On Clarity

I spent this weekend at a training for instructional coaches (read: teachers’ teachers) that covered the art of coaching and how to be an effective coach for teachers. I am not a coach. I had no real reason to attend the training other than feeling like I needed to learn more, and do more to learn, and engage more actively with the opportunities I was being provided.

But somehow the past two days have been much more than that. They’ve been strangely transcendent, opened my eyes to a lot of things, and brought me to a sense of clarity I’ve rarely felt before.

Only a small portion of this experience was tied directly to the workshop. It focused at many times on self-reflection in thoughtful and intentional ways, which I think I needed. But the real catalyst for everything was the roommate I was assigned by Teach for America, which was paying for the cost of my attendance and hotel for the training. She just needed someone to stay with at the hotel and I, always the odd man out, fell straight into that box.

I was nervous about having a roommate because meeting people is awkward and deeply uncomfortable. Sometimes I hit it off immediately with people, but more often than not, I get a lot of dead air and empty space. My roommate immediately suggested we get dinner, and I was thrilled. I got to meet someone new in a nice way, and I didn’t have to spend my night alone!

At dinner we talked — I explained that I’d had some frustrations with my job and in interactions with my coworkers, but that I recognized I was taking a deficit mindset and needed to think about what I could do and acknowledge what is possible. My goal, and the goal I’d set for myself at the training, was to learn to communicate toward positive change in a way that would promote teamwork among colleagues, rather than a sense of opposition. My roommate told me: You see this bright, hopeful future for your kids. Your colleagues may not be there, they may never be there. You have to walk back and take them there with you — the same way as you recognize you have to do for your students.

In a lot of ways, I suppose, everything culminated in this weekend, this dinner, the immediate and clear realization of my own ability. My frustrations had been building for a while, and were beginning to be worked through as I realized I needed to focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t. That came in tandem with the slow realization that if I wanted to make any kind of real difference, I couldn’t do it from an oppositional place. That would just mean that if I ever left, there would be fewer people left to keep doing the work toward that vision. I couldn’t do it alone — and I had to do it with the trust, love, and teamwork of the people I’d felt I was battling all year.

That in concert with my teacher evaluation, which indicated the same things: Molly, you need to learn how to work with people.

At dinner, my roommate said: “You’ve had an excellent career as a solo artist. You just don’t know how to be in a band yet. And that’s okay. You’re learning.”

The thing about coaching, I learned in this workshop, is that it’s in large part about guiding someone toward learning in a way that allows them to reflect on themselves and change their practice based on their new understandings. It’s a lot like therapy (of which I am a huge proponent). Your job isn’t to tell someone else what to do; it’s to work with them as a teammate and an ally to learn where they are able to improve and grow. Now, I’m not a coach, but my job is to partner with teachers — to be their teammate and ally. In trying to fight in the way that I knew for the change I believed in, I was also doing a poor job of being a teammate and ally.

A component of the training was also the idea that coaches self-reflect. It starts with the coach’s learning about their own growth. In one exercise, we were asked to write down and analyze a scenario of a teacher that coaches may have to work with. Since I was not a coach but the kind of teacher that coaches were coming to this training to talk about,  and I’d been thinking a lot about self-reflection and my own ability to change, I wrote my own situation down and considered how a coach might approach me. This was, I think, the big moment where the switch flipped for me.

I need to stop focusing on my colleagues and their interactions with me, I thought, and focus on myself and how I am interacting with them. I do not need to learn these coaching skills so that I can communicate with them right now — I need to learn these things in order to reflect on myself. I have to start with me.

All this time, I’ve been thinking about myself and wishing I had more support, wondering how I can make changes when things seem stagnant, angry that I didn’t feel like I had enough room to move. I never really considered taking a moment to sit still — to observe the world around me — to build relationships and come to love and believe in the people I worked with the way I so naturally was inclined to do with my students.

Students are not always ready to learn or try new things — they carry a lot of baggage — learning and changing is hard and scary — and adults are not much different. I know I have ideas I want to share, but to disregard others’ expertise and ideas because of my passion for my own carries with it a dangerous movement toward disregarding others in general, and treating them unkindly and unfairly.

There is absolutely an urgency to providing the best education possible for our students as soon as possible. But education has to be a long game too. Because if we don’t bring people with us on the journey, then nothing sustainable exists when we leave. So maybe I can’t do it all right now — that’s okay. Better to do it in partnership with the people around me in a way that becomes sustainable than to leave behind a wake if ever I go, a rut of dark water and air that will fill up upon my leaving and end in silence and stillness, as if I were never there.

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The Deep Hurt

It is hard not to think, in any crowded place, how easy it could be for someone to hurt people there en masse if they wanted to.

It is painful to realize that the compulsion to think these things comes from a recent history in the United States of mass shootings and attacks that are so innumerable that they cannot be counted on one hand or even two. It is painful to realize these thoughts are spurred by a drive toward self-preservation, the desire to have an escape plan.

