Honoring Anxiety – Acknowledging Reality to Improve School Culture

In this brilliant podcast episode of “On Being“, Krista Tippett interviews Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude. Brother Steindl-Rast is eloquent on gratitude, but also on all that we may not be grateful for, like violence and environmental destruction, and his thoughts on being born as the beginning of our struggle with anxiety, to go forward is to live, to retreat from fear is to die – indeed before ever living, struck me. He says for this purpose we must validate our anxiety, recognize it as real, and as based on reality. In a humanity that is choosing to destroy our own ecosystems of survival and networks of connection that, as Brother Steindl-Rast points out, put food on our plate, this anxiety is valid.

Such resonance – our anxieties are valid. In the context of a school, imagine all of the anxieties on offer every day for each member of the community. Will my daughter reach a competitive university like her father and I did? Is my child being bullied? A bully? What if they find out I am here on scholarship? Will the principal observe this lesson today, and will she understand what she sees here? Nobody else in this room is dressed like me. I’ve been away on business too long and missed another play. I don’t have anything for show and tell.

Obviously, that list could go on.

A colleague recently described the anxiety high school/upper school parents in affluent schools feel about university entrances as “guarding the family jewels,” and it helped me to conceptualize that anxiety as one of preserving capital – cultural or otherwise. I recognize that parents in high poverty areas like those in which I have previously taught have many different anxieties – will the child return home if she attends university? Is that a reasonable fear? And what Brother Steindl-Rast shares is that yes, this is a valid anxiety, and that acknowledging this should protect against reactions from fear, like pressuring a child until he cracks and has a real psychological break before reaching majority age, or blowing up a relationship with a child to protect oneself against the pain of another brilliant kid leaving the reservation forever.

I wonder how many schools open conversations about these anxieties and validate them? How many ameliorate the problem at hand with platitudes and then roll eyes in the office after 5 pm? That’s a hard conversation, even just the easy bit about Penn State being a great place to be educated, even though it’s not in Princeton, NJ. Honoring anxiety about an ever crowded and seemingly chaotic world that could strip a standard of living from our children acknowledges how little control we actually have. I wonder: Would that reduce fear and stress in the long run?

I think it’s worth a try.

Summer and Institutional Memory

As another school year kicks off, I’m struck by the loss of plans, ideas, concepts, and such over the summer. We come together for a week of meetings and some frantic preparations from micro to macro, individual to collaborative groups to department to grade level to whole school. Always, frustration ripples just under the surface as people arrive back from wonderful vacations that I value greatly, but arrive back with adjusted priorities and minor confusions bred by distance and change. While I’m not ready to give up a nice chunk of vacation, I can’t help but wonder what the week before school might be like if we had a week or two for paid curriculum development, research, in-house professional development, or just time to be together as professional educators without any else going on before and after a nice summer holiday. What might happen during that time, that uninterrupted, relaxed work time? I imagine this past week would be more focused and less hectic.