by Heather M. F. Lyke and the Third Eye Education team
As Third Eye Education, our main focus is to be a network of learners that shares their own learning as a way to propel learning in others. Additionally, we aim to keep our resources free of fiscal barriers—and we do this as a nonprofit run by volunteers with no budget.
One learning we've been leaning into lately is an individual's need to find balance.
A commonality between those of us who make up the core team of Third Eye Education: we thrive on new challenges. While new challenges open doors to new learnings, create new conenctions, and allow for new collaborations—they can also lead imbalance.
Brené Brown's newest book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, states:
"When we don’t understand how our emotions shape our thoughts and decisions, we become disembodied from our own experiences and disconnected from each other."
Wishing to not become disconnected—we value our readers, our listeners, our collaborators in learning far too much—it's high time we share something with you: our team is stressed. Stressed, and wanting to ensure we don't dip into the world of overwhelm.
To differentiate between stress and overwhelm, Brown shares stories from her time as a waitress, breaking down two common terms used in the service industry. At risk of oversimplifying, Brown explains:
"Stressed is being in the weeds. Overwhelmed is being blown."
We are in the weeds. No doubt, without question, 100%: the weeds are surrounding us.
In Atlas of the Heart, readers learn that,
"We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictablity, uncontollability, and feeling overloaded."
Here at Third Eye Education, we are no strangers to environmental demands, but lately they have been piling up more than ususal. For perspective, here is a glimpse:
All of this in addition to the stressors bought to all of us by 2022—the ongoing Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the increase of mass shootings in the United States, and so on...
Of course, these are no different from what many have been juggling. Increasingly, many are tiptoping on the edge of overwhelm. Teacher strikes are on the rise,cost of living has been steadily climbing, and the ability to leave work at work has been deminishing. The great resignation—or what Ranjay Gulati is calling "The Great Rethink"—exists for a reason.
"Overwhelmed," Brown explains, is "an extreme level of stress;" one where the "emotional and/or cognitive intensity [gets] to the point of feeling unable to function." We here at Third Eye Education don't want to reach this tipping point. While we may be in the weeds, we stand tall: we maintain sight of the horizon.
For this reason, we are making some adjustments for the foreseeable future:
These are temporary adjustments. Thank you for your compassion as we as we cut a new path through our shifting realities.
We always want to be honest with our community, even when it means admiting something hard, like stuggle. It brings us back to Atlas of the Heart, where Brown shares that:
"Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage."
We hope you agree.
by Stefanie Whitney
I am one of them.
And, the list goes on...
I’m only getting started, but for the sake of time and my increasing anxiety, I will stop for now.
If this list is all you know about me, then you have likely formed judgments, perhaps even drawn conclusions that all point to: I am or I am not “your kind of people”. Yet, I hope curiosity will encourage you to learn more.
As one of “them”, I have also found myself hustling to find my “us.”
In so many ways and to so many people, I am one of “them.”
And for the longest time, I have hustled to show the “us’s” that I’m one of the good “them’s.”
I am hustling to be one of the good ones.
Focusing on the hustle.
Martha Beck believes that “Integrity is the cure for unhappiness.” I’m currently reading The Way of Integrity by Beck, and she explores the concept of hustling. Brene Brown deserves credit as the first to help me reflect on my own hustle, and Beck manages to take my self-reflection to another level.
“Humans create elaborate cultures because we are intensely social beings, dependent on the goodwill of others from the moment we’re born. We also have an enormous capacity to absorb and replicate the behavior of people around us. From childhood, often without even noticing it, we learn exactly how to win approval and belonging in our particular cultural context…. In this rush to conform, we often end up overruling our genuine feelings–even intense ones…to please our cultures. The extent to which people will defy nature to serve culture can be truly horrifying.”
Literal and figurative battle lines are drawn because of people serving a culture–and, as Beck uncovers, often battle lines built not on our integrity but on our desire to fit in, to belong.
