Beyond Survival: Responding Creatively to Hard Times

– Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

Last year, the Workforce Plan did considerable damage to our beloved university and disrupted the lives of many – some of whom ended up leaving Clarion. This fall, Clarion University is still facing very difficult times. Yes, many of us are angry, bitter, discouraged, afraid, and even depressed. However, we can’t let negative feelings immobilize us, or, worse, cause us to feel helpless and hopeless.

Elisabeth Donato on what she likes about her job.

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan on what she likes about her job.

With these thoughts in mind, Melissa Downes, Mel Michel, Jeanne Slattery, and I decided to focus the annual mid-August Partners’ Retreat on how to reclaim a sense of purpose and happiness in a difficult work environment. This retreat took place on August 20, and its participants all agreed that they felt invigorated by this day of communal reflection on how to respond positively and creatively to hard times.

Melissa Downes began the day by reminding us that what is happening at Clarion University is part of a national phenomenon, and is caused by a number of factors such as the dramatic reduction of government funding of state universities and the corporatizing of higher education. The central message here was “Hey guys, we are not alone!”

We did not dismiss what has been amiss on our work front – none of us is wearing rose-colored glasses and none would claim that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Before any wound can heal, we need to feel that our pain has been validated. Thus, we had a quick “gripe and bitch” session during which participants shared what bothers or angers them, and how they react to it. This was our cathartic moment of the day.

Jeanne Slattery offered us a quick “Anger Management 101” course, where she reminded the group that anger is a normal emotion that can be healthy – depending on how you respond to and use it (positively or negatively). Mel Michel then led a relaxing “Chair Yoga” session. We then shared what we have already done to start healing – and, here, people mentioned a variety of things, including studying toward a new degree, learning how to play an instrument, taking on a new hobby, exercising, reconnecting with one’s scholarly work, and building a social support network.

What Melissa Downes loves about her job.

What Melissa Downes loves about her job.

This, of course, helped us segue to the more positive aspects of our lives – to those things that make us feel good. We talked about what we love about our lives, our job, the Clarion community, and Clarion University, and also reflected on what we do well and on what is working in our lives. As you can guess, our students bring us much joy – the classroom remains our haven from the storm. (Other examples are in our last blog about the retreat.)

This exercise allowed us to focus on what makes us feel happy and fulfilled. As one of the aims of our retreat was to have participants identify strategies for greater self-fulfillment and growth, we next described what kind of a person (in our professional and personal lives) we wanted to be. This exercise in self-definition was a useful reminder that, in the end, we cannot let the decisions of those in power at the university label us or what we do; in the end, we are who and what we choose to be, and we define ourselves by the way we act and behave.

Each of us identified one or two achievable goals to regain or increase our sense of purpose and well-being, as well as noted factors serving as obstacles to those goals and how we could overcome them. Everyone, then, was able to leave with something concrete to achieve and a strategy by which to do so.

Of course, we will probably still experience periods of anger and hopelessness, but the Partners’ retreat equipped us with the tools we need to turn away from those bad feelings and focus on what is positive and working in our lives. And, best of all, not only were we all invigorated at the end of the day, but we were all reminded that we have a great support system in our colleagues and Partners.

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan (formerly Elisabeth Donato) is an Associate Professor of French at Clarion University. She likes reflecting on her teaching practices. Her goal is that her students become proficient in all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and, most of all, fall in love with the French language, the French people, and the francophone culture. Her research focuses on French popular culture.

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