My wife is a psychologist who specializes in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), an intervention used to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder. One of the cornerstones of DBT is embracing the paradoxical relationship between acceptance and change. Only when an individual accepts herself or her circumstances is she able to change. Whether they are aware of it or not, every educator lives this dialectic day in and day out.
On the one hand, educators must accept – radically accept – an enormous amount of circumstances that are beyond their immediate control. Some of these circumstances may be relatively small: I do not have reliable parent contact information, my school does not have enough books for all of my student, the 2nd floor printer becomes sentient and intentionally malfunctions when I desperately need to use it. And some of these circumstances are large: structural inequality is real; district politics exist; and – as much as we wish it were the case – teenagers do not have fully developed frontal lobes. As educators, each of these circumstances is difficult to swallow. This difficulty is precisely what makes our acceptance of them radical.
However, on the other hand, acceptance is often the very ingredient that catalyzes change. My school does not have enough copies of Beloved for all of my students, and I can raise funds on Donors Choose. Institutional racism isn’t going away, and I can do my best to chip away at its edges. What is crucial, then, is that educators do not conflate acceptance of unfavorable circumstances with resignation to them. Radical acceptance is not giving in; rather, it is an orientation toward reality that allows one to see – with clear eyes – a path forward amidst the tangled vines.
When stuck in quicksand, rather than thrash about, one is supposed to relax and allow the body to work its natural buoyancy. Radical acceptance is that moment of pause – that deep breath – that allows us to redistribute our weight and pull ourselves free. (*Full disclosure: I have never been stuck in quicksand, but I imagine it is a lot like first year teaching, except that only in the latter case are there thirty witnesses watching you drown)
As a first year teacher, I find myself repeatedly returning to a mantra that captures the dialectic between acceptance and change: I’m not there yet.
I’m not there yet with that 9th grader whose trust I haven’t earned. I’m not there yet in creating systems that hold my students accountable but don’t leave me neck deep in paperwork. I’m not there yet in finding and murdering the person who invented that goddamn bottle-flipping game. But someday, I’ll get there. Maybe.
This is the power of yet. When we radically accept, we acknowledge that we aren’t there. But when we add that simple word, we open up the possibility for change. By changing our language, we transform our mindset, and by transforming our mindset, we redefine what is possible. All of us educators are capable of doing this, even if we aren’t there yet.