(image from Pixabay)
(I wrote this the other night... but I still think that it is relevant and important to post here. Because life isn't always sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. In fact, without the moments of existential doubt - as I infer below - we cannot appreciate the lighter, happier, content moments of life. So on reflection, a few days after writing below, I say this to you, really feel the wide variety of emotions that you feel, remembering always that change is inevitable and that as the sun rises and sets, so sadness, anger, fear, happiness, joy, and ecstasy will come and go).
I suspect I am having an existential crisis.... again.
I don't mean to make an existential crisis sound flippant or deluded or sublime. But it's there and it is something that I trip into regularly, especially since my Mum died. This is going to be a deeply personal blog post, be warned.
As a renowned optimist I do generally see the good, great, and grand view of life, the lighter side, the side where laughter is contagious, the ridiculous can send me into fits of laughter that draw tears from my eyes like the turning of a tap, the marvel at nature that surrounds me, the love expressed through the deepening of relationships with those that love me (and whom I love dearly).
But there is the whirling chaos of despair that sits ever present in a very particular area of my brain and heart. Albert Camus wrote "There is no love of life without despair of life," and the way I see life resonate with this is astonishing. I see friends affected by grief (in the many varied ways that grief expresses itself and the many varied ways that grief comes about), and I recognise that that whirling chaos of despair is a condition of the human experience. To feel grief (for me the grief of losing a parent) is to feel love and a love of life in all its glory. There is hope in even the darkest times and that hope is love. Love is never lost, but it is enduring, most especially during loss, whatever that loss looks like. Despair, I think, almost guides love, guides it to where it needs to go, where it needs to wrap its tendrils tightly, binding; safety.
The colours of life enthral me, including the feeling of despair when I trip inelegantly into it, because, to fully be human, to fully understand the human experience, we have to trip into the dark, if only so we can excitedly skip back into the light.
And so we were off, to the only second ever International Positive Education Network Conference, with fingers and toes crossed that we would arrive in Fort Worth, Texas, on time and with our luggage (to make a long story short, last trip to Texas for the conference we were severely delayed and they lost our luggage, hey ho). Well, we were delayed, and missed our connecting flight, were repeatedly put on separate new flights, until finally they got the picture and put us on the same flight, but then we arrived in Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, and our bags did not appear! Surely it could not be a perfect repeat of two years ago - but you know, we are positive education specialists, so of course, we had to be positive!! I suggested maybe our bags had come earlier - and what do you know, I was right.... only this meant that at midnight, on a Saturday night, we had to trudge to another terminal to pick up our bags. Crap happens right? But sometimes, when it happens we have moments of connection that lift the spirits and make you grateful for the delays, diversions, and grumpy tiredness (cause I do get grumpy when I'm tired). Finding our suitcases, the lady at the desk asked to see our luggage tickets, I handed them to her and said "it's those two purple ones." With a sudden grin on her face, the lady replied, "say what now?" I repeated, "the two purple ones are ours." The lady said again - grin widening - "say what now?" I started to laugh, she then asked me "can we have a conversation? I just want to hear your accent!" How could I deny her, even in my sleep deprived state; she was surprised that I wasn't English, that I am, in fact Australian and speaking with an Aussie accent. Ahhhhhh those Americans LOL. So after locating our suitcases and having our accents relished by the customer support lady, we made it to our hotel; we truly started our adventure into the #WPEA2018 conference.
Positive Education is really becoming a global movement. A movement that is open-minded, curious and with a shared aim to make education for all (meaning from baby to elderly). It isn't just about academic knowledge, but about self knowledge, social action, and wellbeing, irregardless of demographics, cultures, and socio-economics. To be around like-minded people who have come from as far afield as the Australia, Dubai, and India, the US, Canada, and Europe, the intensity of the learning, the networking, the building of new and existing relationships, is like being in a pressure cooker full of different, exotic, ingredients, with the final result to be a perfectly seasoned dish of happiness, contentment, and flourishing for all. It was exciting.
