Stranger Danger Danger

“Mummy, why did you talk to that lady? She’s a stranger.”

The question nailed me to my chair. I had been idly chatting with a fellow passenger in an airport, and my daughter found it difficult to reconcile this with what she has been told (not by us!) – “Never talk to strangers!

I always talk to strangers. I smile at people. I strike up conversations. And I have made personal, professional, and profound connections this way. When I was 15 I started writing to a complete stranger in Germany, and we just spent a week visiting him and his family, absolutely enveloped in love.

Some of my best friends now are people I just started talking to at random. In fact, if you think about it, everyone is a stranger at first. When you first start school. When you start a new job. When you move into a new neighbourhood. If you followed the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, it would be an extraordinarily isolated and lonely life.

But this is what we are supposed to be teaching our kids. That strangers are dangerous. That you should never talk to strangers. That strangers are scary.

Although the official messages, such as those you find on kid safety websites, have mostly shifted to identifying troublesome behaviours (such as asking kids to keep a secret from their parents) rather than avoiding strangers, apparently my 9 year old still knows that you don’t talk to strangers.

And where has this led us? This has led us to lifts where we rigidly face the front and don’t make eye contact. This has led us to neighbours who remain strangers to each other forever. This has led us to a distressing, and indeed hugely damaging, lack of community.

“Make sure that you are the kind of person who is positively contributing to your neighbourhood. Smile at everyone. Don’t ever stand at the bus stop with a stranger and not say ‘looks like rain’ or ‘why is the bus late?'” Hugh Mackay, DumboFeather Podcast, July 2016.

It’s true: Strangers can be dangerous. So can family. So can friends. But we would never teach our kids – or ourselves – to avoid family and friends. We are social creatures who need community in a very visceral way. And by teaching our children to fear the world, to believe that anyone they don’t know is dangerous to them, we are harming them profoundly.

We should be nurturing our kids’ ability to form connections, and to build networks. These are the skills that will keep them safe and make them fulfilled and productive adults. These are the skills that can even save our world and enable people to work together to solve our greatest problems. Yet we are actively teaching kids to repress their instinctive urge to talk to people, on the tiny chance that those people turn out to be dangerous.

I married a man who was once a stranger (very strange indeed). Strangers are just people we haven’t met yet. Some of them will hurt us. Some of them will love us. Some of them will save our lives. By closing ourselves off to strangers – building walls, not making eye contact, and preventing ourselves from connecting – we are killing ourselves emotionally.

Talking to strangers can, indeed, be dangerous. But not half as dangerous as never letting them in.

 

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Telling yourself stories

A long time ago in a galaxy… well… quite close actually, I taught a communication skills course to first year computer science students. Most lectures I bounced in, made a lot of eye contact, and taught a very interactive class. The first time I taught the public speaking lecture, though, I walked in, turned the lights off, looked down at the computer screen, and spoke in a monotone, trying to act as nervous as I could.

Obviously I was trying to make a point about public speaking styles, but I was shocked to discover that my heart rate skyrocketed, my breathing became shallow and rapid, and my hands began to shake. Pretending to be nervous had made me physically nervous, in just a few minutes. Once I turned the light back on and resumed my usual style, I calmed down very quickly.

In telling my students a story about how I was feeling, I was inadvertently persuading myself. Which suggests that I could just as easily tell myself a story about being confident.

In “A Hat Full of Sky”, by Terry Pratchett, Tiffany Aching learns a lesson about stories from Granny Weatherwax:

“For example, there was the Raddles’ privy. Miss Level had explained carefully to Mr. and Mrs. Raddle several times that it was far too close to the well, and so the drinking water was full of tiny, tiny creatures that were making their children sick. They’d listened very carefully, every time they heard the lecture, and still they never moved the privy. But Mistress Weatherwax told them it was caused by goblins who were attracted to the smell, and by the time they left the cottage, Mr. Raddle and three of his friends were already digging a new well at the other end of the garden.”

Tiffany is shocked, but this is how Granny explains herself:

“What I say is, you have to tell people a story they can understand. Right now I reckon you’d have to change quite a lot of the world, and maybe bang Mr Raddle’s stupid fat head against the wall a few times, before he’d believe that you can be sickened by drinking tiny invisible beasts. And while you’re doing that, those kids of theirs will get sicker. But goblins, now, they makes sense today. A story gets things done.”

