teach our children well

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The timing of last night’s Start with Strengths session could not have been better.  Just three hours earlier, I was standing by my car, listening to my son’s teacher recite everything my boy had done wrong that day.

“What did he do right?” I asked her, tears threatening to spill out of my eyes, my voice tinged with desperation.  Surely there was something.  “Oh yes,” she said, “he participated in our class discussion, did well in English class…” and then reverted back to the ‘rap sheet’ of bad behaviour.  My son sat slumped in the car, knowing full well the tone of our conversation.

I got back into the driver’s seat weary and defeated, my cheeks burning with shame. If I felt like crap, I knew that my son did too.  I also knew there’s got to be a better way.  Later that night, family leader Karen Copeland and Langley principal Chris Wejr confirmed that there was:  a strengths based approach to education.

The session was warm and lively and involved both lecture-style with funky visuals and small group work.  It was a great mix of storytelling, video and interaction.  All the way home I thought about how I had failed miserably to communicate effectively with his teaching team about what’s awesome about my boy.

Learning about what makes my son’s heart sing and then building on that does not mean spoiling or giving into him.  (I hate the term ‘giving in’ – it implies a constant battle.  I so wish his life wasn’t such a big fight, because that always means there are winners and losers.  And he usually loses).

Last night, I confirmed that the research tells us we all perform better when we focus on our strengths, not our weaknesses.  We often label behaviours as negative, instead of seeing the talents they might be masking.  My son often gets in trouble for blurting out how he feels – but expressing his feelings is a good thing, and I admire his talent for word play. Yesterday he angrily called a teacher ‘Trump-Lady’ which is of course not okay, but it does display his good grasp of both current events and the English language.  The key is to redirect his quick wit into something productive instead.

The workshop was powerful.  Chris affirmed that many kids go through school reminded of what they can’t do, not what they can do.  That’s because schools (and the world) concentrate on deficits, not strengths.  But if we work on our deficits all the time, we will only become okay – but if we work on our strengths, we can be outstanding.

Karen and Chris referenced a lot of great work, like Rita Pierson’s TedTalk called Every Kid Deserves a Champion.  (A favourite quote:  kids don’t learn from people they don’t like). This is important to work about human connection for all kids – especially for our kids who struggle with connection.  They talked about helping kids to bring forth what is within.

Chris asked:  how can we help kids see themselves through a different lens?  So that they believe that they CAN, not that they CAN’T.  Kids do not need fixing, as they are not broken and as Karen said, sometimes it starts with remembering what it is about children that brings us joy.

Kudos to Karen and Chris for a well-organized and thoughtful learning opportunity.  I loved that both a parent and a principal shared the podium – it really modelled what true partnership can look like in education.

Today, I had a chance to practice what I learned.  After school when the teacher started to recite my boy’s transgressions, I put up my hand.  Please stop, I said. First tell me something he did well.  Her tone changed and she told me about a picture of a city he’s painting in art class.  Aaron’s demeanour transformed from stressed and distraught to relaxed and smiling. His relief was instantaneous.  Then we were both open to hearing about more constructive feedback.  As Chris said, the struggle is important – that’s where you learn.  It doesn’t mean you don’t address the hard stuff – but why not start with what’s good?

I learned last night to start with www (what went well).  This approach is very powerful and it can make all the difference to a child.  It can also show them that they matter.  And in this world of uncertainty and growing repression, we need more people to feel that they matter, to stand up for what’s right, to make a difference.  That’s what’s called teaching our children well.

outside of my bubble

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I am guilty of tightly curating the information that flows into my life.  I self-select the people I hang out with and the news that I read.  That’s why this looming Trump presidency is so shocking to me – because (admittedly in my white left-leaning world) I never considered there was even another point of view.  As President Obama counselled us in his farewell speech, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”

This year I’ve vowed to venture outside my bubble with a commitment to learn more.  Just validating what I already know has become pretty boring.  In 2017, I’d like to be surprised with something new, to be pushed to think outside what I believe to be true.

