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Courageous Dialogue on Racial Healing and Reconciliation

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Courage & Renewal practices have helped guide conversations around healing racial trauma. By coming to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, people are building their capacity for empathy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Seeds of Racial Healing Take Root in Kalamazoo

“I came here because I was losing hope. My hope has been restored with fire.”

RACE_are_we_so_differentIt all began six years ago when the Kalamazoo Valley Museum hosted RACE: Are We So Different?, a national eye-opening exhibit that examined issues of race from historical, cultural, and biological points of view.

Bev Coleman remembers how energized people were by the RACE exhibit. She recounts, “Folk were saying this is too valuable! Once the exhibit is gone we’ve got to keep it going! There was determination to keep racial awareness alive and well in Kalamazoo.”

In 2011, the Racial Healing Initiative was born, which included starting a local book club. Bev Coleman and Caren Dybek, both Courage & Renewal facilitators, joined the group, and it wasn’t long before they were opening each meeting with the Courage & Renewal Touchstones. Others appreciated the practice, and it generated interest in how the Touchstones’ trust-based approach to dialogue might support more antiracism work in their community.

The following year, Bev and Caren were invited to offer one-day retreats for racial healing in partnership with SHARE: Society for History and Racial Equity. Founded by Donna Odom in 2003 (originally the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society), SHARE is a clearinghouse and program hub that promotes awareness, action, and healing around historical and contemporary experiences of racism.


Donna Odom explains, “The book club and retreats grew out of expanding our mission to include the Racial Healing Initiative, which is based on the ‘Transforming Historical Harms’ program developed at Eastern Mennonite University. A major part of that program is built on the importance of people sharing their stories and truly listening to the stories of others in the journey towards healing the trauma of past and present injustices.”

In a 2015 interview with WMUK radio, Donna further noted, “Part of the problem is that people have not spent enough time with one another to really know who they are as individuals. That’s why the discussions, retreats, and book club are meaningful to people because we share our stories and become human to one another.

“All the activist things we do are extremely important, but we also have to do a lot of work at the individual level, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Donna. “You can’t very well transform an organization or institution unless the members undergo some kind of transformation themselves!”

Caren also acknowledged that there’s a need for more individual work to balance the larger societal work of activism, social justice and racial reconciliation. She said, “There’s other race work in Kalamazoo that’s more in-your-face, and helps organizations face hard questions about institutional racism. As wonderful and effective as that work is, a lot of people feel there’s something more they want or desire.”

“There’s a human need to connect, and I think that’s what Circles of Trust give people. A chance to connect and understand,” said Caren.

Telling Our Stories in Trustworthy Spaces


Caren Dybek and Bev Coleman

At the Healing Together retreats, participants are invited to engage in both individual reflection and group sharing around poetry, music, and questions, creating opportunities for people to take a journey toward individual and community healing of racialized trauma.

The experience turned out to be tremendously powerful. Folks walked away from the retreats feeling heartened, enlightened, and reinvigorated.

“It was inspiring to hear about others’ experiences and journeys. In a time when there are so many awful things happening in the world, it’s empowering to be around others who care,” attested one participant.

“I am taking away a feeling of peace and healing from this retreat. I think it is so important to have these conversations as a way of caring for ourselves and others.”

“I never thought my own personal experiences were important enough to share but this experience of open sharing has been important to make me stronger.”

Bev and Caren were encouraged by the positive reactions they were receiving. “The only negative feedback we got is that there wasn’t enough time!” laughed Caren.

Interest kept growing, and soon they were offering not just introductory retreats but follow-up programs for alumni. The retreats became more diverse, drawing people from Kalamazoo’s Hispanic and Asian communities and younger participants as well. Other local organizations and activist movements started encouraging their people to attend the retreats. Clearly, they were doing something right.

SHARE’s Donna Odom told us, “The creation of the sense of ‘safe place’ and welcome has been very important in bringing people into the work and in helping to move beyond feelings of guilt and resentment.”

It all comes back to the approach, according to Bev and Caren. Like every Circle of Trust, the facilitators emphasized how each member of the circle must help create and hold the space together.

“The heart of the work we do is setting up the opportunity and the safety for people to share their stories,” said Bev, “and to do so in a way that’s gentle and progressive.”

Caren added, “Courage & Renewal practices create a container for trust. They are the bedrock. I can’t imagine having conversations with that kind of depth, honesty, trust, and safety without the Touchstones.”

Extend and presume welcome. Set aside judgment and try compassionate inquiry instead. Avoid fixing, saving, or advising others. Speak your truth and honor others’ truths. Leave room for silence…

In a space bounded by these Touchstones, participants were afforded a unique chance to deeply examine their own diverse experiences of race, consider how racism is impacting their lives, set personal goals for change, and connect with others to develop a vision for ongoing community transformation.

“The space was so welcoming and the facilitators did a wonderful job creating a ‘container’. They made me feel comfortable. It felt safe to be honest and open up,” reflected one participant.

“Taking time to truly listen to others was powerful,” reported one participant. “We, as a society, are so focused on productivity and efficiency that this wonderful and moving human connections are lost. We have so much to learn from one another!”

A Different, Gentler Way

These days there’s no shortage of tension when it comes to issues of race, racism, and racial justice. When people carry suffering within them, discussions can quickly devolve into hotbeds of vitriol and judgment. Although those conversations are important, people also need gentler alternatives.

“I think the real takeaway for people is that it’s possible to have these kinds of conversations without hostility, anger or judgment — things people usually experience when they start to talk about race, especially across the boundaries of black and white. They’re amazed there’s a way to be hospitable, tell their own stories, but not feel put on the spot or that they’re being attacked,” said Bev.

One participant said that while he was doubtful at first, the retreat helped him see that reflective process and sharing with strangers can be effective, when well-designed and effectively led.

photo-of-a-black-manAnother wrote, “This retreat has reminded me of the importance of storytelling in the process of naming race. I am also reminded of how vulnerable such a thing can be. The secure atmosphere set by the leaders, and the incredible openness and honesty of the participants’ sharing… that was heart-learning.”

Bev and Caren are energized by the possibility that this racial healing work can make a long-lasting and positive difference in the Kalamazoo community and beyond. But they also know that any good thing worth doing usually takes a long time.

“When I think of this work, I think of sowing seeds. It’s very slow work,” described Bev. “I don’t have the expectation that something amazing will happen and that it will point back directly to someone having been in this retreat. But I feel that when folks go back… I have to believe that changes occur in how they are with each other, and how they converse with each other.”

Incredible stories of transformation like the one you’ve just read are only possible through the support of generous individuals like you.

Your gift today can bring Courage & Renewal to other communities where it will make a lasting difference.

Will you help make a better world?

Will you give Courage to those who need it?


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Turning to Wonder: Hidden Truths Below the Surface

Dear Readers,

This week Terry is taking a well-deserved break to spend time with his family. In his place, I volunteered to write a reflection for the Words of Encouragement. This is also my last week with Center for Courage & Renewal after two and a half amazing years on staff, so I offer this piece as both a celebration of this incredible work and a grateful farewell. Enjoy!

With gratitude,

Karen Rauppius,
Marketing & Communications Assistant


Wonder (noun): rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience.

It’s amazing how different the world looks when you pay close attention. Like peering through a microscope, things you thought you understood are suddenly a source of wonder and awe.

In Circles of Trust®, the phrase “turn to wonder” describes the act of practicing open curiosity and attentiveness. Turning to wonder means slowing down to examine the world around and within us, permitting deeper revelations to emerge.

Turning to wonder means questioning the source of our own feelings and actions, such as: “What does it mean that I associate these two things?” or “What events in my past have conditioned me to respond this way?” In listening to others, turning to wonder also means resisting the urge to react or jump to conclusions. “What does he really mean when he uses that word?” or “I wonder how she came to believe that?”

Over years, we’ve found that when you hold open that space of gentle inquiry, it allows hidden truths to surface and helps us better appreciate ourselves and each other.

Turning to wonder isn’t an easy act. It takes humility to ask a question, and courage to inhabit that uncertainty. It requires a kind of love; love for self and others that opens our hearts to a desire for genuine understanding.

Recently I watched a most profound film, and I’ve carried a sense of wonder about it ever since. HUMAN, a documentary from 2015, captures the stories of over 2,000 women and men in 60 countries across the globe, asking each person the same open questions, like: “What is the toughest trial you have faced? What did you learn from it?” and “What is love to you?” Their answers are astounding.

A roller-coaster from heart-warming to heart-breaking, the film is a deeply soulful exposé on just how different (and yet similar) we humans are. Watching it is certainly an exercise in “turning to wonder,” in opening your heart to the mystery and richness of the human experience.

I invite you to watch my favorite clip from HUMAN and practice turning to wonder. In it, a man talks about how he was raised to believe that love is measured by pain — and that it took an incredible act of forgiveness for him to learn the truth of love.

  • As you watch, what reactions do you notice in yourself?
  • What open, honest questions would you like to ask him?
  • What might he ask you?

As a twenty-five year old, Asian-American middle class cis-woman, choosing to share this video for this reflection raised a lot of wonders around privilege for me. Would sharing this video perpetuate stereotypes of black men, or dispel those myths? Does it challenge prejudice or contribute to it? Am I complicit in normalizing the mass incarceration of black males, or does this help re-humanize people who have been convicted of crimes? Does my own mix of privilege and pain intersect, diminish, or augment this man’s experience?

For me there are no clean answers to these questions, and in true Courage & Renewal fashion it feels like a paradox of “both/and” instead of “either/or.” But my hope is that you will explore your own reactions, as I did, and walk away with a sense of openhearted, awe-filled compassion.

As Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.”

canyon-light aurora-borealis-3

P.S. “Turning to wonder” is a foundational practice in a Circle of Trust. Give yourself the gift of exploring this Touchstone and others by attending a Courage & Renewal program.

P.S. For those curious about the story behind the man in this video, there is a book called Wildflowers in the Median which captures the story of Agnes and Leonard and their journey of reconciliation.

birds-gulls-flocking dandelion-seeds-closeup-(calyx and pappus)

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Becoming an Authentic, Wholehearted Leader


By choosing integrity, I become more whole,
but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means
becoming more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am.
—Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep
that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead
we live out all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on
and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.
—Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets

Leadership can be exhausting, lonely, frustrating, disappointing, ineffective, and downright discouraging. To sustain yourself, you need resilience that comes from inner strength and a supportive community.

At its best, leadership is a daily, ongoing practice, a journey toward becoming your whole self and inviting others to do the same. And at the heart of this daily practice is courage.

Becoming a wholehearted leader requires becoming self-aware about the ways in which we may be living a divided life, such as when: [1]

  • We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve.
  • We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it.
  • We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits.
  • We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people.
  • We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change.
  • We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked.

If you see yourself on this list, take heart. “Welcome to the human race,” as Parker Palmer likes to say. At some point, most of us have felt that who we are on the inside wasn’t welcome or brave enough or safe enough to fully show up. At various points in our life, we can look back and wish we had made better choices from a place of self-awareness and trust, rather than fear.

Yet pain can be a catalyst for choosing to act on behalf of your soul—the deepest sort of self-care and survival. The question is whether your actions will inflict more pain or violence or if your actions can arise from a trustworthy core inside yourself and result in life-giving choices and outcomes. At some point your true self demands that you stop putting up walls, start speaking up and taking wholehearted risks.

As Parker Palmer writes, “I want my inner truth to be the plumb line for the choices I make about my life—about the work that I do and how I do it, about the relationships I enter into and how I conduct them.”

Find true self, trust & community at the
Academy for Leaders


Next cohort begins November 10-13, 2016 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia

Click here for details

True Self, Trust & Community

Courage & Renewal gives you a set of practices to connect to your inner plumb line through trust, true self, and community.

Trust is based first and foremost about trusting true self. We define true self as that deepest part of yourself where your actions align with your values, and your inner wisdom is not only acknowledged but accessed. When you begin to listen to and trust the truest part of yourself, your choices and relationships flow from that trust, begetting more trust.

If you are acting in alignment with true self, you show up with authentic presence, conscious of your inner strengths, aware of your limits. When you’re aware of your limits and strengths, you know where to put your energy. You give your best energy rather than divert it to hiding who you are. When you’re honest with yourself, you can be more honest with others. Your integrity shows and you become more trustworthy.

Discovering the whole of who you are as a leader can’t be done all alone. Becoming more self-aware and trustworthy requires community. It takes courage to explore your own truth as a leader and as a human being. A supportive community can provide encouragement to take authentic action on the truths you discover.

Parker writes, “We all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher’s voice for at least three reasons:

  • The journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo: lacking support, the solitary traveler soon becomes weary or fearful and is likely to quit the road.
  • The path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company: finding our way involves clues that are subtle and sometimes misleading, requiring the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialogue.
  • The destination is too daunting to be achieved alone: we need community to find the courage to venture into the alien lands to which the inner teacher may call us.”

With courage, a wholehearted leader can learn to reach inward to discover and trust in their true self and then reach outward to bring their unique self into the world.

[1] Adapted from A Hidden Wholeness, by Parker J. Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 2004.

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Shelly FrancisShelly Francis is the Marketing & Communications Director at the Center for Courage & Renewal. Her forthcoming book explores how people have applied Courage & Renewal to their life and leadership.


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What Happens When You Really Listen: Practicing Empathy for Leaders


“Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing.  It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us.  When we listen we offer sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person.  That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others.  That which is hidden.  When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves often for the first time.”
— Rachel Naomi Remen

Research on listening indicates that the we spend about 80% of our waking hours communicating: writing 9%, reading 16%, speaking 30% and 45 to 50 percent of our day engaged in listening—to people, music, TV, radio, etc. About 75% of that time we are forgetful, pre-occupied, or not paying attention. One of the factors influencing this statistic is that the average attention span for an adult in the United States is 22 seconds. It’s no surprise to note the length of television commercials is usually anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds.  This constant change of focus makes it more difficult to listen for any significant length of time. Immediately after we hear someone speak, we remember about half of what was said. A few hours later we remember only about 10 to 20 percent. Yet, less than 5% of us have ever concentrated on developing our listening skills. When people hear these numbers, they often say: “This is so interesting. I know that I spend hours preparing to speak. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously prepared to listen.”

Listening, deeply listening, is a greatly underrated life and leadership skill. Perhaps one reason for this is that our western culture often privileges the fast-talking, think-on-your-feet mode of being. Listening for genuine connection and understanding, listening that engenders trust and authenticity, asks so much of us. I was reminded of this popular wisdom about listening: When two people are in dialogue, there are actually three conversations going on. The first conversation is the external conversation between the two people. The other two conversations are each person’s internal dialogue.

Real listening is hard. It is increasingly difficult to focus because of constant distraction and because attention is fractured. Linda Stone, the former Microsoft executive, coined the term ’continuous partial attention’. In other words, attention is seldom fully focused. In his New York Times article, ‘The Science and Art of Listening,’ Seth S. Horowitz notes the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, according to Horowitz, is a highly underrated sense. Hearing is quantitatively faster than visual recognition, at least 10 times faster because hearing has evolved as an alarm system, a way to escape danger and pass on our genes.


“Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.”

— Seth S. Horowitz, ‘The Science and Art of Listening,’ New York Times, Nov. 9, 2012

Henri Nouwen, the late Dutch theologian, in Listening as Spiritual Hospitality, points to the challenge of listening on a deeper level: to connect not only with words but for meaning, to connect not only for vocal tone and pitch but with the resonance of the speaker and with ourselves. Nouwen says that true listening demands much of leaders. It requires “interior stability”, the capacity of inner resilience, inner equilibrium that allows leaders to be both attuned to self and attuned to others. To listen deeply in this way is to recognize our shared humanness, and to discover for ourselves our own propensities, the building blocks of relational trust. We move from positioning ourselves to allow another person to speak to extending welcome and hospitality even where we disagree, feel triggered, or challenged. Parker J. Palmer has asked a vitally important question: “What does it take to build relational trust? It takes people who are explorers of their own inner lives…”

Like you, I’ve attended many ‘active listening’ workshops and professional development trainings. The basic instructions are something like this: Pay attention, lean forward with interest, make eye contact, affirm the speaker quietly with a head nod or ‘hum’, occasionally restate the speaker’s words or key phrases, and repeat. Sometimes that can be great advice and other times this approach can feel wooden and mechanical, diminishing understanding and trust. This article is an introduction to empathetic and active listening as an essential skill to bolster greater connection, rapport and trust for leaders.

An important first step in developing empathetic listening begins with developing empathy, kindness and acceptance of ourselves as leaders. Before we are able to build bonds within organizations and teams in stable times or times of transition and change, we must build bonds of support for ourselves. Before we can thoughtfully consider others’ feeling, we must thoughtfully recognize and understand our own feelings.

Practice empathetic listening at the next
Academy for Leaders


Next cohort begins November 10-13, 2016 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia

Click here for details

Empathy, according to psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman, in his Harvard Business Review article, ‘What Makes a Leader?’, is an essential leadership skill. It does not mean becoming a doormat, passively agreeing to others with whom you disagree, or trying to please everyone all the time. Instead, empathy is about thoughtfully and intelligently taking others’ perspective, recognizing their emotions, staying out of judgment, and communicating understanding of others. With empathy, leaders are in a better position to consider not only others’ emotions, but their needs and values, again, strengthening true connection even across cultural, racial, gender, and ethnic differences.

Excellence in leadership also requires clarity and authentic listening. Too often leaders listen to ‘fix or solve’ a perceived problem that calls for empathetic listening. Sadly, other times leaders listen long enough for the speaker to stop talking. We may be listening and evaluating, or worse, judging others through a harsh lens. At times, we are listening for what we want to hear, expect to hear, or hope to hear, again, diminishing true connection.

To listen to another begins with noticing, and mindful self-awareness. Mindful listening is about noticing when you’re fully present and when you’re not. It encourages leaders to notice and to understand that each conversation is the relationship.

Here is a powerful empathetic listening practice to enhance your readiness to listen fully and to broaden and build trustworthy relationships and connections.


Empathetic Listening Practice

Expressing genuine interest in another person fosters empathy and connection. This practice is especially well-suited for difficult conversations and for expressing support. Research suggests that using this practice can help others feel understood and can improve relationship satisfaction, supporting outstanding leadership.

How to Practice Empathetic Listening

Find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption or distraction. Invite a conversation, following these steps. You don’t need to cover every step, but the more you do cover, the more effective this practice is likely to be.

Step One: Paraphrase. Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, pause and paraphrase or mirror back what he or she said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What I hear you saying is…” “It sounds like…” and “If I understand you right….” Be careful to avoid parroting, which can sound phony.

Step Two: Ask open questions. An open question is a question that you could not possibly know the answer to. Examples of open questions include: “What did you learn from that experience? How did that shape your opinion?” Open questions move the speaker into a new way of thinking. When appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on his or her thoughts and feelings.

Step Three: Express empathy. If the other person voices negative feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why he or she feels that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in his or her position. You might respond, “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”

Step Four: Use engaged body language. Show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment, such as checking your phone. Be mindful of your facial expressions: Avoid expressions that might communicate disapproval or disgust.

Step Five: Avoid judgment. Your goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it. Try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or mentally prepare a rebuttal while the other person is speaking.

Step Six: Avoid giving advice. Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard. Offering unsolicited advice is often counterproductive and diminishes connectedness.

Step Seven: Take turns. After the other person has spoken and you have engaged in these active listening steps, pause, and ask if it’s okay for you to share your perspective. When sharing your perspective, express yourself as clearly as possible using “I” statements. It may be helpful, when relevant, to express empathy for the other person’s perspective.

Step Eight: Mindfully Observe What Happens

  • Notice when you choose to listen and when you become distracted.
  • Notice what it’s like to give a person your undivided attention without advising, correcting, or fixing.
  • Notice what happens in the communication when you interrupt and what happens when you don’t.
  • Notice what happens when there is a lull in the conversation, and you ask, “Is there more?”
  • Notice what happens when you let go of your agenda, and instead focus on being present.

Valerie BrownValerie Brown is a Courage & Renewal facilitator who is an educational consultant and ICF-accredited leadership coach of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC., specializing in leadership and mindfulness training for educational leaders ( In her latest book, The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School (Corwin Press, 2015), she explores the role of mindfulness in strengthening thriving leaders and building greater understanding and peace within schools. Valerie will be co-facilitating the next Courage & Renewal Academy for Leaders at Pendle Hill, beginning November 10-13, 2016.

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Building Relational Trust – Reboot Podcast with Parker J. Palmer


“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
— Fred Rogers

Show Me That You Care

(Editor’s note: This blog is reposted from with their permission.)

In a not so distant past life, I worked in a series of workplaces that felt awful – stressful, tense, and anxiety inducing – for a whole slew of reasons. The organization was disorganized. The leadership was at odds with each other. Roles and expectations and communications were unclear. My coworkers could also see the clusterf*ck at every juncture. At my lowest points, I felt I had to check the best parts of me at door when I walked into the office. Nothing felt more soul-sucking, yet I kept showing up to it…until I didn’t.

When things at one company started to go awry, I brought up issues to my boss directly, who was also the owner-founder of the company. Of course, I’d also fielded plenty of conversations within the team about many of the issues that we all saw and for some reason put up with for a little too long. I compiled all of my notes and my chutzpah in an email to my boss, asking if we could meet. He agreed willingly, and we met at a restaurant close to the office and talked for roughly two hours about the issues I – and the team – were running into, where the stress points were, where things felt out of integrity, etc. While I wanted to change things for the better – for the company – these issues were also coming up against decisions upon which my boss had based the company for a while. He listened to everything I had to say, asked great questions, and before we walked away with action items, he said to me: “I really admire your bravery for talking to me about these things.” He was genuine. I felt relief.

Years later, at a different organization, I found myself in a weekly finance meeting with my CEO. We were looking at the numbers, which was anxiety inducing at the time, and while considering the current state of the P&L and the two-month forecast as compared with our aspirational goals, I voiced my feelings about what we were looking at: “These numbers scare me a bit” My CEO turned to me and said curtly, “I don’t need you to get emotional about this.” I clammed up. Right, I mean, who has time for emotionality? This meeting was no place for being human in the face of spreadsheets. Some part of me felt even more afraid to say what I needed to say with people that I worked with every day. At that company, I always felt like if I cried – much less simply voiced a feeling – that my job would be on the line. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that felt that way.

(See also: the recent articles by my savvy colleague Sarah Jane – especially her latest which I highly recommend, “Crying is not unprofessional. It’s human.”, where she shares her thoughts on sensitivity in the workplace.)

It’s hard working for someone else, and it’s hard working in a toxic organization when you don’t feel like you have any voice or can do anything to make a positive change. I felt pinched, cut off, divided. Somewhere in the anxiety stressing through my veins and the cloud of fear I lived in at the office, the fear that silenced my voice and dulled my chutzpah, I was divided between my inner convictions and what I witnessed or what I felt I couldn’t speak about. I felt powerless.

What can you do as an employee in a non-positional leadership role in a work environment that’s dysfunctional? How can you find meaningful work that supports your well being in an organization that feels toxic or denies your humanity? Our best work happens when we’re at ease, not stressed out and drowning in anxiety and fear about the status of our belonging in our work environs. The latest podcast conversation with Parker Palmer touches on an important aspect of this, which serves not only an organization’s people, but also greater creativity and innovation. What Parker brings to our attention is the importance of relational trust, or the interpersonal social exchanges that take place in a group setting. Afterall, the fundamental unit of work is a conversation.

He says: “Relational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.”


In my examples, the former company had more relational trust than the latter. In the first company, I felt safe enough to talk to my boss about what was happening for me, versus the other company in which I felt as if anything I said even in confidence would be turned against me. In one, I felt like someone had my back. In the other, I felt like I had to watch my back.

We talk a lot about the notion of shadow in leadership (See also: Podcast Episode #14 on Shadow and Leadership with Parker Palmer), and we spend ample time on this topic at our bootcamps. When a leader is operating from their shadow, I always say that it’s like their disowned unconscious stuff is coming out sideways and the people in their lives become collateral damage. When a leader who uses the organization to project their issues, recreate family of origin stories and dynamics, do their unfinished inner work (unconsciously, narcissistically) – and fail to recognize what they are creating – the organizations toxicity tends to increase. Therefore, as a leader, there’s a moral and ethical responsibility to be aware of one’s shadow – and to prioritize relational trust as part of the team.

People that are heavily shadowed tend to also be heavily-defended, which makes approaching them with feedback challenging, especially if said feedback comes from a non-positional role. In order to make that kind of open, honest communication work amongst colleagues, it requires a culture that creates safe space for that kind of feedback organization wide. This is a culture that builds, maintains and tends to trustworthy relations. A culture that can listen to and hear clear, honest feedback.

In John O’Donohue’s poem, Blessing for A Leader, he writes, “May you have good friends/To mirror your blind spots.” Building relational trust in your organization means prioritizing the creation of relationships that are trusting so that you do just what O’Donohue speaks of – have ears and heart open to hear and see what’s in the mirror. Companies that have this kind of rapport in place know how essential this is to mission success by what this means for interpersonal communication, productivity, and culture.

How can you create a safe space for the conversations that foster relational trust? While relational trust doesn’t demand friendship as a precursor, it certainly requires being authentically human with other humans. When an employee hits an emotional note, listen and ask open, honest questions. Find out what’s important. The purpose of relational trust is to open the door – and the heart – for empathic presence with whomever in the organization has something to say. For the leader, this requires a stance that is other than dictatorial: it demands a willingness to hear what’s being said, and a curiosity to double-click into conversation to really understand what’s going on. It may be hard to hear. It may come as a surprise. You may want to shut it down. But, instead, get curious about your reactions; what part of your shadow may you be glimpsing?


For those in non-positional leadership within toxic and dysfunctional organizations where their point of view is not valued, heard, or seen, you may perceive yourselves as powerless. Talk about tanking cultural morale. Think back to the last time you were shut down by someone in a perceived position of power. Whether it’s your parents, your boss or your investor, some part of us cringes if we feel as if someone is diminishing our existence, as if we or our or points of view don’t matter. If we believe that we are indeed powerless, we remain stuck to the flytape of suffering in organizational misery.

To shift that state of powerlessness, ask yourself: how have I been complicit in creating the circumstances I say I want to change? Most often, we create the conditions we say we don’t want. Even in the most toxic work environment we have the opportunity to look closely at how we may be contributing to the situation we find ourself in. From there, you may be able to find a solid foothold in a new direction.

Writes Parker Palmer: “No external punishment could possibly be greater than the punishment we impose on ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment.”

When will you give yourself permission to step outside the limitations of powerlessness you find yourself in and stand up and know your worth? When you can say to yourself, as Parker notes, “I’m not going to build a wall between my inner truth and outer representation in the world. I am a worthy human being,” you will live divided no more and act accordingly.

Ali Schultz is a coach, artist and COO of Her superpower is getting her clients (and her coach friends) to tap into their innermost being, their source of creativity and innovation, in order to bear the rigors of work/life existential challenges. Ali co-founded and The CEO Bootcamp to empower people to reconnect to their truest selves, transforming workplaces from the inside out.


The Reboot Podcast

Ep 42: Building Relational Trust – with Parker Palmer / 53:49 / June 13, 2016

Click to read the New York Times interview with Parker Palmer.Jerry invited Parker Palmer back to explore some important questions such as:

  • What is role of community in responding to a toxic environment?
  • How do I respond when my leader hasn’t done their work and is leading from that place of shadow?
  • What does it mean when a leader is using organization to resolve unconscious issues?

As is always the case when Parker and Jerry get together, this is a conversation packed full of deep lessons on leadership, the shadow, the importance of relational trust, and the incredible power present in community. This episode will leave you with new, profound questions and answers about yourself, your role in your organization, and the power you hold, but may not yet accept.

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New Thank You, Teachers Project Launches Wave of Gratitude for Nation’s Teachers

Every day in classrooms across the country, dedicated professionals put in long hours educating students, preparing lessons, grading homework, engaging with families, collaborating with colleagues, and overcoming obstacles. Their work is vital to children, parents, communities, and our future, yet rarely do teachers receive the thanks they deserve. The new Thank You, Teachers Project wants to change that by sending a wave of gratitude to teachers across the country, one thank you letter at a time.

“Teachers have one of the most challenging and important jobs in our country; they give their all but receive little recognition” said Thank You, Teachers Project Founder Megan Scribner. “The Thank You, Teachers Project offers a space anchored in gratitude, where individuals can take a moment to reflect upon and share the profound impact teachers have had on their lives, and where teachers, in turn, can be strengthened with pride, recognition and well-deserved kindness.”

The Thank You, Teachers Project provides an online space where individuals of all ages can post thank you letters to the beloved teachers in their lives (past and present). Participants are invited to remember the special teachers who mentored them from kindergarten through college… in the classroom, on the field, in the art studio, on stage, in the library, or even in the principal’s office. Parents are encouraged to help their children participate.

To send a letter to a teacher, visit the Thank You, Teachers Project online and fill out the Thank You, Teachers form. Letters will be posted on the Thank You Letters Gallery and on the Teaching with Heart, Fire & Poetry Pinterest site.

Visitors are encouraged to read the thank you letters posted on The Gallery and Pinterest pages. Participants can also follow the progress of the project via the Teaching with Heart, Fire and Poetry website, Facebook page and on twitter @poetry4teachers. Posts should include the hashtag #tyteachers.

On June 30th, the name of one lucky teacher will be drawn from the submitted thank you letters for a free gift copy of Teaching with Heart a best-selling poetry anthology in which teachers reflect on their favorite poems and how these poems help them sustain their energy and passion for teaching.

All visitors to the Thank You, Teachers Project will have the additional opportunity to thank their admired teachers with the choice of two special gift packages. With the Thank You Letter Package, teachers will be mailed a printed copy of the thank you letter, fit for framing. A copy of the letter will also be sent to the teacher’s principal or supervisor to help the teacher receive proper recognition on the job. The cost for this gift package is $10.00, which covers the cost of formatting and posting the letters, shipping and handling – and helps to support this effort.

The Thank You Letter & Book Package includes all of the above plus an autographed copy of Teaching with Heart. The cost for this gift package is $30.00. These letters and gifts offer a heartwarming means of recognizing and thanking teachers at the end of the school year.

In conceptualizing this special gratitude project, Scribner drew on her experience as co-editor of Teaching with Heart, as moderator of the Teaching with Heart, Fire and Poetry website, and as an active leader in her community schools. Through all these efforts, she has worked to give voice to teachers’ hopes and fears, courage and heart – and, in turn, to help renew and inspire teachers.

“Teachers sustain our society by developing the next generation of citizens, thinkers, artists, professionals and parents,” Scribner said. “Yet, the demands and pressures can be overwhelming, and the burn-out rate is climbing. We want to give something back to them.”

Additional Information

Thank You, Teachers Project:  The Thank You, Teachers Project provides an online space where people can post thank you letters to the special teachers in their life. By publicly thanking these teachers – recognizing the exceptional and difficult work they do each and every day – we honor and celebrate all teachers!

Teaching with Heart, Fire and Poetry:  Teaching with Heart, Fire and Poetry is an online community blog for teachers to share about their work and life. The online community was inspired by Teaching with Heart and Teaching with Fire, best-selling poetry anthologies where teachers reflect on their favorite poems and speak about who they are, why they do what they do, and how they keep their heart and commitment alive in their teaching.

Megan Scribner has three decades of experience as an editor, including co-editing three poetry anthologies: Teaching with Heart, Teaching with Fire and Leading from Within. She designed and moderates the Teaching with Heart, Fire and Poetry website and blog. A recognized community leader, she has held many leadership roles in local PTAs and, in 2012, received the Takoma Park Azalea Award for School Activist. She continues as an active volunteer in her community and committed to honoring and supporting teachers.

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The Redemptive Power of Questions


What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked? 

Questions are perhaps the human mind’s most powerful tool. Questions let us grow, both individually and as members of society. Questions help us deepen our understanding of why other people believe, say and do the things they do. 

Questions can also tap into our collective creativity, helping us solve problems by tackling the underlying issues. A question can even change the course of the world. But not just any question.

In her new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett shares how she uses questions to connect people in ways that draw forth amazing insights:

“Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.”

One key practice in Circles of Trust is this Touchstone: Learn to respond to others with honest, open questions. Do not respond with counsel or corrections. Using honest, open questions helps us “hear each other into deeper speech.”

question-mark-listeningIt takes practice to ask an open, honest question. Look for a question without an agenda, without a right/wrong answer, and where you couldn’t possibly predict the answer.

It also takes a willingness to listen with a different ear. Ask an honest, open question and truly wait for the answer. Let silence fill the space while you wait. Resist the urge to come up with a witty response or a corrective comeback. Give your genuine presence.

Below is a poem from William Stafford that you can use to ask yourself some honest, open questions. You might try this at the end of a staff retreat, or when reflecting on a finally reached milestone, or for your own journaling practice.

You might be surprised at how a better kind of question can open up a better kind of wisdom.

You Reading This, Be Ready
by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

With gratitude and best wishes,
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Circles of Trust are an opportunity to explore questions about your life and leadership guided by touchstones like “honest, open questions.” See upcoming Courage & Renewal programs on our calendar.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

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In the shadow of VUCA: A call for Soul and Sanctuary in Corporate Leadership


A short while ago during a small group coaching session in the US with senior executive leaders, one man literally fell to his knees on the floor sobbing. He was exhausted by the pressures of his job and had been unable to sleep for so long that he had almost passed out at the wheel of his car on the highway a few days earlier and crashed. He described himself as ‘utterly overwhelmed’. Over the afternoon each man had a story to tell—a story behind the story I should say—of loss and bewilderment that would be hard to imagine had we met for a beer a few hours earlier. In the sanctuary of our shared space each man wept for something; a child they hadn’t seen, an estranged wife, fear of failure, fear of an early death, an abusive boss, a loss of meaning. The story behind the story was a single thread of grief, loss, isolation and loneliness and there had been no time to share it, no one to share it with and nowhere to tell it until now.

stressed-outWhy is it I wonder, that so many of the men and women I work with are so exhausted and burnt out in their roles? Why do I sit and witness again and again, top level executives, in the privacy of a coaching space both alone and in small groups, break down in tears as they reflect on the pressures of work, the cost of business life to their families, the sense of disorientation and loneliness in the face of so much international travel, the sense of a strange pervasive ‘loss’ of something essential and important in their lives, a kind of emptiness despite apparently ‘having it all.’

The shadow of VUCA

Those of us that work in the field of leadership development are familiar enough with the acronym VUCA which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. A great deal has been said and written about the term and its implications for organisations and leaders since it was imported into the world of business from its origins in the US Army Military College in the 1990s. VUCA was first used to describe the changing nature of military intervention in modern warfare; the degree of unpredictability and surprise that might be present in a field situation unfolding in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. VUCA offers a practical code for awareness and readiness and invites us to look at learning models that support preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention. It’s an exciting field and offers much opportunity for the development of the leadership mind in more complex ways.

Few would deny that organisational life today is indeed typically experienced as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; VUCA, we are told, is the new normal and leaders and organisations need to shape themselves accordingly to thrive in conditions that are at once destabilising and rich with opportunity. The sense of rapid change is addressed and underscored elsewhere in many emerging models and theories of organisational development.

vuca-quadrant-chartWhilst I would not disagree with the assumptions about the business environment expressed in terms such as VUCA and would endorse the creative development of leadership capabilities towards the stage of development that Bob Kegan calls ‘self-transforming mind,’ I would say that the cost for the human soul of inhabiting VUCA environments over extended periods of time has been largely overlooked and represents a real concern for the future health of organisations and the leaders that serve them.

Put simply, the time and space for the dignified and respectful development of the human person towards what CG Jung called ‘a state of individuation,’ is being ignored and this omission is leaving people trapped; privately incapable of holding the myriad tensions at play between their personal and professional commitments. Ignoring this truth, all theories of change fall short if they are not supported by practices that sustain both the spirit and the soul of the leader.

When the soul of a person (‘that which is essential’) is left behind, when we forego a language and appreciation for soul—when we no longer know or are able to stop long enough to let our souls ‘catch up’—the consequences are devastating. The soul of a person, as every poet knows, needs to speak, to muse, to consider and reflect if it is to be well, if it is to act as it should, as a guide for what is most important in our lives. It’s not a matter of indulgence. It’s a matter of sanity.

A poem by Mark Nepo offers an example of this capacity and need for reflection and came to mind that afternoon in our coaching circle; it speaks to the story behind the story;

perspectiveI’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.

Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.

We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.

The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.

It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.

When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.

I think there are times when we all think this way. In times of transition and rapid change it is especially true that we are called to face questions of meaning in our lives. Our capacity to sit creatively with such tensions is what allows us to grow more fully into our lives. To leave such concerns unmet, buried or hidden isn’t brave or tough; it can only diminish our experience and our capacity to meet the world more honestly and on our own terms—that is to say, authentically.

"quote-LPerhaps it seems strange to conjure poetry in a discussion about leadership but… it is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility that undermines the health of individual leaders, their teams and organisations.

Perhaps it seems strange to conjure poetry in a discussion about leadership but I contest that it is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility that undermines the health of individual leaders, their teams and organisations. Poetry is the language of the soul and has much to teach us. The consequences of the omission of soul in the estimation of what amounts to organisational success is something that I see too regularly to count as an anomaly nor am I willing to discount it as ‘collateral damage’.

Leadership and Addiction

Prior to beginning my practice with senior executive leaders a decade ago I spent over 15 years working in the field of addictions and criminal justice. In that time I worked with many hundreds of people whose lives had been shattered and broken in a thousand different ways and who had turned to substances like alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine and behaviours such as gambling, sex addiction and stealing to mitigate the pain and suffering caused by the many forms of abuse that a person or a society can inflict on another human being.

The term addict is an interesting one, deriving from the Latin, addictus, it means ‘to be a slave to’ and refers to the multitude of ways that any person might become lost in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that corrode choice and undermine their capacity to grow towards the noble and dignified state of human maturity that we call adulthood which is the gift of a lifetime where conditions allow.

A pervasive form of addiction today is simply intensity—in its myriad forms—at work, in sport, in entertainment, on vacation, it seems we can never relax. A high flying adolescent can never get enough and our relentless need for intensity speaks of a curious lack of maturity in our society today. We don’t know how to be still.

The seduction of intensity is, in my view, the real danger in the context of VUCA. The issue is that it takes depth and wisdom to be able to embrace conditions of volatility, ambiguity and so on. It is tough and demanding to live in a space of liminality and complexity whilst simultaneously navigating the numerous day to day business demands that take up so much time and energy. For many, it’s too much. The addictions and states of de-stabilization that I saw in my first career are mirrored often enough in different forms in my work today that I consider them to be a pervasive pattern related to a general incapacity to cope.

Addiction is always symptomatic of a life out of sorts concomitant with a loss of freedom. Addictive behaviors are an attempt, albeit misjudged to right the balance, to compensate for what seems to be lost, enslaved, missing; to numb the intolerable, to cope, and to survive. Ultimately however, insofar as such behaviors ignore the importuning of the inner life through the application of outer fixes, they are life denying and only increase the suffering to the one caught in the drama and to those they work with and care about.

"quote-LIt is tough and demanding to live in a space of liminality and complexity whilst simultaneously navigating the numerous day to day business demands that take up so much time and energy. For many, it’s too much.

The point is that real suffering (as distinct from neurotic suffering) which gives our life character, builds resilience and provides us with the strength to endure, among other things, is a matter not simply for the ego and it cannot be addressed through acts of bravado, denial or traditional ideas of power; Incorporating our suffering into the narrative of our lives is a matter for the soul.

Finding Sanctuary for the Soul

Sanctuary has its roots in the word sanctus, to mean ‘holy place.’ Psychologically it is a place deliberately put aside for the development of wholeness, a place also of healing. Finding sanctuary is essential to life; to our capacity to hear the story behind the story. It is worth taking the time to consider where and with whom we find such space, what happens when we make space for sanctuary in our lives and what happens when we don’t. It is my conjecture that no serious conversation about leadership in a VUCA world can take place divorced from a conversation about the human need for sanctuary; it is the place we go for refreshment and renewal, to make sense and meaning of our experience to find the courage to re-engage creatively with the things that matter to us.

rock labyrinth

A divided life is always destructive and the consequences are felt both personally and organizationally. When an executive weeps in a coaching session, the clues or inner warnings that might have mitigated the ‘breakdown’ have been dismissed or ignored. I suspect that in nearly every case the act of dismissing is unconscious, encouraged by the environment in which the person ‘makes their living’. That it happens so often tells me how badly organisations fail to ensure the well-being of those that serve them. Perhaps it is too much to ask of any organisation that they should think of such things though it seems incredible to say so.

Renew your inner leader at
the Academy for Leaders


Next cohort begins November 10-13, 2016 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia

Click here for details

Greater complexity and ambiguity require greater interiority. The rational and objective mind so highly favored by leaders and organisations brings great advantages to a company but it is of little help when it comes to dealing with our hearts and souls. It is, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘useless in the most vital activity of all; that of understanding ourselves’.

If we are to stand our ground with dignity in a VUCA world then it will demand a level of maturity not available to the rational ego alone. The path to adulthood, to becoming human is just that, a journey, a way, a discipline that is open to the live encounter with life itself and with other people. In the imaginative space between our inner life and the world around us we form, deform and reform meaning throughout life. This process of human development is soul work—James Hillman describes soul as ‘the imaginative capacity of our natures’—and it requires time and care including the time apart that I am referring to as sanctuary.

Through this work we might, if we are fortunate, develop, expand and enrich our lives, deepening our inner dialogue that is sensitive to times of transition that can navigate the VUCA world and act as our most faithful and  trustworthy guide. The sun does indeed have a story that no curtain can stop. It is the work of a lifetime to honor that story and let it speak.

nick-rossNick Ross, BA, FRSA, has been a leadership trainer and personal development coach for over 20 years and he is a facilitator in preparation for the Center for Courage & Renewal, as well as an alumni of the Courage & Renewal Academy for Leaders. Coming from a professional background in addictions therapy his work today includes delivery of extensive leadership development programs and executive coaching to global companies and senior leaders. Nick is the Director of a different drum, whose work he summarises as ‘helping others to take the next step’. As a writer, poet and lover of the outdoors Nick brings his love of the arts and nature to his work with executives and senior teams to address and reflect on the place of soul in leadership and the role of sanctuary in supporting healthy human development. You can learn more about Nick and read a longer version of this article here.

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bell hooks and Parker J. Palmer dialogue

This dialogue between bell hooks and Parker J. Palmer took place on Wednesday, April 20, 2016, as one of several public events at the 2016 bell hooks Residency at St. Norbert College, where the Cassandra Voss Center serves as a sister-center to hooks’ own bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Kentucky. It was co-sponsored by Humana and Killeen Chair of Theology & Philosophy. For more information about the Cassandra Voss Center, visit

Over the course of their conversation, hooks and Palmer discuss a variety of topics including spirituality, feminism, the meaning of wholeness, the heart of education, and the activist life; while they examine some of the key issues facing our society: violence, racism, patriarchy, dehumanization and systemic oppression.

About the Speakers

bell hooks: Honored as a leading public intellectual by The Atlantic Monthly, as well as one of Utne Reader‘s “100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life,” hooks is a captivating speaker and canonical scholar who has authored over 40 books, including five for children, on issues of social justice, media literacy, education, and spirituality. She is Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.

Parker J. Palmer is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, and spirituality. Palmer has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak.

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My First Year Teaching – The Courage to Teach with Gratitude

apple and books

Teaching is a challenging endeavor. With all the demands on a teacher’s time and energy, it is easy to lose the enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom. The situation is not getting any easier with new requirements added to our load, including standardized testing and dealing with changing curriculums.

My first year teaching, I entered the classroom with idealistic dreams. I went through extra training in pedagogy that tempered those lofty goals and gave me many tools I was anxious to use. I taught 7th grade science in an inner-city school and saw 120 students a day. Sadly, within a few weeks of dealing with a multitude of challenges, I quickly slipped into survival mode and questioned my decision to become a teacher. But, small and sometimes tremendous miracles did happen that kept me moving forward and opened me up to the true rewards of teaching.

The Courage to Teach

Of all the things I have done in my life, getting through my first year of teaching was by far my most challenging undertaking. Early that year, another new teacher saw that I was struggling and generously gave me a book she had been reading that really helped her, Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach.

courage-to-teach-booksImmediately, Parker’s ideas about how important it is for teachers to renew their heart, mind, and spirit made a tremendous impact on me. I realized that through all the stress of teaching, I was not spending any time reflecting, connecting with other teachers, or taking time to replenish my spirit. One of my neglected practices was developing gratitude by making a list of things I was thankful for. This was recommended to me by a friend, and I always felt the benefits when I actually did it.

When I wrote my gratitude list, I built an optimistic attitude through all the challenges of that first year. A fellow teacher commented that even though my first year was tough and she saw me struggle, I kept the most positive attitude she had ever seen. That constructive outlook did help me, but I didn’t see how it could apply with the students yet.

With some of the ideas from Parker Palmer’s book and practicing my attitude of gratitude in the classroom, I would occasionally reach those transcendent moments where I did authentically connect with the students and felt the magic materialize. Here is one of the moments:

An Angel Sings for Me

One day, I came across one of my students, Angel, sitting in the hallway with some sheet music. I asked, “Are you a musician?” She said, “No, but I love to sing and I am learning a new song.” I asked her if she would sing for me, but Angel said, “No, Mr. Griffith, I am too shy.” As I walked away I said, “Someday, when you are ready, you will sing for me.”

Then, a month later, Angel saw me in the hallway and said, “Mr. Griffith, I am ready today.” I tried to think about what she meant. Through the tornado of activity that first month, I forgot about that previous interaction. But she brought out the sheet music, and I suddenly remembered it all. I realized that she had been working for a month on the song and getting her courage up just for this day. I asked her if she would perform for the class, but she said, “No, I will sing just for you.”

That day, when the students all exited the classroom, she closed her eyes, and a voice came out of her that fit her name. It truly seemed like an angel had entered the classroom as she sang. I closed my eyes and enjoyed listening to her share her musical talent.

As I listened, I also realized the power to inspire we have as teachers and that when we challenge our students, they will often respond positively.
In addition, she inspired me to bring my guitar into the classroom and share music with my students, integrating it into the lessons I would teach. While she grew in her courage through this interaction, I grew in my ability to connect with my students by seeing that there are many ways to reach students outside the traditional paradigms.

However, many nights, I would still wake up at 3 AM, haunted by all the things going wrong with my teaching. This is when I would remember the book, The Courage to Teach, about nourishing my spirit and I would think of a few things I was grateful for in the classroom, like connecting with Angel.

This kept me going through those darkest hours when quitting teaching starting sounding appealing. But I persevered and I am so grateful I did. If I would have quit, I would have robbed myself of some of the most transformative experiences of my life and the opportunity to connect with others, like helping to start a thriving community of teachers at our school that still meets weekly and continues to help us all grow as educators and human beings.


A Teaching Community is Created

One day, my partner teacher looked at me and said that our discussions about gratitude and growing spiritually had such a powerful and positive impact on both of us; we should share it with the school. Thus began our little group of teachers that developed into a community of educators that meets each Wednesday before school to support each other in the classroom and renew our spirits.

For that first meeting, we all brought home-made baked goodies and I brewed up the fresh coffee. We let the group take shape authentically, as people volunteered to bring books, quotes, and the practices that enabled them to connect with their students and stay strong through the long school year. Our supportive spiritual community was created without any real effort, it came into being.

Each Wednesday, at 7 AM, we would talk about things going on in our classrooms and lives that we needed help with. We would also celebrate the victories with students. Sometimes we would conduct book studies. One time, I even brought my guitar and sang an inspirational song with the choir teacher.

students-teacherMembers would often bring encouraging quotes, from favorite authors, the Bible, or other spiritual wisdom. Copies of the quotes were always made so we could put it by our computer monitors, reminding us through the week that we are not alone in the classroom but are connected to our fellow educators, even though it may not feel that way sometimes.

At that time, I was not aware of the Touchstones from the Center for Courage & Renewal. As I review them now, I see that they naturally came about in the group. It is definitely a sacred space where people can share their stories and be vulnerable. The “Circle of Trust” developed organically as people were willing to share openly and at a depth that established a profound level of connection.

Accordingly, this level of connection provided a feeling of acceptance, empathy, healing, and compassion that translated to our teaching practices as well as our personal lives. One of our group members lost her father suddenly and some of us were able to share similar experiences and help her process her grief. This probably would not have happened without the group.

On the days when we still meet, I find my school day goes smoother as I more easily connect with students, parents, and colleagues. The little frustrations don’t bother me as much and I feel the deep gratitude that allows the joy of teaching to shine through.

Not surprisingly, the students notice these changes and inquire curiously. I tell them about our group and the power of taking part in a vibrant community of educators. One simple idea I share from a colleague is, “When I share a problem with a group I trust, it is cut in half and when I share a victory, it is doubled.”

Still Teaching with Courage and Gratitude

Now, 11 years later, I continue to use the power of gratitude and The Courage to Teach as I pass it on to students and colleagues, especially new teachers. In our classroom, we continue to reap the benefits of practicing gratitude, as we write gratitude lists, gratitude letters, and initiate student-led, altruistic projects that take our “attitude of gratitude” into action.

In a recent interview that Parker Palmer gave on the radio show, On Being, Parker asked a compelling questions, “What do I need to do right now, to water the roots of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful?” I still ask myself that question and when I truly reflect, the answers always come, guiding and inspiring me.

As I write about my first year of teaching and contemplate what we all can do to “water our roots of inner wisdom,” I am reminded of that sad statistic, that 50 percent of all new teachers leave the profession in the first 3-5 years. I know that some of those teachers would persevere if they could read The Courage to Teach and practice some of the principles put forth by the Center for Courage and Renewal, like being grateful for the opportunity to be an educator and truly make a difference in this world.

OWEN M. GRIFFITH is a teacher, writer, educational consultant, and blogger residing with his wife and son in North Georgia. He earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and his work has appeared  on Huffington Post and Edutopia. He is also author of the newly published book, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching (March 2016).

Grounded in scientific research, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching delves into numerous integral aspects of gratitude as it relates to education. Featuring success stories and step-by-step instructions to successfully implement gratitude in schools, educators will also be shown how to combat materialism and entitlement with gratitude and altruism, and how to help teenagers utilize gratitude successfully. Finally, educators will be inspired to stay energized with gratitude throughout the school year. You can buy the book here on Amazon.

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