Touching Bottom

I remember being a kid and playing in my friend’s pool. For the longest time, jumping in the deep end scared me. Heart pounding, I’d try to touch bottom. But I couldn’t. I’d run out of air, or my heart would feel like it was going to beat right out of my body and I’d panic. So I’d give up and kick myself back up to the surface again.

But there came a point when I was finally able to touch bottom. I remember the triumph!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that feeling.

I’ve been thinking about the feeling as I jumped in, feet first, and drifted down. Holding my breath. The bright aqua blue of the water as the sun broke through the surface. The silence.

I remember how the buoyancy of my body would slow my descent more and more, the deeper I went. I could feel my heartbeat in my temples as the blood pumped slower. My lungs would start to burn. Sometimes the urge to give up grew as I started to doubt myself or run out of patience.

Is the bottom there yet? Is it near? How much longer? Could I make it? And would I have enough time left to kick off the bottom and make it back to the surface to take a fresh breath of air before I exploded?

Now?

Just about.

Or now?

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Then I’d feel the bottom of the pool beneath the tips of my toes. I’d drift down a fraction of a second more, as I bent my knees. Instead of just my pointed toes touching, I’d feel my entire feet planted on the concrete, feeling increasingly firm and steady. And then, in a great rush of bubbles, I’d push off back towards the surface with a giant smile on my face!

Relief. Exhilaration. Joy. And what I’d now call a wonderful sense of self efficacy. I can do it!

As many who know me also know, the last few years have been really hard. Increasingly hard, in fact. Just when I thought “Okay, NOW things are going to work out…” then something else would happen. Or something wouldn’t happen that I’d expected. Really, it’s incredibly hard to have a moment of hope and then lose it again. It’s always darker after a flash of light though, isn’t it?

Just like drifting down in the pool, it seems to just get harder and scarier the further down I get. My progress slows. I question myself and my progress so far. I want to give up and find an easier route. Maybe all this is just too hard and I can’t do it after all…

I’m not there yet, I still have to hold on a little bit longer. I’m afraid to hope again.

And I’m quite certain that “almost there” is the hardest part.

The silence of this space though, the waiting, is providing me pause to reflect. In my life, the financial pressure has magnified, but the personal struggles my kids and I have gone through are easing. In every area except finances, I feel stronger and more solid and sure of myself

Once my boys both started attending Windsor House School in September, our relief was palpable. No longer did I have to fight with them every morning, to try to force them to go to school. Now they were trying to rush me, so they could get to school earlier.

No longer was I fighting a system that I feared didn’t fit my kids. No longer was I constantly feeling like I had to explain myself and why I was parenting the way I was. I didn’t have to convince anyone of what I felt my children needed. Now I was in a community that held the same beliefs and, even better, had 40+ years of experience putting them into practice! For the first time ever, I found support all around me, instead of having to find the strength to continue. I don’t know I can even come close to expressing the relief I felt, or the weight that fell from my shoulders!

It’s really hard to do things differently than most people. To go against conventional beliefs. To always have to be strong and not need external validation and not feel understood. Frankly, I wouldn’t have chosen that path – I prefer to “get along” with people and had created a life that at least looked successful from the outside. I chose a relationship and even created a career mostly built on my ability to pick up on what people wanted or needed, then making that happen. What did I want or need though? I had no idea…

Then along came my children.

I wanted more for them. I didn’t want them to be “pleasers” like me. I didn’t want them to shut themselves down in order to be what everyone else wanted or expected of them.

Despite all the mistakes I’ve made, all the balls I’ve dropped, all the failures and even despite the people I’ve let down or hurt – I simply can’t bring myself to regret the choices I’ve made so far. I wish I could have done better, of course. Been stronger. Figured things out sooner. Been capable of more. But I’m not – I did the best I could in difficult circumstances and I’m trying to forgive myself for that. So that I can keep doing better instead of beating myself up.

Right now though, in this moment of silence, while my lungs feel ready to explode and I’m not sure I can make it, at least I can see each of my children growing and learning. They are alive. We have more and more moments of joy. We love. We are whole and imperfect. And every day, my heart swells with gratitude for the blessings they are in my life!

It’s still not easy, but they are more self aware and emotionally capable as children/teens than I was at 40! My daughter’s insights into herself and others regularly blow me away. And both of my boys are increasingly open and articulate about their mental and emotional processes.

Now it’s just a matter of continuing on this journey with them. We have a foundation to launch up from. The other struggles feel manageable from here, I think. I hope. Although I still want to give up sometimes and I’m afraid it’s too hard to crawl out of this hole I’m in, it most often at least feels possible now.

