Contributed by Kirsten Olson and Valerie Brown
At a recent conference on equity and activism in education, my co-author and I spoke to dozens of young educational leaders juggling hard to balance their political commitments, moral obligations, and extraordinarily demanding jobs. One youthful chief of staff described coordinating a vast and rapidly transforming mid-Atlantic district without a chief academic officer or other key personnel. Another spoke of conflicts between the state accountability office, her schools, and her leadership team. One participant in our conference session told us, “You know how we used to complain about the graduate school ‘bubble’ and how unreal it was? I want that bubble back!” Her bubble had burst.
At the center of the work we do with educational leaders is a critical question: how do you become an effective leader, and stay true to yourself and your own deep purpose—in a job that is seemingly endless, around the clock, and has very porous boundaries? When you are called to be “everything to your scholars and staff—everything,” as one of our clients said: to be a leader of learning, organize and manage complex bureaucratic systems, and create a sense of vision and urgency with multiple stakeholders, while at the same time noticing you’re having trouble picking up your dry cleaning? (Much less getting to the gym or cooking a healthy meal?) You may start to question whether your strategies for creating visionary leadership are working, or if indeed the job of educational leadership is the right one for you.
In a recent informal survey of educational leaders, 89% reported feeling overwhelmed, 84% neglected to take care of themselves in the midst of stress, and 80% scolded themselves when they didn’t perform perfectly.
“Principals receive too few resources to meet the expectations of outside stakeholders” writes researcher Eleanor Drago Severson. “Excessive blame without time and energy to sustain a balanced life easily breeds anxiety—and principals are increasingly resigning because of this stress, inadequate training, insufficient compensation, professional isolation, bureaucratic micromanagement, uncertainty related to role expectations, inadequate support, and the responsibility to incul
cate youth with a knowledge base on which leaders cannot agree.” The need for reflection and renewal is intense, concludes Drago-Severson. We hear it.
So what does mindfulness have to do with all this? An abundance of clinical evidence describes how, when practiced regularly, simple mindfulness practices of many types can help busy, stressed, overwhelmed educational leaders slow down racing thoughts, unpack cognitive and emotional overload, aid in perceiving critical priorities, help in generating more creative solutions to adaptive challenges, and intensify satisfaction with one’s efforts. It can help leaders become more skillful interpersonally, and generate more trustful leadership environments, because they are able to listen more fully and completely. It can also support authenticity on the job, because leaders are clearer on who they are and what they believe, and how they want to inspire and nurture others and themselves. While it isn’t a crazy miracle cure, and we strongly recommend against “forcing” these practices on anyone who isn’t interested and feels skeptical, in our own busy lives, we’ve felt the transformation.
How do we get access to these practices? How do we fit them into an already very over-packed and overcommitted work life? Because we’ve studied the neurobiology of stress, and been mindfulness practitioners ourselves for a couple of decades (as well as educational consultants), we felt it was important to craft a book that offered very practical, easy, non-preachy, non-dogmatic entrance points into mindfulness practices.
We recommend beginning with these 3 simple practices:
- Take 3 breathing pauses each work day.Whether you schedule them into your phone using an app, or have an assistant (or practice partner) remind you to stop and pause before a meeting or before a presentation, this extremely simple practice is a beginning of mindfulness. Give yourself 30 seconds to stop, breathe in deeply, notice where you are, and then empty out with a deep exhale. Rinse and repeat if needed!
- Step outside to look up at the sky once a day.It’s amazing how often during our workdays we’re inside for dozens of hours, focused intensively on the narrow patch of life right in front of us. (Or the narrow spreadsheet on the computer in front of us.) For a fast and surprisingly effective mental and emotional reset, especially if you’re triggered, simply to go outside and look up. Whether it’s overcast, raining, snowing (if you live in the northeast right now it is definitely snowing), or sunny, bright and the sky is full of clouds, simply looking up reminds you of the bigger world out there, your larger purpose, and for some of us, induces a moment of gratitude for being alive. This takes no more than two minutes, and is better than excusing yourself to the bathroom when you need a break.
- During a conversation with someone—student, parent, your most troublesome staff member—stop, pause, and look deeply into their eyes. Without a sense of challenge, but just with a sense of wondering, kindly curiosity, look into their eyes and let the thinking in your head stop, and simply take a moment to let them in. This is a practice of mindful listening, of “listening someone into being” as we like to say, and this tiny but profound gesture can create a turn in conversations that very often turns towards the positive.
In our book we define mindfulness practices very broadly: as practices of breathing, moving, contemplation and presencing that are as simple as these described here. We try to make all these moves and ideas as accessible as they can be, because we’ve observed how powerful they are when practiced regularly—in spite of the fact that they seem so small and insignificant. We hope you’ll give at least one of them a try, and then write back to us and let us know how it goes.
We’re waiting to hear from you.
To help you start your mindfulness practice, Kirsten and Valerie have provided several guided practices on their book’s companion site here.
Kirsten Olson, Ed.D., PCC is Chief Listening Officer at Old Sow Coaching and Consulting and with co-author Valerie Brown, just published The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School.