Dear Teachers & Parents: Let’s Walk the Talk

Parent-Teacher Interviews are just a few days away – here are some useful strategies based in kindness and compassion to help us have meaningful and productive meetings.


For Teachers & Parents: Perhaps we could all be a little more humble.IMG_20141010_092243

International Kindness Week has just passed and parent-teacher interviews are upon us. Is it just a coincidence that they occur around the same time of year? Perhaps whoever picked the date was trying to send a message to the most influential people in our children’s lives…What a perfect opportunity to remind ourselves that we should be kind to our fellow human beings, especially our child’s teacher, or alternatively, or students’ parents.


Why so many conflicts?


There are plenty of reasons why parents and teachers get stressed out during interviews, but I believe we can boil it down to one thing: fear of failure. I truly think it’s that simple. It may be the parents who are worried they aren’t doing a good enough job at home, or the teacher who is worried she isn’t effectively…

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School’s Almost Out!

One of my recent posts  had to do with questioning the assumptions that give us a dramatic emotional response. So it seems appropriate that we talk about the end of the school year.

It’s a time of year when although we feel like we should get to chill and slow things down, the pace actually picks up as we race against the clock. Simultaneously, challenging behaviors tend to worsen.

A few years ago, in the month of June, a child whispered in my ear, “I’m really sad school is ending…”

I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I was truly caught off guard by this confession. How had it never occurred to me that for some kids, summer is not a time of fun in the sun?

I asked this young girl to tell me why she felt that way. She explained that her parents would be working all summer. They were not able to get any vacation time. Plus, she was not looking forward to going back to the same day camp where she had been the previous summer. Her camp leader had been really strict, border-line mean.

This little girl had been sulky in my class for nearly a week. I had tried to reach out to her, but she would just shrug her shoulders and tell me she was tired.

I wonder now if the reason she had held back from admitting the truth was because I had been trying to set a tone of celebration in the class. She was not able to identify with that and I was therefore inadvertently alienating her. I had assumed that all of the kids were looking forward to the summer. Let’s be clear, I’m pretty sure all kids WANT to look forward to the summer, it’s just that sadly, that’s not the case.

The message I wish to deliver to teachers is this: As unfavorable behaviors escalate in the classroom, question your assumptions about why this is the case. If you have a tendency to sound like you’re looking forward to the end, try to remember that some kids may be hurting. They may need to hear you say how much you are going to miss them, ALL of them. Take the ones who have challenged you the most aside and let them know that you would like nothing more than to create happy memories of these last few weeks of school. Acknowledge that you have had your ups and downs together, but tell them how these challenges have only made you love them more. Let them know that you see their goodness, and that you believe in them. Ironic though it may seem, some of our most challenging students really look forward to school. Many kids will be saying goodbye to their friends for the entire summer. Do not underestimate how attached the children have become to you as their teacher, either.

My message for parents is this: you may not be in a position where vacation is an option, but perhaps a heart-to-heart with your child on why that’s the case could really help them to see how fortunate they are nonetheless. We have a tendency to compare ourselves to those who have it “better” than us, but we neglect to see the billions of people in the world who have it much tougher than us. Teach your child to count her blessings. Then, sit down as a family, pull out the calendar and pencil in things like: go for a walk in the forest, play tennis or basketball at the local courts, go for ice cream, hang out in the backyard or at the park, go for a bike ride through the neighborhood, visit our cousins, have a friend sleep-over… You get the idea. What kids want more than anything is to know that they will have time to kick back with their family and friends.

One more thing: if your child complains that her camp leader is mean, please listen and react. So long as the camp organizers do not get feedback, they have no reason to intervene. Do not be aggressive in your intervention (I have a post on my blog entitled “Kindness is…” that’s worth checking out), but do intervene.

That little girl taught me to ask the kids questions about their summer activities and I was shocked and saddened at how many of them had negative feelings about their camp counsellors. That just seems crazy to me! It does not have to be this way.


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“What if Screaming is all I Know?”

I had several potential titles, a couple of which were: Why Are so Many Kids Growing up in Angry Homes? and Stressed out Adults=Stressed out Kids. This post is based on the idea that Our Classroom Ought to Feel Like an Extended Family, and though I still hold this belief close to my heart, I have needed to re-frame my philosophy in light of certain discoveries… which brings us full-circle to the reason for the chosen title.


