Sunday / May 26

Mindfulness & School Leadership: Lead Smarter

This is the first of regular monthly posts on mindfulness and school leadership.

School Leaders’ Dilemma

If you haven’t been in the media limelight or in the barrel, then you haven’t been a high school principal long enough.”  Richard H. Booth, spent 17 years as a high school  principal at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colorado.

The work of school educators is one of the most difficult, complex and challenging in the nation. School leaders–superintendents, principals, assistant principals–are facing high stake reform, greater public accountability, and smaller budgets.  At the same time, purpose and meaning behind the work is increasingly called into question. And, school leaders find fewer and fewer interpersonal resources. School leaders face growing complexity, unpredictability, and immediacy. The speed and pace of school life has turned education into high stakes testing were leadership is challenged daily. This complexity is made immediate by the 24/7 culture that demands instant response.

Too many school leaders put their self-care last and take little time for reflection, a powerful tool to consolidate and integrate ideas and spawn creativity. If there is anything school leaders have in short supply it is time to reflect. Faced with a seemingly unending job, school leaders report little or no time to exercise,  no time to leave the school building, and no time to eat lunch. And the workday is extended well into the evening by texting and emailing staff after hours and on weekends.

At a professional development meeting convened at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Jerry Murphy, former dean of the school, reported that 89%  of school leaders felt overwhelmed; 84% neglected to take care for themselves in the midst of stress; and 80% scolded themselves when they performed less than perfectly. Against this backdrop, mindfulness matters and can help school leaders in stressful times to lead smarter.

We are in the midst of mindfulness revolution with articles, blogs post, studies, and a myriad of mindfulness apps designed to help you enhance your leadership and your life. Mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness in the present moment of what is happening inwardly (thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations, perceptions) and what is happening outwardly (awareness of your environment and other people). Mindfulness is a path of practice that is cultivated, much like tending a garden. It is often described as mental hygiene for the brain and the mind. The gold standard of mindfulness is the practice of bringing your awareness back each time it wanders off from the point of focus. Mindfulness is not a theory or ideology. It is not a religion. It is not about emptying your mind and having no thoughts. It is not even about feeling relaxed or bliss (though this might happen).

Practice Pause

So let’s take a purposeful pause, let’s drop in. Let’s actually practice mindfulness.

  • Sit comfortably with spine straight but not rigid;
  • Bring your attention to breathing;
  • Aim and sustain your focus on your breathing;
  • Notice when your attention is pulled away from this focus; and
  • Redirect your focus when you notice that your attention has strayed away from its focus on your breathing.
  • Continue in this way for 20-30 seconds. Notice how you feel.

Cognitive Overload Doesn’t Make You Smarter

In the time it takes to read this sentence, millions of tweets, texts, emails, videos, posts to Facebook and other social media will have been sent. Cognitive overload manifests in many ways: inability to focus, forgetfulness, hair-trigger reactions, and compulsive multitasking. Our attention, researchers say, is fragmented and fractured. We live in a state of “continuous partial attention,” a term coined by Microsoft executive, Linda Stone.

Neurobiology, new brain research, and mind-body medicine make clear that your experiences matter: what you do, how you think, the conversations you have or don’t have, impact not only the very structure of the brain, but also well being. The brain has the capacity to change over the life span, which means that it is possible to change your relationship to stressful conditions. Mindfulness helps leaders to engage and enliven work and life. A mindful school leader is less apt to function on auto-pilot.

Through mindfulness school leaders have the capacity to train our minds to respond better and more skillfully to environmental and emotional stimulation, meaning you have new opportunities and ways to manage changing and challenging emotional and cognitive environments.

The Research on Mindfulness

There is an explosion of clinical research, peer review articles, as well as mindfulness programs, reaching thousands of teachers and students worldwide.

A recent study with teachers found listening with full attention and present centered awareness, open students to greater receptivity, creating more responsive classrooms. In the CARE Program, an in service program for teachers, mindfulness and social-emotional learning skills, such as focusing and listening were practiced, leading to greater self-reported emotional awareness and compassion for participants.

In this study, teachers had 30 contact hours of mindfulness practice over a period of four weeks with booster interventions.   Results found statistically significant gains in participants emotional awareness, healthier classroom climate, greater capacity for self-regulation and compassion.

Despite these and other findings on the efficacy of mindfulness, our research finds that school leaders and largely left out of the mindfulness revolution. Under investment in leadership renewal is a consistent theme even though the work of school leadership is more demanding than ever.

Smart Practices for Mindful Leaders

Principals have the power, the ability, and the compassion to make the world a better place, but only if they have learned how to sustain their well-being”  John Blaydes

Knowing when to disengage and recharge is the smart work of mindful school leaders. School leaders are tasked with encouraging collaboration and cohesion, enforcing school policies, and accomplishing goals. To do this, leaders, leaders must prioritize time to renew and recharge. Mindfulness practices are a critical in-the-moment practice to foster renewal and well-being.

Several years ago I heard the phrase “short moments, many times” in relation to helping to develop continuity of mindfulness in daily life and cultivating daily habits of well-being: Short moments of practice, many times throughout the day. It’s been very helpful for me personally, and in my life. This is one of my favorite in-the-moment mindfulness practices.

  • Drop into your body, and notice whatever physical sensations are strongest right now. Are they pleasant or unpleasant?
  • Drop into simply hearing any sounds that are arising at this moment. Notice how it doesn’t take any effort to simply hear. If a thought or something else distracts you, simply note it, place it off to the side, and return to hearing.
  • Drop into your breath and simply notice how you are breathing? Is your breathing smooth, short, choppy, barely there, deep, smooth. Notice the tendency to judge and critique yourself,  and just allow things to be as they are. Try each practice for 20-30 seconds. Notice how you feel.


Coatsworth, Duncan, Jennings, Turksma, Greenberg (2013), CARE Teacher Program

Written by

Valerie Brown, JD, MA, ACC is Principal of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC, specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership training in daily life. She is an international retreat leader, ICF-accredited leadership coach, speaker, and author of The Mindful School Leader (Corwin, 2014).

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