Teacher As Coach: Transforming Teaching With the A Coaching Mindset

 Educational Leadership, September 4, 2013

Kirsten Olson, Ed.D., PCC

Master coach/conductor/teacher Sabrina Broadbent introduces Othello to 9th and 10th graders on Teaching Channel.

Master coach/conductor/teacher Sabrina Broadbent introduces Othello to 9th and 10th graders on Teaching Channel.

Renya Santiago, a principal at a urban charter middle school in Delaware, is frustrated by flat-lining state test scores at her school, and underperformance on formative tests she and her teachers administer at their all-girls charter.  “The mission of this school is to create the future’s much-need female leaders,” Renya explains when my consulting partner and I meet with her for the first time.  “Yet in base-line accountability measures, we are not making the grade.  We also notice the girls being too passive in class, not willing to step up intellectually.  It frustrates us that they won’t take more responsibility.  We’d like them to be more creative and bold, and the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Delaware is using next year will demand that they are.”  And yet, when my consulting partner and I begin observing classrooms, we wondered: what are we doing in class that would build that intellectual creativity and cognitive inventiveness?

In a delightful 2012 video, renowned comedian John Cleese described his own ideas about how to get people into an “open” cognitive space, the seat of creativity, in Cleese’s view–and also how not to. Cleese outlines three absolute, surefire ways to guarantee people won’t be creative, inventive, and intellectually self-confident: bar humor, make sure everyone knows how important you are, and especially, make sure everyone is constantly busy.  “So demand urgency at all times, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies, and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety, and crisis.” Do these things Cleese observes, and you’re certain to have a lot of unhappy, closed, un-creative people [and students] around you.

Okay, hold up.  On our bad days, perhaps even on our normal days, isn’t this a bit how we position ourselves at school?  A tad humorless?  (This is not funny, this learning thing!) At the front of the room (or the meeting), letting everyone know who’s in charge? (Excuse me, but you just interrupted my monologue.) And most especially, aren’t we often urgently, breathlessly busy almost all the time, and insistently demanding that  everyone else be as well? Don’t we frequently communicate that learning is a deadly serious business that must yield to high value “targets” (military analogies) and benchmarks? And don’t we often assume too that instruction requires lots of monitoring, anxious oversight, and tension-filled assessment–or for gods sake it will never get done!

Given what we know about intellectual-risk taking and creativity: that being creative and intellectually adventurous requires projecting ourselves into a cognitive and emotional domain where we are able to–and give ourselves permission to–incubate novel ideas, often for no explicit purpose at all[ii]–how do we transition out of traditional classroom or educational environments that inculcate intellectual passivity, reward rule-following and compliance to teacher-instantiated values which locate authority for know outside of the student?  How do we move to classroom environments that promote playfulness, experimentalness, engagement, and encourage students to make mistakes, to think for themselves, and to be intellectually entrepreneurial?

COACHING AS A NEW MODEL FOR TEACHING

Here’s where a new paradigm for teaching enters the room. (Hello Coach!).  Beginning in the mid-1990s, coaching, a method of interacting with another person to help them identify critically important values, to explore new ways to think and behave, to achieve cherished personal and professional goals, and to feel more vibrant and present, has surged to popularity and credibility in business, medicine, academia, and in virtually every high-performance sector.[iii]  Coaching as a way of improving performance has grown exponentially over the last decade (2012 ICF research estimates there are almost 50,000 professional coaches worldwide[iv]) and is becoming increasingly sought out among heart surgeons[v], C-suite executives, and even in the superintendent’s office and teacher’s lounge[vi].  The International Coaching Federation (ICF), the world’s largest coaching credentialing body organized to create a worldwide network of trained, certified coaches, defines coaching as “an ongoing professional relationship that helps people produce extraordinary results in their lives [and] careers,” by encouraging creativity, engaging clients in self-generated solutions to problems, and by supportively holding the client responsible and accountable for new behaviors and actions.[vii]  But coaching as a paradigm for transforming the pedagogical relationship between student and teacher, in order to promote creativity, initiative, and the much-touted 21st-century skill set, is just beginning to take hold as professional coaching’s fundamental precepts[viii] are more widely understood.  Although great teachers everywhere have always assumed the competence, resourcefulness, and wholeness of every student–indeed see this as the center of the relationship–teachers conceiving of themselves specifically as “coaches” instead of traditional teachers–is a relatively new, yet incredibly promising approach.  Why?