I think, maybe, my toes are finally, just barely, touching bottom.

Posted in Live, Love and Learn, Parenting | 2 Comments

The Big Shift

There are some things that, once you truly see and understand them, they change everything. Not that you change everything you say and think and do overnight. But frankly, once you see, you can’t “un-see” – and you start to notice this “thing” everywhere.

When we talk about changing education and transforming schools, there’s one big shift in mindset that we have to recognize and articulate – something that changes our lens on everything.

Children are not “lesser than” adults.

Well, yes, children are smaller than adults (at least until they turn into teenagers) – so, in a physical sense, they are “lesser than” us. We can pick them up, carry them, hold them back, push them forward, etc…

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What I mean is that, as a society, many of our beliefs, actions, parenting strategies and school systems are rooted in a fundamental contempt for children.

That may sound a bit extreme, but think about it.

There’s one question that I’ve found changed my entire approach with kids – I started asking myself “Would I act like that/say that/use that tone of voice/etc… with an adult?”

And on the many occasions when my internal answer was “No! I wouldn’t dare!!” – I had to ask myself “Then why would I do that with a child?”

Our “automatic” responses, reactions and strategies are based in an (often) hidden belief that our mandate is to control kids, to make them mind, to make sure they do as we say – in other words, that kids can’t and won’t control themselves, that their thoughts and ideas don’t matter, and their “job” is to listen and comply with the adults. Ultimately, maybe it comes down to a belief that what adults know and want for kids is more important than what kids know about and want for themselves.

Now, of course there are times when we have to direct, teach, guide and even control kids – to keep them safe, to help them learn, etc… It’s the attitude shift that’s critical though: from needing to control kids to trusting and respecting them as whole human beings, with valid thoughts, feelings and ideas.

When we believe kids are worth listening to, it’s amazing what they start to tell us.

When we treat kids with respect and value them as human beings, they learn to respect themselves and others.

Or on the flip side, when we control kids, they learn to try to control others – it’s always someone else’s fault… I see that everywhere. People (adults included) telling others what they’re doing wrong, trying to change spouses and co-workers and employees, while seemingly unaware of their own contributions to the problem. I don’t think that’s a coincidence!

As you interact with kids, I challenge you to pay attention and question your underlying beliefs! Try asking yourself (again and again) “Would I treat an adult that way?” and let yourself notice the shifts you can make. And pay attention to how kids shift in response to your changes – it’s quite amazing!

Kids are worth it!

Posted in Kids and School, Parenting | 1 Comment

Far From Normal…

It’s been an “interesting” year so far. Yeah, in quotes because it’s been “interesting” in hard ways – not cool, fun, wonderful ways. Work challenges. Personal issues. Kids needing lots of supports. Trying to just make it month to month, feeding kids and paying rent. All three kids coming to live with me full time. Health issues. Too much going on and no breaks!

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I’m not saying it’s been bad – I can see that the struggle is worthwhile and I’m working through issues and dysfunctional patterns. I’m getting better and growing. So I appreciate that. But it hasn’t been easy either. And the line between “struggling” and “overwhelmed” has been a fine one – sometimes I tip one way or the other at the slightest provocation. Sometimes I’m both all in one day. Or from one moment to the next.

And once in a while, something happens that provides a wake up call for me – a jolt of recognition smacks me upside the head, and I’m shocked. This summer, Facebook provided a few of those. And dinner at a friend’s house gave me another.

Facebook was a gradual thing. I’ve seen the studies that say things like Facebook and Instagram contribute to or aggravate feelings of depression and anxiety. And I can see how that happens now. I watched my friends posting pictures from vacations and adventures, and found myself realizing that I couldn’t even consider doing any of these things. Even really “normal” things like heading to the beach, having a picnic with friends or kids going on play-dates seemed out of reach this summer.

Why? Just being stretched too far – financially, emotionally, mentally, physically. When you have to think about how much gas in in your vehicle and being able to get to the appointments or activities that are mandatory – knowing there’s no money to fill the tank until some later date – then the “extra” trips to drop kids off or meet friends at the park just aren’t an option. When your energy is consumed by working, looking for work, worrying about bills and money, trying to stretch the food budget to feed your kids with the creativity needed so they’ll like the food you have, etc… Well, then there’s not much left over at the end of the day.

