June 20, 2024
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June 20, 2024
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Hope is the thing with feathers.

The older I get, the more I deeply appreciate that one of the great brachot in life is to be raised by positive, optimistic parents who strive to embody their ideals. Certainly, life is full of unfathomable hardships and being an observant Jew forging a deep relationship with Hashem does not suddenly make challenges disappear. Rather, we have the space to have difficult conversations with Hashem, grapple with profoundly antagonistic and hostile feelings and retain our fundamental optimism.

For many years, I hung this famous Emily Dickinson poem on my closet door and I would reread it every morning to fuel an optimistic mindset:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—That perches in the soul—And sings the tune without the words—And never stops—at all—And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—And sore must be the storm—That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm—I’ve heard it in the chillest land—And on the strangest Sea—Yet—never—in Extremity,

It asked a crumb—of me.

 

The Prose of Life

Admittedly, I tend to favor poetry in my personal writing, as well. I prefer the pithiness, the richness of the figurative language and, honestly, the opacity inherent in the medium. It can feel safer to wrestle with strong emotions or great difficulties in the context of a poem, which others may or may not understand! Poetry captures strong emotions in powerful language and embodies it in a way that can elude prose. Much of the influence and dynamism of Sefer Tehillim resides in the poetry.

Prose needs clarity to communicate effectively, and so can elicit stronger feelings of vulnerability. Although I might fantasize about speaking in poetry, prose is so necessary for our daily communication. Long before we say or write any words, there is first a lot of “writing” that happens inside our heads. Typically, throughout the day, our brains are engaged in apprehending our constant barrage of input, and we create stories to make sense of our world and to contextualize and conceptualize the affective feelings we are experiencing.

 

The Emotional Labor of Leadership

As educators, we process strong emotions all day. Although people tend to think of education as intellectual and academic, school is a very people-oriented place, with an intricate web of children, parents, teachers and principals. The reality is that teaching and consequently, leading in a learning environment, is complex internal emotional work.

Where does all of this emotional labor lead and how do we harness it productively? How do we choose to thread together stories from our lives over time? The narratives and scripts we write in our heads play out in very real people’s lives, namely our children’s daily experiences. Every moment is a fresh opportunity in a relationship with a child, a teacher or a parent, and that is both exhilarating and paralyzing. As educators, we always want our outer actions to manifest our inner beliefs, and frankly, even if we are carrying a lot of personal baggage on a particular day, we want to believe that we are able to ‘put it aside’ and still engage professionally in our schools with perfect alignment to our belief systems. Yet, at the same time, we are human; We constantly have to make split-second decisions and we make mistakes.

“All things great are wound up with all things little,” continues to be one of my favorite lines from “Anne of Green Gables,” especially for school leaders. We must believe that each moment is alive with the potential for us to forge a positive relationship with intentionality. This “now” cannot be defined by an old storyline, by yesterday or even an hour ago. The more life experience we have, the more we must commit to striking this balance between our accreted wisdom and beginning a fresh social transaction.

 

The Emotion Paradox

Lisa Feldman Barrett writes about this emotion paradox. How do we locate emotions? Is the experience of emotion primarily an act of categorizing? Emotions cannot truly be identified through a scientific method, so how do we explain feelings?

I would posit that we accumulate stories. As humans, we encounter numerous physical sensations, we name them and we associate them with other information that comes in through our five senses. Then, we narrate and build on those patterns to make sense of our lives. Many times, these stories are really helpful—they essentially save us, and sometimes, those stories trap us. We have a choice about which stories we tell in school.

 

The Measure of a Person in the Moment, Planned and Unplanned

While we try to increase the frequency of our positive planned moments, one strategy to consider is essentially planning for all of those fortuitous moments that fuse together to form a daily experience. What are some small changes that can positively impact a child? What is an invisible school code that I can make visible? How can I demonstrate compassion?

Some daily commitments I try to embody include these basics. I can choose to smile frequently. I can choose to use a child’s name with positive recognitions and refrain from using his or her name with even a wisp of remonstrance. I can be sensitive about protecting a student’s physical “bubble” and not standing too close. I can shift my body language so that I am in a listening position. I can be cognizant of my voice volume and tone. As Chazal tell us, “Yesh koneh olamo b’sha’a achat.” Maybe the measure of that moment will be pivotal for one child, and maybe the measure of my humanity will be immeasurable.


Chana Luchins is principal of General Studies at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, NJ.

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