This conference was to be very different to the previous and first IPEN conference two years ago. We were to have one full proper day of typical conference doings (i.e., talks, workshops, and keynotes), and then three days of a process called appreciative inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry (or AI for short) is a process that looks at the strengths of an organisation and looks at how we can use those strengths to build and grow in a positive way. As a process to build on the strengths of an organisation, it is starting to emerge as a brilliant way to assess, goal set, and move forward in schools.... but more on that a little later.
Here are my themed thoughts on #WPEA2018 -
1. Time for major, purpose driven change in education: it was acknowledged time and time again that what employers need from future employees is not how to conjugate a verb or solve a physics problem (unless, of course, your job depends on you being able to do these things), but what is needed is critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, the ability to cultivate and maintain positive, productive relationships, the ability to be a leader and a team-player, people utilising their strengths to achieve their potential. That is not to say that academic learning should be disregarded, but it should be developed in tandem with life skills that enable all (regardless of interests and abilities) to flourish. On the flip side, we also have to acknowledge that educations main aim should not be about making a young person employable. That makes education very utilitarian, feeding into the "factory farm" feel education currently has. Education should be a life long pursuit born our of a curious and engaged mind (see more at #3).
2. School Culture is key: a new buzz word at the conference was "ecology." The ecology of a school is considered every part, looking at the bigger picture of what makes up a school, and acknowledging how their is an interconnectedness between all of the parts. If one part of the school ecology is not well then this has a negative impact on the other parts. If a school has teachers who are stressed then the students won't learn well and may not have good relationships with the teachers, AND the teachers won't have good relationships between each other. If students are suffering from anxiety and extreme pressure, as a group, relationships will fail, self esteem and self belief will disappear, and academic results will fall, impacting on the reputation of the school, and also how the teachers and school staff feel about themselves and as a group and there would, undoubtedly, be a negative impact at home. With a focus on changing school culture to embody wellbeing, character, and academics, we can impact the potential of all in the school community to thrive and flourish.
3. Education is lifelong: as I mentioned above, education should be a life long pursuit, and to encourage children to grow with a curious and enquiring mind, we need to change how we view the development of and dissemination of knowledge. There were many opinions at the conference, ranging from starting with positive education classes for potential parents, through to engaging learning with elderly people, perhaps through connections with younger people. Also the way that students learn was considered, with the main concept being, to move away from the feed information to and test information out approach, so project-based and student led learning. What #WPEA is show me was that there is a growing momentum for extreme change in education and that this momentum is not only NOT slowing down, but is in fact growing quickly across the globe.
4. AI can create magic: For three days of the conference we did the AI process, opening up the discussions to what we going well in positive education, how our individual strengths could contribute to what was going well and what could go well, and ultimately dreaming big - imagining the biggest, brightest future for education globally. I worked with the "Youth-led Initiative" group, which did include some young people. We let the young people lead the group and allowed them to dream their biggest dream for bringing Positive Education to young people all over the globe. We supported and encouraged, and watched the blossom, both in terms of their strengths and leadership skills. (My colleague, Frederika Roberts, is a qualified AI practitioner... you know, if you're interested in running the process in your school *wink *wink). Ultimately, the AI process inspired and motivated the 900+ group of global educators, and is now leading to actionable change on a global scale - how amazing is that.
Do you want to know more about #WPEA and IPEN? Check out the IPEN website here - International Positive Education Network. If you would like to know more about how my colleague and I can help you with bringing positive and character education into your school, or even to run the AI process in your school community, then check out our website here - Resilience Wellbeing Success.