Professional coaching rests on several fundamental principles:  it assumes that the person, or set of individuals one is interacting with, is already skillful, wise, and has a profound desire to learn and to achieve the goals they feel are important.  It also assumes that most of us find reflection, experimentation, and accountability helpful in achieving our goals. The stance of assumed competence and resourcefulness on the part of the coach, “the belief part” is critical, and a significant departure from the conventional teaching relationship, which presumes that students “lack” something that the teacher must “give” them.  Or as Paulo Freire described it, in the hierarchical, banking method of education[ix]–in which the teacher knows and the student is to know–is still a pattern very widely abroad and instantiated in the lived patterns of teaching in our country.  To be a professional coach, as I experienced when I became trained and certified in a professional coaching program after years of consulting and teaching, means giving up the all-knowing stance of the paid consultant, and even the knowledge-bearing mantle of the teacher.  You become the inquirer, the question-asker, the curiosity fomentor.  When you coach, you stop giving advice and stop thinking about what you know, and start getting really curious about what is going on with the other person (or people). In their excellent little book on coaching conversations in school, Linda Gross Cheliotes and Marceta Fleming Reilly (2010) note that, “Coaches operate with an underlying assumption that giving advice to others undermines the confidence and self-worth of others.  Others don’t need to be fixed.”[x]  In teaching we need to move to exactly this stance in order to foster creativity in our students–to allow our students the choice, control, novelty and challenge that builds their creativity–the essential conditions as defined by Csikszentmihalyi and others.  Without the assumption that our students are already competent, imaginative, and ready to burst forth with regular exhibitions of novel and valuable ideas and products[xi]–we are limiting their creative capacities before they’ve even had a chance to discover them.  As Lou Cozolino’s (2012) wonderful new book on the social neuroscience of education makes clear, how we feel about our learning environments, and the assumptions that are made about us as learners within them, dramatically affect our brain development and our capacity to produce creative and novel work products.[xii]

What a difference the stance of competence, wholeness, and creativity make.  A colleague of mine in my doctoral program once described her oral exams with a committee of particularly obstreperous academics at Harvard.  Her committee chair and someone who knew and loved her work sat on her left.  At her right a doubting, difficult, knowledge-guarding interrogator.  My colleague said she turned left and was brilliant.  When she turned right, “I was the block-headest person ever to take an oral exam.”  Assuming the stance of competence and invitation to learn, as a teacher–no matter how restrictive the system of education in which we must work–can dramatically and palably transform teacher student relationships and student capacity.  (And possibly our deadly systems of education to boot.)    This means, in practice, moving from giving advice to students or giving them answers, to creating awareness of what they want to know and helping them design actions to achieve their learning goals.  (Giving them practice being creative!)  This also means not offering options for learning, but encouraging learners to design possibilities themselves, and then insisting students themselves plan and goal-set, monitor their progress, and then analyze what worked and what didn’t.  (Celebrate! That’s creative!)

WHAT A COACHING STANCE LOOKS LIKE IN A CLASSROOM

As mentioned extraordinary teachers have always viewed themselves as coaches of students. In the past “gifted” education has provided a model for this approach in its playful, inventive invitations to learn, and assumptions of competence on the part of the learner.  (What if we regarded all students as gifted?) Paula White, a longtime elementary school teacher in Albemare County, Virginia observes about her own stance as a highly successful teacher, “In my 38 years of teaching, where I have taught all grades K-5 in every combination, I always begin with an assumption of competence. That means we believe kids–learners–are competent and come to us with strengths and knowledge and skills and talents and curiosities and yearnings and expertise and questions, and it is my job to discover what those skills and talents are. (And in doing so I always discover new capacities within myself.) Moments that confuse or astound me give me an opportunity to explore my beliefs and understandings. I like to change of my surroundings and to explore new grades and schools as visits away from my comfort zone allow me to  widen [my] view of what’s possible.” [xiii]  Like a professional coach, Paula begins with the belief that her learners have a lot to teach her, and she gets the privilege of playing with them and helping them achieve their learning goals throughout the year.  One of the most creative and widely respected teachers in her region, Paula was one of the first Apple Educators to be recognized on the East Coast and leads a lively blog on transforming teaching.  Long time charter school leader and teacher Chad Sansing also notes, like a coach, that the key to unleashing creativity in students is giving up his claim as knowledge authorizer. “I feel very self-conscious, selfish, and unsure writing this, but I wanted to share what happened today [in my classroom] because if I have anything to offer (besides the occasional oblique reference or terrible pun), it’s an approach to teacher failure that remains open to student success. The best I can do is to be delegitimized as an authority-figure and known as a person and learner by my students. The work isn’t there to isolate resistant students, to assert my control, or to protect my feelings like a curtain wall; it’s there to be torn to pieces and remixed or discarded as we build our relationships and community together.” [xiv]

Paula and Chad’s coach-like stances:  assuming competence on the part of every learner, believing their roles are to create positively-charged and accountable space for learner growth, and giving up their authority as “knower,” all point to the power of the professional coach in the classroom, and its social justice implications.  Discovering and clarifying what the client/student wants to achieve, encouraging self discovery, getting the student/client generate solutions and strategies for solving problems, and holding them responsible for results, upends and rebalances the traditional student teacher relationship.  When I am working with a group of teachers as a coach I often pose the question, “What if the students looking up at you from the classroom didn’t need anything from you? What if you assumed they weren’t lacking anything? How would that change about your job as teacher?”