Yesterday I drove east into the sunrise to Fort Langley to attend TEDxLangleyED.  The theme was the future of learning with a side of courage and curiosity.  As added incentive to get out of my warm bed early on a Saturday morning, I knew one of the speakers, Suzanne Perreault, and wanted to show up to show my support.

I won’t do eight hours of speakers justice by synthesizing it here.  (The organizers promise that the videos will be up on the TED site by March). But I will attempt to share one thing I learned from each speaker.  The problem with conference or events is that we walk out of them inspired and roaring to change, and then we get into our cars and drive back home and all that energy disappears.  Our take-aways get left in the lobby of the venue.  Writing down what I learned yesterday helps make it real and this makes it stick.

From the organizers, I learned about the importance of planning an agenda and crackerjack moderation.  Maria LeRose was seamless in her introductions – she stayed on stage for just the right amount of time and said exactly the right thing to sum up the previous talk and usher in the new one.  She was invisible but she was there – stitching together the speakers and moving things along.  I’ve moderated sessions in the past, and this was a good reminder that moderation is not about the moderator.

Again, a hat tip to the organizers with their planning of the day.  It was the right mix of different styles of talks:  music plus interviews plus talks with slides plus talks without slides plus archived TED videos.  Mixing up the format made the day whizz by and kept things surprising and energizing.

I scribbled notes from the speakers in the dark.  Here are some quotes I remember:

“Do you look at yourself and smile?” – Bruce Cairnie
“Failure will always tell you what you need to hear.” -Brent Hayden
“When did we as a society forget how to move through grief?” -Gabe Penner
“There’s no such thing as problem youth, just youth with problems.”-Sandy Balascak

I learned about interesting presentation styles, like Savanna Flakes, who compared designing meaningful school experiences for all students to the process of creating the Dorito.  She memorably said, referring to kids with exceptional needs:  “all learners have something to contribute to the school community.” Jefferson Hsu, age 10, gave a heartfelt violin performance.  Young and talented student Brett Dick shared a lovely song.

Kathleen Forsythe emphasized the importance of wonder and allowing the capacity to imagine.  John Harris set the stage for the demonstrations of three student virtual reality projects.  Then I felt about a hundred years old, like my dear Grandma when she used to leave a message on my answering machine, saying:  I hate this machine!  But it was good to recognize this in me too.

The three TED videos shown were outstanding, too:
The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers – Adam Grant
You Have No Idea Where Camels Really Come From – Latif Nasser
What I Learned from 100 Days of Rejection – Jia Jiang

From these videos, I realized that I’m drawn to speakers who explain left-brain concepts (science, biology) in a right-brain way – with humour and storytelling.

I went for a walk at lunchtime to think about what I had heard.  I thought of Kathleen’s words about the wonder of the world – that every moment was a surprise, because you never know what could happen.  My walk was unsurprising, except I stopped to appreciate the warmth of the sun on the cold west coast day, thankful it wasn’t raining (and that one small wonder was enough).

My husband is obsessed with climate change and electric cars, and he would have loved Tim Stephenson’s talk – a science teacher who asks:  what is it that breaks your heart and what are you going to do about it is pretty special.  His call to action, to take a step was enough to make me feel conflicted driving my gas-guzzling car back home.

I had been looking forward to hearing Truepayna Moo speak and was not disappointed.  She spoke about coming to Canada as a Karen person from a refugee camp on the Burma/Thailand border and challenged the idea of the ‘glossed over’ Canadian notion of multiculturalism.  With grace and eloquence, this young woman reminded us to teach our children to ask questions of people who are different, so we can get to know each other on a deeper level.  She pointed out that being a refugee is a badge of honour, of strength and courage, not someone to feel pity for.