Last week I was supposed to speak at Townley Grammar's Character Education Conference - the first of 5 Character Education conferences I am keynoting at or running workshops at this year. I had to pull out of the conference because, well, you know that flu that everyone had over winter and I thought I had somehow dodged it, it got me. Barely able to lift my head off my pillow, I had to cancel my talk, and I was gutted! I had been so looking forward to this conference, not only because of an opportunity to speak about my experience of character, but to also hear other passionate experts talk about their perspective and how they are embedding character into their school communities. Townley Grammar is one of the schools at the leading edge of embedding and developing character in their school community. Fabian de Fabiani is Townley Grammar's Director of Character and Wellbeing, and was the driving force behind the conference, his passion to bring character education into schools is palpable and exciting. It is conferences like this one that is opening up the discussion on character and the application of character interventions - discussions that are needed as the importance of catching and teaching life skills and wellbeing in schools in growing.
As I missed out on attending this amazing conference, I wanted to take the time to write a little bit about what I had intended to speak about; I had been asked to speak about my story and how character fits into the wider picture. This got me thinking about how we use story to inspire, develop, and grow, and how we can use our own stories to develop character within and wider into the community. So, here we go....
As I have delved deeper into the theory and concept of character and virtues I have started to see something really important about my life, and other peoples lives as well. Our lives are made up of stories; our histories are there, rich in different experiences, and most importantly, rich in expression of character and virtue. As I mine my own life, to illustrate what certain character traits can look like, I have realised that there is power in this mining, power to strengthen my own sense of character, and if my own stories strengthen my own sense of character and purpose, will your stories strengthen yours?
There is definitely something in this idea or application of character - in Ryan Niemiec's book, Character Strengths Interventions, he talks about a character strengths activity you can do where you draw upon previous experiences of character expression, and you make it known, not only to yourself, but others, through story (see end of blog post for instructions for activity). In doing this you are raising awareness of your own character strengths to the wider world, revealing the moments where you have been kind, brave, or humble, and owning those moments as a deep part of your personal history. This shifts a focus away from negative, critical thought, and you start to see the positive aspects of your personality and experiences, you start to see the wider impact and importance of your life rippling out into the community around you. You start to shift your language, from one of deficit and defeat, to one of growth and gain.
Story: I was painfully shy as a child, I hated being the centre of attention (outside of my family that is - inside the family I could shout and talk and perform for days!) and was socially awkward, so much so that, even when I put myself forward for school vice captain (which I somehow got), I would only go on the camp for school leaders if my best friend could come along. I know some of you are scratching your heads - she was shy, but pursued leadership goals, I'm a conundrum even unto myself. This strange dichotomy of wanting to hide from others, and yet pursue goals that thrust me into the public eye, is something I have struggled with on many levels, and one of these levels was in sport. As an eleven year old I loved swimming and racing (in my backyard pool) and I desperately wanted to compete at the school swimming carnival (or swimming gala as you Brits like to call it), but the thought of making a fool out of myself held me back. It took my mum saying she would be there at the swimming carnival, and that she would walk beside the pool with me and pull me out if anything went wrong, to make me feel brave enough to leap in that water. The race was the 50m Breaststroke, and there was only me and another girl in the race. I was convinced I would lose, and when the teacher announced that they would race the boys 50m Breaststroke at the same time, I flipped and refused to line up. It took my mum and a teacher to convince me that racing the boys was a non sequitur to actually pulling out of the competition. So I got in the water, heart racing, face flushed from embarrassment, and got set. The gun went. All I remember is the end of the pool seemed to far away, and every time my head bobbed out of the water I could hear my mum yelling at me to "Go Go Go." I had no idea where anyone else was, and as the end wall approached, I argued with myself over stopping or continuing. I kept on going, finished the race, and promptly found out that I had come first in the girls, and if I had been racing the boys, out of 6 boys I would've come 3rd. The smile on my face said it all, the blue winners ribbon clutched tight in my hand, and the pride I felt in my chest was bursting through my skin. Brave, resilient, a little gritty, a lot of courage, a lot of self belief, was expressed and developed in that moment; if I could do that, gulp down my fears and spread my wings a little in the school swimming carnival, what could I do in the future, on a wider, world stage? Suddenly a feeling of potential flooded my senses.