Each new school year, on the very first day of class, I pitch my philosophy to my students. “Since we will be together nearly six hours a day, five days a week, for ten months, that makes us a family,” I begin, “Therefore, I expect us to treat one another as such.”


The first year I implemented this philosophy, it took me until March to realize why I was having trouble making it take hold the way I had hoped and imagined it would. In my mind, reminding the students that we should treat one another as a family ought to have motivated them to be kinder to one another.


Anytime I would overhear unkind words or witness mean actions amongst my students, I would say, “We are a family. We should be kind to each other. Try again. Make it right.” While many of my students reacted positively to this philosophy by either changing their tone of voice or by demonstrating greater respect towards their peers, with certain students, not only did their behavior not improve, but I even sensed a heightened level of agitation.


I finally understood the underlying problem when one afternoon, seven months into the school year, ten-year old Fred blurted out, “Miss Kathleen, what if screaming and yelling in a family is all you know?” His words hit me like a ton of bricks. Our eyes locked, and in that moment he knew he had just taught me an important lesson. The whole class fell silent, and Fred continued, “I have never heard my parents work out a problem without screaming at each other…I hate it!” His last words caught in his throat as he choked back his tears. His passionate confession echoed throughout the classroom.


“It’s the same thing in my home…” called out one of his peers.


“I feel you man,” offered another.


Suddenly, whatever issue it was that had prompted Fred’s outburst no longer seemed to matter. We had delved into a much deeper level of conversation, one that had to be handled delicately and compassionately. It is not for me to judge such a statement. Every family has their own story, their own baggage, their own set of values. Each family is on its own journey. Fred’s statement may have been true, but it was not my place to probe. Was the family under enormous stress? Had someone lost a job? Was the marriage suffering? The answers to any of these questions were none of my business. (Fred would perhaps decide to confide in me, but if so, it would need to be his own initiative. I’ll elaborate on why I feel this is important in a subsequent chapter). Ideally, my response needed to be phrased in such a way that acknowledged his statement as his truth and supported him on his journey without talking against his parents in any way since I could not pretend to know or understand the whole situation. I needed to resist making assumptions.


I allowed for a few moments to gather my thoughts in order to respond to Fred with the utmost respect and empathy possible. If we were to break it down into steps, the process would look something like this:


Empathetic thoughts:


I needed to acknowledge his feelings without speaking against his parents. “Fred,” I said, “Clearly the arguing you hear in your home is very upsetting to you. I am sorry that’s your reality. For me, growing up, my parents never argued in front of me. I should have realized that when I’ve been saying ‘We must treat each other as a family,’ that experience is very different for each of us.”


Motivation to intervene/respond:


I needed to recognize that this claim, while true in Fred’s eyes, could very well have another dimension to it of which I was completely unaware. I needed to focus on reassuring Fred that in our classroom he should not have to deal with screaming and yelling. That that is a professional responsibility I take very seriously. (That is not to say that I never lose my patience or raise my voice. Any parent who has been pushed to the edge by his one child can surely comprehend that a group of 20-30 students can have a way of pushing anyone to the brink. Having said that, I am careful with my words, even as I lose my patience. No form of verbal abuse is ever acceptable.)


“I don’t think I have to tell you how strongly I feel about speaking to one another kindly. I can’t change what goes on at home for you, Fred, or any of you for that matter. The point I’ve been trying to make since August, is that there is always a way to solve our problems using kindness and respect. I should have realized that it can be different for each of you at home and that if you have not had this modeled for you, that it would be that much harder for you to know how to fix your problems peacefully.”



This is a delicate situation. While in my heart I wish that children could be spared from certain stressful realities of home life, I must acknowledge that this is out of my control. My responsibility towards my students is restricted to the relationship we create with one another, within the four walls of our classroom.

“Boys and girls, can I ask you something? When I’ve been saying, ‘We should feel like a family and treat each other as such’, have you understood what I’ve meant?”


“For sure, Miss Kathleen. We know that it has to do with getting along,” offered one student.


“It’s just that sometimes I find we get along better in the classroom than I do with my own family at home,” said another student.