Are you still with me?  This is a wholly self-serving post to help me remember my day. I learned something from everybody. Katherine Mulski used humour to tackle the topic of busy (I don’t have time to slow down), Luke Dandurand brought me to tears with his video of his family and shame about what I don’t understand about reconciliation and our treatment of the First Nations people in Canada.  My friend Suzanne Perrault arrived on stage in her sparkly red shoes, full of passion for families who have children with autism, like hers.  She outlined the loss and grief families with children with differences go through, and asked the educators to consider how they organize the (dreaded) IEP meetings at school with families.  I was awed by her own courage to be up there, standing under the blazing lights on a red dotted carpet, and grateful she used the opportunity to give mama bears a voice.

I sat at the back by myself, on the aisle.  I had been fortunate enough to choose a spot behind an immensely talented woman named Victoria Olsen who was drawing a gorgeous sketch for the TEDTalks.  She was drawing on her iPad as people spoke, synthesizing their messages into a quote and illustration. It was fascinating to watch.  She’d pull out a message, draw a colourful quote and then change her mind and erase it and start over again.  She did so much erasing until she was satisfied with the image.  Then she’d have to leave the graphic to move onto the next speaker’s message.  My chance eavesdropping taught me this:  perfect is the enemy of done, and don’t be afraid to erase and start over again.  These are good lessons for life.

We must not assume that we know.  In fact, the wonder in this world is about the unknowing, the being open to surprise, the joy in the warm sun on my face, the listening to understand.  Events like TEDTalks remind me that I know nothing for sure.  This is both humbling and revolutionary at the very same time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

on one hand, the butterflies

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This quote from Maria Shriver is a reminder not to be afraid of being afraid. In fact, the most courageous people are afraid. If you are a patient and family speaker and you find yourself behind a podium, you will feel anxiety and that is ok. This means you are about to do something daring, something so great that so many other people are terrified of doing. You’ve overcome your fear to climb up onto the stage and that’s what really matters.

Brene Brown says, “if you fail, at least you will fail daring greatly.” In her book Daring Greatly, she deconstructs the great Teddy Roosevelt speech to point out that it is not the critic who counts, it is the (wo)man who has dared to enter the arena.

My son is a drummer in a punk rock band. He has played countless gigs in a mash-up of venues: basements, garages, clubs, halls and festivals. I once asked him: “aren’t you nervous before you go up on stage?” and he looked at me as if I had three heads.

“I’m not nervous, Mom,” he said slowly, so I could understand. “I’m excited to be playing.”

Ah. There are so many dichotomies with public speaking. This is true for all speakers, but especially true for patient and family speakers.  We have so much more skin in the game, because sharing personal stories from health care makes us so very vulnerable.

One on one hand, it is normal and even expected to be nervous. On the other hand, why label your feelings in a negative way? Instead of being anxious, why not reframe and rename these butterflies as excitement? I have no answer to this, as I continue to drive white-knuckled to speaking engagements while still accepting and even seeking out these same engagements.  On one hand, nerves give you energy, on the other hand, nerves make you nervous.

For patients and families sharing their stories, more dichotomies ensue:

On one hand, prepare thoroughly and on the other hand, don’t appear too scripted because you will come off as robotic.

On one hand, know your material well and don’t read your words, on the other hand, it is impossible to memorize 30 pages of speaking notes.

On one hand, showing emotion is good, but on the other hand, don’t burst into gasping, sobbing tears.

On one hand, connect with your audience using humour, but on the other hand, don’t stand up there and be a cheerleader.

One one hand, be self-deprecating to show humility, on the other hand, don’t be too apologetic.

On one hand, share negative stories, but on the other hand, do it constructively and don’t scold the audience.

On one hand, allow yourself to be vulnerable in the telling of your story, on the other hand, be respectful to all hecklers even if they are being total and complete jerks.

On one hand, your story is the most transformational element of many conferences, on the other hand, don’t you dare presume to ask for money for that speaking engagement.

On one hand, don’t be greedy and ask for too much money, on the other hand, don’t undervalue yourself.

On one hand, show passion, on the other hand, don’t come off as angry or hysterical, especially if you are a woman.

One one hand, tell the truth, on the other hand, don’t offend your audience.

On one hand, it is your message that’s most important, on the other hand, how and why you deliver that message is more important.

