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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best

THE MINDFUL SCHOOL LEADER

ssoosay’s Simple iphone Lock Screen Mindfulness Reminder

(Hey Folks, A version of this post is currently running at Education Week, and is written by Kirsten Olson and Valerie Brown.)


The work of skillful, mindful leadership in education has never been more challenging.  Recently a visionary, Twitter-connected and forward-thinking superintendent wrote to one of us describing her sense that the pockets of innovation and exemplary teaching in her district,  “aren’t even scalable to our 726 square miles,”  although she has been leading the work for many years.  She is considered highly successful, yet she often feels overwhelmed and burned out.

A recent informal survey of school administrators conducted by Jerry Murphy, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and our colleague in the exploration of self-compassion), showed that among his sample of school leaders attending a professional program on the inner work of leadership,  89% reported feeling overwhelmed, 84% neglected to take care of themselves in the midst of stress, and 80% scolded themselves when they performed less than perfectly–conditions under which few of us are primed to be our best or perform optimally.

Finally, at the most recent Educon meeting, we talked with a group of educators about the political and personal work needed to transform the educational community.  Many described the need to find external community–a group of like-minded colleagues to find courage and support (many educators are finding these communities online)–but also of the need for an internal set of  resources, to provide ballast and calm in the high seas of their chaotic professional environments–to create “permissioning,” as our main man here at the COOP Chad Sansing describes it.

How do we develop both? The capacity to maintain community and conviction for the work one is engaged in–particularly challenging for educators at this moment–and also the internal poise and sense of calm purpose to guide us across the rocky shoals of teaching and leading in our sector?

As mindfulness practitioners with long histories in chaotic, demanding industries, we believe developing simple, daily practices around calming, meta-reflection, pausing, and renewing are central to the work we are trying to accomplish, and vital to tapping the creativity and sense of possibility required to transform our education sector.  As leadership coaches believe our clients are already creative, resourceful, and whole, yet we know in practice, access to creativity and innate wholeness is often illusive for many of our clients.  As Westerners too, we often try to “think” our way into a sense of calm, and underestimate the power of developing daily activities, rituals, and skills that help us focus, get grounded, and center.  We have become convinced that the development of mindfulness practice is a central piece of courageous, sustainable leadership in education–and greatly undervalued.   And we know that developing mindfulness is not easy.

FINDING MINDFULNESS

One of us (Valerie) first tried a mindfulness meditation class 18 years ago as a way to get relief from a relentless schedule as a lawyer-lobbyist.   In the meditation class the instruction was simple:  Let go of thoughts as they arise. See them like clouds floating in the sky.  “I wrestled with myself.  I tormented myself.  I tied myself up in mental knots.  This seemed so simple and yet, my mind was racing from thought to thought:  I’m sleepy. My back hurts. When is this going to be over?  On and on it went like that for two hours until the final bell rung and the meditation came to an end.  I thought to myself, What a disaster! Oh, well.  I’ll come back next week, and this time, I’ll get it right.  I have been coming back to Monday night meditation, now for almost two decades.  Over time, I have learned skillful means of extending mindfulness into my daily life.”

MINDFULNESS– -SKILLFUL MEANS FOR SCHOOL LEADERS

Mindfulness meditation, the practice of nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening inside and around us in the present moment, is innate to every person.  Mindfulness is a central element of Buddhism and is more than 2500 years old.  It was developed to enhance awareness and wisdom to help people live each day with greater ease.  Today, decades of clinical research supports the use of mindfulness practices, which have been widely adapted across disciplines.

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 allows for greater emotional stability, with clarity to act and respond with greater understanding.    Unlike apathy or indifference, mindfulness trains us to accept the moment, without judging it, without the constant running commentary, conceptual elaboration and emotional reactivity about our current condition or our current state of mind.   Awareness and acceptance are the important steps toward transformation.   Mindfulness is not about removing all thoughts (which is not possible anyway), or striving for a particular feeling of bliss.  It isn’t about mastery of the mind over body, or ‘being in a zone’, or getting rid of aspects of ourselves that we don’t like.  Instead, we train ourselves in observing and accepting without judgment sensations and emotions, even painful ones, which with practice, builds tolerance and resilience under stress.