“We’re really glad this is what you teach us, Miss Kathleen!” chimed in a handful of children.


Action & Desired Outcome:


The action I needed to take was abundantly clear. I had to continue insisting on these family values that I hold so dear, as the students were clearly showing their appreciation for this approach. However, there was a need for me to reframe it, so that I could be more sensitive to the variety of realities my students experienced outside of the classroom.


“I guess for some of you, screaming is just normal in your home,” I remarked.


“Oh ya!”, “You bet!”, “No kidding!” several students called out.


“Judging by what you’re telling me though, you would prefer to live with less of that type of behavior and you are glad I insist on speaking to each other kindly in the classroom. My goal has always been to develop our skills of communicating effectively with one another to solve our problems. If ever you find yourself teaching these lessons to your family and inspiring positive change in your home, that would be so wonderful.”


“I doubt it, Miss Kathleen,” interrupted Fred.


“Fair enough, Fred. That’s probably too much responsibility for a ten-year old, isn’t it? Can we at least use our experience in this classroom as proof that it’s possible to live peacefully with others, and that when conflicts arise, we can often solve them without yelling? It can allow you to dream of one day raising your own family in a peaceful environment. Do you like that idea?”


“That works for me,” replied Fred. Several more students spoke up to say they liked that idea as well. While I dare not claim that conversation was some kind of miracle that changed their behavior for the rest of year and that no more arguments or confrontations ever broke out again, it was certainly a significant moment for many of us in the class. My relationship with Fred, for one, took on a whole new dimension. He clearly felt a sense of relief that someone understood him on a whole new level, and while naturally conflicts still arose, it was clear that he desired a positive change in his life.


I no longer take the philosophy of treating one another as a family for granted. These days when I introduce the idea to my students, we discuss what that could mean and how we want it to look. When the children list less desirable aspects of family life, such as yelling, fighting, and rudeness, I ask them if they want it to include these as part of our classroom agreements on how we ought to treat one another. The resounding “No way!” that these eight-year-olds cry out is something to which we all should be paying closer attention.


Nowadays, I still believe that our classroom ought to feel like an extended family, but I emphasize the idea that we must create and/or reinforce the habit of treating each other the way we wish to be treated, anywhere and everywhere we go, because it always feels good to be treated with kindness.I find myself asking my students if they think it is possible to live harmoniously with one another, and we talk about what makes it challenging and how we can deal with those challenges. Fred’s bravery in speaking his mind and in sharing something so personal created a ripple effect that is ongoing to this day.

And the day came, when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud, was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. This is the element of freedom.

– Anais Nin & Alicia Keys

Homework is Yours and Yours Alone

When did “parental homework support” become an essential element of a child’s education? From an empathetic standpoint, I can think of endless scenarios wherein expecting home support would be completely unreasonable. From illiterate parents, to those who work 12 hour days just to put a roof over their heads and food in the fridge, expecting parents to have the skills and time required to help their child with their school work can be a totally unfair expectation and can actually set a child up for failure.


It is not uncommon to hear exasperated parents expressing their frustrations. “When I was a kid, I did my homework by myself. Nowadays we’re expected to sit with our child every night. Half the time I don’t even know how to help! It’s so different from when we were in school.”


On the flip side, I doubt if I could find a single teacher who has never lived through the frustration of giving an assignment, only to wind up chasing after the student to get it done, or worse, realizing that it was done by the parent. When something is broken we either fix it or we throw it out. Some schools have been doing away with homework in light of all the problems it can create. That solution is deeply flawed. It is paramount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to change how and what we do by holding on to the essential and trimming away the superfluous. Less is more.


Am I saying therefore that we need to stop expecting parents to help their kids with their homework, you ask? Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. Stop expecting it. Set your students up for success by only giving them work that they ought to be able to complete on their own at home. Essentially, this means that homework should be about practicing skills that have already been appropriately taught in school or studying material that has already been properly introduced. Resources must be provided that supply support and explicit explanations. (Ideally, these would be web-based, but a hard copy must be provided to all students who do not have Internet access.) If students unwittingly go home practicing the wrong thing, there is more damage than good being done. And teachers, please realize that if the majority of your students need a tutor in order to understand their homework, there is definitely a problem, and it isn’t the students. You can give work that requires support if you know a child has the support available to her, but otherwise, you need to be the one offering alternative resources. Again, if most of the kids need help, then it probably shouldn’t be homework.

