Fresh Paint: A Resilience Metaphor

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cc photo art by J. Delp

I spent Saturday morning at school painting classrooms. Lately, I have been a bit discouraged about the physical appearance of our facilities and the unspoken message that dingy walls, stained carpet, institutional like classrooms, and dated buildings send to our students and parents. Over time, things wear out, students spill things, ink pens break, and hand and fingerprints become a permanent part of the walls. We just can’t keep up. With this in mind, I enlisted the assistance of our local community to make some improvements. On Saturday, one of our recently graduated eighth graders worked with about forty volunteers — as a part of his Eagle Scout Project — to paint two of our classrooms. The difference a few coats of fresh paint made were staggering.

Sometimes life is a little like the classroom walls at our school. We get run down, tired, and even discouraged. The effects of time, stress, busyness, and an unsustainable pace slowly erode our attitudes and leave us like those dingy classroom walls — chipped, stained, and not looking (or feeling) so good. We can’t change what has happened to us in the past, or make those things go away, but we can change our day, week, month, year, or even life trajectory.

You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. – C.S. Lewis

It is during these times (when we feel beaten down, less than, and discouraged) that we must have enough initiative to seek out a coat of “fresh paint.” This is not to imply that we should — or that we are able to — “paint over” our problems, but that we do need to take the time to adequately care for ourselves. Sometimes we can do the painting ourselves, other times we have to seek out the assistance of friends, family members, and colleagues.

As we ended our last school year, I definitely needed a fresh coat of paint. I am incredibly blessed to work in a profession where I have the flexibility of taking some time off. I spent time at the beach with my wife and daughter. One coat. While we were in San Diego, I met up for coffee with a good friend who I don’t see as often as I would like. Two coats. I visited family in Kansas, saw my nieces and nephews play basketball, and celebrated my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary. Three, four, and five coats. I spent a lot of time being outdoors and fishing. Six coats. In addition, the local community has really begun to pour into our school (I was foolish for not asking for assistance sooner). They are volunteering to mentor, supporting campus projects, and making donations for our Community resource room. Seven coats. While many of my struggles still exist, and I know the coming year will bring more, the “fresh paint” has made me feel more optimistic and resilient — ready to tackle the challenges ahead.

The thing is, we all own proverbial brushes and paint. From time to time we should apply our own coat — take a vacation, breathe, go for a walk, read a book. Whatever it takes to refresh and re-energize. But, we also need to watch out for others who are in need — a word of encouragement, a note or positive email, lunch, or just being present. Any of these actions might be the “fresh paint” someone needs to carry on.

As we finished up finished up Saturday’s painting project, I was checking out the finished product, when one of the volunteers said to me, “It’s amazing what a couple of coats of paint can do. It is so much brighter in here.”

Yes indeed. Things are so much brighter.

This article is cross-posted on my Medium page.

Eyes Wide Open

About a week ago, on a hot afternoon in Arizona, I stopped at a convenience store near work for a bottle of water and a soda. As I was walking in, I noticed a young lady leaning against one of the store’s cinder block columns. There was something vaguely familiar about her. I searched my memory for a clue. Former student? Parent? A sibling of one of our kids? Nothing. It was evident that she was in some distress. Perhaps, it was exhaustion, a rough day (or a rough life), or simply the heat. She avoided eye contact, so I continued into the store where I made my purchase, grabbing an extra bottle of water.

I’m not sure why, but as I was making my way back to my truck, I turned and asked, “Young lady, are you okay?” For the first time she looked at me, and asked if I could spare any money. I handed her the two dollars in my pocket and a bottle of water. She thanked me and said, “God bless,” and that was the end of our interaction. I wasn’t able to make any connections and she either didn’t recognize me, or chose not to acknowledge if she did.

However, several days after the encounter, I have been unable to shake the thought of how frequently I walk by people without consideration for their circumstances. Some of them, like this girl, are obviously “in a battle.” In other cases, it might not be so apparent — an averted glance, a solemn quietness, or perhaps, nothing. Almost unnoticeable. It’s like voluntary blindness. Oblivious to the problems of anyone but myself.

I recently began reading the book Refugee by Alan Gratz. One of the characters in the book, Josef, is a young Jewish boy fleeing Germany as Hitler began his reign of terror. In the story Josef described the yellow Star of David he was forced to wear as a “talisman that made him disappear.” Others acted as if he did not exist. As if he wasn’t even there.