Try this practice:  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, reducing stress.

Try this practice:  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, and 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.

Try this practice:  Next time you eat lunch, try just eating not reading, texting, or attending to anything else.  Notice the food.  Savor flavors. This enhances self-care and self-nurturance, and elements of self-compassion.

Try this practice:  Next conversation, practice listening.  Set aside the desire to fix, solve, correct or judge the other person.  Listen not just with your ears (to hear), but with your eyes (to see), your mind (to think), heart (to feel), and your attention (to focus).  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, and promotes connectedness with others, a fundamental element of community.

As leadership coaches, we work with individuals on listening to their inner stories, learning to breathe through disequilibrium, to caretake and pause in the intense volatility and complexity of administrator’s and teacher’s jobs.  We find that by learning how to be more present, through pausing and centering, and by explicitly developing greater self-compassion, individuals are better able to deal with work that is uncertain, ambiguous and challenging.  With these practices our clients find that life offers refuge and even inspiration, and that refuge is always there for them, right inside of them.

Our mentor Parker Palmer, speaks poignantly about the need for coherence between our inner and outer worlds, between the “person we are inside,” and the external world of our work, of the desire for alignment between “soul and role.”  Mindfulness practices in education is a rapidly emerging area, with possibilities for depth of awareness, focus, clarity, concentration and understanding that can profoundly enhance teaching, learning, and leading.  School leaders who practice mindfulness serve as inspirational role models for emotional and social intelligence, uniting schools, teachers, boards, students, and parents.  Leaders with these skills bring a richness and depth to their roles.  Mindful school leaders mean more coherent and effective schools, teachers who are more focused and better supported, and students who have 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.

What role does mindfulness play in the work of transforming our sector?

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About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “THE MINDFUL SCHOOL LEADER

  1. Kirsten,

    Great to hear from you. Your piece sparked several connections for me:

    The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought Transcendental Meditation to the US, was reported as saying that if we could get only 1% of the world’s population meditating, we could shift the world. Including school administrators in that 1% seems like a good idea to me.

    I totally agree that anyone who is working to shift things on the outside must also attend to the inside. As a therapist-friend once said to me, “Hungry people can’t feed others.” Mindfulness mediation is a powerful way to feed oneself.

    In addition to letting thoughts/thinking go, I have found it useful to consciously *change* some of my thinking. This can be done in a way that reaps many of the same benefits of meditation.Specifically, I have found the body of knowledge known as Non-violent Communication to be highly effective in helping me escape the traps set by anger, resentment, frustration, etc. NVC makes a distinction between value judgments and moral judgments and encourages us to let go of the latter, especially when we find conflict with others due to the former. Truly acknowledging that those who are pursuing different paths (“strategies”) are “just like me” in terms of their positive intentions, their need for safety and security, autonomy and feelings of happiness and intimacy, creativity and compassion, etc. etc., helps me to let go of tension and distress in the same way that meditation can and does–and sometimes even faster and more efficiently.

    In short, being mindful of my judgmentalism brings the same rewards as meditation, and together they help me move forward with a much greater sense of calmness, clarity and, I trust, effectiveness. Not viewing those who seem to disagree with me as The Other (or worse, The Enemy), greatly increases the chances that my ultimate wishes will be fulfilled.

    Peter A. Bergson

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 30, 2012, 3:28 pm
    • Hey Peter, This is beautiful. I don’t know NVC (what are its origins?) but I’m with you completely on the power of mindfulness to give us distance on judgmentalism, which is essentially limiting and makes us smaller, and more afraid. The HUGE new body of neurobiological evidence supporting these approaches is sadly and woefully not yet in practice in our sector–schools are some of the least mindful places I’ve been lately, and this is not because the adults want them to be like this.