On one hand, the soft stuff is inspirational, on the other hand, where is the data?

On one hand, you can only speak on behalf of your own experience, on the other hand, try to speak on behalf of all patients.

On one hand, nobody cares how you look, on the other hand, don’t dress too casually (sign of not taking this seriously) or too formally (do you think you are better than those in the audience?).  Don’t wear jangly bracelets, stripes or big florals, or all black so you look like a floating head.

On one hand, don’t worry, your video will work, on the other hand, the technology guy isn’t answering his page.

On one hand, humans are not perfect, on the other hand, there will be a member of the audience counting all your ‘ums’.

On one hand, being a ‘mom’ is enough, on the other hand, play up any professional background you have to ensure credibility.

On one hand, not everybody will get your message, on the other hand, that guy asleep in the front row is disconcerting.

On one hand, is this worth all the stress and sweating, on the other hand, it is only through sharing our stories that we are going to change the world.

Bravo and brava to all those patients and families standing in front of a microphone to inspire positive change in health care (and also the education world).  I bow deeply and tip my hat to you – keep talking.  Keep grabbing that microphone.  Keep using your voice. Keep accepting those engagements.  Keep asking for a fee.  Keep asking if conferences are #patientsincluded. Keep feeling scared, but keep taking a deep breath and keep showing love for your audiences.  As Mary Pipher says, this is where the transformation begins.

your sign for today

An interesting thing happens to me when I’m going through change.  Little signs pop up everywhere – signs that perhaps were always there, but I wasn’t ready to see them.

I lived in Winnipeg when my first marriage crumbled.  One day I was driving over the Assiniboine River and I happened to look up.  There was a flashing neon sign that I had never seen before.  It advertising a church, and it said:

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Now, despite not being an organized religion kind of gal, I really needed to see that blinking sign at that vulnerable juncture in my life.  These words gave me great comfort, and I went out of my way to drive past that sign in the weeks to follow.  Then one day it was simply gone.

Two years ago, before we made a decision to move to the west coast, I happened upon this sign near Fisherman’s Wharf on a trip to Vancouver.  It was faded, but I could still read it.  I took this sign to heart, too.

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Sometimes the signs come from people.  These are your angels.  Listen to them.  Just this morning, a treasured colleague said to me:  the work you are meant to do is the in between.  She explained – my talents were in bridging organizations and families, connecting up people – the broker in between.  Instead of struggling that I don’t fully belong to one organization or group or the other, I should simply embrace the spaces in between, because that is where I belong.

Later this afternoon, I was leaving our condo to pick up Aaron from school.  My brow was furrowed, my face bent into a frown.  Across the street a tradesman was getting into his van.

You look like you are suffering from a long day! he shouted across the road.   This instantly broke my frown. I smiled and nodded.  Don’t let the bastards get you down!  Then he popped in his van and he was gone.  And this wise sentiment, my friends, is my sign for the day.

ps:  Never forget that angels come in all shapes and forms.  It is only if you stay very still, you can hear what they say.

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guilty as charged

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Well this needs no commentary, except to say that Louis C.K. nails it again.  I’m forever preaching about reflective practice, which doesn’t mean infinite self-love. It means reflecting on what’s happened, thinking about your role in it and figuring out how you are going to be a better person the next time around.

And sometimes, my friends, when I look at my behaviour in uncomfortable situations, I have been an asshole.  (I prefer to call myself a jerk.  But if Louis C.K. says asshole, I’ll say asshole).  I’ve ignored personal texts and calls, been a less-than-ideal friend, begged off social situations, been totally, irrationally emotional about something minor, and have been a rabid judge of people who I feel are judgmental (?!).  I also can be too single-mindedly driven at work, be very mean if I feel someone has wronged one of my children, hold a hellofa grudge, harbour secret schemes to enact revenge on those who have wronged me, and finally, I am often on my high horse.  And I’m just scratching the surface.  Perhaps my ex-friends, ex-work colleagues or ex-boyfriends/spouse can chime in here.