The people chose not to see them.

How often are we guilty of this? How often do we “choose” not to see those who are in distress, those who are suffering injustice, those who are grappling with burdens too large to bear without assistance. It is easier to walk on by, to turn our heads, or to simply wander with our eyes proverbially closed. Perhaps we are afraid to fully acknowledge the pain and injustice in our world because to do so we be an admission that we feel incapable, or that we are unwilling, to do anything about it.

The principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. – Marcus Borg

I don’t have a solution. I have a feeling it isn’t two dollars and a bottle of water. I do think it has something to do with acknowledgement. Acknowledgment that we are all in “this” together. Acknowledgement that we have the capability to help one another.  Acknowledgement of our shared humanity. 

One of the best books I have ever read about recognizing the immeasurable value of all human beings is Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle. In fact, it is one of the best books I have ever read…period. It is so good, that I am currently listening to the audio version. Again.

In one particularly poignant anecdote, Father Greg describes Carmen — a heroin addict, a prostitute, a fighter, a lady who is dealing with a tremendous amount of baggage and trauma. She stops to see him just prior to a baptismal ceremony he is scheduled to administer. She tells Father Greg she needs help and begins a narrative of her issues. Time ticks away and the scheduled baptism grows closer.  Father Greg grows impatient. As they talk, she tilts her head toward the ceiling and her eyes fill with tears. She looks at Father Greg, and says, “I…am…a disgrace.” The next line in the book is extremely moving, and convicting.

Suddenly her shame meets mine, for when Carmen walked through that door I had mistaken her for an interruption.

There are boundless opportunities for us to be difference-makers in the lives of others. Daily. To do so requires that we live with our eyes wide open — ready to receive others, to acknowledge their existence, to recognize their worth, and to view them as human. Not an interruption.

May God grant me the patience, the perception, and the willingness to do this. To live my life with eyes wide open to the needs of others.

 

 

Have We Forgotten that We Belong to One Another?

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Disclaimer: as with all posts on my blog, the views expressed in this post represent my personal opinion and are not intended to be associated with my employer. This was posted with my daughter’s permission.

My daughter is an immigrant.

Perhaps not in the “legal” sense, but by Google’s definition she would qualify. She was born in the Russian Far East, adopted by us, and traveled to the United States (on a Russian passport) just before her first birthday. She was a newcomer. She was a nonnative. She was an outsider. Now, she is a beautiful teenager who just finished her freshman year of high school. She is the pride and joy of her parents and the best thing I have ever done in my life.

Those of you reading this who are adoptive parents know that the process is long and arduous. During the two trips we made to Russia, we experienced multiple miracles — more than enough to convince me that this beautiful little girl was always meant to be our daughter. But, those are stories for another time.

Recently, the United States has begun a “no-tolerance” policy for deportation of illegal immigrants. As a result of that process, children — seventeen and under — have been torn from their families. At the time of this writing, the Los Angeles Times reported that 1,995 children have been separated from their parents. This is a tragedy, an immoral abuse of power, and a policy that demonstrates a lack of value for human life. It is wrong, and it must stop.

Regardless of political leanings, I would hope that most people would agree that children should not be used as pawns in the fight over immigration policy. The fact that our current politicians are incapable of working cooperatively to develop a reasonable solution to the immigration issue is no excuse for taking actions that are clearly detrimental to kids. And, although I am not a religious scholar, I feel confident in saying there is absolutely no biblical basis for separating children from their families. However, I can reference many verses that indicate we should love our neighbor, care for children, and act justly.

Imagine the level of trauma inflicted upon a child who likely does not speak English, has just endured a difficult trip, and is now ripped away from their family. Their “legality” has absolutely nothing to do with our ability to treat them as fellow human beings of infinite value, worthy of respect and empathy.

We began to bond with our daughter and love her the first moment we saw her. We immediately wanted to provide the best care we were able to offer her. Fortunately, we had the means and privilege that allowed us to complete an adoption, navigate oceans of paperwork, and bring her to the states legally — as our daughter.

The parents who are currently bringing their children to the United States are undoubtedly seeking the same things we wanted for our daughter — the best possible care, education, and opportunities. Unfortunately, most are coming from poverty and do not possess the material, financial, or political capital necessary to navigate the immigration process. They are not people of privilege. We are.

This is not a post about immigration policy, it is simply a plea to do the right thing for kids and keep them with their families. I work in a profession where we are taught that the best interest of kids should always come first. That should be no different in this circumstance — the needs of children should come first. As Mother Teresa so wisely stated,

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.

I fear this may be true. We have forgotten that we belong to one another. I pray that our citizens will make it clear that the current situation is unacceptable and that our leaders will step in and do the right thing for the sake of these kids. We must demand nothing less.

My 30 Day Sabbatical

I am almost done with school for the year — just a few more days of wrap-up and administrative meetings. In an effort to refresh (and prepare for a new school year), I am going to take a purposeful break. A sabbatical, so to speak.

Here is a list of what I will be doing.

  1. Rest: I need to give myself permission to really rest — to sit quietly, take naps, watch a baseball game. Relax.
  2. Read: I have a diverse summer reading list, and a few more books will probably find their way into the mix. The key is, I am going to read books I enjoy.
  3. Take a Mindfulness Class: I plan to take a mindfulness class through mindfulschools.org
  4. Go to the Beach: Ocean air. No further explanation needed.
  5. Simplify: I make things too difficult. During my sabbatical I am going to jettison clutter, habits, and anything else that makes decisions difficult.
  6. Walk: This is a chance to get a little exercise, listen to books and music, and think.
  7. Eat Mindfully: I need to break a few habits in this area and develop a few positive habits — like eating a healthy lunch.
  8. Go to Kansas: Visit family, go fishing, and focus on some of the other items on my list — walk, read, rest.
  9. Focus on Others and Gratitude: Find ways to encourage, support, and help others –including things at home (cooking, laundry, dishes, etc.)
  10. Let go of Anger and Frustration: It’s not healthy — for me, or those around me. Just breathe and let things go.

Standing in the Gap

Today, my parents are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Not only am I very proud of their devotion to one another, I am incredibly thankful for their parenting and support. I am blessed.

This week, I finished my nineteenth year in education, and my seventh as a principal. In that time, I have seen the positive difference that loving adults make in a child’s life and I have seen the devastating impact of abuse inflicted by those who are supposed to be a child’s most ardent supporters. Just this week, I dealt with an almost unimaginable incident of verbal and mental abuse by a parent — at a level I have never seen. It was a harsh reminder of how fortunate I was (and still am) to have the support of two loving parents. What an advantage I have been afforded simply through steadfast support and unconditional love.

All children should be so fortunate.

But, we know that isn’t the case. Many kids suffer from abuse, neglect, and inattention. Some of our kids have loving adults in their lives who are simply stretched to thin — by poverty, by work constraints, by stress, or by their own traumatic experiences.

We all have opportunities to stand in the gap. Chances to either be the loving adult in a child’s life, or support that loving adult who is struggling to balance the demands of the world. Teachers, administrators, pastors, community members, friends, relatives…we can all be advocates for kids on the margins. For some kids, kindness, love, and support may literally be the difference between life and death.

I am a fan of the 2012 movie, Chasing Mavericks — based on the true story of Jay Moriarty. In the movie, Jay is one of those kids who needs someone to “stand in the gap.” Accomplished surfer Frosty Hesson takes him under his wing, mentoring Jay as he prepares to surf Mavericks — one of the biggest waves in the world. At one point in the movie, Frosty is complaining to his wife Brenda about Jay’s struggles and the challenges of keeping him on the right path. Brenda gently reminds Frosty that Jay has looked up to him his whole life, and then says,

There are all kinds of sons Frosty. Some are born to you, some just occur to you.

Isn’t that the truth. Sometimes sons and daughters just occur to us. Children on the margins. May we all be able, and willing, to recognize these kiddos and stand in the gaps with kindness and love.

Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad! Thanks for standing with me. Love you both!

The “Things That Matter Most” Protocol

There is too much time in my day and I don’t have enough to do.

…said no one above the age of fourteen. Ever.

For most of us, packed schedules and long to-do lists make every day an exercise in determining opportunity costs. If I choose to do activity “y”, what will be the impact of forgoing activity “x”? There simply is not enough time in the day to get everything done, so we have to prioritize, identify our most critical tasks, and then make choices about where we are going to invest our time and energy.

Perhaps my favorite quote (and I am a quote guy) is one by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.