Stories do, indeed, get things done. They are our most powerful way of communicating. We tell stories to remember history – and sometimes, in doing so, we change it. We tell stories to make sense of science. The plum pudding model of an atom was a story. It explained what we knew then. When we learnt more about the way electrons actually behave we needed a new story, so we went with electron shells in the Bohr model. When we knew more about electrons, we had to move on from the shells. At each stage, the stories were a powerful illustration of what we knew, but they were never quite the truth.

Studies have shown very clearly that facts don’t persuade people – in fact they often have the opposite effect. If you tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines save lives, and show them all the stats, you will most likely succeed only in entrenching their belief that vaccines are dangerous. What’s more, they will tell you, with great passion, a story about this child they “heard about once” who became autistic after receiving a vaccine.

Likewise, if you tell a climate change denier that climate change is real and show them all the evidence, they will come back at you with ever more vehement arguments about conspiracies and warming pauses. They will tell you a persuasive, emotional story about deceit and manipulation. A story full of lies, but powerful nonetheless. Truth, despite all our intuitive, wishful beliefs to the contrary, is not a very powerful weapon.

A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Terry Pratchett, The Truth

Stories, though! Stories persuade us of all kinds of things. I’ve read a lot about rip currents over the years, but it took two people close to me getting caught in them to make me truly aware of them. Their stories are fixed in my emotional brain. If you tell me a story of someone having their chair pulled out from under them and becoming paraplegic, that sticks in my mind for years where all the stats facts and figures in the world get pushed out by the next thing to grab my attention.

Effective communication is about finding the right stories. Stories can change the world.  And it’s funny, because stories can change us as well. We tell ourselves stories all the time.

Stories like

  • It’s ok for me to break that road rule, because I’m in a hurry and there’s n0-one coming so it’s fine.
  • She hasn’t replied to my text and it’s been half an hour already – I must have offended her.
  • He would never have said that if he really cared. Obviously he doesn’t care. In fact he probably hates me.
  • I don’t have any real friends.
  • I’m no good at my job, and it’s only a matter of time before someone finds out. Ok, maybe I got some praise today, but they only saw one good moment. The rest of my work is awful. They only praised me because they don’t want to upset me, not because I’m good at my job.

Stories like this shape both our brains and our bodies. It’s very easy to get stuck in a particular story line. To tell yourself that the friendship is doomed, and interpret every subsequent contact in that light, and once you start thinking that way you might as well toss the friendship on the scrap heap. Or to tell yourself that you are no good at your job, and interpret every bit of praise as an aberration, and every criticism as confirmation. We trap ourselves in our own stories.

But the upside of that is that it’s also surprisingly easy to tell ourselves positive stories. Once you recognise the stories you tell yourself as just that – stories – you can start to reshape them. Give them a new moral, and a happier ending. The other day, feeling tired and unwell, I persuaded myself that I suck at my job.  I do that from time to time, when things are overwhelming. Especially when I am stepping out of my comfort zone, I find all kinds of specific reasons why I am no good, and why I should retreat back into a nice, safe cave.

But this time instead of giving in to it, I questioned it. I went back and looked through my positive feedback file, where I save many of the positive emails, cards, and comments from my students, and I ticked off each reason one by one. Every single thing my negative thinking tried to drag me down with was refuted somewhere in my feedback file.

Stories are very persuasive, and our own internal stories are the most persuasive of all. Fortunately there are ways to turn those stories around. Just like we need to tell the story of our scientific research in persuasive and compelling ways, we need to tell our own internal stories too, deliberately, to turn around those tough days. Keeping a positive feedback file is one technique that is hugely powerful. The Thankful Thing and The Successful Thing work too. Pick whatever technique works for you, or go with a mix. The trick is to tip the balance between positive and negative in your head.

I bet you’ve heard the saying that we need to give kids 5 positive comments for every criticism, but how powerful would it be if we could apply that to our own self-talk? How often do you actively praise yourself?

Maybe it’s time to start!

Death For Kids

I’ve shared this one with a few friends recently – sadly, there’s been a need for it. Conversations about death can be tough, especially with kids. I wrote this inspired by our own family’s experience of death, but also trying to encompass the huge range of experiences and emotions that can happen around the death of someone we know. No two situations will ever be exactly alike. No two relationships are the same. I hope it might be useful to some families dealing with death. Please feel free to share it around – but I do ask that you retain the attribution and a link to this blog.


