Don’t scare the butterfly

On Wednesday I was rushing to get the kids to gymnastics after school. It’s not a terrible hurry – the venue is only 5 minutes away, and they have to have a snack and a drink and get changed, but we have half an hour to play with. It does rather depend on the girls coming down to the school gate reasonably promptly, however, and on this occasion I seemed to have lost Miss 6.

When she finally appeared my time-stress was starting to make itself apparent, and I called up the hill to her: “Come on, Kiddo! We’ve got gym, we’ve got to get going!” but she still didn’t pick up the pace. When she got to me I started in on the usual lecture about needing to hurry on Wednesdays, and she stopped me with a beatific smile on her face.

“I couldn’t hurry, Mummy. A butterfly landed on me, and if I hurried I would have scared it away.”

Well. How can you argue with that? Who wants to be the mum who scares butterflies? Or worse, who forces her children to scare butterflies. So we slowed down and talked about the butterfly, the colours and patterns on its wings, and what an honour it was to have a butterfly land on you. And indeed we made it to gymnastics in plenty of time, even with snacking, changing, demonstrating some particularly tricky moves, and playing with friends while the room was setup by the coaches.

Then I rushed off to do the fruit and veggie shopping, hurtled home to put everything in the fridge, and realised that we weren’t quite out of the one crucial item that would have made a trip to the supermarket mandatory.  With that I stopped. I sat and had a cup of tea while I contemplated that notional butterfly.

buttefly on a floral skirt
don’t scare the butterfly

I think I spend my life not so much scaring butterflies as tramping all over them. When my yoga teacher, Roman, commented yesterday that we spend our lives in a state of permanent emergency, it struck a loud and violent chord within me. I am always lining up the things I have to do like tin ducks to be shot one by one in a side show. Perfectionist that I am I have to shoot every duck in precise order and time, and can’t possibly leave any ducks until tomorrow.

I don’t have time to do everything I need to do – and yet I spend hours at my computer, even when I’m not working, idly browsing blogs, news sites and comics, rather than shutting the laptop and doing something more positive like playing with my kids, playing the piano, or reading an interesting book. And then I go to bed wired and stressed about the things I have still to do, the lesson plans that aren’t perfect, the things around the house that never get done, and all the ways in which I don’t measure up to the standards in my head.

In yoga we do a breathing exercise where we lie down and focus on breathing into the abdomen. This requires a deep and sustained breath in, and a very slow breath out. Now that I am used to this exercise I find myself aware that most of the time my gut is tight as a drum (but not, sadly, anywhere near as flat!), and breathing that deeply is something I rarely slow down and relax enough to do. Roman is right, I do live in a constant state of emergency – and yet it is utterly artificial.

We actually meet deadlines and make it on time to our commitments more easily when we relax and handle things steadily. When I shout at the kids in the morning about getting ready for school it actually slows them down – and yet I am shouting at myself all the time inside my head. Slowing myself down.

So that’s my lesson for this week. We can still reach gymnastics with time to spare if we don’t scare the butterfly.

What is a teacher?

People keep asking me about the current teachers’ strike in Victoria. “If it’s not about pay, what’s it about?” they inquire, with pardonable scepticism. The government tells us we don’t deserve a pay increase even in line with CPI. The government tells us we don’t work hard enough, nor long enough hours. The government wants to implement performance pay without any solid, objective metric of performance.

I hear conversations and see posts on facebook about how we’re really a pack of whingers. We get these long school holidays, and work such short hours during the week. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” goes the saying. I hear sneers about the quality of reports, and the amount of work we actually put in.

And yet I see the teachers around me, both at my school and my kids’, putting their heart and soul into their work. I see bright and motivated graduates coming into teaching with stars in their eyes – knowing they will make a difference, and giving everything they have to make sure that difference is awesomely positive.

I see my friends burning out and moving away from teaching – into careers that offer them a work-life balance that actually balances. Giving up those luxurious holidays in favour of having a life.

So what is a teacher?

A teacher takes responsibility for every child in every class. Once they’ve been in my class, they’re “my kids” forever.

A teacher puts hours of after school time into preparation, and more hours into marking, and still frets that it’s not enough.

A teacher is constantly scanning life for engaging and contentious examples to use in class.

