Thursday, March 28, 2013

Education for Change

Today is Thursday, March 28, 2013.  

When I taught in high school, I made a point of completely re-arranging the desks into different patterns each quarter of the school year.  The kids would come into the room and see that their "assigned seat" was no longer in the same place, and the complaints would begin. 

"Ugh!  Change my life!"

"NOW where am I supposed to sit?" 

I invited them to take any seat and assured them that I would instruct them what to do next.  They didn't like it. 

My friend Mary Carroll Moore wrote two books about change: Turning Points and How to Master Change in Your Life: Sixty-seven Ways to Handle Life's Toughest Moments.  At one of her workshops, she began by asking all the participants to find a different seat.  There was some general grumbling, but everyone did this.  I remember being a little put out, because I had chosen a seat in front so I could hear the presentation well.  Mary then told us a story of a woman who had attended one of her earlier workshops.  The woman came early and chose her seat carefully, neatly draping her coat on the back of her chair, and arranging her notebook, pens, tissues and coffee on the table in front of her.  When Mary asked everyone to find a different seat, this woman simply packed up her belongings in her bag and left the workshop. 

Carl Jung wrote, "If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves."  Frankly, adults don't handle change well, so how can we expect our kids to handle it?   We need to educate ourselves in ways to handle change so that we will be able to help our children cope with whatever the future brings.

Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, in which he said, among other things, that the pace of change was increasing exponentially, and that humans seem to have a limited capacity for dealing with change.  When we are overwhelmed with changes in our lives, "future shock" results.  

It would seem, then, that one of the best things we can do for kids is to teach them not only how to learn, but how to change.  Toffler wrote, "By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education."  I agree, but the fact remains that it is hard for adults to teach kids coping skills for rapid change when they lack these skills themselves.  Basically, this is one of those times when teachers and students will have to travel the learning curve together.  One of the most important things that today's educators can do for their students is to learn ways to handle changes.  In Gandhi's words, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."   Or, as Leo Tolstoy put it, "Everyone things of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."

One of the problems with the current education system that is often cited is that schools are now tasked with the goal of preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist.  When I graduated from high school in 1971, someone told me that there would be a time when there would be a computer in every home.  I couldn't imagine how that would work.  You have to understand that in those days, mainframe computers were huge machines that filled a whole room, and you had to have special training to run one.  They were very delicate, as I recall.  In the early 80s, when I worked for Berlitz in Japan, a computer programmer friend of mine allowed me to enter the special room where our mainframe computer was housed.  He told me to watch the monitor on the operator's terminal as I passed it.  Sure enough, the computer was so delicate that when I passed by, there was a wave of flickers across the screen. 

But back to 1971... at that time I had no concept of a personal computer.  All I could think of was a robot or android that might assist me with housework.  What other use for a computer could there be in our homes?  I couldn't imagine that my world would  one day be defined in many ways by my access, not only to a computer, but to the Internet.  

Schools will never be able to give kids specific training for jobs that will exist in the future.  The pace of change itself simply proceeds too rapidly for that to happen.  Instead, we must educate our children for change, itself.  

One thing we know about change is that it often causes a great deal of fear and consternation.  Why do we fear change?  Eve Bernshaw, author of The TransitionProcess, (no, there's no space between Transition and Process), wrote an article for the Institute of Noetic Sciences in which she reminded her readers that fear was originally a  positive reaction to our surroundings, because it alerted us to danger and thus kept us safe.  Over time, certain beliefs about what is dangerous, for example, have been handed down from generation to generation, and they are now buried in our subconscious minds.  "Our ability to understand the core issue (beliefs) behind our fear of change is the key," Bernshaw wrote. 

Kids have a need for structure and order in their lives, and schools provide this.  But schools need to teach kids specific ways to cope with changes that occur in their lives, specific strategies.  This training needs to start early, in kindergarten or even preschool.  For example, teachers can intentionally change the order of things once in a while (math before reading instead of after), just to get kids used to making changes, or they can change the seating arrangement in the room.  Two teachers in the same grade could switch classrooms once in a while.  There are all kinds of small changes that can be made.  The key, however, would be to talk about these things, both before they occur and afterwards, to talk kids through their feelings about the changes.  With all the content that teachers are required to introduce to their students, stopping to talk about our fears of change may seem like a waste of time, but I would submit that this type of training would probably be among the most valuable lessons in any child's academic career.  All schools should be served by counselors who work with all the kids, not just the ones who are experiencing emotional issues.

One of the things I realized during my time as a teacher is that some things that seem so obvious to adults still need to be taught to kids in a direct way.  Response to change is one of those things.  

As adults, how can we teach ourselves to respond appropriately to change?  Here is a list prepared by a woman named Meghana RaoRane, who researched the subject for her own well-being.  All of these things can be done by adults, individually, and taught directly to children, with appropriate modifications to account for age and emotional maturity.

1.  Expect change to feel hard.  It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that  changes will cause difficulties.  When we realize that our difficulties are a normal part of the process of change, we can feel better about the process itself.  If we list difficulties we have had in a transitional situation in the past, we can anticipate that some of those same things will be hard for us in the future.  We can think about the way we handled the difficulties in the past, and if we are not happy with the way we responded, we can think about alternative ways to handle them.  When we expect to have to take a step backward once in a while, we find that dancing to the rhythm of life often requires us to do the cha-cha.

2.  Prepare for change when possible.  There are two parts to this.  The first part has to do with our expectations in general.  When we realize that changes are inevitable, our mindset is such that we are not so blindsided by the changes that we become incapable, in our shock, of making any response at all.  We can recall changes that have happened in the past and focus on the positive effects of the change. We can begin to look for positive outcomes when we see a change occurring.   

The second part of preparation is learning how to create Plan B.  Incredibly, there are many people who don't know how to do this.  I would imagine that most successful people have Plan B in mind, even if the details are a little sketchy.  When what they are doing is not working out, they have the option of switching to Plan B – or even Plan C – to accomplish their objectives. However many alternate plans you make the important point is planning ahead.

I cannot tell you how upsetting it has been for me to witness the shock and angst of a child who is forced to go through a sudden change.  Parents of some of my students (mistakenly, in my opinion) have decided not to inform their children of an impending move that will necessitate their attending a different school.  Some of them decided not to tell their kids about their decision to divorce until one of the parents leaves the home.  

One lady I know had to run away from her boyfriend.  Her children's father, from whom she was divorced, lived in the area, and he often picked up the kids from school. As I stood by the bus line at the end of each day,  I could see how these kids ran to hug their father, how glad they were to see him.  When the woman realized that her boyfriend was abusive and might harm the children, she did the right thing in getting out of the situation, but she decided to take the kids with her back to her sister's home – in Mexico!  The kids were not informed in advance of her decision.  She sent them to school as usual, then came to the office to formally withdraw her children from school.  She told us that she had arranged for tickets on a flight that was to leave later that afternoon.  The kids were in shock.  

Another parent came in and whipped her four boys out of school with no warning, saying that their father had found a new job, and that it would necessitate their moving to an outer suburb.  Since they had only one car and no time to take the boys to school in the morning, they had to place them in a new school.  The school they chose was a Spanish-speaking private school.  The boys were traumatized.  Although they did speak Spanish, I suspect that their fluency wasn't what it was in English.  The mom got the older boys out of their classes first, then went to the kindergarten room to collect her youngest child.  The kindergartner had a best friend, who was so upset that his friend was leaving suddenly that he went into a corner of the room and cried his heart out, which naturally upset the rest of the kids.  The mother told her son to say good-bye to his friend, but he simply shrugged his shoulders, knowing that he couldn't possibly comfort his friend.  The teacher, of course, was left with the inconsolable child after the family left, and the rest of the school day was more or less ruined.  The teacher commented to me later that she had developed a routine for dealing with kids who moved.  On their last day, the kids each drew a picture or made a "card" for their friend to remember them by.  The mother hadn't bothered to alert the teacher to the move, so she was unable to put in place a routine that might have made the change easier for all the kids.

3.  Accept that change is happening.  So many times we go into denial about what is happening to us.  We engage in a childish type of wishful thinking that says, "If I don't think about it, I won't have to deal with it."  Acceptance is a process that may have to be done gradually and gently.  It involves facing our deeply-hidden fears.  A friend of mine recently told me about making a list of outcomes she was afraid of, then going down the list and delving more deeply, asking herself, "What are you really afraid of?"  Some people pay unbelievable amounts of money to their therapists to have the privilege of being guided through this process.  For those of us who are normally emotionally healthy and who cannot afford the services of a therapist, it's important to learn how to do this ourselves. 

4.  Cut yourself some slack.  So many of us are much more accepting of others' faults than they are of their own.  We will always be our own harshest critics, but it's worth considering the idea of treating ourselves as we would treat others.  This may mean taking a "mental-health day" off from work or perhaps turning our phone off for a while.  It may involve asking loved ones to allow you a little "cave time."  It may mean giving yourself a treat, within reason.  (Treating yourself to a box of chocolates every day for a week would not be a good idea.  Nor would it be smart to allow a feel-better shopping spree to land you in debt.)   Sometimes just getting out of town for the weekend is a smart option.  Whatever works.

5.  Appreciate the familiar.  This may mean sticking to a regular schedule, spending time with friends, visiting familiar places, or indulging in little habits that comfort us.  Whatever changes we are confronting, its is always a good idea to remind ourselves of the people and things in our lives that can provide a sense of continuity.  

Some changes tend to throw our familiar schedules into chaos, and it may be that the old schedule will have to be abandoned.  We can still prioritize elements in our lives and resolve to make time for the things – and the people – that matter most.  Learning how to prioritize is a survival skill, in itself.  A good time to learn to do this is when we are not feeling stressed.  

6.  Get help.  This might be as simple as asking friends and family members for advice, or it may mean getting counseling from a member of the clergy or a therapist.  It may mean staying in a shelter to avoid danger or until you can get your life together.  It may mean going back to school or taking classes that will help you re-tool for a different job or career.  Recognizing that there is nothing wrong with getting help is key.  None of us is perfect, and as the song says, "We all need somebody to lean on."

7.  Find a new normal.  Once a change has occurred, it's important to establish new routines quickly, especially for the children in our lives. If you don't already keep a pocket calendar or use some other means of planning your day, you may wish to learn how to do this, because it will come in handy some day.  Involving school-age children in making changes is helpful, so that the kids will buy into the routine more easily. 

Holidays, especially, can be hard after a major life change.  When we have lost a loved one, been through a divorce, or moved to a new location, our holiday routines are affected.  That's when we have to invent new ways of spending special days. 

Sometimes, it's just best to acknowledge that our lives may not be considered normal by the standards of others.  Many of my friends who were "military brats" had to live this way.  When we stop comparing ourselves with others, the term "normal" loses some of its power to make us feel inferior.   :-)

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