Five Ways for You and Your School to Thrive in the 2021-22 School Year

Posted
8/30/2021
Brian Miller
Secondary Principal

The 2021-22 school year is here, and after a summer of hoping and believing that this year would bring us back to normal, many of us are discovering that we may not be so lucky.

In many school districts, the debate on masks is once again at the forefront, social distancing is still required, and after more than a year of COVID in our schools, there is still a great deal of unknown. Again. Days into the new school year, school districts across the country have already shut down, and according to Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the CDC, we should expect many more to come.

In an interview on NBC News "Today" Show, Dr. Besser predicted that, because of the highly transmissible Delta variant, he expects that "it's going to jump around different classrooms and schools will be forced to shut down more than they did in fact last year."

As hard as that may be for teachers and school leaders to hear, it isn't the worst that this coming year has to offer. We are.

COVID has radically impacted our world, perhaps more than anything since WWII. But COVID doesn't have a choice in the matter. It just does what it does, without bias, prejudice, or malice. Humans, on the other hand, have a choice. We can decide what sort of infectious attitudes we spread, what words we choose to speak, and what kind of environments we choose to make. We have a choice.

Here are five ways to ensure that you and those around you not only survive this coming year, but thrive.

1 - If You Give More Than You Take, You'll Always Have Something to Feel Good About at the End of the Day

"Every time we interact with another person at work," Adam Grant writes in his latest work, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, "we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?"

According to Grant, takers always win. They will advance quickly, receive more applause, and - on the surface - be more successful and happy. But only for a short while. Because takers are more obsessed with serving themselves, they spend their time and energy making good impressions "upward" rather than caring about serving those below them. They sacrifice their surrounding community for personal gain.

Givers, however, "strive to be generous in sharing {their} time, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them." They care more about community than they do themselves. This distinction is key because although both can and will find success, when givers achieve, so too do the people around them. Their success spreads and cascades, influencing their surroundings and creating a culture of people who applaud and support one another, who inspire one another, and who grow and succeed together.

When you see your teaching career in the right light, being a giver comes automatically.

In a giver's world, everyone grows and advances because nobody is worried about themselves.

During trying and difficult times, it's easy to enter a sort of survival mode, to focus primarily on oneself. Healthy cultures, however, use these opportunities to seek out others and to invest in those around them. They look outward rather than inward.

Takers will survive this coming year. Givers will thrive. And so will the people around them.

2 - Embrace the Hard - In Teaching, Nothing Worth Doing Comes Easy

"Every good-to-great company faced significant adversity along the way to greatness," Jim Collins writes in his New York Times Best Seller, Good to Great. The key difference between a good company and a great company, he writes, is that "the {great} management teams responded with a powerful psychological duality. On the one hand, they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality. On the other hand, they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the brutal facts." Overtime, Collins and his team began to call this duality the Stockdale Paradox.

Admiral Jim Stockdale "was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the ‘Hanoi Hilton' prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War." As a prisoner, he was tortured continually for eight years. When asked how he survived, both physically and mentally, his response was simple: "I never lost faith in the end of the story," he said, "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life." When asked who didn't make it out, his response was equally simple: the optimists. They believed they would be rescued by Christmas and that things would work out. They refused to accept their reality. Which, according to Stockdale, was their downfall. "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end-which you can never afford to lose-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

As educators, in order to thrive this coming year, pure optimism isn't enough. Glossy messages of Good Vibes Only and Be Positive aren't helpful either. As research shows and history proves, these perspectives ignore reality, close the door to compassion, and destroy integrity- they don't confront brutal facts. Although done with good intentions, these mantras create cultures of fear rather than cultures of vulnerability and innovation because they don't develop the courage it takes to face difficult situations head on (Brene Brown).

With every problem, there comes an opportunity. To grow, to build relationships, and to give. To overcome the obstacles of this coming year, educators must not only acknowledge hardships, they must lean into them. Like Ted Lasso embodied, we must believe - at all times - that our efforts, our attitudes, and our daily actions will make a difference.

That we can't just smile our way to victory, we must fight for it. And to fight for it, we have to acknowledge the reality of what we're fight against, embrace it, name it, then kick the sh*t out of it. If we can do that, we will not only thrive this year, we will build a strong foundation of compassion, integrity, and trust.

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3 - Plant Irises - Diligence and Forward Thinking During Tough Times Pays Off Big-Time in the End

A clump of irises will, in a single year, multiply themselves so much that in order for them to remain healthy and strong they must be broken up and spread out to other areas and gardens where they will continue the cycle of multiplying and spreading. Within a short time, irises can quickly change the environment in which they were planted. If educators want to thrive this coming year, we must spend our time planting irises. Just like Leanord Woolf.

Years after WWII, Leanord Woolf wrote his most famous work, Down Hill All the Way, a memoir about his life during the Great War and the time he spent with his wife, Virginia Wolf. Near the end of the book, he tells this story about the last days, before the war broke out.

"They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler - the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. . . One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers . . . Suddenly I heard Virginia's voice calling to me from the sitting room window: ‘Hitler is making a speech.' I shouted back, ‘I shan't come. I'm planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.' Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard."