A teacher takes on extra curricular activities because the kids will love it, and it’s something to engage that one kid they haven’t reached yet.

A teacher spends lunchtimes running tutes for kids who are struggling, and fretting over the kids who don’t show up.

A teacher wakes at 3am with an idea about doing something differently for the kids who didn’t get yesterday’s topic.

A teacher ends the term with nothing left to give, and starts the next wanting to give it all.

Sure, not all teachers are like this. Some teachers phone it in. No profession is perfect through and through. But this is what teaching means to me. It is what I see around me every day. I love my job, and I am proud of what I do. I dream of a world where that is recognised and rewarded, not denigrated and sneered at.

Today I was chatting with one of our new teachers. As a veteran of two years (!) I wanted to warn him about the tough roads to come. The incredible overload that is term 2. The fact that feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared never completely stops, regardless of how long you have been teaching or how well you have prepared. And the fact that public opinion doesn’t value us. After two years and this bitter dispute over pay and conditions, I am tired and overwhelmingly cynical.

But I was charmed by his enthusiastic optimism. I saw my face reflected back at me in a kind of time-warp mirror. That’s how I felt when I was just starting out. That’s how we should always feel. This is an amazing job we do. It’s such a privilege to work with these wonderful young people, and to make a difference to them on a daily basis. If only the government negotiators could spend a week with us, seeing what we see, and feeling what we feel.

Maybe then they’d understand what it is to be a teacher.

Real romance

Valentines Day brings out my inner curmudgeon. It’s a huge, huge con. Today I was buying fruit and veg when a man came to the counter next to me bearing a box full of gorgeous orchids. “That should make you popular,” I joked.

“It’ll just about get me back to square 1,” he snorted. “You know what it’s like.”

Valentines Day is nothing but a marketing technique designed to sell a large number of roses, a vast amount of chocolate and a forest full of greeting cards. Oh, and things that sparkle, naturally. It bugs me because of the expectation. Buying flowers, chocolates or diamonds for your beloved because you know you will catch hell if you don’t is not romance. It’s pure pavlovian behaviour. Woof.

In the spirit of positivity, then, let me tell you what romance is, rather than what it’s not, and put my inner curmudgeon back where she belongs.

Romance is your husband shaving your legs for you when you’re pregnant and can no longer reach them yourself.

Romance is your partner calling up a friend you’ve been fighting with and handing you the phone, telling you to sort it out before you break the friendship.

Romance is cooking you your favourite dinner when you’ve had a rough day.

It’s letting you sleep in when you’re tired.

It’s getting creative in the kitchen to find ways to make your favourite dishes minus the things you’re allergic to.

It’s knowing you better than you know yourself.

It’s encouraging you to do the things you don’t want to do, that he knows will make you feel better (like exercising).

It’s managing your paperwork for you, when organisation is not your strong suit.

It’s knowing when you need food, a hug, or a good tickle, and supplying them in liberal quantities.

It’s building an aviary to implement your mad plan to have a sugar glider as a pet, and then extending the aviary when you decide to get two.

Romance is buying you a book you didn’t know existed that you now can’t put down because it speaks directly to your soul.

Romance is knowing exactly who you are, and giving you everything you need to be the best and happiest person you can be. Diamonds and roses don’t even come close.

Positively Balanced

Sometimes it seems as though my life is a balance scale – positive things pile up in one basket, negative in the other.  When the positive outweighs the negative I am high, but when the negative is heavier I come crashing down. At times life tips so much flaming garbage into the negative basket that it’s hard to imagine ever being up again.  Death, grief, trauma, illness, conflict – they can all conspire against us from time to time, and it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed.

Untitled drawingAt which point what can you do but wallow in how life has mistreated you? It all seems too hard. You either have enough happiness to balance the scale and lift you up or you don’t. It’s outside your control, right?

Well, actually, no. We have the power to choose what’s in those baskets. Not totally, of course. You can’t always throw the negative stuff out. Some of it is inescapable, and ongoing. That weight does drag us down. The overall balance, though, is something we can influence. If we spend our time inspecting the contents of the negative basket in excruciating detail – focusing on everything that’s wrong with our lives and how miserable it’s all making us – we can actually wind up making them heavier.

