Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Posts tagged ‘Mindset’

Embracing Stress

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Brian Ford

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Brian Ford

Chasing Meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

TED Talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh Scotland, June 2013

Among the very first lessons I received as a school leader was to avoid stress whenever possible.

I began my career as a school administrator working as an associate principal alongside a wise, gentle principal who worried about stress. He had cause for concern. Several years earlier he had suffered a serious heart attack and his doctor had warned him to avoid stress. “Avoid stress?” he relayed to me of his conversation with his doctor. “I’m a school principal. How could I possibly avoid stress?” This principal calmly shared with me his doctor’s words: “I can’t tell you what to do, but I will tell you that if you experience too much stress, you will die. So, here is what I recommend. Each time you begin to feel stressed consider whether you will care about or even remember what is stressing you in five years. If the answer is ‘yes’, go ahead and be stressed. If the answer is ‘no’ then let it go.”

I’ve often paused during stressful moments and remembered this story, mostly allowing myself to let go of smaller stressors, or what I perceived as smaller stressors, while worrying about the large ones. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether or not I’ll remember a particular stressor, unsure as to its longer term seriousness or import. I’ve also shared the story more times than I can remember, conveying to others what I long viewed as wisdom about coping with stress.

I’m by no means alone in thinking about and stressing about stress. A survey of teachers and principals by Metlife, published in February, 2013 revealed that both teachers and principals experience substantial stress. Half of teachers and half of principals reported feeling under great stress several days a week. (Metlife, 2013)

We worry about stress. And yet . . .

Last week, on a trip to the library, I perused the new books section, open to something interesting I might not know about and might not ordinarily consider reading. I chanced upon The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal and experienced a welcome paradigm shift. According to McGonigal, unlike the advice the well meaning doctor offered the principal for whom I worked so many years ago, in order to maintain good health we need not avoid stress, but rather embrace it. Choosing to see the good in stress can help us discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life. The research is compelling.

In 1998 thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked both how much stress they had experienced in the past year, and whether they believed stress is harmful to health. Eight years later, 43 percent of those who both had high levels of stress and believed the stress was harmful to their health had died. The researchers estimated that during the eight years they conducted their research, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely not because they were stressed, but because they believed stress was harming their health. McGonigal puts this number in alarming perspective, sharing that based on this estimate, believing stress is harmful to your health is the fifteenth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. Perhaps as astonishing is the finding that those who reported high levels of stress, yet did not view the stress as harmful to health, had even lower death rates than those who experienced little stress.

Many educators have been inspired by Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and her distinction between those who hold a “fixed” mindset (believing their intelligence and talent are fixed traits, consequently seeking to prove their ability or avoid showing weakness) and those who hold a “growth” mindset (believing their abilities can be developed through hard work, consequently persevering despite obstacles). McGonigal explains that there are many different mindsets, or rather beliefs that shape our reality, including competing mindsets about stress; one maintaining stress is harming (depleting health and vitality, debilitating performance and productivity, inhibiting learning and growth) and the other proclaiming stress is enhancing (enhancing performance and productivity, improving health and vitality, facilitating learning and growth).

For years, convinced of the damaging impact of stress, I avoided, denied, or reframed as positive as many stressful situations as I could, striving as much as possible to remain unruffled by difficulty and calm in the face of adversity. Despite my best efforts, life happened. I experienced the usual stresses so many in education experience as well as a number of major, dramatic, life altering crises. Through it all, I learned to go into “crisis mode” when necessary, taking action to navigate through difficult situations, while mindfully expressing gratitude for the tremendous amount of good in my life; appreciating each good day, and even good moments during otherwise difficult days. Still, I viewed the stress as harmful and damaging. With a new mindset on stress, I feel I have received a precious gift; the invitation to embrace the many stresses in my life as challenges with the potential to enable me to strengthen qualities such as courage and compassion, connect with others by both giving and accepting care, trusting my ability to overcome difficulties, and forging greater meaning in life. It does not mean I wanted or sought the stresses, especially those that are significant and involve the suffering of others, but it does mean that if face them I must, I can allow myself to be transformed by the experience for the better.

Among the approaches McGonigal shares to embrace stress include transforming perceptions of stress from a threat to a challenge, helping others and accepting help from others, and trusting the human capacity to transform suffering into meaning. The shifts impact more than perception, altering biological processes in ways that enhance health. When anticipating that stress will help us, we produce more dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone that speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function. Higher levels of DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and other illnesses we often consider to be stress related, as well as greater focus, less dissociation, improved problem solving skills, and fewer post traumatic stress symptoms. Helping others and accepting help from others releases the hormone oxytocin, reducing feelings of hopelessness. In one study, every significant stressful life event among those who did not routinely help others increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. However, study participants who went out of their way to help others showed absolutely no stress-related increased risk of death. Accepting help is also vital and while there are likely very few more universal human experiences than stress, often we feel isolated and disconnected in our stress, making it far more challenging to take action, see any possible good in a situation, or reach out to others to receive help we need or to benefit from being able to help others. Trusting our own capacity to learn from adversity can enable us to forge meaning and protect against health risks. Edith Chen, a psychologist at Northwestern University, found that people who grew up in poor or unsafe environments and yet both accept that they can learn from adversity and maintain optimism in the face of adversity do not experience the toxic buildup of stress related ailments common among others who have experienced similar stress; including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and inflammation.