People have told me that I’m such a nice person, and that makes me feel even more guilty for the times that I’m a jerk.  I consider this as the permission for me to say:  hey, sometimes I’m an asshole too.  I am perfectly imperfect and maybe by confessing this, this just makes me more human?  Or maybe it just makes me more of an asshole.  I’ll let you be my judge.

my many mentors

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Me, Laurene Black, Heather Mattson McCrady

Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed to have been gifted mentors to help me along my way.

My first mentor was my boss when I worked at Alberta Health (oh my) 25 years ago, when I was fresh out of university.  Her name was Nandini Kuehn, and she had the unusual mix of graduate degrees in English and Health Care Administration (a combination that I now possess).  From her I learned how to write a decent sentence (drop the dangling participles) and to overcome my paralyzing fear of public speaking.  She pushed me way out of my comfort zone by sending me around the province to present the new hospital funding formula to audiences of (sometimes hostile) health professionals.  This terror was a time of great growth for me.  After my mat leave with my first son, she invited me back to work on a costing project, where I learned even more about myself and dispelled the myths of what I thought I couldn’t do.

Zooming ahead, I learned how to be a good La Leche Leader from a number of exceptional mama bears, including my friend Maureen Andreychuk.  I summoned up my bravery to dare to be published through writer friends like Melissa Steele.  I learned to speak up for myself from Inger Eide, when I lived in Norway with her family.   I was saved from single mom unemployment by the very kind Shirley Groenen.

And finally, these two women pictured above introduced me to my current world of patient and family centred care.  Laurene Black just won a greatly-deserved Centennial Award from CARNA, her nursing association.  She paved the way for the incredible work at the Stollery Children’s Hospital.  From her I learned:  keep your head down, keep going and don’t give up.  Heather Mattson McCrady taught me, by her gentle role modelling, the crucial importance of holding space for families and health care professionals – and the value of active listening.

All these women are a little bit older than me, and a whole lot wiser.  The key for me has been to be open enough to accept their gifts, even if they offered hard lessons to bear.  Personal growth is damn uncomfortable, which is why most of us take great pains to avoid it.  When exceptional people cross your path, say yes instead of no.

In my short time on this earth, I aspire to live up to these words, which were kindly given to me by a mom I knew in Aaron’s old school.  Thank you Nandini, Maureen, Melissa, Inger, Shirley, Laurene and Heather – and many others – for lighting my path along my way.

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when breath becomes air

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A long time ago, I used to write book reviews for the Winnipeg Free Press.  This is not a book review.  (If you’d like a good review of this book, click here).

Instead, this is my attempt at deconstructing the reasons I sobbed so hard last night when I read the last chapter of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

The book’s premise is well documented, so I’m not sharing any spoilers here.  A respected neurosurgery resident is diagnosed with lung cancer.  Eventually, he dies.  In between the diagnosis and the dying, he lives.  He continues his neurosurgery practice, has a baby with his wife and writes this beautiful book.  His wife Lucy pens the last chapter, which is the point at which I cried uncontrollably last night lying in bed, in the cloak of darkness, with my own husband sleeping by my side.

It took me two days to read this book, as I consumed it in two furious sessions.  This book is about answering a calling to go into health care.  It is about epiphanies mid-residency about the humanity of health care.  It is a conversation about what is the value of a life.  It is about facing death, not unafraid, but with one’s eyes wide open.  This book is mostly about living while one is dying.  And it is a bittersweet reminder that we are all dying, my friends.  Paul’s wife, Lucy, said it best:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude.

I’ve marked up my own copy of this book, and plan to reference it when I speak to medical students in February about the experience of having a child with a disability, which also includes the common experiences of grief, humanity and gratitude.  I want to pass all Paul’s wisdom on.

My hope for this little book is that it becomes required reading for all health professional students, similar to The Spirit Catches You.  Dr. Paul Kalanithi then will live on and on through his words, through the students he inspires, through the patients he saved, through his own daughter and through this expression of his love.