One Year Ago …

One year ago, we closed our campus and moved to online instruction for all students. At the time, I will confess I had grave concerns about what the following months would hold for our school. How long would our campus remain closed? Would our people get sick? Would our students thrive online? Would we survive financially? How and when might we reopen our campus? These and a hundred other questions weighed heavy on my mind during long days working from home and occasional sleepless nights.

Fast forward to one year later. We are a better school today in every way. Enrollment is strong and nearing capacity as we have added four new classes in our lower school. Our financial position is sound and participation in charitable giving has grown remarkably. Our teachers have learned to navigate online learning with amazing skill and our technological sophistication as a school has developed at light speed. Our students have learned new coping skills that will pay dividends long after this pandemic ends. We all learned the value of cooperation and trust as we navigated this year together as a community.

One year after our world shut down, I feel gratitude. I am thankful to each of you for your support and cooperation this past year. We faced many issues that threatened to divide us as a community, but we remained unified in our commitment to educate and care for our students. I am thankful to the medical professionals whose wise guidance has helped us navigate the complexities of running a school safely during a pandemic. I am grateful to our teachers for the sacrifices they make every day to continue the noble work of education by whatever means necessary. And finally, I am thankful to God whose providence and protection we owe for whatever good the past year has brought us, and whose love for us in Christ drives us forward in our mission. The past 12 months have brought us precious little to celebrate, but today, we can certainly celebrate that we are still here and still doing the work God has for us, day by day, week by week, until one day all things are made new.

Academics community Education

Working from Home

Since the onset of stay-at-home orders, I’ve been working almost exclusively from home for over a month and going nowhere when I’m not working. The whole experience is disorienting. I have good days and not-so-good days. I sometimes lack motivation and sometimes feel manic. I alternate between eating too much and exercising like I’m in the military. I sleep well mostly, but sometimes have bizarre dreams or lay awake thinking about work, or about nothing much at all. I feel focused and then distracted and then focused again. It all still feels rather bizarre. Here are a few of things I’ve learned about working at home.

  1. I need a schedule. Left to my own whims, work will bleed into every waking hour and many sleeping hours as well. When I started setting a regular time to wake, work, and work out, I felt more settled, worked with more focus, and started sleeping better at night.
  2. I need to take breaks. Some days I can work for hours without distraction and the day passes in an instant. Other days and hour seems like an eternity. I’ve returned to a practice I used in college. I take a 10 minute break every hour. I go outside, walk around the block, lay down, stretch, do push-ups, whatever. This breaks up the day and keeps my mind sharper.
  3. I created a work space that I like. Maybe you’re sharing limited space with several other people. Maybe you have your own office. Either way, set up your work space so that it functions well for you. I use lists and sticky notes and I am usually surrounded by books, reports, budgets, and other printouts. I organize my workspace every couple of hours and keep it clean, especially now. I can’t control many things right now, but I do have influence over my work space and that helps.
  4. I try to dress reasonably well. It would be easy to work in my pajamas many days, at least from shoulders down where nobody on a Zoom call could see. I find this makes me feel lazy, so I get dress, shoes and all. At the end of the day I put on casual clothes or work out attire as I did when I went to the school every day for work. This creates some normalcy.
  5. I try to stay in touch. Needed interactions happened normally when I worked in close proximity to my colleagues. Now I have to reach out. I find that I am using email, text messaging, and good old-fashioned phone calls more than ever. I get tired of Zoom but it gets the job done. The social interaction does my soul good, even if it isn’t as completely satisfying as being with others in person.
  6. I spend very little time listening to the news. In the early weeks of this pandemic, I fed on every bit of information I could get. In those early days of this crisis, I needed lots of information to make operational decisions. Now there is less news but a plethora of political hot takes that mostly cause confusion and don’t impact daily decisions. I scan the BBC app each morning for 10 minutes to get new national and international news. I subscribe to a small number of email lists for information about other schools and local and state government actions. I avoid cable news like the plague.
  7. I make time for the arts. I got a free premium subscription to Spotify and I listen to far more music than normal, especially acoustic guitar and classical music. For reasons I cannot explain, these genres soothe my nerves right now. I now follow some new songwriters on Instagram who post nightly covers or give weekly concerts online. These performances are a gift.
  8. I go to church every Sunday. That is to say that I watch my church online, and then a few other churches as well. Sunday is the one day of the week that feels substantially different from the others. Thank God for those faithful ministers who are keeping the Body of Christ together right now, even as we are apart from each other.
community Leadership Work

Managing Increased Email Volume

Now that everyone is working and schooling from home, your email inbox has probably blown up. Friends, family members, co-workers, and all of your kids’ teachers are emailing you with unprecedented regularity. I have a strategy to offer for managing that ballooning inbox, one that I adapted over time from other people, the identities of whom I cannot now remember. I can remember these four words: delete, delegate, do, delay.

Delete. Many emails can be deleted the moment you read the subject or sender line. Marketing promotions, social media alerts, and various lists to which you subscribe intentionally or not, my recommendation is that when times are hectic, delete these emails the second they show up in your inbox. Some email management software automatically sends such emails into a separate folder. By whatever means, get these junk emails out of your inbox.

Delegate. Some emails you can immediately send to someone else – a coworker who needs the information, an employees whose job is to handle the task, a child who needs to manage his or her own school assignment, or information on which you’ve been copied. Get these out of your inbox immediately by forwarding them with as little explanation as possible or filing them in case you need the information later. When in doubt, file. Storage is plentiful and cheap.

Do. After you’ve deleted and delegated all the emails you can, now you look through the list of emails and, counterintuitively, look for the least important emails first. If the email requires you to perform a task that you cannot delegate, and the task would take less than two minutes to perform, perform that task as soon as you open the email. Someone is asking a simple question or needs your permission for something. Give them an answer in as few words as necessary, politely but succinctly, and move on. Now is not the time for verbose niceties. Take care of as many of these brief tasks as possible and then delete or file the email, depending on whether or not you need a record.

Delay. The last category of email is the one that requires a task of you that only you can perform, and the task will take longer than two minutes. Keep this email until you’ve deleted, delegated, or done all of the other email tasks in your inbox. These are the only emails that should camp out in your inbox. Keep the number of these emails below 20 if possible. This will help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

Here are additional quick recommendations:

  1. Work on email during specified times of the day. Don’t let email dictate your work life, otherwise you will sacrifice the important for the urgent.
  2. Don’t check your email within a couple of hours of bedtime. You don’t need that irritant to keep you awake.
  3. Never send an angry email. Electronic communication is permanent. Emails can be subpoenaed. Confrontational conversations should be held face-to-face or by phone where facial expressions or vocal inflections can provide context and prevent misunderstanding.
  4. If you must, write a draft of an angry email and then sit on it for 24 hours. Reread it the next day. Let a colleague review it for you. In the end, you’ll probably delete it so save time and just don’t write it in the first place.
  5. Use proper punctuation, spelling, and grammar regardless of who you are writing. Emails provide good opportunities to practice proper English, proper English shows respect to others, and respect is a good thing, especially in times of crisis.
community Ethics Technology

Social Drama: How to Handle It, Or Better Yet, Avoid It Altogether

[The following is a chapel address presented to Junior High and High School Students at SouthLake Christian Academy on January 8, 2020.]

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.’” – Philippians 2.3-8, New International Version

Social drama is common among teens and adults alike. People living and working in close proximity with one another will inevitably experience relational conflict. This is a normal, natural, and necessary part of any family or community. People have to learn to exist peaceably with one another. The problem comes when conflict isn’t resolved effectively and persists creating unnecessary stress for those involved. So, let’s define social drama as unresolved relational conflict that creates undue emotional distress. (For the purposes of this address, I am not talking about situations involving physical harm or the threat of injury. Social drama is both more common and more trivial.) Here is an example of social drama that I observe frequently. Susie says insulting things about Adam to her friend Beth. (These are not real people). Beth tells Adam what Susie said and Adam gets angry at Susie, who in turn gets mad at Beth for telling Adam. Then Beth gets mad at Susie for starting the whole thing and she gangs up with Adam against Susie. Susie gets her other friends involved to take her side, and Adam and Beth do the same. And on the drama goes!

The passage from Philippians 2 quoted above gives four instructions. (1) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. (2) Consider others more important than yourselves. (3) Look after the interests of others. (4) Be like Jesus who was equal to God but gave his life for us. If everyone followed these instructions, social drama wouldn’t exist. Here are some of the causes of drama as I see them.

Personal insecurity is the most obvious and common cause of social drama. People who are uneasy about their position in a community, people who do not feel liked or trusted, people who are not comfortable in their own skin, people who feel unsure about their friendships, or people who are lonely will often try to bring others down in order to feel better about themselves.

Competition for social position isn’t unique to teens. We adults can be more overt and vicious in our quest for popularity. Teens follow the examples we set. Who is friends with whom, who travels where and with whom, who hosts parties and who is invited, who lives where and who drives what … these are the concerns of socialites. You’ll avoid a lot of drama simply by refusing to play this game. Have close friends but be a friend to all. When you travel or host social events, don’t post pictures about it that inevitably make others feel excluded. Be less concerned with who likes you and more concerned that you treat others with unfailing kindness and respect.

Gossip, rumors, and slander often pose as genuine concern for people but accomplish nothing good for anyone. Some seem to thrive on involving themselves in the private business of other people and use gossip to fill a personal void. Other use slander as a weapon of war against those with whom they hold a grudge. Spreading negativity about other people fuels one’s ego, but the fire can burn all involved. The old expression seems to apply here: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say it.”

Attention seeking behaviors are those actions intended solely for the purpose of drawing attention to oneself. Social media exists because we are attention seekers by nature, but social media allows us to deceive by painting a picture of our lives that isn’t real. We show online what we want others to see not what we truly are. We exaggerate what is good about our lives to impress others or exaggerate what is difficult about our lives to get their sympathy. We express opinions to impress or to annoy, and the attention that results helps us feel smart or important or validated. Yet, a growing body of research indicates that the inevitable result of our online existence is jealousy, anxiety, and discontent. Limit your time online and remember that everything you see is contrived.

Entertainment is a cure for boredom and social drama can surely be entertaining. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to have a good-humored approach to the drama that swirls around you, so long as you don’t seek to create it for your own amusement. Jokes and pranks and poking fun can help us cope with a world that is filled with tragedy, but these things can go too far and become belittling or damaging to others. If you are sensitive to those around you and consider their interests ahead of your own, you’ll develop the sensitivity to know when you are about to cross the line from humor to humiliation.

Now here are some things you can do to handle, or better yet, avoid social drama altogether.

  1. Never speak negatively about other people. Yes, sometimes you need to blow the whistle on bad behavior. Sometimes you need to give those in authority an honest evaluation of someone’s behavior. But aside from those rare circumstances, if you follow the simple practice of never speaking badly about others, you will be a happier person in the long run. The Rotary Club promotes an ethical standard called “The Four-Way Test,” recited by members at each meeting. “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it bring goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” These are good questions to ask yourself regularly.
  2. If someone offends you, talk to that person. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus gives these instructions to his followers: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” These conversations will seem difficult to those with little experience having them. But there are simple and gracious ways to talk to someone who has offended you. You do not need to get in their face or become confrontational or drag up years of offenses. A simple statement like, “Hey, you said something that bothers me, and I was hoping we could talk about it sometime.” You will get better having difficult conversations over time. Best to become comfortable with difficult conversations now while you are young, and the stakes are low. As you get older, difficult conversations will become more common and far more consequential.
  3. Apologize when you mess up, and when you don’t. Sometimes the solution to social drama is a simple apology. And sometimes, you need to apologize even when you don’t think you are at fault. If the objective is a mended relationship, then at some point it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. Be a peacemaker not a drama creator. Of course, you need proper boundaries to know that there are times when you must insist that others take responsibility for their behavior. But most instances of petty social drama will never be resolved by pointing fingers. If you aren’t ready to say you’re sorry when it isn’t your fault, then you aren’t ready for any serious relationship, romantic or otherwise. Jesus gives us the best example I know. As He gave His life, dying a martyr’s death in torturous despair, he said of his executioners, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
  4. Forgive, forget, and move on. Middle school and high school are too difficult already. LIFE it too difficult and too short for you to hold grudges. Each grudge you carry is like a brick in a backpack that you cannot remove. The books and supplies you’re carrying are heavy enough already and each time you fail to forgive, you add more weight. You are only hurting yourself. Forgive. What if the other person doesn’t apologize? Forgive. What if the other person refuses to admit he or she did something wrong? Forgive. What if he or she keeps doing it over and over? Forgive. You may need to get some help from an adult, but you still need to forgive. Jesus was asked once how often we needed to forgive. “Seven times?” was the question. Jesus answered, “Seventy times seven.” He did not mean 490 times. Seven is the biblical number of completion. Forgive completely.

In conclusion, I considered asking that we make it our New Year’s resolution to avoid social drama. But the thought occurred to me that this approach will not work. If the root cause of drama is personal insecurity, then simply resolving to avoid drama can’t possibly be effective. We must each address the insecurity that we feel as broken and fallen people in a broken and fallen world. Or rather, I should say we must each allow God to address the insecurity in us. As the theologian St. Augustine writes in Confessions, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”