January 17, 2018
Dear Flint Hill School Families,
As we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, I hope everyone took the time to reflect on the tremendous example that Dr. King gave us as he fought injustice with a determined non-violent, but committed way. There are thousands of quotes that are often attributed to him, but my favorite one has always been, “The time is always right to do what is right.” The weekend also presented us with news out of Washington and Hawaii that certainly added to our stress levels. Human error in Hawaii led to widespread panic, and comments that were allegedly made disparaging entire nations left many people unsure of our determination to be the country we all love and cherish. Last weekend provided valuable lessons in how to deal with stress when we are faced with situations in which we simply don’t know what to think or do. To follow Dr. King’s words, we have to “do what is right,” and often, that begins with education.
Last week, I talked about stress and the three stages of alarm, resistance and exhaustion. This week we will discuss the four key causes of stress, which have a real impact on how we function. It is important for us to recognize them, as they help explain to us why we are feeling so tense or anxious at times.
Deprivation. In this kind of cold, the lack of warmth is a level of deprivation. If we do not wear the proper clothing — socks, shoes, hats, gloves, you name it — we can experience significant stress. Just as if we don’t drink enough water for hydration, eat enough food, or are not feeling safe or supported by the world around us, we will get stressed out. We need to make sure all of our needs — emotional and physical — are met to avoid pockets of stress.
Frustration. We live in a part of the country where frustration can be a daily event. Have you ever felt tense while sitting in traffic? Or when you suddenly realize that school is going to be canceled or delayed and you have to rearrange your entire day? What about when you hear news that upsets you, and you want to react, but you don’t know how? That frustration puts us under enormous stress, and we need to recognize that emotion and understand it.
Pressure. Believe it or not, when school is delayed or canceled, those of us behind those decisions face a tremendous amount of pressure in the moment. We know that our decisions have the potential to disrupt the lives of our families and that is never something that we want to do. But our primary focus is and always will be on the safety of our students, parents and faculty. There are a lot of questions to consider: Do we want people out on the roads? What is the consequence of missing a day of school? How do we make certain that there aren’t any accidents? We also have to balance what we hear from the forecast, what we can see out on the roads ourselves, and what we know our great teachers can do by connecting with their students remotely.
Conflict. Psychologists typically focus on decision making when discussing conflict. Each time we have to make a choice, we are under stress. For example, if you must choose between two desirable outcomes, that is called the “approach-approach” conflict. You could also choose between two unattractive outcomes, and that is called the “avoidance-avoidance” conflict. But the most common kind of conflict we experience is the “approach-avoidance,” when one event or goal has both attractive and unattractive features. Have you ever been to a restaurant and found yourself struggling with what to choose from that wonderful menu? There are great choices, and you are under stress because you can’t decide what to pick. Or have you ever seen a Senior, in April, experience the struggle of choosing which college to attend? The same holds true when we have two negative choices to make (avoidance-avoidance) and are forced to choose between two undesirable outcomes. The “approach-avoidance” conflict is the most common, and one that can be the most difficult to deal with. My mother always advised me to make a list of pros and the cons whenever I had a tough decision to make. Would you be surprised to know that every time I have done that, both lists have been equally lengthy? And of course, that just adds to the stress I am already feeling!
Stress is a part of life. But there are a number of techniques we can use to manage it. We should always take a deep breath and step back emotionally for a moment. At school, our students and faculty are learning to be “mindful,” and taking that mindful moment can really help. Keep whatever the event is in perspective and then do your best to move forward with a smile on your face, a sense of humor in your heart, and the confidence that this is all going to work out and there will be another day. As I watched our students deal with the end of the semester, I would see the stress on their faces at times. But I also would hear them laugh as a friend shared a great story or saw them smile as they headed off to a favorite activity, which gave me confidence that day by day, they are learning how to cope. We need to be their role models as well. Even in the most difficult times, if we need others, we should be willing turn to each other for support. Our community is a strong one and one that deeply cares and worries about the experiences that each of us has. So let’s all work together to make certain that this winter we keep the stress under control.
In fact, one place to start may be for all of us to get together this weekend at Winterfest. We will have the chance to be with other families while our kids can participate in many activities. Please enjoy lunch or dinner together and watch some incredible basketball games as our Upper School teams compete. Winterfest gives us another wonderful moment to relax together and appreciate being a part of this great community.
And regarding world events that can sometimes disrupt our experience, we must be reminded that our children attend a school that is focused on four core values, that values and respects you and them for who you are, and truly wants to be a caring, safe space.
Best wishes to you!
John M. Thomas
About the Headmaster
Since 2005, John Thomas has served as Flint Hill’s Headmaster. He is a graduate of the McDonogh School in Baltimore, Maryland, and holds degrees from Randolph Macon College and Towson University, with a certificate in school psychology from the State of Maryland. He is the co-author of “Psychodiagnostic Evaluation of Children: A Casebook Approach,” and has articles published in the book “Parenting Teens: Collected Essays by Independent School Educators,” published by the Secondary School Admission Test Board. John has served on the Board of Trustees for the Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS) and the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington (AISGW), and is a current Board member for Emerging Scholars. He and his wife Emily, a former teacher, have three grown sons, three daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.