      Taking back our collective story is the next piece of work. But first we have to have the personal practices that allow us to do this.

      Thank you for stepping up Peter, thank you for your comments, and as always, I learn from you.

      Kirsten

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 1, 2012, 12:04 pm
      • I know many people who love Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC approach. In my work with kids I’ve taught NVC-inspired practices to promote active listening and effective communication published by Educators for Social Responsibility, including some work by Bill Kreidller. I know that Rosenberg talks about NVC as a spiritual practice. But my own experience with a fair number of trained NVC facilitators and others who try to follow this approach is that the method can be (or at least can seem to be) “formulaic.” There are certain phrases and strategies that seem to me to actually interfere with direct, honest and authentic communication, at least this has been what I have witnessed and felt. Do you know what I mean, Peter?

        An alternate model that I have found to be powerful and with which you’re probably familiar, Kirsten, is the Quakers’ “Clearness Committee.” Palmer writes about this a bit in The Courage to Teach, I believe. This is another beautiful, spiritual process of listening to and honoring a fellow human without judgment. When done well, in a trusting environment, it can be transformational for all.

        Posted by Paul Freedman | July 1, 2012, 1:33 pm
        • Paul, The Clearness Committee process, taught to me when I did a two-year facilitator training at the Center for Courage and Renewal with Parker Palmer, is one of the most powerful spiritual exercises I have ever encountered. Incredibly respectful, creative and life-giving, the process demands one thing we rarely allow for ourselves–extensive, intensive time to be wholly ourselves in the presence of a small number of others.

          Thanks Paul for bringing this into the conversation.

          Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 2, 2012, 8:47 am
  2. As a school leader, I often fell that I carry all the stress of a business manager with the added weight and intensity of having every single interaction, conflict, and decision being intimately connected to people’s children. Some of these decisions are big ones anyway, “should we retain this teacher?” “How many classrooms can we fill?” How can we possibly raise the funds we need?” “Can we build an addition?” But even at the smaller day-to-day moment-to-moment level, whatever the minutiae at stake, when you add a parent’s “mama bear” instincts everything seems monumental.

    One thing I try to do to help myself get through in reasonably good spirits is to work directly with kids. Often! The kids themselves help to keep everything in perspective. I think a school leader that spends all their time in their office “doing administration” or working exclusively with adults is doomed to succumb to burnout and stress. The kids are the source of my humor, my perspective and my ability to float above the depths of the heavy issues at stake. Often in meetings with testy parents, teachers and Board, an image of a particular child interaction I witnessed or the vivid memory of playing with a student out in the yard will come to mind, and I’ll allow their presence to join me. Emma’s slightly sarcastic eye-roll “duh!” Finn’s exuberant belly-laugh in the sandbox. These images live in me and join me in my most challenging Board Meetings.

    Their in-the-moment presence is one of the gifts of children and childhood. To retain, reclaim or stay in touch with some of that childlike magic is partly why many of us sought a career in education. Nurturing the capacity to include actual children and child-wisdom into your adult encounters is a type of mindfulness practice that works for me. Sometimes I’ll even stick a photo or even just a name of a child in my notebook, or put it on the desktop of my laptop as a reminder.

    Give it a try.

    Thanks for this important post, Kirsten. Love ya’!

    Posted by Paul Freedman | July 1, 2012, 9:07 am
  3. Hey Paul,

    Love you right back man! Okay, so you’re reprising some of the essential tenets of the learning I’ve been doing getting certified as a coach lately. The power of visualizing as a way of changing thought habits and altering our mood, the ways in which young children exist fully in presence, without having to do anything (adults pay thousands of dollars to try to relearn these qualities and this capacity to be unselfconscious)–oh yeah–and the ways in which day to day practice of “presencing” is required.