This quest to belong can be as catastrophic as a world war or as seemingly innocuous as cheering for your favorite hockey team. Seemingly is appropriate here because I cannot be the only one who has observed cheering turn into leering, then smearing, and finally–something much more sinister.
So–about our personal hustles. My personal understanding of both Brown’s and Beck’s explanations of the “hustle” is to do whatever it takes to be accepted into a culture of people, often at the expense of our own internal nature, or value systems. The definition is easy to accept. However, the extent to which we can get lost in the hustle is much harder to actualize, which is why Beck’s request of readers at the end of chapter two “admit–just to yourself–that some of your actions are designed to impress or fit in with other people” shriveled up my soul like a raisin.
"Us" vs. "Them": a living history
As a former member of the “not a math person” team, I feel a bit proud of my observation that division seems to be the most popular of the mathematical operations (I also feel flummoxed, sometimes defeated, and always overwhelmed by this reality). I’m not sure if test scores or climate surveys quantify this, but observational data suggests we have been and continue to be really good at division in this profession, in this state, in this country, in this world.
Continue ad nauseam.
Choosing to be an outsider
I know I am most motivated by curiosity and compassion for humans, animals, and the occasional inanimate object. Because of curiosity and compassion, I believe that crossing over to hang with “thems”, while initially unsettling, almost always ends in a feeling of warmth in my insides and a smile that is hard to wipe from my face.
There are rare moments when this type of rendezvous doesn’t result in blossoming warmth and shared smiles. Upon reflection, I realize in many of these failed moments that I was/am hustling–trying to cajole, convince, fit in, or defend myself–often through evasive jokes, ducking and weaving, and the occasional speed talking. I leave these conversations frustrated, short of breath, and filled with the sinking dread that my position as a “them” has been solidified.
In the spirit of selective attention, I’m struck by just how often even those with the best of intentions manage to divide us. Take this recent quote by Adam Grant:
“In cultures of arrogance, people get rewarded for expressing certainty and conviction. The most confident speaker claims the most status. In cultures of humility, people are applauded for admitting ignorance and asking questions. The most complex thinker earns the most respect.”
My initial reaction: “Yeah. See? It is them, not us.”
But I have been an active member of both cultures. I know where I feel most myself and how I show up among folk who inspire me rather than how I show up when inclined to bring my hustle. I prefer a culture of humility, but I need to frequently pause and consider how I am contributing and upholding this culture rather than perpetuating a culture where hustle and arrogance are the play calls.
Grant brings up an example that does not have to be about division. If I accept my role in the situation and choose to avoid deflection and blame, then I understand he is talking about being human—choosing arrogance or humility. We have choices. Timshel.
And while both of these things can be simultaneously true, what is more important is that I stop trying to convince anyone else of this reality and simply know my own truth.
Going forward, I am reminded that at the first sign of battle lines being drawn an opportunity exists to calmly step over the divide and ask questions. Listen and seek to understand. Fight the instinct to grab my ruler and Sharpie (it’s taking everything in me to not make a hurricane path reference here).
When we are in places where lines of division are being drawn, rather than choosing sides, I strive to be an outsider who starts asking more questions. (In this regard: I have been known, on rare occasions, to weaponize questions--sorry Socrates—so I find it helpful to check my tone of voice and know my authentic intent of asking before boldly striving for that outsider status.)
“Us vs. Them” only exists if we let it. We are the perpetrators of division and discord. We can either pick up the golden apple, pull out a sharp knife, and argue over who gets rewarded, or we can peel the superficial skin off to reveal the parts underneath where common ground exists. (Too much? Did that allusion get out of hand? Probably. Some will like it; some won’t. Oops, I did it again. Gah. Free Britney. Opportunities for division are everywhere.)
by Heather M. F. Lyke
A simple Google Search or a scroll through a social media feed from an educator, and it’s easy to confirm that this is a hard year—a hard year that follows two previously hard years. This is a truth that has not alluded us here at Third Eye Education: simply explore some of our articles from this past year to confirm:
In the past year—particularly, over the past few months—there is one phrase we hear over and over from educators: We just don’t have enough time.