The good news is that we can also make the positive basket weigh more, by choosing to put the good stuff back in. Get a positive email from your boss? Save it, print it out, maybe even frame it. Got a birthday card that makes you smile? Put it somewhere you can see it every day, and keep it there regardless of how long ago your birthday was. Feeling good about how much you’ve achieved today? Take the time to appreciate what you’ve done. Created something beautiful lately? Solved a tricky problem? Done something you’ve been postponing for months? Share it with a friend who will appreciate what you have accomplished.

The positive basket fills up quickly with help from others. One of the fastest ways is to do something to help someone else, even something simple like taking chocolate to a work mate who is having a bad day, or giving a flower to someone you see on your morning walk. You’ll make them happier, and they’ll very likely smile at you, or even hug you, which will weight the positive basket nicely.

Direct, real-life contact with people is more effective than the online variety. We are programmed to mirror the feelings we see in front of us – it’s very hard not to smile when someone smiles at you, and physical contact provides endorphins and oxytocin to give us a boost. Even a simple handshake is worth more than a comment on your status update on facebook, and a high five is a priceless mood-booster.

Simple rituals can help, too. Even something as basic as finding three things you are thankful for every morning (check out the Thankful Thing), or looking in the mirror and saying three things you like about yourself. These things feel forced at first, but like a forced smile, they trigger a positive response whether we want them to or not.

It’s really easy to throw away the good bits of life and cling to the trauma. There are times when it’s almost unavoidable. But we need to remember that there are always good things around, if we only take the time to notice them. When my Dad died I was overwhelmed by the love and support shown by my friends and work mates. It’s been a tough time, but I have a strong sense of community that I didn’t have beforehand. I don’t want to get all Pollyanna on you and argue that every cloud has a silver lining. Some clouds are toxic all the way through. But there is always sunshine somewhere. We just have to remember to see it.

* this post was partly inspired by this. Check it out.

Learning to Fail

Last year I was privileged to hear Nobel Prize Winner Peter Doherty speak. His career stories were fascinating, but the single most crucial message he had to impart was electrifying. It was this: You’re going to fail. A lot. Get used to it.

Here at Pathological Perfectionists R US, we specialise in all or nothing behaviour. We either nail it or fail catastrophically. We’re either awesome or disastrously useless. Given the inherent difficulty of being permanently perfect, disastrously useless (and hence rather depressed) is a common feeling in this house.

The school system, too, tends to encourage this approach. You do something, submit it, get your mark and move on. You either nail it or not. There’s often no opportunity to learn from where you went wrong – exams, reports, teachers, students and parents alike focus on the final mark, at the expense of the learning experience. Awards are given for students who top the subject – regardless of how hard they had to work to do it. Students who make immense progress but “fail” to top the subject fail to get that recognition.

The Dux of a school is the student with the highest overall mark. Yet the Dux of life is surely the student who learns the most. The student who knows how to fail. Who takes failure, learns from it and moves on. Who knows how to get back up after being knocked down. Sometimes the student who started at the bottom and climbed to the middle has come a lot further and learnt a lot more than the student who finishes at the top.

How do you take a child who sees things only in black and white – success and failure – and teach her that failing is one of the most valuable things she can do? That she will learn more from her mistakes than she can ever learn from her successes? That every time she stuffs up she has an opportunity to become a better person?

You better believe there will be times in your life
When you’ll be feeling like a stumbling fool
So take it from me you’ll learn more from your accidents
Than anything that you could ever learn at school
Billy Joel – You’re Only Human

That’s not a problem I know how to solve – yet. The best I can do, I think, is lead by example. I have started telling my kids more about my own failures. It’s tempting to be your own press secretary and only let the good stories go to air, but if we learn a lot from our own mistakes, why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Academic publications have a bias towards successful papers – they like to print the papers that solve the problem. But equally important in science are the papers that explain why solving a problem with method (a) doesn’t work. These papers provide the foundation to move on to methods (b) (c) and (d). They eliminate possibilities one by one until an answer can be found.

Maybe it’s the same in parenting, and even teaching. We may not be able to teach them that failure is a chance to learn and grow, but we can certainly show them. By confessing our mistakes and being open about what we learnt from them, maybe we can help them to recognise that failure is an opportunity rather than a catastrophe.