“Light precedes every transition. Whether at the end of a tunnel, through a crack in the door or the flash of an idea, it is always there, heralding a new beginning.” — Teresa Tsalaky
I have been thinking a lot about transitions lately. We recently hosted the incoming Head of School for a one-week transition visit. I am also preparing to transition to Switzerland and the exciting changes associated with working at a new school and living in a new country. Like other international schools, we are preparing to say goodbye to beloved teachers, students, and families as they transition to other parts of the world, while also looking ahead and confirming the details for new teacher and family orientations. It can sometimes feel that life in an international school setting is one of constant transition where change in the norm and not the exception. While this seemingly perpetual state of transition is inherently filled with challenges, the opportunities for growth and new experiences are significant when we are able to effectively manage our transitions.
When a thoughtful colleague, David Chojnacki, heard that I would be transitioning to another school, he recommended I read William Bridges’ book, Transitions. I am grateful for this reference as Bridges’ book is a must read because, in some form or another, we are all going through a transition! The book’s main message is that all of life’s transitions embody a similar pattern and, by recognizing and accepting these patterns, the tough times associated with a transition will not only make sense but will be more bearable. To that end, it is important to differentiate between “change”, which is what happens to us, and “transition”, which is how we manage our feelings while we wade through these changes throughout our life journey.
Transition is an internal, emotional, and psychological process. In contrast, change is external, situational, and does not require those affected to transition. Transitions are longer processes that require those affected to gradually accept the new situations that result from the changes. Bridges’ frames all transitions in terms of a three-phase process involving an Ending, a Neutral Zone, and a New Beginning.
An Ending recognizes that a transition begins with letting go of the pre-change reality. In international schools, a significant number of teachers, students, and parents begin the process of letting go each semester as they prepare to move on to new endeavors. Depending on each individual, Endings are usually characterized by emotions such as denial, shock, anger, frustration, and stress. Emphatic listening and open communication for all involved are important strategies for getting through and supporting those who are experiencing an Ending. Recognizing that an Ending is about letting go is an important step towards what the author calls the Neutral Zone.
The Neutral Zone represents the bridge between the old and new in which we can still be attached to the past but also looking ahead to the future. The Neutral Zone is a place of uncertainty where people wonder about how they will adapt to the change they are currently experiencing. It is during this time that we can experience feelings of self-doubt, fear, anxiety, and skepticism. In contrast, the Neutral Zone can be a time of real growth and represent an incredibly rich time in our lives, as is beautifully illustrated through Danaan Parry’s trapeze metaphor.
The New Beginning phase is one where new understandings, values, attitudes, and identities are established. It is during this time that we emotionally and psychologically commit to the new reality that has been created through the change process. This commitment is usually accompanied by feelings of acceptance, importance, hope, and enthusiasm. This is also a good time to recognize and celebrate the third phase of the transition process.
William Bridges’ writings remind us to recognize that life’s transitions follow a similar pattern and to embrace our endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings. As we look ahead and begin to prepare for the end of another semester, I would like to wish everyone and all of our schools the very best as we embrace the positive changes and transitions that are such an integral part of international communities.
Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY 2.0) flickr photo Hernán Piñera: Niebla / Fog https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/6554394361/in/photostream/