Yep. That tracks. Over the course of a school day, teachers have classes to prep for, labs to set up, emails to answer, students to follow-up with, make-up assessments to give, test scores to analyze, poor student choices/behaviors to address, copies to make, coffee to drink, emails to answers, bathroom needs to attend to, parents to call, papers to grade, meetings to attend, assignments to create, messes to clean up, referrals to follow up on, chapters to preview, grades to update online, club meetings to facilitate… and those are only the basics. Not to mention what happens when the classroom phone rings: Can you cover __ class during your prep hour? Could you attend this IEP meeting in place of __ since he is out ill today? FYI, there will now be a mandatory after school meeting.
So the day finishes with work undone; which means that teachers take the work home with them, or they stay late to finish it, or they feel guilty that they did neither of the two. Little of this refuels the soul, little of this is why teachers went into the field, and none of this is sustainable for the long term.
While too much to do in too little time may be a truth universally acknowledged in our field, it’s not one to embrace. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, readers learn that you must “treat your time with respect” (227) and ensure there are many opportunities to do deep work, or “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration” (3).
Considering how little time educators have, the likelihood is low that most Third Eye Education readers will have time to complete Newport’s book in the near future (maybe once summer arrives), I bring you the following key reasons and applications for educators:
3 Reasons Why Deep Work is Needed
It increases job satisfaction.
Counterintuitive though it may be, “jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because…they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it” according to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Newport 84).
Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi is perhaps most famous for his work on flow states, which is outlined here along with how educators can utilize this concept in classrooms:
Newport notes that a state of “flow generates happiness” and that “deep work is…well suited to generate a flow state” (85). Therefore, to increase satisfaction with work, educators may wish to find more opportunities for deep work, just as educational leaders may wish to remove/limit the many barriers that can get in the way.
It increases the ability to learn new things.
It is not uncommon to hear that “the educational system is broken” nor that someone would like to lead a new initiative but they “just don’t have the energy.” If we want to try new things, if we want to fix broken systems, then we have to have a capacity to learn new and hard things.
Newport notes that “to learn requires intense concentration” (34); yet, we often try to squish it into 10 minutes at the start of a staff meeting, 30 minutes of table conversation in a room where other groups are also talking, or 45 minutes of PLC session that is filled with interruptions by emails or visitors. But learning requires “deliberate practice”: attention “focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or idea you’re trying to master” (35) for long periods of time.
The educational system we are working in right now needs change, but to learn and apply what is needed to make that change, we first must ensure there is time for deep work.
It increases productivity.
Deep work pushes past that concept that being busy is being productive. “Doing lots of stuff in a viable manner” isn’t the aim (64). Instead, when deep work is embraced one identifies what tasks are most important and ensures they can be completed during periods of high concentration.
If one has “clarity about what matters” it then “provides clarity about what does not” (62), and knowing the difference allows one to focus on the work that will have the greatest impact. In turn, productivity—at least the productivity around what matters most—is enhanced.
3 Ways to Reclaim Time to Do Deep Work
Take control of your tasks.
Newport notes that the “key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and to add routines and rituals into your working life,” to “minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration” (100).
Some routines to try:
Some of what Newport suggests when it comes to limiting distractions doesn’t fit in education. For instance, as much as I would love to try his “Don’t Respond” method for dealing with email, I don’t think that would go over well with the staff, parents, students, and community members who email me frequently. Nonetheless, here are some ideas to do work in the education field:
I know there are those who might scoff at some of these suggestions, usually with the argument that we need to be available for our students at all times. While that may be true in some cases, for most of us setting and sharing boundaries like these is a way to teach students time management as well as a way to model the importance of focused work. Setting boundaries lets us become even more available for students in those times when we are not engaged in deep work: these boundaries allow us to be more focused while working with students, as we know our other tasks have already been, or are scheduled to be, completed.
