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February 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 5
The Learning Zone

What Is the Measure of a Life?

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What it means to strive to live a “whole life.”

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Professional Learning
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Recently, I was asked what for me was a really challenging question by leadership coach Andy Vasily: "What is the measure of your life?" I've been thinking about that question ever since Andy asked it, and here is what I'm coming to believe. My goal with my life is to live a whole life, what Parker Palmer refers to as an "undivided life." A whole life is one in which what I believe inside is manifested in my actions outside. I believe the journey of my life, and perhaps others' lives, is to move toward this kind of integrity.
Inside, my beliefs are increasingly clear: I want to focus my energy on what is good for others and not only myself. I want to approach others with humility, giving others the credit they deserve and downplaying any credit to myself. I want to believe in others, to be their ally, to start from the belief that people are doing their best given what they are dealing with. I want to be a voice for those whose voices are silenced. I want to be honest, generous, forgiving, and grateful even in the most difficult times.
Do my actions always reflect my beliefs? Am I living a perfectly undivided life? Of course not. I fall short every day. Much too often, I let my own personal concerns walk all over the concerns of others. I am too distracted, too rushed. Too often I'm so focused on getting what I want that I forget to be grateful for what I've already been given.

The Need for Self-Compassion

When I talk about this struggle for wholeness with people I meet, they tell me they too think their actions fall short of their beliefs. And in this post-pandemic time, when many have suffered truly heart-breaking losses, and almost all of us feel emotionally exhausted, we shouldn't be surprised that it's so difficult to be the person we desire to be. This challenge is especially difficult for educators, who feel the urgency of the moral purpose behind their work. "To teach," I often say, "is to feel guilty." Teaching is such complex, emotional work that it would be impossible for every lesson or coaching conversation to be flawless.

What if we allowed ourselves to be defined not by our failures, but by those days when we listen, when we're grateful, when we're loving?

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What makes our struggle even more difficult is the fact that, as researchers like Kristin Neff have shown, most of us are way more critical of ourselves than we would ever dream of being about others. We want to live with integrity, but far too often we feel like we've failed—and we're not afraid to criticize ourselves for our failures. We can feel demoralized by our failures, by all the times our self-centeredness, lack of self-control, or fear have led us to act in ways we regret. But I don't think our failures should define us. What if we allowed ourselves to be defined not by our failures, but by those days when we listen, when we're grateful, when we're loving? My friend Charlotte Ostermann says that "The truest thing about us is the highest thing about us—not the worst thing—and we should live into that goodness." Coaches, leaders, teachers and all other colleagues in schools can do a great service if they remind people of this truth.

Defined by Who We Are Now

The past is gone—and it doesn't define us. Others who criticize us often don't really know us, and their opinions shouldn't define us. The future hasn't come yet, so it can't define us. Who we are is how we live out each new moment; we're defined by what we do in the present. And the great journey of life is to have more moments that are whole, where our outside actions reflect our internal beliefs, where we're trying to be the truest version of ourselves.
Believing that each moment is alive with the potential for wholeness gives me hope and keeps me going even when I know I haven't been my best. When I consider Andy's question, I see the measure of my life being how I respond in each minute, each interaction, each day. My next moment is another opportunity to live an undivided life, and in the moment that's all that really matters to me. Imagine what it might do for teachers' morale and energy if they began to feel this way, too.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching

Jim Knight outlines a robust instructional coaching program that can boost teacher morale and power academic success.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching
End Notes

Palmer, P. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. Jossey-Bass.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. Harper Collins, Publishers.

Jim Knight is a founding senior partner of the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has spent more than two decades studying professional learning, effective teaching, and instructional coaching.

Knight has written several books and his articles on instructional coaching have been included in publications such as The Journal of Staff Development, Principal Leadership, The School Administrator, and Teachers Teaching Teachers.

He directs Pathways to Success, a comprehensive, district-wide school reform project in the Topeka, Kansas, School District and leads the Intensive Instructional Coaching Institutes and the Teaching Learning Coaching annual conference.

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