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When I was 21, I thought I could make anyone smile. Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or get a smile from them. I thought it was my business to talk to anyone.
How UTTERLY AUDACIOUS and SIMPLISTIC of me.
And yet, I have been thinking about it a lot this week, and longing for that simplistic, authentic audacity.
Because I realised that I have become safe.
Imperceptibly, and ever-so-surreptitiously, I have become more reasonable, more mature, bounded by rules and frameworks, cautious, and, let’s face it, less happy to give up my energy and time for a possible metaphorical slap in the face if an interaction goes badly. While outwardly I am energised and positive, I have very gradually become safe. I’m on the conveyor belt, and I didn’t even realise it.
Why am I thinking about this?
It’s been an exhausting and challenging few weeks at school, where students are starting to get tired and edgy. Behaviour problems are starting to fully show themselves, assessments are due, encouragement and full support are required where my reservoirs are running low, and I am trying to fit more and more in. And while I get everything competently done, I thought about what total a whack-job I was in my early 20s as a teacher, where a behaviour management or teaching issues were just situations requiring a creative solution. I all but rubbed my hands in glee, ready to embark on a round of solution-mongering.
I was so damn creative, audacious, and fearless.
Why? Because I had no track record. I had absolutely nothing to lose, no history of success or failure, no existing street-cred, and I had classes to teach. And my God, I found ways to connect with those students + staff out of sheer desperation + innovation, keeping up by the day, and sometimes by the minute. And because I had zero behaviour management skills, I behaviour managed like Martina Hingis played tennis: SMART.
I am a featherweight, literally. I am just under 5-foot and about 45-50 kgs, depending upon how may Tim Tams I eat. My voice back then did not carry a metre, let alone a rehearsal room with 70 over-excited students. In my formative teaching days, I had no “older-male-student” presence whatsoever when I behaviour managed; some of those 6-foot-plus boys could have sneezed and I would’ve been annihilated. I had zero ability + knowledge in navigating bitchiness, drugs, alcohol, underhand remarks, social media bullying, in short, no street-cred whatsoever.
And I had classes to teach, and curriculum to get through, and boundaries to set.
So I built connection. I had the audacity to think that if I could make every interaction with each student + staff member as real, authentic, joyful, and positive as possible, I would at least have money in the bank.
It became a game to me; I wonder how I can make that staff member smile? How could I POSSIBLY start a conversation with a kid who has zero interests which overlap with mine? How can I deliver soul-sucking information to students about their grades, their actions, or their poor behaviour in a way that values them?
I spent hours driving home thinking through words and conversations, learning the power of changing one word, or how I chose to deliver something, what order I would say things, where I would say a kid’s name to show value + care, and how I chose to build hope and worthiness where there was such decimation in their self-esteems without taking away from poor work + behaviour.
That was then, when I was “young and scrappy”, and full of energy and front.
Now, I have things in place. I am mid-career, and I have frameworks down, confidence in my abilities, and structures and staff who will support me.
And I realised this week, whilst trudging through a challenging, emotionally draining week, that I have recently forgotten to be audacious. I have been taking the slightly safer option, the path of least resistance. I haven’t started the random conversations, I haven’t given the extra compliment to the kid who is trouble, I have allowed systems to work their systematic magic, and in truth, I have been sapped of energy. I haven’t got what it takes to be full of audacity, engaging with conversations that half the time might elicit a weird or slightly off-centre reaction. I have no time for the quirky, no energy for the playful just to be playful.
And that what I LIVED for in my beginning years.
But, my God, I should. I should, because that is the connection that is missing.
Because some of that unreasonable audacity is what will shake me out of my routine, and back into the fresh and unpredictable present that is teaching, and life.
What if I said hello the the person who perpetually was withdrawn in the morning and made it a challenge to see if I could learn something new about them? Do I need to be mesmerised + completely interested? Well, highly likely I won’t be to that extent. But I can still make a connection. I am not learning anything or connecting with anyone if I have walked past this person for half a year and know nothing about them and continue talking to the same people. How both big-headed and fearful am I that I think someone else is not worth my time, or that my time is THAT limited. There are people in much more demanding jobs and lives who find time. So can I.
What if I did those things for my students + classes which elicit the raised eyebrows, embarrassed yet half-game laughs, and shook them up a little? I’ve been comfortable, with my ensembles, with my thinking, with my support, with my teaching. I wonder what it would be like to do something which is just slightly outside of my current comfort zone, knowing that it will cost me a more courage, time, and energy?
