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School & District Management Commentary

Developing Mindfulness in School Leaders

By Kirsten Olson & Valerie Brown — June 29, 2012 6 min read

At a time when school leaders are facing endless demands, we believe that skillful, mindful leadership can provide a path to a healthier and more productive school environment. In our consultancy, we have found that many school leaders are running on empty. They tell us they are tired, anxious, overworked, and stressed out. They admit to having difficulty getting through their day without feeling distracted and frustrated. And, they tell us, they know they can do better. We know they can, too.

A recent informal survey of school administrators conducted by Jerome T. Murphy, the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, revealed that among his sample of school leaders attending a professional program on self-knowledge, 89 percent reported feeling overwhelmed, 84 percent neglected to take care of themselves in the midst of stress, and 80 percent scolded themselves when they performed less than perfectly—conditions under which few of us are primed to do our best work.

At a recent meeting of educators, we spoke with a group about the political and personal work needed to transform education. Many talked about the need to find an external community of like-minded collaborators to connect to (although some educators are finding these communities online), but also the need for an internal set of resources, to provide ballast and calm in the high seas of chaotic professional environments.

How do we develop both—the capacity to generate enthusiasm and conviction for our intense and challenging work, and the internal poise and calm to guide us across the rocky shoals of teaching and leading?

As mindfulness practitioners with long histories in demanding professions, we have come to believe that the development of simple, daily practices around calm reflection and pausing are central to staying focused in work, tapping into creativity, and providing a sense of possibility required to transform ourselves and our profession. As leadership coaches, we believe our clients are already creative, resourceful, and whole, yet we know that, in practice, this feeling is often illusive. As Westerners, too, we often try to “think” our way into a sense of calm. We underestimate the power of developing daily activities, rituals, and skills to help us remain focused and centered. Yet the development of a mindfulness practice is a central piece of courageous and sustainable leadership in education, and it is one that is greatly undervalued. Developing mindfulness is not easy, but it is possible.

One of us—Valerie Brown—first tried a mindfulness meditation class 18 years ago to get relief from her relentless schedule as a lawyer-lobbyist. The class instructions were simple: “Let go of thoughts as they arise. See them like clouds floating in the sky.” She wrestled, though, with the experience of meditation. Her mind raced. She noticed that her back hurt. She felt sleepy. She tormented herself, wondering when it was going to be over. Finally, after two hours, the bell rang and the meditation ended. It felt like a disaster. But she came back the next week to try to get it right. And she’s been coming back to Monday-night meditation for almost two decades, learning ways of extending mindfulness into her daily life.

In spite of the difficulties, mindful meditation—the practice of nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening inside and around us in the present moment—is innate to all of us. Mindfulness is a central element of Buddhism that is more than 2,500 years old. The practice of mindfulness meditation was developed to enhance awareness and wisdom and to help people live each day with greater ease. Decades of clinical research supports the use of mindfulness practices, which have been widely adapted across professions, to generate focus, presence, and wellness.

But mindfulness goes deeper than simply generating feelings of relaxation and calm or developing a toolbox of techniques. It is an embodied practice that creates an inner balance that promotes emotional stability and clarity. It allows us to act and respond with enhanced understanding. Mindfulness trains us to accept the moment, without judging it. It allows us to let go of the constant running commentary or emotional reactivity to our current condition or state of mind. Mindfulness is not about removing all thoughts (which isn’t possible anyway) or striving for a feeling of bliss. It isn’t about mastery of mind over body or about getting rid of aspects of ourselves that we don’t like. Instead, it’s about training ourselves to observe what is happening within and around us, without judging our sensations or emotions. This practice builds tolerance and resilience under stress.

Here are four exercises to try:

• Every day, every few hours, stop and take three deep breaths through the nose, feeling the belly rise and fall. Notice how you feel. This builds awareness of the body and breath, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body and mind.

 As mindfulness practitioners with long histories in demanding professions, we have come to believe that the development of simple, daily practices around calm reflection and pausing are central to staying focused in work.”

• Next time you walk around the school building, notice how you are walking. Feel your shoes on the floor. Feel your spine tall and strong, your shoulders wide and relaxed. Allow yourself to become keenly aware of your surroundings. This strengthens focus on the present, sharpening awareness and mental clarity.

• Next time you eat lunch, try just eating. Do not read, text, or attend to anything else. Notice the food. Savor the flavors. This practice of simply being attentive to the tastes of food and the physical sensations of eating helps reinforce your capacity to notice sensation and to feel cared for and connected to your body.

• The next time you have a conversation, practice listening. Set aside the desire to fix, solve, correct, or judge the other person. Listen not just with your ears, but with your eyes, your mind, heart, and attention. What do you notice about yourself? How does it feel to listen deeply? Listening practice builds empathy and compassion, essential tools of emotionally intelligent school leaders. It also promotes connectedness with others, which is a fundamental element to building a school community.

As school-leadership coaches, we work with administrators and teachers to listen to their inner stories, to notice how these stories may or may not serve them, to teach them how to breathe through disequilibrium and to pause in the volatility and complexity of their jobs. We find that when individuals learn to be more present and caring of themselves, they are able to accept uncertainty, ambiguity, and challenges with less inner turmoil. With these practices, people find refuge, even inspiration, and, most importantly, a calmer work environment.

spotlight profdev

Our mentor, sociologist Parker J. Palmer, writes about our need for coherence between our inner and outer worlds, of the desire for alignment between “soul and role.” Mindfulness practice in education is a rapidly emerging area that can profoundly enhance teaching, learning, and leading. School leaders who practice mindfulness can serve as inspirational role models for their ability to build emotional and social intelligence. Mindful school leaders can bring richness and depth to their roles making schools more effective, supporting their teachers better, and giving students the skills and appetite to interact with the complex world outside the school door. Mindfulness is for everyone. We’re taking a deep breath right now.


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