Build capacity for future focus.
Perhaps this is the most counterintuitive of the ways to reclaim time and embrace deep work. To focus deeply, one must also have time allotted for boredom, reflection, meditation, and creativity: this is the yin that balances out the yang of deep work.
In Deep Work, Newport notes that he doesn’t “work at night and rarely on weekends;” yet, during the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2014 he published 20 peer-reviewed articles, won two highly competitive grants, published a book and wrote the bulk of another all while being a full-time professor at Georgetown. His ability to sequester work to Monday through Friday, and to finish each day by 5:30 PM, actually provided him with stronger focus; knowing he had limited time enhanced his productivity and allowed him, upon getting home, to be more present as a spouse and father.
Some ideas for reclaiming the downtown needed to do deep work while at work:
By putting into practice some of what Cal Newport recommends, we might be able to make educational change happen faster and achieve more ideal outcomes. Whereas, as Henry Ford is attributed with saying: "if we keep doing what we have always done, we will always get what we have always gotten."
Now, with all of that said, I have just spent two hours doing deep work by focusing on this article (awesome!)—but I did it on a weekend (not so awesome)… So, that is a change I will need to make going forward.
In honor of my own suggestions above, I am now going to turn off this laptop and take a nice long soak in a warm bath so I can better focus on work when I arrive back at school on Monday.
by Stefanie Whitney
I hear myself using the phrase “messy middle” quite frequently of late. This meander seeks to make sense of what the term “messy middle” even means.
In my mind’s eye, I imagine the messy middle as a place where one is suspended in an ocean between two shores–both shores well beyond reach. Solid ground no longer underfoot, it’s incumbent upon me to make decisions that will, once again, lead me to a steady, grounded place.
Some moments I have experienced this uncomfortable feeling in the classroom and community have been when I have turned over the reins of control and held my breath in wonder about what my fellow humans will do with them. What will they do with the foundation I have built? What will my role look like now? Will they need me? What if a mess is made of the beautiful ground I crafted? What holds? What falls apart? And what was my role in both outcomes?
We cannot possibly know how all of this (envision widespread hands, palms up, gesturing at our world) is going to turn out, which is a bone chilling reality for anyone who appreciates a semblance of control. A reality that seems all the more staggering as each month passes in this extended twilight zone in which we all exist. (Though, I’d argue that messy middles occur whether we are in the middle of a global pandemic or not.)
From here, my mind wanders to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” particularly this stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
I am always admittedly stalled by Yeats' use of the word “loosed” twice, placed so closely together. In a little search for an improvement that I’m certain Yeats would appreciate, I arrived at Merriam Webster’s definition of loosed:
Loosed: (1) to cause a projectile to be driven forward with force (2) to find emotional release for (3) to set free as from slavery or confinement
Misters Merriam and Webster are speaking my language. For the purposes of this essay, please focus on the latter two definitions. Because of them, I will leave Yeats’ word choices alone. Also, if I may continue being so bold, it seems clear to me that Yeats was stuck in the messy middle of something, and he leaned on language to help make sense of it. The messy middle. Here we are. The middle of the school year, in the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of hope for progress.
Observing myself and others during this sustained time of discomfort, I am starting to believe that the messy middle really indicates that moment when logic and structure disappear and emotions begin to creep into the fray. Of course, it makes sense to feel like things are starting to fall apart. That the center is not holding.
I find myself considering: Who built the center? And why is it their axis we seek to latch onto?
In fact, what if this discomfort isn't indicative of a “falling apart” at all?
What if we are active participants in the collision of our outdated systems and our ever-evolving value systems? And what if the result of this “turning and turning” is the suggestion that logic and structure do not hold without an awareness and grounding in values and emotions? Maybe the feeling of a messy middle simply indicates we are now entering a phase that cannot hold upon the foundation and structures of the past, without an approach that requires us to tread water while we look around, feel things more deeply, and root ourselves in updated, albeit still developing, value systems.
Safir and Dugan, in Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, address this type of uncertainty:
The idea of throwing yourself into a change process with no known outcome and just a line of inquiry may feel uncomfortable and revolutionary all at once--a blast of fresh air on the stale econometric framework, which assumes we can data-fy and plan our way into new results. By contrast, emergence calls on us to slow down, listen deeply to those at the margins, bring folks to the table to reimagine the landscape with us, and move in partnership to build a new reality. It is a liberatory change model, freeing us from the fantasy of control while pushing us to maximize our influence in service of equity and antiracism.”
“...fantasy of control….” – “...the centre cannot hold….”
If we are finding that our old norms, our old systems are not working right now, then perhaps we need to investigate what those systems are built upon. If our souls are unsettled and we feel the bottom dropping out, then maybe our old systems are crashing head-on into our developing values; we are trying to hold our old systems up against an evolving human experience. It’s uncomfortable because that system felt safe and I knew my role, but I see more clearly all those not meant for that old system. They do not belong in it. So we don’t belong here, either. Change is crucial, and hard.
A bit about belonging
Brene Brown’s latest work, Atlas of the Heart, aims to help us identify and name experiences and emotions in order to gain power of “understanding, meaning, and choice.” While delving into the experience of belonging, Brown interviewed 8th graders about what it feels like to belong in a place. In their words:
Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you.
Brown juxtaposes the definition of “belonging” against the definition of “fitting in,” which they describe as:
Being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
Brown further explains,
Because we can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.
Which begs the questions:
Heart is sea,
(1) Belonging to myself–getting square with my values (for me, compassion and curiosity).
For an exercise on isolating your core values, check out Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead value activity.
(2) A sense of belonging within my communities.
It’s not lost on me that I have the privilege to seek out agency in most of my experiences. Do our students have this same privilege? All of our students, I mean? Social and emotional learning is an educational hot button right now, and rightfully so. The more language I have as an adult to work through my discomfort, my emotions, and get clear on my values, the more agency I have when working for equilibrium. As an educator, how can I build systems in my spaces that allow all of us to get grounded in our values, to belong in this community?
The Students’ Take
Inevitably, the responses of all 43 students, grades 8-12, revealed themes surrounding relationships, trust, and belonging. Feedback is an action, often a system at play. As an English teacher with limited time, logic centered my feedback, even if emotions (pride, frustration, excitement, passion) bolstered my feedback process. Students also acknowledged the existence of emotions at the heart of their feedback experience. All of the students spoke of how feedback, their teacher, or the classroom environment, made them feel.
Rarely did students talk about grades as the sole reason feedback is helpful, but all students discussed the need to have a relationship with the teacher or person giving feedback and a need to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the class. Some even spoke of the need for passion–from the teacher regarding their quest for students to learn and within the student for the subject area or topic. In short, students want to feel like they belong, like they are seen, and that their voices matter.
I’m struck by how students spoke of values and emotions, yet as adults we often find ourselves rumbling about external systems.
Of course, in this sustained discomfort, we are apt to fight harder to reach one shore or the other; some form of solid ground. But what are we hoping to accomplish with all the splashing, thrashing, and death grips on past systems that don’t serve everyone? What if we normalize the kind of discomfort that bends toward progress, inclusion, and shared humanity?
Maybe the next best step is to calmly look inside at what is causing the turbulence, ground ourselves in our values, and then confidently and slowly start moving in a direction that aligns our value systems with the external systems that demand our attention? In that slow motion, one shore starts to loom larger. We can belong to our messy selves, and we can move with those folk who want us among them exactly as we are.
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.
Every once in a while, a kid finds a perfect peach of a topic and writes about it in a way that unties me. I want to share with you the story of “nonnie” so you see what I mean.*
That structure with time, to start and end with death, to bring nonnie to life in the middle.
Her metaphor is one we all know. There's a defining moment in our lives when we learn about death. nonnie represents the literal of this coming-of-age, but also her struggle up the hill represents how my student felt when she lost nonnie.
One would have to be a callous car crash of a person if they didn’t feel their heart explode when they learned about nonnie’s fate and the effect she'd had on my student, and the day I read this, the time of year I read this, that this had been the 80th out of 95 essays I’d read—nonnie’s story was literally the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my whole sad life and I would spend the rest of my days mourning nonnie and my student’s loss.
After I read about nonnie, I had a flashback to an experience I’d had on my grandparents’ dairy farm and a cow named Flopsy, who’d been born with a messed-up leg. The end of that story is predictable: while eating hamburgers one evening, my father brought it up.
That wasn’t the impetus of my response, however.
Since the assignment was not one short scene, but three, when I conferenced with my student this week, I reviewed more rough drafts. One was about a horse named Iago (and I’m sorry, but find a more perfect name for a horse). An excerpt:
He broke through the fence the first day we had him […] Iago became my favorite horse. First I was brushing him, that soon turned into riding him, performing tricks like standing on him, spending hours in the barnyard making different ¨5 star meals¨ out of oats, potatoes, and grass (sushi was the favorite).
The third scene was about a chicken.
the chicken I refuse to name
While we’re all nonnies this year, struggling up the hill (and praying we don’t meet her fate) maybe we can also be my student. It’s been a year of loss, so let’s talk about it. Maybe find the metaphors. Learn from our students.
And the next time you have a glass of milk, please pour one out for nonnie.
* The student has given me permission to share.
Jean Prokott is an English teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. She is also the author of the book The Second Longest Day of the Year which won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize, author of the chapbook The Birthday Effect, a recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has both poetry and nonfiction published in numerous journals. Learn more about Prokott online or connect via email.
My students and I are suffering from a lack of both.
- Bathed in Tears
- Five Hungry Babes
- Glut the Maw
- Nocturnal Rambles
- and the fave: More than Sister (Creepy, I know.)
- How can we make our lives meaningful?
- What is our responsibility to others?
- How can we bend the world to our own will?
As he pursues science, Victor becomes a narcissistic jerk who makes an eight-foot-tall mistake, and students are eager to criticize him by arguing that no one could be so short sighted as to actually assemble and animate such a powerful creature without heeding its obvious dangers. Then we talk about nuclear arsenals, the petroleum industry, Facebook and Twitter….
One concept of romanticism Victor does respond to is the idea of the sublime, a notion Shelley learned from the work of Edmund Burke. (Warning: what follows is an oversimplification, so apologies to Burke!)
And back to the continuum. When teaching Frankenstein, I place the sublime at one cosmic pole. On the other, I situate another concept that emerges when reading the novel with my students: the idea of “deep work,” a concept explored a few years ago by Cal Newport, a professor, author, and podcaster. (Check out his book, Deep Work, and/or listen to this revealing podcast interview with Newport for a quick, thoughtful introduction to the topic.)
Everything educators do is deep work: reading and offering feedback on papers, planning lessons, creating projects, facilitating discussions, composing consequential emails, listening to students and colleagues, and on and on. And, of course, studenting is deep work, too. My students spend 35 hours per week in school, and each day is organized into eight periods, in which they take six classes, many of which assign homework. Calculus, physics, economics, Spanish, orchestra, art, and English all require deep work.
The problem for students and for me, is that we all have to juggle competing demands while also attempting to fend off distractions. The result is that I am always incredibly busy and seldom incredibly productive, and my students report the same. It feels impossible, but we must all carve out more time for deep work.
Sometimes, we are monsters who lash out at the world in frustration and rage, tearing down people around us and ourselves.
We are readers. Readers of novels, readers of people, and readers of ideas—all intricate and not-entirely insignificant elements of the sublime world.