    “Presence calls our attention to how genuinely and completely a person is in a situation rather than standing apart from it as observer, commentator, critic or judge…Presence is a name for the quality of being in a situation or relationship in which one intends at a deep level to participate as fully as she is able. Presence is expressed through mobilization of one’s sensitivity–both inner and outer–and through brining into action one’s capacity for response.”

    -James Bugental

    You strike me as a deep and daily practitioner, and I admire that. I’m thinking that this is something we need need to talk about much more in our work to transform the sector.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 1, 2012, 12:13 pm
  4. Kirsten and Paul,

    I want to respond to several components of the on-going conversation. First, though, I want to add my thanks for your thoughts so far. Simply talking about the importance of such matters is of great value–and as Kirsten points out, seemingly not the norm in the world of schooling.

    With regard to the effectiveness (or not) of Non-violent Communication, Paul, I fully agree with your concern about the limitations (or even counter-effectiveness) of applications that are too formulaic. I myself have experienced this is other contexts–most specifically, the attempts by novices to follow the practices of the a particular approach to creative group problem solving known as Synectics. I was Director of Training for the consulting firm that developed this approach, and in that capacity observed many people who “got” the words before getting the music, if you know what I mean. Or to use another analogy, they learned the letter of the law before reflecting the spirit of the law.
    For some of these people–and I expect the same is true with practitioners of NVC, of Kirsten’s leadership training/life coach training, and hundreds of other applied methods intended to help people grow–the formulaic application of their new knowledge is a temporary condition that they themselves will grow beyond as their facility with the process increases. (Picture here a toddler’s first steps vs. a four year olds blazing speed!)

    For others, however, they may memorize the steps in the process but still never really “get it”. They don’t really become facilitators, merely more subtle manipulators. To use Riane Eisler’s terms (from “The Chalice and the Blade”), I would say that they are stuck in the Dominator mode and have yet to work out of it and into a Partnership mode. They are still using other people in an attempt to meet their own needs. (Hence, my previous reference to the statement that “hungry people can’t feed others”.)

    The moral to this story, for me, is twofold: first, if someone is obviously still a novice at NVC or any other process intended to reflect the Partnership model, and I find myself criticizing their efforts, I first check my own level of judgmentalism and the inherent personal need that I might be feeling that is keeping me from supporting the other person’s efforts. If I then sense that I am in the presence of a good-hearted novice, I find it relatively easy to see how to help them get better–or at least cut them some slack and let them learn from their own experience and reflection. If I determine that the other’s process seems to be missing its own point, I respond in a way intended to help them lovingly get back on track–knowing that I, myself, have probably made the same mistakes.

    Full disclosure: that’s how I respond on a good day. On bad day, I nail the manipulator like a bat to a barn wall–whack!–therein demonstrating that *my* internal work is far from finished as well :-)

    Actually, those are times when the mindful meditation is especially constructive. When I find that I do not have the resources to respond compassionately, that is when I literally bite my lip and focus on my breathing. I release myself from the obligation of saying the right thing at that moment and say, instead, “Just breathe, Peter. This moment will past and The Light will be revealed to you.” The clerk of my Friends Meeting (Haverford, PA) does essentially the same thing if she finds that the conversation in our monthly Meetings for Business in Worship is becoming contentious: she simply says, “Friends, let us have a few moments of silence.” Everyone knows that this is a reminder to stop and investigate our personal agendas and, in the Quaker tradition, exchange them for a renewed search for discernment of Truth. This, for me, means asking myself, “What value is there in what The Other is saying that I am not listening to, and therefore not hearing, in this moment?” If I stay in silence long enough, I can always find it. Hence, I subdue my well-trained tendency to dominate and feed my much more rewarding tendency toward partnership.

    At Synectics, our version of Parker Palmer–co-founder George Prince–used to say, “Don’t fight people; fight problems”. Same thing.

