“The work is in the work.”
Anyone who has worked or trained with Tammy Neilson has heard her use this saying as a way of reminding us of the central importance of doing our own personal work in order to be of service to others. It also speaks to the fact that the professional work we choose tends to lead us to the personal work that we are called to do.
For the past 2 years I’ve been transitioning out of being a classroom teacher into the role of coach and convenor. My initial impetus for this change was born out of an intuitive desire to have educators place themselves and their growth/care at the centre of their model for effective teaching and change-making. While my mandate has grown beyond this, this principle has remained firmly rooted.
As is often the case with big life lessons, I find myself re-learning this point again and again. Even as it makes up a fundamental piece of my current vision and offering, I find myself rediscovering its truth and power on a regular basis.
The very first sentences in the first chapter of The Art of Convening by Craig and Patricia Neal are devoted to underscoring this point:
The place to start when we convene meetings, gatherings and conversations is with ourselves. If we are to lead into authentic engagement, it is important to be genuine. Knowing who we are as human beings helps us to bring the genuineness forward.
What are the implications of this?
For each of us, in any aspect of our life, we can be seduced by the promise of making a powerful change with a superficial intervention. My own pattern is to analyze the heck out of a situation until it can be broken down into pieces that can be dealt with in a simpler way. Then I approach each piece methodically until it has been resolved.
As a teacher, early in my career I found long-term planning incredibly challenging. (It was so intense that my vice-principal told me that I might not pass my probation because I wasn’t giving her what she needed to be able to check off this box in her evaluation.) The challenge wasn’t coming up with ideas; it was paring them down!
One fall I took over a whole wall of my kitchen from floor to ceiling with chart paper and colourful sticky notes. I was trying to deconstruct the challenge down into the smallest components I could find in order to uncover an access point where I wouldn’t get stuck.
In retrospect it wasn’t a project management issue; it was a deep mental block. I needed to get to a point where I could be okay with just giving something my best shot with the understanding I would adjust as I learned. That was ‘the work’ that needed to happen. Until I accepted that and started to do the personal deep dive to begin to allow myself to not have to have all the answers or have 10 months of programming perfectly planned out ahead of time the process continued to be a painful one.
The kicker in approaching things superficially is that it can work to a certain degree or provide relief for a period of time. But it doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term or generative change.
When I started up my teacher wellness project, I spent a number of months getting clear on where I saw the need in my community and what I was offering as a solution. It was challenging, slogging work that birthed my initial business model.
Once I was there, however, I switched to project management mode and efficiently broke down the realizing of my vision into discrete tasks: marketing, systems, content creation, networking, research, etc.
And then it got hard. I don’t mean to say that I expected things to be easy. Rather, I got caught up in details and spent the bulk of my energy running around problem-solving and focusing on learning how to ‘do it right’. My time and precious energy was siphoned away from supporting my core experience and insights. I had a website and posters but had lost contact with my own experience.
These are somewhat painful revelations to admit. My heart was absolutely in the right place. I had a desire to help others lift themselves above the challenges in their own lives and was working hard to realize this for them. But I had lost focus of the need to do this for myself first. In many ways I had recreated the dynamic that had been so unhelpful in my classrooms: putting the focus on the needs of others in the hopes of fulfilling my own.
The role of convenor and the lessons of this craft challenge me on a continual basis to return to the truth that my work is in my work. My capacity to hold space for others and help them connect to their deepest wisdom and truth is intimately connected to my ability to do this for myself. In order to help my client who is struggling with her diminished self-esteem due to a toxic workplace, I have to come to terms with my own past workplace trauma. In order to stay grounded and avoid being triggered when I’m working with a group of teachers who are struggling to get enough support from their principal, I need to make sure I’ve done my own work around my feelings of being abandoned by an administrator. The good news is that each new experience comes with a built-in mirror, offering me the opportunity to check in with myself to see what the next step on my own journey is.
Food for thought
Do any of these experiences resonate with you? Are there areas of your life or work that you are trying to shift externally that might need to be worked through internally first? What could you do to engage in this work in a way that is both supportive and transformative?