 

There is a lovely old idea that no-one truly dies until their influence on the world has ended. Until the tyres they pumped up have gone flat. Until the clock they wound up has run down. Until they are no longer remembered. Until their footprints have been erased. Until their last impact on the world is forgotten.
Grief is hard to understand. Sometimes you can laugh and play as though nothing different is happening. Other times you can’t think of anything else but the person who is dying.
When you’re not quite sure how you feel about someone, or you don’t feel as though you love them the way you are supposed to, it can make dealing with them dying a lot harder. You sometimes wind up thinking: “Am I a bad person for not feeling sad? How can I laugh when Fred is dying? He’s my grandfather/uncle/cousin, why don’t I love him more?”
The truth is that some people are hard to get close to. Hard to get to know. Even hard to love. But even if you don’t feel so close to them, it’s tough to face the death of someone you know.
Wrapping your head around the idea that someone is going to die is one of the hardest parts of life. Everybody dies eventually. Most people don’t die until they’re really old, but that doesn’t make it any easier. How can someone be here one day and gone the next?
Facing someone’s death is really hard, especially if you know it’s coming, but you don’t know when. Sometimes that can go on for months, and it’s a real strain. It hurts, and it’s scary, and the people around you are probably grumpier and upset too. It’s kind of hard to get on with life when you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but you know it’s bad, and it’s probably going to be soon.
When someone dies, or is dying, it’s really important to gather your friends and family around you for support. You need to play and laugh with your friends, you need extra hugs, and you need to remember that we all cope with death differently. Sometimes you need to cry and be hugged, other times you just need to play and be distracted, and not think about it for a while.
Sometimes you might feel angry – cross with the person who has died for making things difficult, or cross with your family for being upset and upsetting you. Or you might feel angry with someone who isn’t stressed right now – because it’s not fair that they’re not stressed, and you’re dealing with something so tough.
It’s really important to remember that everyone feels all of these things sometimes. There’s no such thing as the right or wrong thing to feel. You might be sobbing one minute and laughing the next. It’s ok. However you feel, you have a right to feel that way. You need to take care of yourself, and to remember that it’s ok to feel the way you do.
Talk about it when you need to, and distract yourself with something fun when you need to as well. Be gentle with yourself, and cut yourself a little more slack than usual. We all make mistakes at the best of times, and times like this aren’t easy. You’re probably going to make more mistakes, get angrier, and cry more. It’s all normal, and the people around you will understand (even if they might be making more mistakes, getting angrier and crying more, too).
Most people have something called a funeral when someone dies. This is a formal get together where people make speeches talking about the good things they remember about the person who died.
Many people also have a “wake”, which is a kind of party where people eat and drink just like at an ordinary party, but they also comfort each other. At a wake people sometimes make short speeches, but mostly they just talk to each other, remembering the person who died, and listening to each other’s memories.
Some people might come to the wake who didn’t know the person who died, but they know you, so they want to come to support you, and remind you that you are loved.
Grief is really hard, and the feelings can be very intense sometimes. It can be overwhelming, and hard to imagine how you can get on with life when you feel this way. That’s when you might need an extra hug, or a bit of time out. Remember that it gets easier with time, and also that it goes up and down – sometimes you might start feeling better, and then feel worse again. Grief sometimes comes in waves, washing over you uncontrollably, and then disappearing again quite quickly.
The best thing you can do is to spend time with people who care about you, and who make you feel good. Remember that it’s hard for all of us, and we can all look after each other and comfort each other.

Work-work balance

Anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or makes the mistake of asking me what I do for a living knows that I love my job. I will rave about it endlessly at the slightest opportunity. To be frank, I’ll rave about it even if the opportunity is not presented. I sometimes think I need to wear a warning label when I meet new people. “Caution: do not get me talking about teaching. I never stop. Back away. Don’t make eye contact. Sorry.”

I am aware of the concept of work-life balance, in much the same way as fish are aware of hats. They might know hats exist, but they don’t see the personal relevance.