Somehow, amidst the everyday pressures and focusing on just getting through one day at a time, I lost sight of the longer term, the bigger picture. Life is about more than just “getting through.” Being reminded of what “normal” life looks like was a shock. Being in constant crisis sucks…

Dinner at my friends’ house was similar. As I sat and watched them work together, one sitting while the other put their littlest one to bed. Or the way they shared the kitchen, working together to prepare and cook the food we enjoyed. I found myself wondering “What is it like, having someone to share the work with? To know you don’t have to do it all alone?” I had forgotten.

What keeps going through my head is how far my life has strayed from being “normal”…

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I’ve been learning to let go of trying to “fit in” or be “normal.” It’s still lonely sometimes, to feel different all the time. To always have to explain myself. Or feel like I should. And there’s still a part of me that wishes it wasn’t so hard. But that’s not the kind of “normal” I’m thinking about.

There are things that most people take for granted. Or have come to expect. As much as I had forgotten and suddenly realized I’d become unaware of how my expectation had changed to match my situation, the same thing happens in the opposite direction – people just assume that everyone can do and expect many of the same things they can.

Even worse, beyond assumptions, there are judgements made all the time about people who are somehow different. We say we want to end stigmas around mental illness or poverty. We organize events and special awareness days to end bullying. But it’s the day to day that wears you down – and a special ribbon on your social media avatar doesn’t even begin to deliver a true awareness of what it’s like to be different. It takes enormous courage, energy and determination to not be normal, day after day, year after year…

All of us struggle at times. But I think it’s how close you are to that line between struggle and overwhelm (or how far over it you’ve moved) that determines your mental health. When you spend more time overwhelmed and dysfunctional than you do struggling and moving forward/growing – then it’s something to pay attention to and address.

But there’s a whole “grey zone” that we need to see differently – the space where you’re not so far along that you’re ready to commit suicide (or already have), but you’re far enough that you need help.

I notice that after any highly publicized suicide, everyone cries out how people need to reach out and ask for help sooner. Or that they would have done things differently, if only they’d known!

The thing is, the signs are all there. But mental illness, overwhelm and struggle can all look a lot like annoying behaviours. You know – that person who always cancels at the last minute. The one who becomes unreliable. Never returns your phone calls. Or emails. Or text messages. The person who reacts and gets all snappy or rude for unknown reasons. She always needs reassurance. He always jumps down your throat for the smallest things. Whatever it is, you notice that behaviours don’t make sense – you find yourself going “what the heck??” and gradually (or abruptly) you start avoiding them.

We make assumptions and judgements about these people. I know I used to. They’re rude. She doesn’t like me. He doesn’t want to be my friend. He’s a jerk. She’s a b*tch. He’s so arrogant. She’s so conceited. You find yourself annoyed. Or maybe drained – like there’s nothing you can do right, according to that person.

The end result is further alienation. And immense, crippling shame. Withdrawal. All the stuff that make things worse, not better! Too easily, it becomes a downward spiral. Or a cesspool that you just go round and round and round – and hope drains away as you lose the energy to keep trying.

The many shades of mental illness produce annoying, alienating and exhausting behaviours. The question is – do you see these behaviours as calls for help? Or as signs of weakness, flaws of personality, or attacks?

The stigma of mental illness (and even just plain old struggle) won’t go away easily, because it’s the day to day that needs to change the most. The support that we all need most in order to change, grow and move forward is closely linked to being accepted and valued as human beings, often in spite of our behaviours. Not to be “fixed” but to have someone believe in us and our ability to figure things out, in our own way, in our own time. To have someone call and check in on us, even if we don’t reply. To ask questions without telling us the answers. To just be there, without judgement. To offer hope when we’re not sure there is any.

love me when I least deserve it

 

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If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you have no hope, please reach out to someone.
Ask for help.
Talk with a doctor. Talk with a friend.
Call a helpline.
In Canada: http://crisiscentre.bc.ca/get-help/
In the USA: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Know the warning signs: http://www.afsp.org/preventing-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs

Posted in Anxiety, Gifted Learners, Live, Love and Learn | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Are No “Throw Away” Children

Making change in the education system seems to be a difficult thing to accomplish! I get that. And I also get that it can be incredibly frustrating when it doesn’t seem to be happening.

So often, I hear things like “What’s the matter with teachers – they have to change…”

Well, anyone who works in the system or works with human/systems change knows that there are many barriers.

I’ve been pondering change in education quite a lot – for many years. I’ve been a parent of three wonderful (and non-neurotypical) kids in the public system for twelve years now. I was DPAC president for almost six years. I’ve been on Ministry and District advisory committees. And I’ve worked with Districts as an ed-tech consultant for many years as well.