Fear develops in a child's scope of life experience at a young age. As soon as we are born we have biases and stereotype conditioning thrust upon us, developing a mindset that is aimed to protect us and keep us safe, but ultimately ties us to a world of disbelief in our own potential. We need to change this, on many levels, and as a school community we can shift this thinking in the children that we work with by changing the stories that we tell ourselves and each other. As a child and teen I believed in what my life would not be like, and it took a lot of mindset shift and support from parents and teachers who did believe in me to recognise and value the potential that my life did inherently hold. In plying my life for nuggets of this potential, I have started to see that as a child I was living and developing character strengths that would ripple into my adult years, and see me through some of the toughest and heartbreaking moments of life (relationship breakdown, home-sickness, and gut-wrenching grief - things we all of us experience and have to process and grow from). Those moments where we can recognise we have been brave, resilient, and courageous, shows us that we are capable of these moments, and in knowing we are capable, we can draw on them and use them when deciding a course of action and interaction. The story above shows that if we can reframe how a child approaches a moment in life that they believe may be difficult, embarrassing, and to hard to try, we can shift their focus from one of fear, to one where they are the hero in their own story, where they can consciously tap into their character strengths to give them the physical and mental strengths to pick themselves up and have a go.
In reframing your stories you can start to see your moments of character, when and how you applied those actions of character-ful acts, and start to think of how you can apply these into the future. The "Develop Strengths-Spotting" activity can help you and your pupils/students start to mine their own life stories for examples of when they have shown and taken action with a character strength, this will start to change their language around who they are as people, how they view themselves and others, and also develop a self belief in their abilities to be character-ful people that will benefit, not only themselves, but the wider community.
Step 1: Think of a time in your life when you have shown a particular character strength. This could be from anytime in your life, any situation/context, i.e., home, school, work, hobbies.
Step 2: Develop/write this time out as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Step 3: Review the story and note the character strengths that you have used in that moment.
Step 4: Share this story with a peer, friend, or family member.
Step 5: Ask this person to provide feedback, what character strengths did they pick up on.
Step 6: Now listen to a character strengths story from them and offer them feedback.
Research shows that when you share positive stories with others you increase the feelings of positive emotions, and you also increase levels of happiness and life satisfaction - all of which increase our ability to be resilient in the face of tough times.
(image from Pixabay)
Uncertainty and risk taking.... two things that can us into a cluster**** of anxiety and stress. Yet we, as adults, expect children that we work with to be able to extend themselves beyond their comfort zones on a regular basis. If a child has anxiety about a particular situation/event/activity we encourage them to try, try, and try again, because we know that the more they do the activity the easier it will get. This is actually a good thing! When I was a child I was painfully shy, but the older I got the more I was actively encouraged to step into leadership roles. My teachers (and parents) recognised that I had leadership skills, but not the experience or confidence to undertake the role. With experience comes the confidence, and that led me to feeling comfortable enough to become school captain, give speeches in front of the community, swim at 2 Paralympic Games, and during that time even give an Australia Day speech with the then current Prime Minister sitting two seats down from me. I now speak for a living!
BUT, why is it that when we hit adulthood we suddenly think that we don't have to "push our boundaries" anymore? Why do we.... stop growing? Learning should be a lifelong pursuit, whatever that learning looks like, and this growth can make life more fulfilling and more purposeful. And if we expect children that we work with the be pushed out of their comfort zones, shouldn't we should children that we are willing to be pushed out of ours?
I am not saying this to simply provoke, or create argument, but having run workshops where some teachers have struggled with some of the activities, or had conversation with teachers who feel that they shouldn't have to be pushed out of their comfort zone, it is a topic that I have thought about hard and often.
I ran a Twitter poll on this very topic and the results were interesting, and regarding my previous experiences (see above paragraph) pleasantly surprising. This was my question: "If we ask children to step outside of their comfort zone (at least just a little), is it fair to ask teachers to do the same? I believe, as adults, it is good to stretch ourselves." The results were as follows: Yes 94%, No 0%, Sometimes 6%. Can I get a loud HELL YES!!!