This is a powerful phrase, and it implies several responsibilities for the reader:

  • We must be keenly aware of what is most important in our many roles (professional, personal, spiritual, etc.)
  • We must recognize, and accept that some uses of our time are more valuable than others
  • We must be incredibly vigilant to ensure that our limited amount of time is spent in a manner that supports the things in our life(or individual roles) that matter most

None of this is easy to do in a society that glorifies busyness and where the “tyranny of the urgent” often drives our day-to-day living. There are days that pass where I (1) can’t figure out where the time went, and (2) am unable to clearly identify what I actually did. I was incredibly busy, but I accomplished almost nothing of substantial value. This happens more often than I would care to admit.

Obviously, I am not writing this post from the perspective of an expert, but as a someone who struggles (every single day) to ensure that I am giving appropriate attention to the things in my life that “matter most”. I have read countless articles, and books, about how to be more productive (and I’m sure I will continue to do so) — looking for a quick fix, or a “system” that will solve my problems and “tell me” what to do. So far, I have not only been unsuccessful, but I have recognized that most blog posts on this topic repeat the same advice — over and over. Have a plan. Schedule your critical tasks. Take time for reflection. Say no. All, probably pretty good advice, but most of these suggestions still leave me feeling like I spend a majority of time “checking things off my list” and leave me wondering if the things I am doing are really making a difference.

(Before I move on, I do want to say that there are a few books I have found to be particularly helpful when it comes to living a meaningful/purposeful life: Essentialism by Greg McKeown, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, and Broadcasting Happiness by Michelle Gielan are especially helpful.)

As an example, I am the principal at a diverse, urban junior high school in Arizona. I have grown extremely tired of the current educational narrative in our society that says the right things (kids come first, we must value our teachers, principals should be out in classrooms, etc.) but then doesn’t “walk the talk”. This brings to mind another one of my favorite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Your actions speak so loudly that I can not hear what you are saying.

We have an educational system that generates enormous amounts of red-tape for teachers and administrators, demands investment of time and effort that goes well beyond inadequate recognition/compensation (at least for teacher and support staff), fails to adequately invest in kids (especially those with the greatest need), and standardized tests students into oblivion. Unfortunately, there is a significant divide between hopes for an ideal educational system that supports ALL stakeholders and our current reality.

As an administrator, I see this in my job as I struggle to manage paperwork, district initiatives/requirements, emails, budgets, school safety, student behavior, data, testing, teacher evaluations and a plethora of other minutiae. Honestly, many (not all) of these activities “suck the life” out of my day. Some of them, I don’t enjoy and I must struggle to make any meaningful connection between their completion and a clear benefit for my students, or my school community. That is why I have recently been considering ways to “redefine” the principalship in a manner that is consistent with my core beliefs and values about education and that allows me to ensure that “things that matter most are never at the mercy of things that matter least”.

I typically make every effort to get into classrooms every day, but this past Friday, I spent my entire day on campus. I covered for a teacher who was absent, but didn’t have a substitute. I helped with labs in a couple of science classes. I interacted with kids during lunch supervision. I taste tested some awesome peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I ran an AVID tutorial class. I did not answer emails, work on district initiatives, or wrestle with red tape. It was BY FAR the best day I have had this school year. It was meaningful, encouraging (to me — and I hope students and teachers), and helpful. It allowed me to actually see what was happening in classrooms, experience lessons from a student’s perspective, and engage in the student learning process. My day on campus also prompted me to think about my core beliefs as a school leader and how I should invest my time. Being a “type A” personality, I’ve actually considered a protocol to help me decide how I should make decisions about my day-to-day activities. Here are a few of the questions I am going to begin asking when making decisions about how to spend my time. Note: these questions are based upon my personal mission and beliefs about my responsibility as an educator. Your questions may vary.

Should I work on, or do ______________ (insert action/activity here)?

Does this action/activity help build positive relationships with my students, staff members, and/or parents?

Does this action/activity address a specific need of my school community, or alleviate a burden on someone else?

Does this action/activity contribute to a positive climate on campus and/or in our school community?

Does this action/activity contribute to improved teaching practices, an increase in student learning, or a more productive learning environment?

Does this action/activity encourage a student, staff member, parent, or member of our school community?

Does this action/activity “add to my cup”, thereby allowing me to do a better job of serving others?

If the answer to any of these questions is YES, then it is probably worth investing my time to get that task done, or complete the activity. If the answer is NO, there are a couple of additional questions I need to ask.

Will there be negative repercussions (for me, or for our school) if this activity is not completed?

If NO, don’t do it, say no, or take a pass. If the answer is YES:

Is this just a hoop that I am required to jump through (is it cutting through red tape)? 