I am technically half time, but for the last 5 years of my career – my first time teaching in a High School instead of a University – I have used my days off as time for meetings, lesson planning, marking, and creating bold new units that have never been taught before. Chatting with an academic recently about a new Data Science unit I’m planning, he commented that it was fairly ground breaking teaching that sort of stuff at undergraduate level. Teaching it at High School is entirely terra nova. Which is fine, because everything I’ve done so far at my school is terra nova.

And I love that. I really do. It’s thrilling for me, interesting for my students, and a massive sea of opportunities open to us all. It’s a really wild ride. But it takes time, and vast reserves of energy. I could not do so much innovative stuff if I were full time, and even part time I find I am pushing myself to the limit and beyond far too much of the time. I end each term exhausted to the point of illness. I end the year with absolutely nothing in reserve, and deep in energy debt. And I’m not alone in that – I see it all around me in the staff room every December.

I’m becoming aware that I can’t keep working this way. It’s sheer delight having a job that I want to really throw myself into. But I can’t keep flinging myself at it so hard that I smash when I hit the end of term wall. It’s not good for me, and it’s incredibly tough on my family. When I pick my kids up from school I need some energy left for them, and all too often that’s just more than I can manage.

It’s simple enough to plan boundaries and specify ground rules, but they crumple in the face of opportunities. I just can’t say no. If there’s an opportunity for my students I’ll take it, without stopping to think about whether I have time. If a student needs extra help I’ll give it, and around yard duties and only being at school half the time, that sucks up my free time really fast. Being there full time wouldn’t help, though, because then I’d have twice the teaching load.

I guess what it comes down to is that I have to learn to compromise before I am compromised. I have to learn that I can’t do everything all at once, and that as one person I can’t offer everything either. Sometimes that means this year’s students won’t get every opportunity. Sometimes it means the curriculum won’t change as much as I want as soon as I want it to. Sometimes it might have to mean that while help is available in class time, I can’t offer up every one of my lunchtimes.

Balance doesn’t come naturally to me. If my students need help, or want to do something extra, I want to make it possible. So I’m looking for tips. How do you manage balance? How do you avoid burnout in a job you are passionate about? The last thing I want to do is become someone who is just marking time, but there is surely some middle ground I could learn to inhabit. Who has some clues?

 

 

 

 

 

The promise of Spring

This morning, towards the end of a long, cold, and immeasurably gloomy winter, I dragged myself out for a run. Well, I say a run. It was more of a stumble, really. But it was pre-dawn, I was outside, and the sting of frost had finally faded, to leave a cold but bearable morning.

There was a wispy layer of thin cloud, with pink and gold highlights shyly appearing and disappearing as the sun struggled out of its metaphorical bed. The morning air was still and, while not precisely warm, it hinted at warmth to come. Frostbite, it promised, was a thing of the past.

I run to throw off the shackles of another restless night. To escape the lead weights of insecurity that threaten sink me on many an otherwise unremarkable day. To leave behind the gnawing doubts – am I fit to be a parent? Could I have handled that better? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I giving them what they need? Am I a good teacher? Was that class a complete train wreck, and can I salvage something from the wreckage? Have I lost it? Did I, in fact, ever have it?

I run towards a future where I sleep, and I am confident. Where I am fitter, stronger, and more patient. Where I spring out of bed in the morning feeling rested and energetic. I don’t even know if that future exists, but I have to keep running towards it, or like a shark who stops swimming, I fear I will drown.

I don’t run far – yet. But I get the blood pumping and the breath rasping. I run far enough to fog up my glasses when I arrive home.

And I run far enough to see the clouds turn silvery gold in the morning sun. To smell the Daphne and Pittosporum as they promise me Spring in all its glory. To see the blossom trees unfurling in eager beauty, believing in a season we can’t yet see or feel.

I run far enough to find hope in the daffodils and narcissus that force their own way through winter’s dark depression like small, localized sunrises. To feel the warmth on a breeze that doesn’t yet exist. And to know that Spring is coming, both inside and out.

Family

Mothers day is always a little fraught for me. My relationship with my Mum was complicated, long before dementia kicked in and kicked over the furniture. So today I have been watching all the heartfelt declarations of love and support on Facebook and feeling a little bruised. A little battered. A little lost.