But what is the scientific thought out there on pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and how can we do this?
In a study done on Outbound participants from two countries, it was discovered that pushing ourselves emotionally, creatively, and socially, places us in a peak learning experience. There were a number of elements to this study that proved quite interesting:
Flow - When in flow we become so engrossed by what we are doing that we loose track of time, space, etc. I am sure that you have been there, I know I have, many times, as an athlete, artist, academic, and speaker. To really hit flow, Csikszentmihayli (the expert on flow - read his book, it's great!), the experience has to be challenging, but not too challenging (this makes the activity engrossing), be intrinsically rewarding, and not provoke any boredom or worry. There has to be a certain level of stress to the activity, otherwise we struggle to maintain that engagement and urgency that drives us forward
Perceived Risk - Researchers have suggested that by minimising extreme risk, but perceiving elements of risk in the activity improves our sense of self, develops personal growth, and is an opportunity for self actualisation. Basically, if we take note of potential risks in the challenging experience, we can be more confident in our approach to the challenge.
Reflection - This study was primarily about the physical pushing of boundaries, but what was recognised that it wasn't the physical exertion that pushed boundaries, but the reflection afterwards, that provided the biggest opportunity for growth. Reflection in this study was done through journaling and debriefs. Where reflection can become challenging is through the character trait of honesty, are you being honest with yourself and can you take the honesty of leaders/trainers.
Ultimately what this study (as well as other research) states is that when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones we achieve a certain level of anxiety, and that that anxiety is good.
So my challenge to you is this - wherever you are at, whatever you find challenging, this summer holidays do take an opportunity to push yourself beyond your self-imposed limits.... and let me know what happens in the comments or on twitter.
Sometimes my yoga mat seems like a soft cushion of blissful cloud, and other times, like today, it felt as hard as cement. Every downward facing dog and table top pose made my wrists feel aflame and all I wanted to do was fall flat on my face, shut my eyes, and pretend to be asleep. But push on I did, because what else could I do; to give in was to relent to defeat, and if there was one thing yoga would never see me do was give in. Bringing my right leg forward I tried to gracefully extend into Warrior 1, but my hips complained, and my slightly sweaty left foot, gripping the mat like a vice, still insisted on slipping further backwards.
"Keep balance, keep balance, keep balance," this mantra played over and over as I felt my centre of gravity fight against my leg muscles. The snow falling outside the window briefly distracted me, so pretty, all this pure white snowflakes - what was I up too? What was I meant to be doing now? The yoga video on youtube had seemingly skipped ahead a few poses. I gracelessly fell out of Warrior 1 and quickly lowered to downward dog again. Why was I so distracted today, why did the mat feel like cement - immovable, rough, and kind of scary.
I tried to remember what a lot of yoga teachers have said - "what happens in life was reflected on the mat." So what has been immovable cement in my life? Think, think, Elizabeth. I don't know, so I lower to plank, then down onto my belly, the softness of my belly spread like a slime ball - the mat was unrelenting. Cobra pose, flip up back into downward dog, look forward and step into forward fold. The relief slipped along my spine like a waterfall. Each spinal disc seemed to knock the other forward, stretching the ligaments and muscles; blood running to my head, nourishing the brain, perhaps loosening the tightness of body and mind.
Sometimes I don't want to get on the mat, sometimes I don't like the mat, but whenever I get to certain poses, the need for the mat becomes apparent. Perhaps the mat isn't cement, and perhaps there is no immovable object/emotion/action in life that is stopping me moving forward, perhaps it is all about how we perceive what is happening to us and how we are responding. I don't know, to be honest, all I know is that by the end of my yoga session the mat was no longer the most hated object in my life, but had seemingly become that fluffy cloud of softness and support. Who knows.