What if I sat still enough that I could find the words to speak to the kid who is being a little shit, and continues to be a little shit in my classes because they are so broken by life? Rather than just letting the behaviour system do its thing, how could I change the script so that the consequences happen, but my WORD resonate with value and worthiness? My instinct right now? I want to kick a few of the kids I teach. That’s how much they are pissing me off. But I wonder, audaciously, how willing I am to think about this creatively. I’m not pinning myself as the next teaching Messiah, God no. I will still want to slap several kids for being completely remorseless, unaffected, Teflon-coated turds, even if my conversations and words are well-received. But let’s play this creativity game a little.
How can I do things differently when I am uncomfortable?
How can I connect with kids who don’t want to be connected with, who refuse everything, and who are going through the motions of a behaviour management plan already? What can I say or do that will actually carry momentum and resonate?
Why the hell would I want to do this?
Because my greatest joys in life have come from the accidental, audacious interactions. When I was 21, I thought I could talk to anyone and affect change. I thought that all my words carried some life and momentum, and I naively and audaciously believed that my setting out to make peoples days a little brighter served a higher purpose.
And the reflection back was threefold; when a risk paid off, I was catapulted out of my comfort zone into new connections, understandings, unexpected moments of joy, learning, and hope. I learned so much from being so naively confident and interested. I was absolutely engrossed in life.
And I would hate to look back and realise that I had become reasonable and normal, colouring within the lines like a good little girl, when I had the imagination, capacity, and ability to be creative, human, and audaciously unreasonable.
Comfortable with Discomfort
How do people get comfortable with discomfort?
How do people engage mindfully with challenging discourse, differences of opinions, aggressive interactions, and high emotions whilst maintaining a joyful, resilient and open heart, but a strong backbone?
It’s something I have been consciously practising this year, partly to develop my ability to stay in discomfort with a level head, but partly because I have had no choice. It’s been spirit-ruffling, enlightening, uncomfortable, and stretching. I always think I am doing crap and very often FEEL crap, when I also instinctively know that I am doing the best job possible.
The need to work with integrity drives this desire to engage with the challenging, but it doesn’t come easy. I am often caught at a crossroads when I find myself the only one standing with one side of the opinion, and the rest of the people around me swept up by the momentum of the argument, or a personality which bulldozes. I am not a bulldozer. Words have meaning and merit to me. What simply is “shooting the breeze” or “meaningless rubbish” and falls by the wayside for others affects me until I make peace with it and decide I am done. I am not a needless “hanger-on” person; words and feelings simply have purpose, merit and meaning to me. In fact, I am working hard to let go when conversations are done and expired. And the relief is immense. It’s healthy and wholehearted. But again, never done carelessly without necessary attention and thought.
How do I then learn to walk in integrity, connect with the challenge knowing that it will affect me deeply, and repair myself that I may walk into difference + disagreement with a calm and clear head?
Many of my friends, colleagues and family members think I can do this instinctively. But it doesn’t come naturally for me. If anything, it comes particularly unnaturally, with me having to sit in excruciating discomfort as I work through the framework of each problem and decide what action I need to take. Not what I WANT to take, not what would feel nice and comfortable for me. But what I NEED to do.
It’s times like this I HATE having a moral compass, because when you have stuck with this north-facing pin of integrity, you do not feel RIGHT until you’ve arrived at the course of action which you know is right. And often, the right decision affords personal peace, but it comes with an emotional mountain to climb first; a conversation which requires rehearsing, losing 3 hours sleep, spending the day before dipping in and out of worry, going back over ideas and ground until you are satisfied. There is no easy way to coexist with a moral compass and be a vulnerable, joyful person of integrity.
It WRINGS THE FUCKING LIFE out of you.
But there is no other way.
You need to do it.
So here’s the question: How does everyone else get comfortable with discomfort?
I’m not talking about deodorising a workplace or situation where everything is hunky-dory and annoyingly, superficially “fine”. I don’t buy in for that. I welcome safe discussion and discourse. I WANT accuracy for where I stand and what I do. But too often, pride and ego get in the way, and safe discussion without incidental power-over is impossible. And it breaks my heart, because I am no weakling. I just don’t want to be unnecessarily hurt by thoughtless, pride-driven conversation.