But then I started thinking about some of the extraordinary relationships in my life. My beautiful girls brought me breakfast in bed. Their handmade cards made me teary. Their hugs were heartfelt, and inevitably followed by a certain amount of coffee-endangering wrestling – don’t tell me girls don’t wrestle. They just do it at a much higher pitch. It all made me smile (once my coffee was safely out of the way).

I reflected on the wonderful people that my work has brought into my life. The amazing support staff. The fabulous teachers who have become dear friends. The researchers and activists I and my students have collaborated with. And the students themselves. That’s when it hit me. I have two children by any normal calculation. But in the 5 years since I became a high school teacher I have suddenly become Mum to every student I have ever taught.

They all have a piece of my heart, and a claim on my time, for as long as they want it (and beyond). They teach me incredible things and give me amazing gifts every time they bounce into the classroom. Every time they email me for help. Every time they find me on Facebook after they leave school. Every time they come back to help in my classroom, or just to sit up the back because they have a study period and they like the atmosphere. Every time they send me interesting snippets they think I’ll enjoy or be able to use in class.

Every time they tease me with while(True) loops and emoji variables (sorry, programming joke).

Every time we meet for coffee. Every time they ask me for career advice. Every time we stay connected. Every time we interact. Every single time. I’m so lucky to be connected to these amazing people. In a very real sense they are part of my family forever. Family is where your heart is. Happy Mothers Day!

A pause to reflect

I’ve often said that by the time you finish a PhD, having spent at least 3 years immersed in a single, intense, drawn out project, all you can see is the flaws in that work. It doesn’t matter if you get glowing examiners’ reports and win awards for your work: all you know about by the end of that time is the hundreds of little ways you could have done better if you started it all again. The kind of obsessive personality who can actually finish a PhD (I’m pretty sure obsessiveness is the primary requirement for graduation) generally has a perfectionist streak approximately as wide as the infinitely expanding universe.

I’ve found that I have a similar tendency in real life. I’ve just finished a marathon year, and I’m both exhausted and a little nauseous at the thought of everything I want to achieve next year. The majority of my brain is sitting in the corner, rocking, and gibbering quietly at the thought of another year like the one just past.

Facebook puts together naff little photostreams of “the year that was” for you, collecting a moderately random set of your posts from the year into a summary of 2014. Mine seems to consist largely of animals and photos from the far distant past, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It’s a bit pointless, except that it has prompted me to consider what my 2014 really looked like. Rather than hyperventilating at the thought of the progress I still want to make, maybe there’s something to be said for stopping to consider how far I’ve come.

For a teacher it can be hard to quantify your year, especially if you don’t have year 12s. Year 12 students provide some kind of objective measure of your teaching, because their assessment is primarily external, but even then you can say “Oh, well the students were amazing, they’d have done well whoever taught them.” Which is what I tend to do when my students achieve extraordinary things – because they are invariably extraordinary kids, and it is exceptionally difficult to measure your own impact on a class full of kids with any kind of objectivity.

So you get to the end of the year having given your job everything you’ve got, and with nothing concrete to show for it. Sure, there are the amazing things your students have done, but how much of that was your doing, and how much was theirs? It’s no wonder it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much you still need to do, and feel ill at the thought of starting it all again next year.

But research shows that spending time writing down and contemplating the things you have to be grateful for can dramatically improve your emotional well being and resilience, and my suspicion is that writing down your achievements could be even more powerful.

So this evening we spent some time writing our own “year in review”. Rather than leave it to Facebook to pick a random selection of images from our 2014, we went through the year, month by month, and listed the things we remembered. It was very powerful doing this as a family, because we each remembered and prioritized different things, and we came up with a very full list of things to be grateful for, as well as things, like my heart problems, that we have survived and often learnt from.

I’m going to write that list in to our little book of thankful things, and maybe in the future we will look back at 2014 and smile, remembering the events and the people who made it remarkable. But even if we never look at it again, the act of pausing and reflecting on how far we have come this year is a potent and positive reminder of what we have achieved.

A friend of mine posted a beautiful message on Facebook this afternoon about how today is the solstice (winter for him in New York, summer for us in Melbourne), and that this is “the moment of stillness and change,” which I found a very powerful thought. We tend to rush through life without a moment to pause and reflect, and the solstice, together with the approach of Christmas and the New Year, provides a trigger to stop and think about where we are and how far we have come.

It was a hugely positive thing to do as a family. When was the last time you paused to reflect on your life?