    The thread that ties all of these pieces together for me (including Kirsten’s starting point and Paul’s responses) is the concept that I have come to know as Process Consciousness. Process Consciousness, for me, means first and foremost that we must acknowledge the extent to which process drives content. (My mother used to say, “It ain’t whatcha’ say, it’s how ya’ say it”.) We must see that the specific words that we use and the tone of voice in which we use them represent the stimulus to which other people then respond. If we speak in judgmental tones, or use competitive language (such as, “That’s a good idea, but…’), we are inviting their negativity in return. If, on the other hand, we speak with compassion and respect, we stand a much better chance of coming to a positive endpoint. (e.g., “I’m missing the value in your idea, which makes me think I’m not hearing it fully. Would you please say it again, and this time I’ll find what I like about it, and then we can invent our way through whatever concerns their might be for either of us”.) (Note: here’s an example where each of us must find our own comfortable wording so that our sincerity shines through and we don’t push the “formulaic” button.)

    Just as Quaker Clearness Committees have distinct rules of behavior for their members (e.g., you are not allowed to confront, give advice, ask hurtful questions, etc.), so too does the Synectics process have its specific procedures. All of them feed partnership and starve domination, thereby reducing the need for moments of silence and deep breathing. I found myself wishing, Paul, that your Board Meetings would agree to learn about Synectics or some equally effective form of Process Consciousness, in part to support the work that you all are doing and in part to support you, personally. How ironic that the people who are supposedly directed to instill positive behaviors in young people so often display just the opposite in their own demeanor. The work you are undertaking is difficult enough as it is without the added burden of collegial conflict.

    Onward and upward.
    Peter

    P.S. Oh, one more thing: I was struck early in my career (late 1960s) by Carl Rogers’s explanation for why people are resistant to effective listening in situations where their initial reaction is disagreement–especially in those instances when the person speaking is someone who represents a group for whom we have no respect. His point was that, if we *were* to actually hear what The Other was saying, and begin to understand it from his/her perspective, we would then be forced to acknowledge that we were wrong in our initial assessment–and that gets to the matter of protecting our self-esteem in a world driven by domination. What’s worse (or rather, what makes compassionate listening all the more difficult), is the notion that, if we really hear The Other, and find ourselves in at least partial agreement, that begins to build a measure of intimacy that scares the heck out of us. It is in direct conflict with the moral judgments that we have previously made about that person. The resultant cognitive dissonance is terribly unsettling, and too often, rather than resolving it by letting go of our judgments, we let go of the areas of agreement and the feelings of intimacy (or as Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC would say, of “connectedness”. “Oooh, no, I could never love a woman who has a tatoo!! Or worse, who voted Republican!”

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | July 2, 2012, 11:04 am
    • Hey Peter,

      Thank you. Excellent on all points. Good call to remind us to focus on process and intentions and to strive to see and feel a little deeper and not judge, etc. I’d love to talk more about NVC and how it looks in its best incarnations. I am very open to learning more. The folks I was referring to were not purporting to be “novices” but were at least presenting themselves as trained NVC facilitators, and I guess I felt they were hung up in the specifics of the words and language and the correct communication protocol, and not really as willing to go deeply into emotions and spirit and underlying issues and struggles. But regardless of the specific approach, I think Kirsten’s focus on a mindful approach to leadership, is a call to be fully present in the moment and therefore to have the courage to let go of any predetermined protocols or outcomes. I’m guessing that that would be where Rosenberg or any sagacious leader from any wisdom tradition would urge us to move towards.

      And some other time, Peter, let’s talk more about Haverford (I went to Swarthmore College years ago.) and Eisler (I got my MA in Partnership Ed at Goddard College, fewer years ago.) Seems like we’d have no trouble filling an afternoon over a cup of tea. I look forward to continuing to learn from you and with you.

      In Partnership,

      Paul

      Posted by Paul Freedman | July 2, 2012, 10:45 pm
  5. This is great dialog here and one, and only one, of the reasons I love the COOP. There are few places online where thoughtful people explore and discuss in such depth as the two of you are demonstrating here. Noticing that and feeling grateful for it.