Teachers, we must focus and insist on quality over quantity. We do not serve our students when we send them home feeling stressed about the work they need to get done for school the next day. And please do not tell me that your hands are tied because of curriculum demands. It’s time that policy makers start seeing real test results, not the results of what we have managed to jam down the throats of our students. Let’s get back to being teachers. The power of our unity will speak volumes when together we start putting the child first. Positive social change begins with us, the real people on the front lines. I can guarantee you this: kids who have time to consolidate their knowledge come back to school the next day ready to give it their all.


Does this mean parents should just throw in the towel on assisting their kids, even if they are struggling? Not at all. Parents have every right to set their own expectations for their children. They get to establish after-school routines that suit their family, and by all means, they can be as involved in the homework process as they would like to be. (Teachers, if you do not want parents doing your students’ projects, than don’t send projects home. Have them done in class. If there is no time to complete them in class, maybe they are not an essential element of the curriculum to begin with, or maybe something else needs to be done away with.)


Ideally, every parent would check in with their kids regularly to see how they are doing and if they can offer any assistance to their child. It may sound like I am contradicting myself, but I assure you, I am not. Listen carefully: parents ought to be free to set their own expectations for their children (this may even include additional homework of their choosing); as a teacher, I cannot, and should not, be trying to control what goes on outside of my classroom. I am happy to make suggestions and provide support, but it is not up to me to to be trying to monitor what goes on in each student’s home. That is an unfair expectation, and ultimately can result in stress and frustration for the students, parents and teachers alike.


Here’s the thing. The phrase “lack of at home support” is actually a form of pity and therefore it serves no one. It tells a child, “Maybe if your parents did a better job at caring for you, you wouldn’t be having such a hard time.” That kind of message, no matter how hidden it may be, does not go unheard, and it can only cause damage.


My approach to homework acknowledges the various realities with which children are faced (which is what empathy truly looks like), and empowers them. They learn from me that, “Your homework is yours and yours alone. You are responsible for it. How much time you spend studying and practicing your skills will be obvious in how you perform in class. You do not get to blame your parents if you did not take time for your homework. You know how to think for yourself. Nobody knows better than you exactly what you need to get done, and you are old enough to choose to do your work.”


By the way, none of the homework I give is ever graded, not directly anyways. Of course, I collect stencils, do spot-checks, and verify the websites that I use with them which track each student’s progress (guaranteeing that they are only ever reinforcing the right behaviors). No two kids need to study or practice anything the exact same way for the exact same period of time. I know whether or not my students are working hard enough at home based on their contributions to class discussions, and their performance on quizzes and tests. That is more than enough to hold them accountable.


Independence and responsibility are two things that seem to be lacking in children today. Well, who’s fault is that? If we keep robbing children of opportunities to develop these skills, how can we fault them when they fail to meet to our expectations? We need to recognize the role we have been playing and make the necessary adjustments.


Here’s the bottom line: Teachers, stop worrying about home support and stop expecting it. Instead, let’s focus on fostering a sense of pride and independence within each student. Children are so much more resilient than we give them credit for. As researcher Brené Brown said, “We are wired for struggle”. Those who (seem to) lack support at home do not need our pity, they need to be shown their own strength. Only part of their journey has been chosen for them by the parents to whom they were born, the rest is up to them.


No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from. Fill your lives with love and bravery. And you shall lead a life uncommon.  – Jewel


postscript: Many schools have introduced the flipped classroom approach which is pure brilliance if all your students have access to the Internet either at home in an after-school program. Essentially, their homework is to view a video of the next day’s lesson. The video is either prerecorded by the teacher or provided by various excellent websites who have committed themselves to this endeavor. There are numerous benefits to this approach such as: students can pause, rewind, and view the video as often as necessary, children have the opportunity to discuss the material with their peers before bringing their questions to the teacher, the teacher no longer needs to ‘lecture’ and can focus his attention on supporting his students’ comprehension, and the work is done in class where the teacher is present to offer support. It’s genius. Understandably, there are socioeconomic factors which can prevent schools from going this route for now, but the future holds infinite possibilities for finding solutions to this aspect of the dilemma.