Something isn’t sitting well with me – it gets me quite upset, actually!

From my IT project management experience, there are two ways to make large, transformational change:

  1. Start Fresh: This is when you plan, design and implement a new system, but there is nothing of value to save from the old system, nothing to transition over. No archival data. No users. The old system is a “throw away.”
  2. Transition From Old to New: This is when the data is too important (or too expensive to recreate) and you need to migrate in a conscious, planned method from the old system to the new one.

 

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Here’s the thing, when we’re talking about changing the education system and schools, we’re not talking about critical data – we’re talking about children’s lives! The stakes are incredibly high and we need to be constantly, painfully aware of what happens to kids if we aren’t thoughtful and incredibly careful! Not a single child, in my opinion, is a “throw away” or not worth planning for! And that needs to shape our approach to educational change – this is a project with NO acceptable losses.

I don’t think that the BC Liberal government is keeping this central enough in their planning and actions right now.

I used to work for the BC Government, in the IT department of the Ministry of Attorney General. I worked there under the NDP, and during the transition to the BC Liberals. And I have to say, the Liberals made many positive changes – they definitely knew how to run the business aspects of government better than I saw under the NDP. And, in the beginning, they put pressure on Ministries to save money – with great success! There were so many things we saw, at the ground level, that weren’t being done efficiently and savings could be had.

But let’s be honest, we’re way past that now in the BC education system. The “low hanging fruit” of easy savings and simple changes were “picked” long ago. The changes left are complex and cost money to successfully implement.

I feel strongly that the BC Liberal government is underfunding our education system, with a devastating impact on kids, families and communities. Districts are told to “figure it out” and (how many times have I heard??) “the money is the money” – so Districts are supposed to identify savings that will fund changes. However, I realize that feeling of mine is because I have a base assumption that none of our children should pay the price for systemic change!

Looping back up to the two types of change I identified above, only the first kind (throw away the old system and start fresh) would allow this approach to funding to work – and it would. But only if we are willing to accept that the kids who are currently going through the system will have to fail or lose services they would have otherwise received (and still need.) Only if we accept that some kids just won’t make it can we also accept funding levels from government that require Districts to make change “off the side of their desks.”

For example, if we believe that every child deserves the equivalent of an IEP (individualized education plan), not just kids labelled by psycho-educational (or other) testing as having an identified learning disability or challenge, then how do we make that change?

The first way is we stop funding school psychologists, stop identifying kids, therefore stop providing services and programs to meet the specific needs of those labelled groupings, and instead redirect that money/resources into training classroom teachers how to teach in more differentiated ways, in order to better meet the needs of diverse learners on a daily basis.

But think about it – there’s a gap. In this scenario, we have to stop funding the old system, in order to “ramp up” the new system. How much time would it take to form committees, hire or second a project team, plan what “personalize” means, what it would need to include, seek out relevant research, focus and prioritize, design school wide and District wide strategies, design assessments, communicate changes, provide training, research resources, pilot at some locations, and ultimately implement changes? I’d say years – more than one or two. In a District the size of my children’s (30k+ students and something like 60 schools), I’d say more like 4 – 6 years to full implementation.

In the meantime, kids don’t just wait. They grow up, they move through the system that is failing them, and damage is done. Life changing, devastating, and long reaching damage. Let’s be honest – lives are lost, either figuratively or literally. This is simply unacceptable!

(Not to mention that all students getting their needs met within even a perfectly differentiated classroom is impossible – but that’s another post.)

So, what is the alternative? We take the second approach – plan and fund change so that our “critical data” (aka our precious children) successfully transitions from the old system to the new.

Change has to be planned. And while I appreciate that the complex change projects needed in education can’t be “top down” – I also know that successful change has focus. Andy Hargreaves, in The Fourth Way, talks about the need for leadership of successful systems to set the overall “direction” and for the organization to “have a dream.” The details of how you get there can vary according to the needs of individual communities, socio-economic circumstances, even personalities. But where we’re headed has to be the same!

That takes me back to my previous post: Understanding our Priorities and the triple constraints of education that I proposed:

triple constraint of education

As I also said in that post, you can’t have all three. You can’t have cheap, relevant AND inclusive. Something drops. And since the budget isn’t increasing, we lose either relevance or inclusion.

What I’ve seen again and again is that Districts focus projects on engaging students, making learning more relevant and interesting. And yet, we have kids who can’t read. Or there are significant increases in mental illness (particularly anxiety and depression). And Ross Greene hits a painful nail on the head in his book “Lost at School,” talking about executive function, lagging skills and behaviour challenges.