    Along with Paul, there is a piece of your reflecting Peter that I think of often, especially since I spend a lot of time listening. Old Native American saying, “To listen deeply is to risk the chance that you will be deeply changed by the other.” It’s true, and many of us resist the chance.

    Okay, who’s loved someone with a tatoo or voted Republican. Me definitely.

    K

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 3, 2012, 8:43 am
  6. Kirsten,

    Great discussion!

    How far down the rabbit hole do we go? There are many ways to trigger one’s ‘mindfulness’ or inner spirit, with most stemming from “unscientific” beliefs, practices and knowledge (of Essenes, Zoroastrians, Zen Buddhists, Sufi mystics, Yogis, Sikhs, Hindus, Janists, Cabalists, ‘Natives’ and more) that seem to be innate to sentient-beings.

    Incense and other odors trigger olfactory responses that seem to be deeper than are visual and auditory responses to verbal communications.

    Drumming at various rates shifts bodily responses.

    Chanting (Gregorian or otherwise) induces various mental states, and singing is similarly situated.

    Flickering fire shifts one’s physiology.

    Turning one’s eyes upward, with lids opened or closed, triggers certain types of brain waves.

    Breathing rhythms, as you note, clearly alter one’s bodily functions.

    Each of the foregoing were ‘discovered’ and practiced well before the “scientific method” came into common practice, are entirely free for the practicing of them, and are individually liberating. I think it little wonder why there is such a great need to “prove” (or is it ‘discover’?) that these things work miracles — true mindfulness unfetters one from external authoritarian strictures and is entirely insusceptible to commodification…

    Here’s to being mindful!

    Best,
    Brent

    Posted by Brent Snavely | July 4, 2012, 8:00 am
  7. Brent, So glad you’ve joined the discussion and I love all the somatic and visual pieces you offer here! Beautiful. Do you know this amazing set of podcasts, discussions with some of the world’s most visionary (and “unscientific”, but not really, as you point out) spiritual teachers?

    http://www.soundstrue.com/beginyourjourney/freeinterviews/

    I can’t recommend them enough. I listen to them weekly, and they are a foundation of my professional and personal life practices. Check it out.

    How do you practice?

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 4, 2012, 10:50 am
    • Thanks for the link — looks like I have some additional resources to consider.

      Because it is entirely portable and there is no defense against it, I use the eyes-up technique a great deal. It it automatically alters breathing patterns and heart rate. I also engage in the use of Incense (smudge), drumming and singing and a number of other “Native” practices for specific purposes.

      One thing I did not reference, because there is “scientific evidence” of its utility, is “Super Learning” out of the Eastern Bloc. It uses Baroque string concerto music at largo and adaggi time (rhythm), rhythmic repetition or words and physical triggers to enhance memorization of materials subject to learning by rote (it really works). The music itself is also conducive to general relaxation and meditation, prayer or ‘thoughtfulness’ — it used to lay my teenaged stepsons out cold :)

      Brent

      Posted by Brent Snavely | July 4, 2012, 3:53 pm
  8. Kirsten,

    Thanks for the link. I’ve listened to the John Welwood: Healing the Core Wound of the Heart piece so far–great stuff.

    Paul,
    If you would like to explore additional options (other than mindful meditation techniques) with regard to dealing with stressful parent conferences and staff meetings, I would be happy to explore some with you. I have found that many such encounters are set up to become confrontational by virtue of the structure of the meetings more than the personalities involved, and thus people can/will behave differently when/if the structure of the meeting is changed by the institution of different meeting procedures and rules. I would be happy to say more about this, with examples, if you are interested. We could replay some old (stress-inducing) dialogues and then explore ways of re-wording them (and thus possibly producing more satisfying results) if you would like. Just an offer–no obligation even to respond let alone accept. I certainly don’t want to be intrusive.

    Peter

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | July 6, 2012, 7:04 pm

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