How do we explain our need to feel respected by others? Is there something in the human condition or is it the conditioning of and by society that causes us to feel wounded when we sense someone has disrespected us? Is it a global phenomenon? Most importantly, how often do we mistake someone’s actions for disrespect when in fact it had nothing to do with us in the first place?


Our interpretation of any given situation is just that, an interpretation. It can be so easy to feel disrespected when in fact the person’s actions had very little to do with us. This is directly correlated to the idea presented in Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements that nothing is personal; everything is merely a reflection of the other person’s reality.


Experience has taught me that using the word “kind” instead of “respect” accomplishes at least two things. For one, it is difficult to argue with the word kind, it’s definition being so clear. Respect on the other hand can be vague and can even put a person on the defensive, “I didn’t do it on purpose!”


On top of that, when delivering a message with the word respect, it is easy to take on a tone of command or superiority which is rarely conducive to defusing a situation. On the flip side, try saying, “Be kind!!!!” in a bossy way. The results are quite ridiculous. I promise you, it’s true. I’ve tried. (You should try it too, right now…that’s if you’re not riding the bus or something. That could be embarrassing…)


Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a principal, or a childcare provider, the use of the word “kind” in place of “respect” helps to build social skills by giving children clear actions to take in order to solve their problems. It avoids the possibility of accusing children of having poor character and instead empowers them by providing them with opportunities to be seen as kind.


Remember, children innately want to be seen as good. They want to belong. The children we see today who resist this are the ones who have been neglected one way or another. That is not intended as an accusatory statement. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I firmly believe however that children will only regularly seek out negative attention when experience has taught them that that is what is easier to get. For these kids, any attention is good attention. It’s our (professional) obligation to guide them compassionately, thereby helping them to reconnect to their true self. We are all born loving. Just some of us do not have the privilege of it being reinforced properly or effectively.


I am not suggesting that we stop teaching about respect. What I am suggesting is that we make kindness the first stepping stone or building block on a child’s journey to learning how to be respectful. Let’s stop being indignant towards children who seem to lack respect, and give them the concrete tools for being respectful, which ultimately comes down to acts of kindness and practicing empathy. Let’s remember that their brains, their spirits, their hearts, and their souls are still developing, all the way through the primary years and beyond. Let’s accompany them on their journey in a heart-felt way, rather than a judgmental way. By placing our attention first and foremost on kindness, we naturally instill respectful behavior in them.


The bottom line is this: Ask yourself when have you been the most motivated to do your best? Hands down I am certain that when you are treated with kindness, you feel respected by the person for whom you are working, and you are willing to go above and beyond. Children are no different. In fact, what I love about kids is that they are less likely to “fake it” for anyone. Their honesty and generosity are worth a pound in gold when we honor them and challenge them authentically. Let’s give what we wish to receive.


Kindly yours,


Kathleen Murray


Dear Teachers & Parents: Let’s Walk the Talk

For Teachers & Parents: Perhaps we could all be a little more humble.IMG_20141010_092243

International Kindness Week has just passed and parent-teacher interviews are upon us. Is it just a coincidence that they occur around the same time of year? Perhaps whoever picked the date was trying to send a message to the most influential people in our children’s lives…What a perfect opportunity to remind ourselves that we should be kind to our fellow human beings, especially our child’s teacher, or alternatively, or students’ parents.


Why so many conflicts?


There are plenty of reasons why parents and teachers get stressed out during interviews, but I believe we can boil it down to one thing: fear of failure. I truly think it’s that simple. It may be the parents who are worried they aren’t doing a good enough job at home, or the teacher who is worried she isn’t effectively getting through to the child despite her various attempts. Perhaps the parents fear the teacher is not a good fit for their child, or the teacher fears the parents are not doing enough to support their child. One thing is for certain: the moment someone starts playing the blame game, fear is involved, and unless the presence of fear is used wisely, it will be destructive.


Being aware of our fears is healthy and essential for our survival. Fear calls us to action. The challenge lies in getting all the adults involved to implement empathy, compassion and kindness in order to best serve the child.


What does being humble do for me?


