The practice of Zen is about achieving balance in our lives. All of us, students, faculty, and administration are balancing the competing demands which we face at home with those we face at school. For staff, indeed for employees generally, there is a burgeoning self-help literature. Very little has been written about the ways in which family stresses impact students.
Yet the central fact in the lives of all students is their relationship to their families. That is true even for students who seem to be without families. We have students in New Ventures who are living with others, for example, with the family of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Some have lived on the street. For these kids, the central fact of their lives is the absence of their parents, absence of their family. Family is first, whether present or absent.
And when kids struggle in school, it is always a family issue. When kids struggle with learning struggle to succeed in school, this inevitably puts stress on the family. Whether the family initially responds, with denial or anger or love, it takes a toll.
Often, kids are struggling in school because they are bringing stress from home to school. Conflict between parents, troubles with siblings, the illness of a grandparent, unemployment, poverty, homelessness: when kids are having difficulty managing the stress of home, they may not be able to bring their “A” game to school.
And, of course, parenting an atypical kid, a special needs kid, is a stressor for all families. Parents fight about how to help a struggling child. The child reacts to the parental conflict and his or her performance suffers further. Then the stress on the parents increases with further adverse effects. On and on. It’s cyclical.
In the history of education and child welfare, great harm has been done when professionals set out to “save” the children from their families. When we do so, we often increase the stress on the child, on the family, and on the school. Families then go through crises. Their children go through these crises with them. And so do their teachers. In our schools, the goal is always to align with the parents in helping their children better cope with the stressors in their lives
Sometimes families have a bad year and when they do, the children have a bad year , as much as parents may want to shield the child from the crisis and stress. Often, it is not a good learning year for the child. And the teacher feels the stress. In our schools teachers and leaders support each other through the stress and frustration of a child’s bad year or bad month or bad week or bad day. We will get through it. We are family. We are there with the family. We are in this together.
And we are there for each other. Most of the self-help literature is aimed at helping staff manage the competing demands of family and work. A lot of it is specifically targeting women in the workforce, since it is the women who often bear the major household and child-rearing burdens. Stephen Covey memorably reminds workaholic men: No one on his deathbed has ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” We have heard the warning. We are in this together. We are going to grow together, and we are going to have fulfilling work lives and fulfilling lives outside of work. All of us. That is our commitment.
If we are going to work together as part of a school community for many years, in all likelihood the most stable elements of the community – the staff, can be together for 20 years or longer. Few trustees will serve as long. Few parents and no students will be core participants for as long.
If we are going to work together for a long time, we are going to inevitably through joys and sorrows together, births and deaths and illnesses. It is life. Yet it is our response to these that is a critical aspect and measure of our community.
While we have policies that govern time off, we also understand that no policy, however well thought out and written, can anticipate all the stresses and circumstances of family life. We are committed to family. Family first.
We are striving to be a family. So, how do we respond when a member is under stress? Do we respond with compassion? That is the true test.
As Roshi Bernie Glassman asks, “Do we respond as one body?” When I cut my right hand, my left hand does not hold back: “Not my problem.” Without hesitating, my left hand acts to alleviate suffering. One body. One body. One family. Family first.
Some crises are only crises because they are unanticipated. We intentionally hire many young teachers at the beginning of their career. They bring the most wonderful energy and dedication. But guess what? Most of them are going to get married. And guess what else? Many of them are going to have children. More than once. Marriage and babies. Two different challenges. We handle them differently. Tongue in cheek, we say, “You can get married anytime.” And we add, “But please be sure to schedule your honeymoon on a school vacation.”
Childbirth is a little harder to schedule, although so many teachers manage to give birth over the summer and to be back for the first day of school. The best story stars Marilyn, who somehow managed to grade the Geometry Regents, gave out the grades, — every single student passed (this is a hard Regents) — gave birth the next day, and was back for the start of school in September. But sometimes, deliveries are harder, sometimes there are complications, sometimes people are out longer. Every family is unique. Everyone has different needs.
Our schools are okay with this because we are prepared for it and welcome it. We are not looking to avoid hiring teachers who somehow hint that they are not planning to become pregnant. We are family. We look forward to our first graduates coming back as teachers. And we are looking forward to the children of our teachers joining the faculty as well.
We will get through all crises together. Some are work challenges which we share. Some are the family challenges which we bring to work. What is required, what is needed in each crisis is unique, as everyone is unique. Every single person on our staff is unique, and all of their families will face challenges. Naturally, we all respond differently. Under critical stress, some of us are able to escape into our jobs. Some of us need extra time off. When a new child is born, some of us need more parental leave than others.
For Zen, wisdom lies in the ability to simultaneously hold two seemingly contradictory aspects of reality. The Oneness of Life: we are all one family. The uniqueness of each individual, each moment, each blade of grass.
Personnel policies are an expression of expectations. Faculty and others need to know what is expected, what everyone is expected to do under ordinary circumstances. But, they are not an expression of adequate organizational response to the unique crises which arise in people’s lives. While innovations in legislation now provide for some responsiveness to crisis, no legislation can fully imagine the varieties of human crises. That is up to us.
Zen meditation is one tool for letting go of the limiting one-size-fits-all assumptions that inevitably crawl into personnel management. We are working always to purge the one-size-fits-all from instructional thinking and planning. All kids are different. And our kids are really unique. But we are all unique too, each one of us, each member of the team. And our families and our stresses are all different. Right hand takes care of the left hand. Left hand takes care of the right hand. Families first.