During the coming year, we must guard against hateful and destructive talk because, as Thomas Wolf pointed out, it carries very little benefit. Planting irises, however, produces a beauty that sustains, reproduces, and expands. A field of irises will outlast us all. But first, it needs to be planted.

If we really want to make this year count, if we want to thrive and not merely survive, we must vehemently reject the luring sounds of the deranged madman - whoever or whatever that might be - and spend our time planting, cultivating, and supporting those around us. Plant seeds of kindness and encouragement, of hope and beauty, of grit and fortitude. Write letters to staff and students, spend your prep checking in on fellow teachers, and engage that student in the hallway. We all have our specific gifts and callings within our schools, whatever yours is, spend extra time and energy cultivating by giving it away.

In order for us to thrive this coming year, we must leave our classroom or office - our school - slightly more beautiful than when we first entered that morning. Because irises grow and multiply. So too will our acts of kindness.

4 - Normalize Greatness - Don't Be Afraid to Strive for What You Think Education Is Capable of Being

Put a different way, surround yourself with good people. More than likely you've heard the saying, you are the sum of the five people you hang around with most. And it's true. The people you spend your time with normalizes elements of life. If everyone loves playing board games, board games become the norm. If everyone enjoys wine tastings or homemade recipes, they become the norm of conversation and life. And if everyone desires to be great, then greatness becomes the norm. Just ask Kim Chambers.

Kim Chambers was a powerful executive when she fell down a flight of stairs. When she was told she may never walk again, Kim took the opportunity to defy the doctors and change her life. In 2014, Kim became "the sixth person (and third woman) to complete the Oceans Seven" and "set a new world record when she became the first woman to swim thirty miles from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco" (via).

Kim has become one of the most accomplished marathon swimmers in the world because she has leaned into the hard. She has also surrounded herself with good people. When asked how she was able to become such an elite swimmer, she pointed to her group of swimmers and said, "If you want to do something that changes your life, surround yourself with people who believe in you." Who "normalize greatness."

We are the sum of who we surround ourselves with.

Think of students and how the groups they cluster with encourages kids to act and think in ways they may never do on their own (negative and positive). Think about the people we go to when we're tired or scared or hurt and how the advice they give and the direction they point us toward greatly impacts the way we think and live.

But it isn't just the people that impact us. It's also the stories we surround ourselves with. Be it the news (CNN vs Fox), the books we read, the shows we watch, the podcasts we listen to, and the music that entertains us. These all play a crucial role in the summing up of who we are, how we interpret life, and how we choose to interact with that life.

This notion, this truth that we are the sum of what we CHOOSE to surround ourselves with is comforting because it means that although we are greatly susceptible to our surroundings, we are also in complete control. We can choose who we listen to and the stories we hear.

Who has permission to sit at your table? What kind of stories are you surrounded by? Do they encourage you to sit and complain about the stink and muck of life? Or do they encourage you to lean into hardships, eager to help find a solution? Are they people like Mrs. Rogers?

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news," Fred Rogers once said, "my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

In order for us to attack this coming year and thrive, we must surround ourselves with people and stories who are going to bring us up, encourage us, inspire us, and speak truth into our lives. We must surround ourselves with people who are eager to normalize greatness.

5 - Live Faithfully, the Hidden Life - The Impact of Our Work Matters Even When It Goes Unrecognized

In the critically acclaimed movie, A Hidden Life, directed by Terrance Malick, there is a scene where the main character (Franz Jagers) is standing before a German officer. Franz has refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and has therefore been sentenced to death. The German officer is taunting him with questions of doubt. Do you really think you can make a difference? Do you really think your simple action will have an impact on this war?

The movie ends with Franz dying a lonely death, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. In his little town, nestled in the hills of Austria, the church bells signal his passing. Then, life goes on.

It's a beautiful movie and one that is worth watching, especially during a time such as this because although it is mostly sad and tragic, it is also sincerely hopeful. Our simple actions do matter, even when it seems that nobody notices.

The title of the movie comes from George Eliot's (Mary Anne Evans) novel Middlemarch. It reads " . . . for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Education is often filled with, "Does this even matter" moments as the question, "Am I even making a difference" is frequently in our minds and sometimes on our lips. Mary Anne Evans' words are a reminder to us all that yes, our actions - both large and small - make a difference. For even if they don't directly or instantly change the direction of our communities, our schools, or the lives of those we interact with daily, they matter. They matter for us as individuals, and they matter for those who are watching. Choosing to do the right thing, say the kind word, or lean into that hard conversation never returns void.

To ensure that you, your classrooms, and your staff thrive this coming year, live faithfully the hidden life. Continue fighting, continue hoping, and continue doing what you know to be right and good and true. Continue to make a difference by living the faithful and hidden life. The world and your students depend upon it.

This coming year, there is so much to be worried about, frustrated with, and discouraged over. But there is also opportunity. Great opportunity. We need only to get outside of ourselves, accept and embrace the reality of our task, and believe in the hope that is set before us. This is going to be one of the most difficult years of education. But it can also be one of the best. If ever you wanted to make this world beautiful, to influence lives, and forever secure an impact on the future, there has never been a better time to be an educator.

Get ready to change the world!

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