What I am talking about is when integrity does NOT win the day, and you watch as mud-slinging, bulldozer personalities and power-over get top spot? HOW do other people practise being resilient and courageous in this environment? How do you make peace with having to walk into battle, when you didn’t ask to walk into battle? How do you become more capable warriors in navigating shit-storms, without losing yourself? How do you keep your energy levels up? How do you learn to let things go after they are done? When do you know that they are done?
I don’t want total agreement. I want a safe place to put ideas on the table, the be deeply seen and valued, to not have my intrinsic work questioned when I am discussing difficult topics. It’s how we all want to feel.
Seen, valued, and heard, with worthiness which affords us the courage and audacity to have different opinions and creative ideas.
I know that I have instinctively walked this more challenging path all my life, because that’s how I was raised, that is what I am made of to the very core. I am so LUCKY to be lifted in heart and spirit by family and friends, who know me, and know what I do. They know my humility, they know my faults. They know where a should be fighting harder, and they also know where I am gentle in my strength.
For me, I know the cost of this walk of integrity. And I am tired from the heaviness of responsibility. As you know, this comes as UNNATURALLY to me as possible, yet I must do it. How do the great leaders of the world do it? How did Barack + Michelle Obama walk through their presidential term and maintain warmth and humanity, whilst making the hard decisions to guide and shape a nation? How did Nelson Mandela make wisdom and peace from hardship, over and over? Not just for a mere day; but when he least felt like it?
I am asking for some momentum and wind beneath my wings, some advice + wisdom, on how to continue to sustainably walk into challenging situations and understand how to chart a course of action without apology, but without sacrifice.
“…but you persist in playing the greatest hits like some passive-aggressive Spotify playlist!” has to be one of the GREATEST quotes ever!
I clicked on this out of pure curiosity. I’m glad I did, as I came away with lots of snippets of information, having enjoyed it much more than I expected.
A good read.
It is said that we’re all a little bit fluent in flight, fight, or fanciful pleasing. I have fire in the belly that manifests itself as acerbic and arch responses that can cut, and I have a stare-down that could melt snow. I’m 5 foot nothing, but I’ve been told I grow in times of battle. I can also rush to wipe clean my slate of any wrong-doing, going completely and ridiculously overboard to show how invaluable and essentially good I am. I could give a whole nation diabetes with my over-dosing sweetness.
But my go-to, my modus operandi of all MO’s, is F L I G H T. I’m an introvert at heart, so that comes as no surprise. I do the intimidating stare-down, I say my piece with icy force (or what I think is quiet compassion, but really it’s just resting bitch-face), and then I get the hell out. I cocoon and pad myself up with time, space, and quiet like pro. I protect and insulate like no other. When I am under serious threat, I am unbelievably Telfon-coated. Iodised. What was that?! I can’t hear you through all the protective layers.
And it’s served me well over the years as it gives me time to process and think. I am not so juvenile as to stay there forever, just long enough to figure out how to stand my ground in the “real” world. While in the cocoon, I ask my inner circle advice; the people who love me when I’m vulnerable and in pieces. I am proud of how I always venture back out with a recalibrated moral compass, ready to interact with life again.
But in having quiet to reflect these holidays, I realise that I don’t give myself enough credit. I think that I am not strong enough to withstand adversity; that I have to protect myself through dozens of layers to escape pain. But the thing is, it doesn’t make it go away. You have to walk through it anyway, and by cocooning myself I give myself time + space, but not necessarily an easier ride.
I realise I can have faith in myself; that I am stronger and more grounded than I give think. During 2017, I saw myself weather more storms than I knew was possible and every time, I had no idea what I was walking into until I was right in the middle of it all. There was no time to duck and cover, I had to stand and stretch, bend and move, with the intense storms around me.
I am more supple than I realise.
So let me have faith, than I can inch forward, with quiet, intensely unmistakable confidence, whatever hurricanes are around me, and bend in adversity far more capably than I think.
A TED talk given by Sherry Turkle.
This one hit home for me; as a teacher, within my family, and for myself.
I see the anxiety, stress, tiredness and lack of concentration caused by incessant technology use in the students that I teach when they take a seat in my classes. They are unsettled and antsy; they go straight to their laptops before they’ve registered what lesson they are in…and I often think I would so much rather tell them off for chatting because that means they’re connecting with each other.
My family is lucky, and I am lucky because of it. I am first a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian; my parents were migrants who arrived in Australia in 1977 to build a new life. We have dragged each other through the learning of technology, and it is a point of connection as it should be, rather than a crutch or bandaid.
But there are days when I’m overwhelmed by teaching, personal + professional relationships, expectations, and life, that I can feel the cross-over from healthy appreciation of technology to numbing. It’s exactly the same fear I have for my students, and family members of my generation or younger. Again, I feel that I am lucky in that I have many interests + responsibilities that pull me up out of the “funk”, and help me shake it…having to step into a different role, be it daughter, sister, teacher, mentor, friend, quasi-Mum is a powerful anecdote for being stuck, and somehow, time moves, and I can feel the change and the issue changes momentum. It heals, I find a solution, I have had a chance to play with it from every angle and decide how I will tackle it.
I am also lucky in that while I was going through school, both as a primary-aged student and as a teenager, I had teachers + mentors who taught me the skills of problem-solving, emotional intelligence, and leaning into solitude + discomfort. I can see the skills are strong now in my every day life, and in how I interact in my personal + professional relationships. I am also lucky in that technology did not become a culture until I was in my mid-2os. But on those days where I am exhausted, and I’m mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, looking for something that might shake me out of my exhaustion or discomfort, it takes a Herculean effort to acknowledge what is happening.
But what about the generation of students + young people coming through now?
As a teacher, this hits me hard and forces me to consider how I care for them, how I develop skills of tolerance, interaction, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, persistence, solitude, and courage in them, while teaching them on a daily basis.
The 2 quotes which stuck with me:
“Cultivate our tolerance for solitude; it is in solitude that we find ourselves.”
“It is when we stumble or lose ourselves that we reveal ourselves to each other.”
May we always have the courage to be vulnerable in forging connections, face to face, imperfectly, and wondrously.
This talk definitely made me think.
Look at that pose! The one on the left is the famous “Matilda” pose, and the one on the right is me, aged 3, striking a similar stance.
One of the Con High staff pointed it out to me, and said, “You’re destined to make waves even when you don’t mean to!”
And I have to confess, I was a little bit proud. I spent last week visiting my colleagues at the Conservatorium High School, completely and utterly delighted at the opportunity to reconnect with the staff + students I had worked with in 2014. All the while, I was making accidental waves. Just by being me. That’s not bad. Imagine if I’d actually put effort into making waves. They’d be tsunami waves.
Making waves is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. While I am absolutely invested in saying and doing things that are authentic and line up with my own set of values, the process of navigating using my moral compass weighs in on my heart as much as anyone who has a heart that beats. I am always surprised when friends, family, or colleagues tell me that I navigate this emotional minefield so well. I sit still with my thoughts and listen acutely to them, and explore all the options with my head and my heart, but the final outcome, the final set of words, always costs me heart + integrity. And I wouldn’t have it other way…it means I have a heart that works beautifully, and that my head + heart are in conversation. I worry, I ache with wonder, or grief, am made quiet by sadness, or set alight with joy, or flushed with searing anger…I feel things acutely, even if I chose the right set of words for the moment in time I am trying to soothe or acknowledge. I try to read the language of each stumbling block like a book, and try to understand it, and that takes courage, time + integrity.
There are some intrinsic things about me that I will not give up; the mess of colourful stripes + spots, the cheekiness, the sense of optimism, my deep need to “introvert” (verb) at the end of a school day, and the playfulness I will always try and bring into my classroom, my rehearsals, and that I hope completely spills into all areas of my life. I am fully-formed on these points, and I’m not going to part with these.
I will also never give up the connection + love I have for my students, the chance to listen to them deeply and assist them in whatever way that I am able under my duty of care and within the boundaries as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. Yes, friend. If I am pushed to the limit, I will always be a teacher first. My job is not to make them laugh, or to entertain them, or make lessons so unbelievably exciting and engaging that the students gobble up everything I have to say. No, it isn’t. But I happen to love doing this as a teacher, and will do so where I am able. I happen to want to love them in that order; first as a teacher with strong duty of care, second as a mentor who allows them freedom to fly independently, and third as a friend who cares about them as a complete person.
But, as my colleague + friend pointed out, I am…a little bit naughty. I’m cheeky. I’m playful. I love what I do. I’m bright + cheerful. I love and care for the students. I try and do all this upon a strong + solid foundation of good values. And in doing all these things, I’ve made waves when I haven’t intended to. Yes, I am just a “little bit naughty”!
I’m good with that.