If YES, complete the activity with the minimum amount of time and energy investment to avoid negative repercussions. Just get it done. If NO, do what needs to be done to avoid negative personal or school community consequences. This may sound like a questionable approach, but consider opportunity costs. Spending significant time on a “hoop” means losing out on opportunities to work on high impact projects/activities.

In summary, it is critical that we spend our time attending to what is most important in our life at any given moment — whether that is at work or at home. Our decisions need to prioritize people over process, purpose over “hoop jumping”, and critical content/activities over red tape. I have come to recognize that in order to maintain my ability to sustain efforts to support others, I need to make reflection on my personal “what matters most” protocol a daily deliberate practice.

In your life, or your job, how do you make decisions about where to invest your time and energy, and how much to expend? Please share your ideas and strategies in the comments.

(I’m working on an actual flowchart/protocol sheet to use as a reminder for my daily decisions. I will share when it is done.)

I Am Not In Control

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Lightning – cc photo by J. Delp

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. – Mother Teresa

On Friday evening I was on a connecting flight (with my daughter and wife) from Chicago to Wichita, Kansas. We were all engaged in our own activities — sleeping, reading, listening to music — when my daughter, who was sitting in the window seat, tapped my shoulder and nervously pointed outside of the airplane. The night sky was flashing and popping in a magnificent display of lightning. From our flying altitude it seemed especially close, awe inspiringly spectacular, and perhaps to my daughter, a bit frightening.

But I wasn’t worried.

A couple of times each year, I travel to Haiti to visit friends and work with a few schools. Haiti can be incredibly beautiful, but it is also shockingly poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly chaotic. A normal drive through Port-au-Prince can be a harrowing experience, but I have also driven up steep, narrow, mountain roads that are not made (or maintained) for vehicles. I have seen demonstrations and even been caught-up in a protest, narrowly slipping past a road block designed to shut down a major highway.

But I wasn’t worried.

A few times each week, or even each day, I receive an email, a phone call, or I have a situation that arises at school — something has gone wrong, someone is upset or angry, a student has had a bad experience, or a staff member is facing a challenge. I become overly anxious. How can I resolve the problem? How can I keep everyone safe and happy? How can I be responsible for my students, my staff, and my school community? Countless situations call for action, but I often feel paralyzed by indecision.

I worry.

So, how is it that I am able to function with a reasonable amount of assurance in Haiti, or remain calm (and even enjoy) a lightning storm at 35,000 feet — but allow an email, an upset individual, or a growing task list to trigger anxiety. I believe the answer lies (at least in part) in the fact that I have fooled myself into believing that in the latter situations I am ultimately in control.

I am not a pilot, and I am clearly unable to influence weather patterns and storms. In Haiti, I am at the mercy of my good friend to get me safely where I need to go, translate, and monitor the surroundings for potential risk. Even if I wanted to, there is very little I could do to influence outcomes in these situations. I must rely on faith — in others and in God. I understand this and so I don’t allow those things to be stressful or create anxiety.

While it is true that I am responsible for the actions in my day-to-day life, it would be absurd to believe that I could control another person’s response, or that I am solely responsible for the attitudes and happiness of everyone around me. I am no more capable of doing that than I am of controlling a lightning storm, or dispersing a protest in Haiti. It just isn’t going to happen.

This doesn’t excuse me from responsibility. In fact, it is absolutely critical that I make deliberate, thoughtful, and responsible decisions in the moment– doing my best to positively influence outcomes for the benefit of those I serve. But once those decisions have been made, or actions have been taken, I have to rest in knowing that I did my best, have faith, and understand that final outcomes are beyond my control.

This is not an easy thing for me — or most people for that matter. I struggle to stay in the moment. I am easily distracted. I am overconfident in my ability to influence outcomes and I want everyone to be happy. I struggle to distinguish what is truly important from what is trivial. I want to be in control — but true control is an illusion.

I am convinced that my daily success depends on a few key elements:

  • Taking the time for quiet reflection
  • Identifying what is most important–the big rocks…the things that really matter
  • Staying in the moment — being present and caring for the people in front of me
  • Doing my best, and then having faith that things will be okay — letting go

None of it is easy, but for me, letting go is the biggest challenge. I have to continue to work at accepting the fact that I am not ultimately in control. I have to do my best, keep my attention on what matters most, and then have faith in the outcome.