And so, my gift to myself is to strive to shift a long held mindset about stress and embrace my stress, remaining open to growth and transformation. Might you accept the same gift? If so, how might you embrace stress and discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life?

For more information, I highly recommend reading The Upside or Stress by Kelly McGonigal and viewing her TED talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh, Scotland, June, 2013


On Mindset, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg & Teacher Evaluation


Politically independent, and typically loathe to share my eclectic political perspectives, I will say that there is much I admire about New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On education policy though, I’m a skeptic, growing more disillusioned.  Principal of an independent school and humbly reticent about making remarks on public education, I comment on this week’s education news out of sadness; increasingly convinced that to improve our schools, educators can together design and present alternative approaches to evaluating our own effectiveness.

Mayor Bloomberg, as reported in an article in The Wall Street Journal,  declared this past Monday that he wants teachers’ evaluations open for all to see. Why, Mayor Bloomberg? His answer: doing so will “provide pressure to constantly upgrade.”

Pressure to upgrade? Really? Does pressure improve practice?

Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), would likely disagree. Dweck compellingly describes the differences between fixed and growth mindsets, shared in greater detail in this 2007 article in Stanford Magazine. Dweck explains in Mindset that those with a fixed mindset believe their qualities are carved in stone, thus experiencing great urgency to prove themselves. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe basic qualities can be cultivated through effort, inspiring improvement and accomplishment. Not only individuals, but organizations have mindsets, and a culture of judging puts everyone in a fixed mindset. Instead of learning and growing, everybody’s fear of being judged paralyzes, impeding creativity and innovation. Pressure to upgrade? Sounds like a recipe for developing a culture of fear and fixed mindset.

So what’s the alternative? Dweck looks to CEO’s for insight, finding that in stark distinction to fixed-minded CEO’s, growth-minded CEO’s, the type featured by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great (2001), are deeply concerned with mentoring and employee development programs, seeking ways of providing feedback to employees in ways that promote learning and future success.

So, Mayor Bloomberg, why should we evaluate? Not, I would argue, to provide pressure. Instead, I would suggest, to offer support, guidance, and even at times, inspiration. As a principal, I would never be able to share honest reflections with teachers were those conversations, designed to be private, made public. For those teachers in jeopardy of dismissal, I need to be empowered to protect the dignity of professionals who, despite not being a match for our school, have strengths and have made contributions. Nonrenewal of contract is a painful decision, not to be taken lightly, nor publicized. For the majority of teachers, I need to be able to guide honest reflection on strengths and weaknesses, identifying areas for professional growth in a trusting and supportive environment.

So, what should teacher evaluations look like?

There are many possible forms, and like most serious learning resources, evaluation tools need to remain constantly a work in progress. Faculty members at our school are creating our own rubrics to assess excellence based on our school’s Standards for Professional Practice. We plan to use these rubrics for teachers to self-assess and for the educational leadership team to assess as well, leading to conversation on how teachers see their strengths and weakness and how the members of the educational leadership team see teachers’ strengths and weakness. I humbly view the rubrics as an assessment of my own knowledge of faculty in our school, and approach evaluation with trepidation. I understand that learning is complex and multiple measures of student learning and growth matter. I cannot imagine basing 40% of a teacher evaluation on one standardized test as is possible in New York City’s new system, nor for that matter on one formal observation, or indeed on one of anything. Effectiveness, like learning, is complex and requires multiple measures to assess. We must be careful about what we believe we know and cautious about judging skilled professionals or indeed about judging anybody. I wonder constantly how I can avoid acting as “expert”, regardless of the number of measures I amass, and instead function as a coach and a mentor. I question deliberately how I can nurture a growth mindset and facilitate teacher learning – helping good teachers become very good, very good teachers become great, and great teachers become even greater.

Luckily for our students, we are not and will not be required to publish our completed rubrics for all to see; neither will our rubrics be filed away for future reference only if a problem or a possibility for promotion arises. Our evaluation or rather professional learning rubrics will be living guides for our teachers – shaping professional learning goals, supports to achieve our goals, and assessments to recognize progress made. Our evaluations will, at their best, inspire nuanced, impactful, meaningful growth for the benefit of our children, based not on pressure and fear, but rather on joy and dedication. And that, Mayor Bloomberg, is a far more effective path than providing constant pressure to improve our schools.

%d bloggers like this: