What if I told you that you would have to do your job completely differently than you were trained, for a prolonged period of time, with no end in sight? Not only that, you will now have to use some delivery methods and techniques that you know will be much less effective for a majority of your clients. Additionally, you will be given relatively little notice or time to plan and prepare. How does that sound to you? I’m guessing that sounds like a nightmare.
This is the exact scenario that teachers have been facing for almost a year.
Even though teaching this year has been incredibly difficult, demoralizing, and stressful, I don’t intend to compare what we are experiencing in schools with what some have experienced in prison camps during wartime; but, we can learn from those who have been prisoners. When Jim Collins (leadership guru and author of many books on the subject) met with Admiral Jim Stockdale (prisoner of war in North VietNam for 7 years), he was able to share how Admiral Stockdale came out of the prison camp even stronger than when he went in.
The Stockdale Paradox, as it has come to be known, is having the “absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite…the brutal facts…”. Admiral Stockdale went on to say that the optimists, who would determine a date for their misery to be over (we’ll be out of here by Christmas) would be crushed when that date would come and go with no changes. Those with unwavering faith would know that they would survive their time, regardless of the length, were the ones who actually prevailed.
For me, Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor (with experiences that obviously predated that of Admiral Stockdale), provides another way to understand how an individual could have unwavering faith when he wrote: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” I believe strongly that when we find meaning and purpose, even in the most difficult of times, we develop the fortitude to persevere.
Let’s face the brutal facts. We can’t teach all of our students at the level we were able to in years past. We simply aren’t prepared and the pandemic is blocking us in many instances. What we can do is to be as intentional as possible with what we are teaching, especially since we are forced to teach less than what we taught in pre-pandemic years. What we also can do is to focus on relationships and the mental health of those we serve by creating opportunities for success. Maintaining a connection in any way possible by letting our students and colleagues know that we care about them and how they are feeling is essential to our future success.
We will get through this, and while I don’t know when, I do know that we began our recovery the moment that first vaccine was shot into the arm of a healthcare worker in December. While we don’t know everything about this virus, we certainly know much more than we did in March of 2020 when we were first faced with the reality of a global pandemic and how it will impact our lives.
What purpose and meaning have I found during this pandemic? Wow…look at what teachers are doing! We are providing some very good learning opportunities and we are meeting so many of the essential needs of our students. Students NEED school! Also, this pandemic has reinforced the principle that a strong climate and culture are essential to accomplishing anything. For me, doubling down on relationships and intentionality when we have less ability to teach is the best path to our future recovery. We can’t expect students to learn at high levels if we don’t have strong relationships with them. Finally, we have been forced to learn new approaches that during non-pandemic years will increase our effectiveness. Never underestimate the power of a determined individual in difficult situations. We will be better when this is all over.
In Jim Collins’ account of his time spent with Admiral Stockdale, he shares that at one point in the conversation how lucky he is to have experienced seven years in the Hanoi Hilton. Admiral Stockdale was reported as saying, “Well, you have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail — get out of this — but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person. Not only that, Jim, you realize I’m the lucky one. …I know the answer to how I would do and you never will”
When will this be over? Well, no one can truly say, but I believe that things will start to get a bit better and our lives will gradually return to a new normal. The availability of COVID vaccines, and the willingness of the large majority of us to be vaccinated, is likely the best indicator of how much longer we will be living in this pandemic. Regardless, we will get through this. We will learn from this. And we will be stronger and better able to meet the “regular” challenges that we face day-in and day-out. We will prevail.