I read the news and find myself thinking, half or more of the time, that as a whole, it might be okay that humanity self-sabotages at every turn. Not for individuals, who I very actively and vehemently seek the best and the least pain for — but for us as a species.

This is not a perspective shaped by my sadness alone. I carry it in my heart on even my best days. It did begin with pain, a small global hurt that crept in the moment I shut the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Humans are odd. We are creative and brilliant, telling stories and inventing wild gadgets that allow us to do so much more than any other creature on this planet. And we destroy everything we touch.

I was sitting on the couch, watching television and scrolling through Twitter, luxuriating in a day off school thanks to last night’s heavy snow, when I saw the single mention — offhanded, almost, compared to everything else filling my feed — of the shooting today at Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. Five dead.

My reaction in light of these events is complex. Often the first reaction is to scroll past it. It is easy to deny terrible news on the face of it, or to actively choose not to engage with it. It is okay to choose not to engage with it when there is nothing you can do. But to disengage with these stories, or to feel that there is nothing we can do, in the long term — we say, over and over, that mass violence cannot be normalized. But for each time it happens, we cannot help but turn away and say to ourselves, “Here we go again.”

If we engage fully with each tragedy, we waste away. The pain runs so hard and so deep that we are incapable of living our every day.

There is no thesis statement here, no argument to be made. I do not know how to walk the line between disengaging so much I become useless and engaging so much I become useless. Burnout is real, yet above almost all else I value not giving up.

I Googled some more about the shooting. Found out what I could. I thought back to waking up that July morning in Denver to the news that twelve had been killed at the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” a few miles away. I thought about how many times I’ve stood in airport security lines and felt like a sitting duck, waiting with so many others to get to the other side where I could feel safe. Then I put it down, and went back to watching television.

The story of humanity is one big messy saga of violence and pain and art and architecture and invention and love and joy and choosing to hurt each other because the hurt inside us is so intense we cannot help but enact it on someone else. I am watching television. I am watching the show “Community,” which I enjoy because I can put myself into the lives of these characters instead of my own. I savor every small piece of drama, every confused kiss between characters. Through them, I am allowed to feel safely. I am allowed to exist in a world where the real hurt of this one doesn’t penetrate. And at the times when it does, the hurt is deep, because these characters have somehow accessed the real-world hurt, the kind that comes from your best friend moving away and disappearing from your life, when it feels like it’s for good.

I have a boyfriend now and he lives in another state. He hasn’t texted me for several hours because he is at work, driving an ambulance. Almost every day he picks up patients who have attempted suicide. My roommate is leaving soon for most of the weekend and I will be alone in this house, alone in this small town I moved to so that I could try and make a difference to humanity as a whole which, as far as any of this goes, seems to just hover around a baseline amount of pain anyway that no one can really do anything on a large scale to change. It will always be hurting, this part of us that hurts. We will carry it no matter what the world looks like.

So it goes: the whole tapestry of the thing — the life lived and unlived — begins to tie itself in small knots and ravel up in ways that make sense and remain messy. It’s all cyclical, and the themes overlap and correlate, but not quite perfectly. Each moment of pain is a pinpoint of light that both lives by itself and exists as one point in a much larger plane.

I am a middle school teacher. I teach special education. I love my students so fiercely I would go to war for them if I had to. I carry these small pains every day when I watch one student get yelled at by a teacher who assumes that he is trying to be a troublemaker, or when another tells me he is terrified of getting kicked out of our school because he is struggling to maintain the 3.0 GPA the school requires to retain students. I know I cannot hold it all inside me, but I am not quite sure how not to. I scroll through Twitter and watch “Community” and try to let out the pain slowly, like releasing the air from a blood-pressure monitor.

In this whole strange interconnected web of pain, which runs thick and constant with the occasional point of good and lightness, I also think about the student who surprised me with a hug on the last day before winter break, or the student who turned to another and told her, “You can’t give up. Ms. Bilker won’t let you.” I do not know how to balance or measure these moments against the hard ones. I just carry them both and hope that in the long run, the good wins out.

Who are those who were killed today? What were their names? Were they young or old? Were they just getting ready to see their long-distance significant other, who they’d flown all that way to see? What about those who survived? Will they be terrified of airports? How many of them will consider themselves lucky? How many of them got to see the partner they’d flown across the country to visit?

It is like the Leonard Cohen song says: “There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you heard — the holy or the broken hallelujah.”

Music is a good note to end on. It carries our hurt and heartache in ways words alone will never quite be able to reach.

The Case for Empathy

I think an awful lot about the idea of showing love to our oppressors and those who tend to oppose us most. The concept’s become a point of contention in what I’ll call the social justice community — the community of those who are engaged in dialogue around oppression and privilege — and the conversation has ramped up since (of course) the election.

I have said very little on the matter because I am afraid of the kind of backlash my words will receive. It can be scary to align with social justice, and to be passionate about the fight for it, and not agree with every single idea that’s being discussed. There’s a sort of viciousness that exists in this community, and it’s scary to stand up in the face of it. But as I said in my last post, I am no longer allowing myself to be silent, to walk around guilty and complicit.

Here is the argument:  Shouting down those who disagree with you, be those disagreements large or small, will make them disagree with you more.

It’s very simple, and it’s not a matter of whether a person’s perspectives are abhorrent or self-defensive or riddled with logical holes. It’s not a matter of who has more privilege in the situation and who has the responsibility to listen and learn. It’s a matter of human psychology. If someone is yelled at for the things they say or think, not only are they less likely to listen to the person shouting, they’re more likely to entrench and start reinforcing their own opinions.

Some people will take cool down time, maybe undig their heels a little, come back to what’s been said and think about it. But, due to a lack of capacity for self-reflection (which people can’t really be blamed for; they were never given the right tools in the first place), many people won’t — and not only will they dig their heels in deeper, but they’ll turn to the people in their lives, their families, friends, coworkers, and children, and begin to discuss why, in their view, they were right and the person they were arguing with was wrong.

There is the very valid argument that it is not the responsibility of the oppressed person to be nice to their oppressors. It’s the idea that someone is standing on top of your head, and you’re not going to say, “Hey, excuse me, could you please get off my head?” They’re hurting you badly and making it impossible for you to move. This is not the time for politeness that they will probably just brush off anyway. It could be best to just push them violently off your head.

But it’s not a perfect analogy. In some ways, it nullifies the actual existence of the person doing the standing. They may not understand that their standing on your head is causing you pain, or they’ve heard that it is but they can’t actually see that they are, in fact, doing it. In that case, shouting at them to get off may not in fact actually make them move.

Pushing them violently off could hurt them, and while their pain from that can’t and shouldn’t be weighed against the pain you were feeling while they were, you know, standing on your head, they might nevertheless be hurt and not understand why you were doing this to them. They might get some of their friends to help them stand back up so they can get back on your head, all along wondering why you’ve been so angry with them.

If you push them off and kill them, a bunch of others might come along and pile on top of your head on purpose because you’ve ended the life of someone they love. All the while you’re frustrated, saying what seems obvious: “But you should be able to see that standing on someone’s head is not okay.”

But oppressive behaviors are learned behaviors. Even those who have unlearned as many as they can will still be complicit as long as they have privilege. Helping people unlearn those behaviors helps, and it can be done by anyone when we can start by validating others’ pain. And I want to emphasize that pain and life experiences can be validated without validating beliefs.

Back to human psychology: People are most likely to respond well to us when we listen and validate where they are coming from. Again, it’s not a matter of whether what they actually believe is morally reprehensible to us — it’s a matter of how our brains work and how we function on an emotional level.

Here’s excerpts from an apt Twitter thread that covers the issue from the perspective of someone whose mind did eventually change:

The vast majority of people want to do good by others. There are many who fail because they were never given the tools to do so. For so many of those people, the pain in that failure runs deep, in ways they aren’t aware of. Repression is a real problem, and people who lash out the most are often those who carry the most dissonance and pain inside. Shouting at them makes them recede further away.

And deciding to cut people whose perspectives we see as fundamentally terrible out of our lives doesn’t stop those people from existing, and teaching those perspectives to others around them, to their children. That, perhaps, is the biggest critique I hold on the dialogue I so often see in the social justice community — it ignores the actual existence of the people who believe in and do these things that harm us so, so deeply.

A question arises for people when they feel they’re being shouted at, especially in regards to those who are interested in social justice and who do want to do right by this community.

“If I am not welcome here: Where, then, should I go? What, then, should I do?”

The options are to become silent and, in being silent, fail to promote social justice; or to return to or find a community where they feel their voices can be heard without fear of backlash and judgment. Either option perpetuates oppression.

All of this has happened to me, or to people I know. It continues to happen for me. I should not have to be afraid of those I seek to stand in solidarity with; and those who seek to stand in solidarity with me should not have to be afraid of me.

Here’s another apt Tweet on this, linking to an article that gave perspectives from social scientists and research professionals regarding how social movements are successful.

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It is valid and reasonable to be angry, and hurt, and to want to engage with others in ways that hold them completely accountable for the things they do that cause that pain. But we will continue to isolate others and push them away if we do not acknowledge their pain — even if it seems trivial in the face of ours. Isolating others this way can factor into things occurring such as backlash against “political correctness,” people making fun of trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the election of Donald Trump (recognizing, of course, that he did not win the popular vote).

It starts with empathy, validation, listening. It starts with trust and love. It doesn’t mean winning everyone over all the time. But it means giving them a chance to exist, and going from there.


Note: I do not discount the validity of violent resistance when necessary. If someone is standing on your head causing you pain, that’s one thing. If they’re pressing a power drill into your scalp, grinning and prepared to split your skull wide open, that’s another. I do believe, though, that violence and aggression is not the only response, and certainly not the most valid one in the majority of situations.