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The Greater Scheme

I wrote this poem and took this picture while attending a mindfulness retreat several years ago. The picture was taken in the early fall on a beautiful day as the sun warmed, the breeze cooled, and colours changed. When I sit in meditation or practice yoga, mindfulness reminds me I am one part of a much larger scheme. There is a lot acting on me that goes unnoticed and taken-for-granted. It is in mindfulness I remember to be humble and grateful for the small part I do play in the world.

Sitting, walking–

Speaking, listening–

In the greater scheme,

One part amongst many,

What does it mean?

Sunlight warming faces,

Breezes cooling skin,

Morning freshness awakening;

Afternoon warming;

Evening comforting.

In Nature’s midst,

Pulling close,

Embracing all forms,

Sinking deep roots,

Colouring with vibrancy.

Beginning afresh;

Living the world anew,

New eyes seeing it;

Skin touching it for the first time,

Finding one’s seat at the table.

Turbulent Calmness

On June 29, I posted a similar poem and theme. I am not sure what led me to post two that shared the same title. It is likely, early in the school year, it feels chaotic. Early in a school year, there are moments of repreive in this feeling and, as the year gains momentum, they become more common. As one co-participant in my dissertation put it: “I learn to stand in the middle of the storm.”

The other inflluence was I took several courses in my PhD about leading in complex and chaotic times. Servant-leadership, mindful leadership, and transformational leadership are forms of leadership particularly effective in times. We focus on questions about what needs to be changed, how do we engage each person in change, and how does each person become a leader in their own right? These forms share common features: grounded in the present, ethically guided, there is foresight without being set in certainty, etc. Mixed in this was courses on the Tao of Leadership, Systems Leadership, Leadership and Justice, Dialogic Leadership, etc. When I re-entered the classroom each September, what I learned in my PhD founds its way in with me. How could I better serve each student? How could we transform and share our experiences into something nourishing each other’s lives? How could I make a difference for each student? How could they grow and become better leaders than me?

I took the pictures at Lundreck Falls as a reminder of how quickly nature can bring a sense of calm back even in the midst of what is initially chaotic. Within a short distance from the falls, the water pools and calms, at least on the surface. What goes on underneath the surface can remain chaotic and complex much like life, needing non-judgemental, humility, foresight, patience, and wisdom to navigate the unforseeable and unpredictable.

 

Needless to say, I wrote a poem about the challenges of remaining calm in the midst of the storm sometimes raging around me.

Growing awareness–

Standing still,

Humbling one’s self,

To gain foresight–

Insight;

Emerging clarity,

Wisdom.

Entering life’s stream–

Even calm waters,

Hiding shoals, rocks, currents,

In turbulence–

Dropping labels,

Ceasing unwarranted judgment,

Falling awake.

Soul’s Choice

I wrote this on a day when I had a new parent as the parent-helper in the classroom. She did a wonderful job and told me how much her child enjoyed our little corner of paradise. It was a dreary day and her comments warmed my heart.

Not every parent walked into the classroom ready to jump right in to being active and in a teaching role. I always kept an eye and ear turned towards those tables and times when I knew concepts were more challenging. Parents accepted my jumping in and, quite often, I just sat and listened. Parents brought skills and perspectives I lacked. I had a doctor down on his hands and knees teaching the Grade 8’s where the spleen was on the life-size body systems they were drawing. Or, an artist parent who taught the students how to do a particular art form. One grandmother brought her rock collection in each year for the Grade 3 Science unit. The junior high students always found a way to go and check it; some because it was new to them and others because they recalled the joy of it in Grade 3. The educational assistant led in our Food Science class, along with parents and students.

We are each called to do something in our lives. It is our vocation and provides us with a voice to share with the world.

Day breaks,

Cool and wet–

Greying one’s life.

If allowed,

Dampens one’s spirit;

Letting the dullening prevail.

Yet, glow emerge,

Warmth radiates,

Shared within community.

A communal spirit,

Exploring, discovering

Edges of others’ worlds.

I took this picture of Frank Slide in Alberta’s southwest corner. The slide that took place lasted about 100 seconds and about 110 million tonnes of Turtle Mountain covered part of the community of Frank. When I took this picture, it was a dreary day and I was not having any luck getting what I considered great shots. When I wrote the poem, I remembered the picture and it fit.

(Extra)Ordinary

Towards the end of my teaching, I found it challenging to stay positive. Administrators, who spent little time talking and listening to what we did, often imposed their arbitrary decisions oblivious to possible consequences. Having said this, and with time to reflect, I did little to bridge differences. I went back to my classroom, shut my door, and taught. In teaching, the extraordinary emerged.

I bracket extra to draw attention to the ordinary. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about how (extra)ordinary emerges, not as a miracle, out of the overlooked and ordinary we experience. I appreciate this more today than I did those last years of teaching. Barry Lopez says the opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference, an uncaring attitude towards other humans and objects in our presence. It begs questions: “What calls me? What am I mindful of in my life that needs my fullest attention? Who and what am I a steward of?” Today, this understanding (in)forms me when I encounter challenging moments. For example, struggling to find my way into a higher ed classroom I see this as an opportunity to write and read.

Sometimes. I tend to create negative narratives rather than let each moment live itself fully and be aware of as much as I can be of it. This is hard, but grows easier as I set aside dis-ease. Parker Palmer reminds me, when I do something that is not calling me and I am not responding to the call in a full throated way, I do violence to my life and that of others. He speaks about how we conflate lonliness with solitude. The former is problematic and the latter a paradoxical need alongside a need to live in community and share with others. It is in moments of solitude the (extra)ordinary can emerge from the ordinary

Unlike loneliness,

Alone is (in)different,

Solitude appreciates,

Providing solace.

Gift of silence;

Growing whole–

Energizing spirit–

Ordinary in (extra)ordinary;

(Re)memembering one’s life.

I taught Art the last year. I am no artist. We made, designed, and painted papier mache masks. For some students and me, this signaled the end of our time together. For others, they did not want to do the project, until I said I was going to participate. On our last day, a student said “It is not what you taught we will remember. It is how you taught us we will remember and the lessons of what it means to be a person.” To (re)member is to put things back together, sometimes in partial ways. Between the mask and those words, I put meaning back together about teaching and living life to the fullest.

Calm Within Turbulence

I probably overthink some things including the concept of “thinking outside the box” and “getting outside of the comfort zone.” We need structure in our lives or it becomes chaos. We trust the familiar, sometimes too much. Moving from the equilibrium and stability of what we are each comfortable with causes us to begin to feel out of control.

I love waterfalls and fast water. They remind me, just over the horizon, things will not be easy to plan for. There will be things I cannot see around the bend, hidden in below the chaotic, turbulent waters, and it is continuously changing. We have white water rafted and going down a mountain fed stream in the morning is different than later in the day. Early in the morning, the waters tend to be lower and, as the day heats up, more water flows, covering rocks that were easily seen earlier.

Awakening each morning,

Smiling into the day,

Soaking in moment.

Pausing,

Letting calm find me,

Amidst turbulence.

I do not recall where we got this picture. I think it was in British Columbia towards the headwaters of the Fraser River. We have not rafted in this kind of river and I doubt you could. To handle the chaos, one would have to portage and detour around the rapids. Part of the skill of navigating is to have the wisdom to realize what is impassable.

For me, getting to a point where I can view certain waterfalls is impossible. I have a significant fear of heights and it limits where I can go. In Waterton Lakes National Parks, we did a lot of hiking. I was able to access most of the paths, but this was one I had to stop. I could see the top of the falls and Kathy was my eyes, taking pictures. She got to the platform overlooking the falls, which are called bridal falls as they are often veiled with mist.

Beauty revealed,

Lifting veil from other’s eyes,

Even mist is gone.

.

Flowers

I wrote this poetry and took these pictures on a trip to British Columbia with Kathy via Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. It was for my mother’s 88th birthday and, at that point in her life, each birthday was an important event. She was the last of her generation in our family, on both sides.

I took pictures of two flowers common to temperate areas in North America: Fireweed and Paintbrush. Fireweed is hardy and is often found in areas which were disturbed by fire or oil spills generally spreading out in open areas left behind. It is part of the first step in ecological succession.

 

Appearing amidst destruction,

Flourishing,

Restoring,

Inviting to embrace.

Filling alpine meadows,

Colouring once damaged landscapes,

Lighting paths,

Giving hope.

The Indian Paintbrush or Prairie-Fire is widespread and was used by Indigenous peoples for food, hair conditioner, and to treat rheumatism. This is an example of the coastal variety.

Painting the world alive,

Gently,

Sensously.

Off Nature’s palette,

Dancing vibrantly,

Living colours.

During these times with the COVID-19 health crisis, which revealed the deep social, economic, and political fissures in our world and the social activism emerging after the murder of George Floyd, Canada has to take time to look at its own history and treatment of marginalized peoples. This begins, but does not end, with how we treated and continue to treat First Nations’ people. This is a song by a local singer-songwriter, Connie Kaldor, who sings poignantly about the murdered and missing indigenous women across Canada. The report, completed in June 2019, had over 90 recommendations, which have not been acted on. In Canada, protests against systemic racism highlight this lack of action.

 

Beauty

This tree stood all by itself on the crest surrounded by the pretty ones. What attracted me was it stood out from the crowd and thrived. I alluded to this in On the Edge. They were in the same area as we drove up to the Columbia Ice Fields in Jasper National Park. These trees do not just survive. They thrive in demanding conditions, sometimes for 100’s of years. There is little soil, water, and nourishment on the embankments, so they appear stunted. It thrives on the margins of its ecosystem. Perhaps, we find beauty in places we do not anticipate. We have to be ready for this or it will slip by.

In today’s environment, with calls for greater equity and social justice, it is not enough to ask people to survive with less than living wages, inadequate housing, little or no healthcare, etc. as if that is a major accomplishment. We must allow them to thrive as humans.

I took one class in special education in my B Ed. and another in my M Ed. I learned we have more in common than makes us different. Paulo Freire wrote of unity in diversity; John Dewey about communicating what we have in common to form community, and Parker Palmer about the paradox of living in community and with solitude. If we are more alike than different, we have a lot to communicate. It takes listening deeply, reflecting critically on one’s views (biases) of the world, and ethically transforming (moving beyond) the world, particularly that which is immediate to each of us. It is not enough to reform, but it may be a start to the process. It is becoming more and better, individually and collectively, in ways we cannot anticipate and can not be fully finished. There will always be good work to do, not matter how far we come.

On the margins;

Thriving–

Separate from the crowd.

Elements taking a toll;

World weighing heavy;

Thin, mottled.

Standing proud;

Reaching high–

Believing in something better.

Valuing who you are;

Individual, non-conformist–

Separate from the crowd.

Lonely, not alone;

Spacious, gracious solitude–

Revealing your own beauty.

Today, as I cruised Facebook, I found Parker Palmer posted Mary Oliver‘s poem The Summer Day. I love the closing lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is a wild and precious life.


					

On the Edge

When I wrote this poem, it was at a time I was unhappy going back into the classroom and teaching. I loved the students and looked forward to being with them. So much had changed in the little school I taught in with change imposed upon us, rather than negotiated with us. In my writing, I am beginning to look at what is essential to the spirit for each of us to flourish. What gives each of us hope? it will be different. What is certain is we each want to have a voice in what we are doing.

When I wrote the poem, I wrote from a negative place. Now, as I look at the image, the tree on the dge of the cliff fourished in its environment, which is rock with little soil. The tree is actually quite old. Our tour guide said about 300 years old. Despite its lack of size, it flourishes and that is what I failed to see in the last two years I taught. It begs the question: “what might I have done differently.” I was not very patient at times. Cornel West tells young people looking for change to be patient. Real, transformative, democratic, and sustainable change takes time and patience.

In being with each student and present to them, I found something other than gave me the impetus to teach for two more years and find ways to cope with the imposed change. One of the challenges I faced was what we did was so different than what other classrooms looked and felt like it was difficult to convince other educators what we did had merit. Teachers teach one grade at a time in isolation with children separated from families, like a workplace. We had a parent in the classroom each day to assist, many of the families knew each other, and I had a multi-grade classroom with 3 or 4 grades together. Children and youth attend school each day and homework is something we assign, because often there is not time to complete everything at school. Students attended our school 40-50% of the time on a set schedule, depending on grade level. I negotiated with parents the extra things to be done at home. Often, they were large culminating projects at the end of a unit. I taught and students learned what was necessary in class and had little homework. I did not teach all subjects in school. Parents taught Math, Health, and some Phys Ed at home. I went on home visits to support their teaching and make sure we were on track. I had no desks in my classroom. We sat at tables usually based on grade level, but, during complementary courses e.g. Art, Food Sciences, Programming, etc., students sat in mixed grade groups.

In short, we were on the margins, the edge of what was perceived as “normal’ school. Today, in the midst of a pandemic that sent children home to learn online, the relationships and support we had in our small community would have helped many families and teachers cope with the sudden and unpredictable change.

With each step,

Closer–

Be bold.

Balance precariously,

Hover over abyss

Be brave.

Instability and stability dancing–

To soundless music;

Be graceful.

Quieting one’s self;

Listening to soul’s–

Be poetic.

Between lines and stanzas–

 Wisdom emerges–

Be patient.

On the edge,

Sisters and brothers–

What calls you with passion?

I try to walk in the neighbourhood each day. When I do, I listen to music. Yesterday, I heard a song by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, which fit with this poem and how I felt when I wrote it. In talking to one’s younger self, they use words like bold, love, bold, and fear. I use passion, which suggests suffering as a necessary piece to flourishing.

The Weighing

Jane Hirshfield wrote the following poem, speaking to hope and resilience. At the end of our rope, we find we have more to give than we realized. It is a sense “this to shall pass” and we can only live in the present moment, which is fleeting.

Hard times reveal fissures in our world and society. Look at who has been hardest hit by Covid-19: people of colour, elderly, poor, etc. We can then see the fissures and who is left out. This became clearer with George Floyd’s killing. It is not enough to question who is left out, but how these humans are left out, dehumanized in the process. Injustice calls us to take account of the life we live, the world we live in, and ask how do we make this better, for each human being we encounter. Injustice calls us to weigh how we speak and act towards one another and to transform who we are for the better.

There are no easy answers to large questions, despite what politicians, carnival barkers, and reality TV hosts would have us believe with their divisive language and actions. We can embrace that we have more in common than separates us. As Paulo Freire proposed, there is unity in difference beyond superficial multiculuralism.

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.
As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

When I hike in wildnerness settings, I wonder what is around the next curve, over the horizon, on the other side of the mountain, below the surface, etc. I am unaware of so much. What is essential is I lift into critical consciousness what I can to better understand how I can make the world a better place and act on that as best as I can. I will likely never get to the other side of Kootenai Lake or the mountains on the far side, so I can only imagine what is there, a utopia of sorts. The same applies for the world we live in. The difference is we can incrementally get there, together.

As I am called to be a steward of the world, I am called to be a steward and servant in leading others. Without fully understanding where I am going, I am going there.

After I posted, I was listening to the radio and they played this song. It seemed appropriate.

Listening and Learning

I was going to press a wonderful post from Cheryl’s blog called Living in the Gap. Unfortunately, she does not have a press facility, so I did the next thing. I copied a paragraph from her post that I relate to:

“Am I ready to look at the part I play in the current reality, come out from the safety of the suburbs, and confront my own racism? To take a sober look at my own bias, privilege, and exclusionary practices. This is when I want to curl up like a pill bug and roll away, but this movement is not about me, it’s about listening, learning, and leaning into the race issues currently afflicting our country.”

We are in an unusual moment with the protests. They call us to stop and listen to one another in ways we may not be used to. They also call us to ask questions we have not asked in deep ways, such as “how do I confront my own prejudices? Am I even willing to confront them?” I use the word prejudice to open the space a bit more. It is not only about race. It is about gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.

Currently, I am co-writing an article for publication using Paulo Freire. Freire used critical theory and I paraphrase him here. He said prejudices are interwoven, arising from individual lived histories passed from one generation to another in unquestioned ways. It is listening to others without taking on a saviour role, without drowning their voices, and hearing them speak about their reality. They await opportunities to be raised into consciousness and critically questioned. How I understand this is through a Socratic lens where skepticism begins at home. How do I make the world better, more just, more democratic. Freire suggests it is a slow process. In his book, Pedagogy of Hope, he acknowledged using gender exclusive language in his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published 30 years earlier. He learned to use more inclusive language as he became critically aware of the harm done without it. It was a small and necessary step.

Freire argues we need to listen to one another, not denying difference. Instead, he calls on us to accept “unity in difference.” At our core, (in French coeur is heart and core) we are each human. Too often, we talk over each other and listen to defend entrenched positions. A key theme in Freire’s writing is human “unfinishedness,” always becoming. I reflect when I took-for-granted privilege and wonder how I might overcome this. It is not easy. It will not be finished. I understand my role, as an elder, as one of serving and listening. Leadership is serving, transforming, and mindful, rather than transactional and hierarchical.

Robert Greenleaf stated “the best test [of servant-leadership], and difficult to administer, is: do those being served grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous while being served: Since so many people seem afraid to grow, the true servantleader who brings it about is an extraordinary person.” If I look at the next generation and they offer me hope that there is better to come, perhaps I can take some solace in that. Without hope, we wither and flee from the scene, abdicating our responsiblity to one another.

I leave you with a video of Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son. If I expand the defintion of pedagogue to its broadest etymology, it is how elders interact with youth, allowing them to dream. Hope is not about a lack of obstacles. After all, no life is a crystal staircase and that is most evident for those on the margins of our societies, including in Canada with its history of residential schools and mistreatment of people of colour. It is, as Freire suggests, being willing to struggle and fight to overcome overt and covert injustices and inequities we encounter and witness. It is listening and testifying in those moments to offer a hand to those in need, regardless of race, gender, orientation, creed, and class without being dogmatic. How do we testify in each of those moments? It is not succumbing to historical amnesia and existential weariness.

 

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
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