The choice to be humble is the singular, most powerful discovery I have made in recent years as a teacher and a parent. It suddenly dawned on me that I did not need to have all of the answers. I realized that after years of trying to please everyone that I was actually setting myself up to fail. Today my approach is more simple. I humbly acknowledge that we all have different views on the best way of doing things. And thank goodness for that! How boring and rigid this world would be if we all had one singular perspective on how things should be done. Approaching teacher-parent meetings with a humble mind has been an exceptionally liberating experience for me and I wish everyone could discover it for themselves, if they haven’t already.


What does being humble and kind sound like during a parent-teacher interview?


It sounds like…


  • Parents and teachers agreeing to the fact that they both have a challenging yet beautifully rewarding responsibility: that of guiding children to be their best.


  • Teachers acknowledging the fact that nobody knows the child better than the parent. (The last thing you want to do as a teacher is is to try to sound like an expert on the child when you have had him in your class for all of 10 weeks!)


  • Parents and teachers reminding each other that kids will be kids and no matter how much we love them, they can and will bend the truth at times to get what they want (and avoid getting in trouble). Therefore, the adults agree to politely ask the right questions to better understand a troubling situation before taking the word of a child over that of an adult. Which leads us to…


  • Parents asking for insight into what the teacher has observed in class and accepting the information as truth because they understand that it does not serve a teacher to invent stories. (While the perspective can be discussed if doesn’t sound quite right, arguing over details of what an adult has seen is wasted energy. Spending time on trying to understand why the child is behaving in a particular way is far more productive.)


  • Teachers and parents alike being confident enough to admit they do not have all the answers and agreeing to work together to find solutions, all the while recognizing that what works well in the classroom environment may not be appropriate for a home environment, and vice versa.


  • Teachers and parents being willing to try to new techniques and strategies, recognizing that the goal is to better serve the child. (For example, it might be appropriate to let the child stand at his desk.)


  • Teachers listening to parental concerns with an open mind, resisting the urge to defend their practices and instead being willing to entertain the idea that perhaps their approach could be better adapted to the child, given the circumstances. (For instance, some students may not be obliged to write in cursive given their particular difficulties with fine motor skills.)


  • Teachers genuinely asking parents to tell them about what they find works best for their child. (Perhaps music helps their child to focus better while working in which case headphones and a personal device in the classroom could be a great idea.)


  • Parents and teachers alike agreeing to the fact that fair does not mean equal. (This translates to setting goals with children that focus on improving their skills without comparing themselves to others.)


  • Parents and teachers reminding themselves (and perhaps each other) that above all else, it is the adults who must set an example for the child, knowing full-well that a child knows when something is amiss and will use it to their full advantage if given the chance.


And finally, kindness coupled with the art of being humble sounds like… 

  • Parents and teachers thanking one another for their time and their willingness to listen to each other.

 So there you have it! Everything you have ever needed to know about how to engage in a meaningful parent-teacher meeting and leave feeling you have taken something positive from the experience that will serve the child…


Okay, I know I’ve made it sound easy, but here’s the thing…in a way it is. We cannot control what someone else will say or do, but we can absolutely control ourselves. By internalizing these beliefs, you set yourself up with the tools necessary to steer a conversation in the right direction. We must give what we wish to receive.

If you are feeling the least bit nervous or anxious about an upcoming meeting, then by all means go ahead and print this article to have it with you during the interview. If at any point you no longer know how to remain in a state of humbleness or kindness, take out this article and make it a point of discussion. You can even highlight the points that resonate most with you to help get you back on track. Or if you prefer, write yourself notes on how you will address your issues of concern.


Is the voice in your head saying, “No way would I pull out an article or notes during an interview! I would feel so silly.” Ahhhhh…there is that voice of fear, hanging around, wreaking havoc and holding you back from using a strategy that could make the difference between walking out of an interview feeling successful or leaving the meeting feeling discouraged, or worse, angry and frustrated. The practice of putting our pride aside and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable may not be one we are accustomed to, but I assure you, the benefits are immeasurable, especially when we realize the results of these types of interactions will have a direct impact on the child. Personally, when I sense a conversation going off track, I like to drop well-known quotes as a means of defusing a situation and realigning our attention to what matters most. I will leave you with one of my favorites. I believe it sums things up quite succinctly.


The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. – Socrates