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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

When Our Lives Are Followed by a Question Mark

By Peter DeWitt — November 29, 2015 4 min read
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Who are you, question mark?
I often ask myself questions.
In your festive garb
You look like a judge.
You are the happiest of punctuation marks
At least you get answers.

Patricia Duncker (Hallucinating Foucault)

The other day a good friend, and someone I greatly admire, posted a photo on Instagram from a wedding. In the photo was her first name followed by a question mark because she had recently changed her last name for a variety of reasons and the person inviting her wasn’t sure what to write. My friend wrote this caption on Instagram,

Back when my last name was followed by a question mark.”

Our lives are always followed by question marks...we just don’t always realize it. Sometimes it’s due to some unforeseen circumstances, and other times it’s because we have made purposeful decisions that leave us feeling unsure of the results. What’s truly important is how we move forward.

Sadly, some people don’t move forward at all. They get stuck in their present...or worse...their past and never move on. They can’t see the future because their present and past take over their thinking. Other times, despite how hard it may be, some people pick themselves up and dust themselves off and make steps toward a happier future.

What about our students?

Our students may seem like they are too young for such major life decisions but they are not. Some of our students are faced with growing up without a parent or they have both parents but have nowhere to live. Other times our students are faced with the pressures of adolescence, which for them, is as stressful as any decision we may face as adults.

I worry about our students because, due to accountability and the economy or family dynamic, there is this pressure to get into the right college and pick the right profession. Clearly, finding a job is important, but due to pressures from family or school we have students who chose a path at a young age and feel as though they have to follow it no matter what.

Our energy really needs to be spent on making sure students are prepared for whatever choice they make, regardless of whether we are there in their moment of need. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, refers to those students as “Assessment-capable learners.”

Those students know what to do when an adult isn’t around to help them.

At this point in the school year many students around North America are deciding where they want to go to college...or making decisions on what they want to do in life. When I was young I never could have made those major life decisions seriously. Truth be told I had limited options any way. I’m almost glad I did because I didn’t feel the pressure to make the right life decision like many of our students. I just had to wake up and learn to put one foot in front of the other.

When we are talking with students who are in the middle of these major life decisions, we should give them our life experiences, and tell them the truth about our own lives. They should know whether we struggled with each decision or changed our minds numerous times.

What is truly important is whether they understand that they need to be open when they are experiencing life. They should keep an open mind to all of the possibilities that life offers us because many people do not have that same luxury. We should be happy that we have the opportunity to be offended by a red Starbucks cup or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that don’t necessarily look like the Christmas Tree they are supposed to look like.

For full disclosure, much of my life has been followed by a question mark. Whether it was when I was young and growing up in some unfortunate and sad circumstances, or after I spent 19 years in public education taking a leap without that “golden parachute” or the “net” needed to catch me in case I fell...so I could follow a new path.

Sometimes the most exciting things that happen to us are the things we don’t see coming. And other times the saddest things that happen to us are the things we don’t see coming either. We have a 50/50 chance every day. It’s how we prepare ourselves for them, and deal with them when they happen that really matters.

Angela Maiers, someone I respect very much, says it best when she says, “You matter.” Maiers has 8 important pieces to her You Matter Manifesto. Those 8 pieces are:

  • You are enough
  • You have influence
  • You are a genius
  • You have a contribution to make
  • You have a gift to give, that others need
  • You are the change
  • Your actions define your impact
  • You matter.

This does not mean that we have to have all of the answers to our personal question marks now, and neither do our students. If you are putting that kind of pressure on your students or children...stop it.

What it means is that we have to realize what it is we want to offer to the world, and that may look different as we get older. Don’t become complacent or believe that every decision you make now will be the final decision for your life.

Sometimes the most exciting thing about our lives is that they are always followed by question marks. It’s how we answer those question marks that matter. I know my friend has a long list of amazing answers ahead of her, and so should our students.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Timusu

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.