that frame our journey. These are how we grow and how we come to find our purpose. Teaching students to embrace challenges is as important as teaching them content standards.
Life’s challenges provide opportunities to stretch, bend, change, learn and ultimately lead. I love the fable of the mighty oak tree and the willow tree. The mighty oak, while strong and proud, falls when the winds pick up and storms arise. The willow tree is able to bend and sway with the wind; and, therefore survives. Throughout our lives we can recall moments when challenges almost break us. Sometimes we are able to bend, but sometimes our own pride causes us to break. Breaking means the challenge reshaped our experience as time moves us further and further from our darkest moments. The challenges we face hold the wisdom we seek. “Do not mistake the pursuit of wisdom for an endless parade of sunshine and kittens. Wisdom does not immediately produce stillness or clarity. Quite the contrary. It might even make things less clear – make them darker before the dawn,” wrote Ryan Holiday in Stillness is the Key.
As leaders, we get to choose how we lead others within our storms. It is in these moments of uncertainty, when no one is telling us how to proceed or when everyone is telling us how to proceed, that our ability to lead presents itself. Can we lead with confidence when people disagree with us? Can we recognize the emotions and frustration that mask the truth we must uncover? Are we willing to endure uncomfortable situations? Can we slow down enough to find clarity within confusion?
In the most stressful moments, everyone has his/her own solutions for problems. When these problems are emotionally fueled, listening to others proves difficult but necessary. We are a culture based on taking action. Often we want to find solutions before we clearly identify the problem. We schedule, plan, research, and talk in circles. And many times, most times, decisions made in this mode fail. Stillness is hard. When we allow ourselves to sit in doubt and actually find gratitude for the uncertainty, only then do we recognize our choice. We can panic and act without intention, or we can embrace the doubt. Actions rooted in fear can lead to more fear and more purposeless measures. This creates a cycle which, once begun, adds layers of mistakes. If we slow down and seek stillness while embracing this doubt, we can find guidance and direction.
The other extreme allows our fear to paralyze us. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stillness is not the same as doing nothing. It is recognizing our fears and allowing ourselves to experience them wholly. “To escape fear, you have to go through it, not around it,” according to Richie Norton, author. When we avoid facing our fear we simply prolong it. Fears we dodge seem to gather traction and quickly return for us to face in another setting, with another situation, disguised as a separate challenge. Bravery is not the absence of fear but the willingness to face it and recognize it. Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers it.”
“Behind every struggle is a blessing,” said a parent to me this week. When a school community grapples with societal issues, emotions run high. All stakeholders have an opinion; and, all want a platform to share that opinion, as they should when there is a vested interest in the outcome. Our children are always the vested interest which connects us and demands that we join together to face our challenges directly. Yet when everyone at the table is shouting and proving and defending and arguing, then who is listening? Emotions provide the fuel that drives change. To ensure this change is in the best interests of students, we have to face the emotions, embrace the hurt and sometimes the anger, yet still commit to support, teach, guide, love and, ultimately, be grateful for the struggle. This is what stillness, space, and gratitude can provide us: a place to struggle, a place to stretch, and a framework to guide us in the direction our students need.
Holiday wrote in Stillness is the Key, “…we must choose to drive out anger and replace it with love and gratitude- and purpose. Our stillness depends on our ability to slow down and choose not to be angry, to run on different fuel. Fuel that helps us win and build, and doesn’t hurt other people, our cause, or our chance at peace.” This sentiment shows the value of emotions and the power of recognizing their place.
I remember learning and studying about our country’s great leaders. My teachers taught me that the beautiful piece of our country is we are judged by our actions, not by the mistakes of those before us or around us. However, with that said, we are a product of our society at large. We cannot ignore the lessons learned by our forefathers and have a moral responsibility to strive for more transparency, more clarity, and more ways to teach the next generation to find stillness in order to discover their truth. We must find ways to teach our children to connect together for a greater cause and purpose. It is always a choice to perpetuate fear or trust in faith. Hate is not something that is natural to anyone, it is taught through unfaced fear, sometimes intentionally, but often unintentionally as well. These challenges and this conversation must be had by leaders of all schools and all people; within the contexts of families and communities.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” As a school and community we all come with our own bias, with our own set of experiences, and these experiences naturally influence how we lead through turmoil. We have experiences when we acted too quickly out of fear. We also have experiences where our fear paralyzed us. This week has provided the challenge – can we lean together into the love that allows the light of awareness to drive out hate? Only together can we find that common ground, can we find the stillness we need to seek love. That love will lead us, heal us, and inspire us to be better, do better, and find the grace within the grit of our differences. Our love for students promises one thing only. We will never stop trying. When we fail, we will get back up. No matter what. Sometimes, that alone is enough.