Why is it then that, again and again, we invest energy into starting/running pro-d, projects and specialized programs (Mandarin Immersion, Reggio Inspired, hockey academy, elite athletes, etc…) that focus on relevant learning, not on inclusion? These actions certainly work to increase student engagement and make learning more interesting, but they often do little to serve the most vulnerable students.

For one thing, there is this false (and dangerous) belief that if only we could sufficiently engage/interest/motivate students, then nothing would stand in the way of their learning. This simply isn’t true for all learners! 

Some students need psycho-educational assessments, extra supports, specialized resources and intensive interventions in order to be able to participate in their learning. And these things all cost money!

I think we (as communities) see this – we know it. We see that both relevant and inclusive programs cost money – they aren’t cheap and certainly aren’t free! We see (and are frustrated by) the fact that we just can’t meet the needs of all learners without additional resources – no matter how hard we try. We see the kids who struggle, don’t fit in, bully or get bullied, don’t attend school, aren’t allowed to attend full days at school, etc…

But I also think that we seem to be suffering from some version of an organizational Stockholm Syndrome. Budgets have been reduced and cut and not enough for so long, that we don’t even ask for or suggest programs that would cost money anymore. We seek to “do what we can” – putting together proposals that are cost neutral compared to regular classrooms, so that we can maybe meet the needs of learners by doing things just a little differently. But we don’t ask for smaller class sizes for special situations, or for additional counsellors or specially trained teachers or for collaboration time or suspension of Provincial exams, etc… We seem to have accepted the government line that there is no more money, and adjust accordingly. Like children of poverty, we’ve stopped asking because we know the answer will always be no…

The current labour dispute, that includes issues around class size and composition, resides deeply in this concern – the loss of truly inclusive education for ALL students.

Unfortunately, more money isn’t the only part of a successful solution! Simply moving to smaller class sizes or hiring more specialist teachers won’t suddenly make our school system truly inclusive – it won’t necessarily meet the needs of our most complex and vulnerable learners. That’s the part of the BCTF’s approach that worries me the most – it lacks strategy and, I fear, threatens to entrench our system further into dysfunctional paradigms. More of what we used to have isn’t necessarily what we need now.

We need to see both an investment in education AND we need thoughtful, focused strategies for using that money to meet the needs of all students! How would we do that?

We need a clear focus and commitment (or we need to demand this) from government on a transition that doesn’t “throw away” kids who need more help in the meantime. We need leadership in setting our “direction” as inclusive (first and foremost) AND personalized/relevant – and the planning/funding to match.

We need clarity of and a drastically narrowed focus. For example, the fact is that if a student can’t read and communicate at grade level, it matters very little whether the topic is interesting or whether they are engaged and motivated. There are very real barriers that need to be removed or mitigated (preferably in an early and proactive way) – whether those barriers are intellectual, physical, emotional or behavioural. Take that ONE core focus and get good at it. The use of educational technology, self regulation, Genius Hour, inquiry learning, critical thinking, social-emotional learning and all sorts of other strategies or approaches can be part of the delivery of that core focus – they just aren’t THE focus.

We need meaningful dialogue as communities (not JUST teachers and government, or teachers and District leadership – but including consultation and collaboration with parents, special needs groups, researchers, teachers, principals, CUPE, students, etc…) We truly need to work together and “be the villages” who raise our children together, which requires understanding and communication. Kids and communities benefit when we work together. Period.

And we need data. Yes, I said data. Not as a way of holding teachers “accountable” (which I read as policing and wanting to punish those who don’t meet the “standard”) – but as a part of effective feedback loops and continuous improvement. As a system, we need to put into practice the ideas we embrace around student assessment – formative, assessment as, for and of learning/change.

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I know our system needs more money and resources – that’s easy. That’s why I find it easy to advocate for more funding from government for our education system.

And if the BCTF were suggesting ways to address class size and composition issues, within a framework for governance that includes clarity of purpose and focus, required data collection, measurable improvements towards inclusion and relevance, and collaborative decision making, I could get behind that much more fully too!

Really, this moves beyond this specific labour dispute. This needs to be something we discuss and explore as communities – whether as classrooms, schools, Districts or even Provincially.

We have an incredible responsibility to “catch” all of our children. None of them deserve to be thrown away. No amount of “loss” is acceptable – so need to strive to do better!

So let’s get it together and do this!

Posted in Education in BC | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments