Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Chance Encounter with Eric & Loneliness

The door is open at the Door Is Open
A few weeks ago I attended a two day retreat at the Door Is Open:
a drop in centre located at 373 East Cordova Street, in the heart of East Vancouver. The Centre supports the needs of hundreds of less fortunate people in the downtown east side. Many of our guests have compounding difficulties such as drug and alcohol addiction, physical and mental handicaps as well as maturing life stages and many other impairments.
The two days were designed to provide spiritual reflection and education while working in the service of those less fortunate. It also provided an opportunity to witness some of the realities of day to day life in Vancouver's Downtown East-side - Canada's poorest jurisdiction.

While I participated in preparing and serving food, walked the neighborhood and listened to various people talk about their day to day realities - it was my experience with a lunch guest named Eric that continues to leave a lasting impact.

It was during the first day - while welcoming some of the guests for lunch that I happened to meet and strike up a conversation with Eric.  Eric was a clean cut "normal" looking guy. I asked Eric if I could sit beside him. He agreed. And we talked.

I learned a lot about Eric in the 30 minutes we spent together.

I learned that Eric attended a Catholic elementary school until certain circumstances, outside of his control, forced him out of his home and to live with his grandma. He spoke fondly of his grandma. While she has long since passed away, Eric still misses his grandma.

We spoke about his high school experience. He explained how he never really had any good friends and "kept to himself". He regrets this.  He talked about feeling alone from an early age.

I asked Eric how life was treating him at the moment.

Eric explained how he recently finished course work and training related to the food industry. He likes to work with people and food.

He explained that for the past year, his housing has been stable. He is worried about the coming months and the uncertainty that is looming.

In a moment of vulnerability, Eric explained that he has goals but they tend to get derailed by this reoccurring cycle of sabotage (my word).  In frustration, he explained how he knows what he needs to do but, for a variety of reasons, he can't get there sometimes. He spoke at some length about how he frequently talks himself out of completing his goals.

Eric told me that he doesn't blame "the system" for his situation.

Eric admitted that he is lonely. Eric has been lonely for most of his life. Eric told me that he : "feels like an alien in my own city"

As he finished lunch, I told Eric that I would be back the next day and that we could chat again if he liked.

We said our "goodbyes"- hoping I could talk to Eric again the next day.

Eric returned the next day. I saw him and sat beside him.  I told him it was great to so see him again.

He told me that my conversation with him the previous day was the best thing that happened to him in a long time.  His honest compliment came as a surprise to me.

He explained how good he felt about recently receiving his "food safe certificate".

Eric explained that his goal for that day was finding a way to register for his "serving it right" certificate. He had two problems - he did't have access to the internet to register for the course and he didn't have the $40 for the course fee.

We brainstormed different ideas to solve his two problems. Ultimately he solved one problem- he could walk a few miles to register in person. His lack of money for the registration fee was another issue.

Eric told me that one of his favorite pastimes was writing poetry. I asked him if he has ever shared his poetry with others. Despite his openness to the idea, he didn't really know how or with whom to share it.

I talked to Eric about how, one day perhaps, he could share his poetry via a blog. I told him how it was free and a great way to share his passion with others. As I was talking I remembered that he didn't have regular access to the internet or a device- what an idiot I am....

We talked more about random stuff.

Lunch was over.

I didn't know what to do next. A simple "goodbye" didn't seem like enough.

I told Eric how privileged I was to have met him. I told him I didn't know if I would ever see him again but hoped that I did.

I wanted to offer Eric a few dollars to help him with his day. Maybe even to pay for his course. I wasn't sure how he would receive it. Would he be offended? Was I offering to make myself feel better? Would he see this as a platitude? Was it a platitude?  Was I disrespecting him? Would the money be used appropriately?

I decided to ask him. "Eric can I offer you a little money to help you with your day?" He immediately resisted. I told him he could use the money to pay for his "serving it right course". He paused. He let me put the money in his hand.
I walked Eric to the door and watched him as he hit the streets of the downtown east side. As I watched, I felt a little embarrassed and inadequate.
I felt inadequate because the best I could offer Eric, as he walked away, was money. What he really needed was more of my time.

My two days in the downtown east side of Vancouver taught me one valuable lesson. Despite all the poverty, health and addiction problems that exist in that part of my city- there is one more rampant epidemic that is ravaging the lives so many........loneliness.

Eric brought me face to face with the tragic impact of perpetual loneliness.

I think I owe it to Eric and all those suffering from loneliness, to do all that I can in my role as a Catholic educator and parent to prevent and ease the pain of loneliness.

Dear Eric:
I am sorry for your loneliness. I am embarrassed that I didn't offer you anything more to take away your loneliness.

I will return to the Door Is Open in the hope of meet up with you again... 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Some Leadership Attitude(s)

I have a style issue.  No, I'm not walking around wearing my 1980's acid washed jeans or rugby pants...(oh the good old days...)

The "style" issue I am referring to has to do with leadership.

To be blunt - I don't think I have a leadership style.  

Instead, what I have come to see are some personal attitudes that have sustained me throughout my time in school administration.

Upon reflection, here are a few of the attitudes that have helped me along the way:

I trust therefore I lead. 
Trust has been the currency that has allowed me to be effective as an administrator.  The more trust I give away - the more I seem to get in return.  More than simply waiting to trust, I have often sought out opportunities to trust - whether it be with colleagues or students.  The results?  I have been blessed in my career to work with people who have responded to my trust with support, integrity and an inspiring ethic of care. Coincidentally, as parent I am realizing that one of the important gifts I can give my children is my trust!

Ripple Effect of Respect
In the context of school leadership, I realize that how I behave is more important than what I say.  Modelling respectful interactions, a calm demeanor, and genuine ethic of care have been, and will continue to be a "non-negotiable".   The idea is to send a ripple effect of respect throughout the school community.

I'm am...sorry, unsure, wrong, scared, concerned
Being vulnerable and naming my own feelings has been a game changer.  For example, if we say that we learn from our mistakes, we must also own our mistakes in a real and transparent way.

"Walk a mile in their shoes"
As teacher, to be most effective, I need to be deeply empathetic to individual students.  As an administrator, I feel like I need to maintain this attitude towards students AND teachers.   For example, I need to be mindful that I don't keep on "adding" to teachers "must do" without considering what needs to be taken away.  One simple and important way to do this, is to "walk a mile in their shoes".  Being an "Embedded Principal" has been helpful in this regard.

"You" before the "it"
This is closely related to the attitude above.  This is about putting people before policies or systems.  I have learned that I need to be present to the person I am interacting with.  I need to see and respect the person before I see the policy.  In the end, the person may disagree with my decision, but they will  youalways know that they are respected and will fully understand the "why" behind the decision.

Restless Learner
It is probably not a healthy thing, but I am one of those people who feels a perpetual sense of anxiousness about "missing" learning opportunities that will make me, students or teachers better.  I feel a certain restlessness when it comes to learning, schools and education.  Interestingly enough, John Hattie's research  compares the impact that instructional leadership and transformational leadership has on student learning. Surprisingly (or not), Hattie's research tips the scales towards the idea of instructional leadership.  My experience not only confirms this, but also tells me that I have a better chance of becoming a transformational leader if I am a restless learner in my community. 

"Just Let Go" 
This is all about me letting go.  Give up control and gain  personal engagement and ownership .  Of course this is the antithesis of micromanaging - which invariably leads to apathy,  boredom and risk aversion.  Said another way - I have found that I need to trust, let go and empower others to do what they need to do.

This attitude reminds me of a scene in the movie Finding Nemo when Marlin is clinging on to Dory, inside the mouth of a whale - about to be swallowed.  Dory is demanding to be "let go".  Marlin yells: "but how do you know that something bad isn't going to happen?"  To which Dory replies "I DON'T"

"It's not about me"
Some may call this -  being rooted in the "why".  It's not "my" school or "my" school system.  I need to remind myself that my job is to bring the community to an agreed upon destination - rooted in values, mission and vision. This is where I constantly remind myself to check my personal agenda, desires and ego at the door.

It's not my issue
The job demands that I make decisions using my best judgement.  Certain issues demand that I skate into the puck.  I've also come to understand that some of my best decisions are the ones I don't make.  Not all issues are my issues.  Knowing the difference has been critical to my leadership.  Despite my sincerest desire to intervene in any and all situations that arise in a school, sometimes I need to step back and let others step up.

"It's only school"
This may sound like I am trivializing or demeaning my work - but that is not my intent.   I love and am passionate about my job.

Sometimes, however, we do take ourselves too seriously.  For example when dealing with students we need to remember that they are- well - kids.  They are growing up.  They're supposed to make mistakes.  All they really want is to be accepted for who they are, to find personal fulfillment, to be trusted and to have some fun and excitement while figuring it out.

When we consistently take ourselves too seriously we lose perspective of who we are actually serving - which ultimately leads to decisions, policies and systems that don't respect kids for who they are and where they are at any given moment.

I'm still figuring it out and invite you to share your thoughts and reactions.