So I ask you:  how might a professional coaching stance help make your classroom or school a more creative space?

_________________

Kirsten Olson, Ed.D., PCC is Chief Listening Officer at Old Sow Coaching and Consulting, in Boston, MA, which provides leadership coaching to some of the largest school districts in the country.  She is author of Wounded By School, Schools As Colonizers and the forthcoming The Mindful School Leader. She is an ICF certified coach and a graduate of the Georgetown Leadership coaching program.    

 

[ii] Csikszentmihallhy, M. (1997). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, Harper Perennial.

[v] Gawande, A. (2011). Personal best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande

[vi] Cheliotes, L.G., Reilly, M.F. (2010).  Coaching conversations: Transforming your school one conversation at a time.  Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin.

[vii] International Coach Federation “The ICF Philosophy of Coaching,” Washington, DC http://lifetothefullcoaching.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/icf-code-of-ethics.pdf.  Also, please see http://www.coachfederation.org/about-icf/overview/for an explanation of the differences between coaching and therapy, consulting, mentoring, and athletic development. These differences are significant.

[ix] Freire, P. (2000). The pedagogy of the oppressed. http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-2.html

[x] Cheliotes and Reilly, p. 9

[xi] Howard Gardner’s definition of creativity:  p. 35, in Gardner, H. (1993).  Creating minds. New York, Basic Books.

[xii] Cozolino, L. (2012).  The social neuroscience of education: Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom.  New York, Norton. Forthcoming.

50th Anniversary March On Washington

50 Anniversary March on Washington information here

50 Anniversary March on Washington information here.

On August 28, 2013 citizens from across the country will converge in Washington, DC to commemorate and celebrate the historic March On Washington which occurred 50 years ago on August 28, 1963.

My dad was there.  250,000 other people were there.  Don’t you want to be there for this one?  Oscar Grant, Trayvon, and growing economic inequality demand we show up.  I’m going with my kids.

You?

 

Martin Luther King Jr. Leads March for Civil Rights

Saint Francis and The Sow

Sow and poem copy

For the upcoming work Teaching From The Heart: Poetry That Speaks To the Courage To Teach, edited by Megan Scribner and Sam Intrator, I wrote about this poem by Galway Kinnell.  The poem is central to my work as a teacher and a coach, and to several important turning points in my life.  A portion of this reflection will appear in Teaching From the Heart, due out later this year.

 

At a fortunate point in my life, I was trained by Parker Palmer, a spiritual teacher and moral philosopher of great proportions.  During this particular training, we wrote and shared a “where I’m from” poem, and then read them to each other in pairs. Embarrassingly, I got paired with Parker. My “where I’m from” poem was unlovely, full of ordinary ugliness: about the hollow core doors and wall-to-wall carpeting of the home where I was born; of the children of immigrant farm workers who were outcast, silenced and marginalized in the schools where I grew up; of my longing for escape from a town where strip malls and cheap development housing were eating up beautiful farmland.  Parker sat listening to me–I hardly knew him then–with calm, unanxious attention, with trained spiritual attention, seeing me, taking me in, not judging me but listening with present, quiet kindness, witnessing and allowing a budding self blessing in me–hand on my forehead all the way down to the spiritual curl of my tail.  At the time, the moment seemed insignificant, an exercise quickly passed over.  And yet as I look back on it, it was the birth of a new chapter of my life, a muted beginning of compassion for myself and my own strained and misfitting early life.  I began to discover my own sense of sureness beneath the unsureness, of the power of showing up as myself, however flawed, unglamourous and hollow-core-doored I might be.

As a teacher, I often think my work is fundamentally about reteaching a thing its lovliness.  My students enter my classroom filled with self-doubt, with harsh self-biographies and self-evaluations, filled with stories about unworthiness and not-enoughness for which they often compensate with cockiness and overconfidence.  They have been told, in an enormous number of ways, that they aren’t good enough, aren’t smart enough–or conversely, that winning the game of school is all that matters–and underneath they’ve become cynical and self-doubting.  As teachers we sometimes have glimpses of the greatness that lies beneath this accreted shell, the budding flower that lies below the hard spiny spikiness.  In some teaching moments–when we’re present and quiet and settled in ourselves–we are given the gift of bearing witness to our students as they flower from within, as they self-bless, as they quicken with interest in themselves.  We are given the gift of seeing our students, of observing in them something they don’t see in themselves. It is our work to bear witness to that: to help them catch glimpses of themselves and their own great promise.  So when I sit with a group of students and that magical thing begins to happen, that sometimes seems to me the most central miracle of all: when we become interested in ourselves in new ways, and see our great completeness and simultaneous rooting to the ground–I’m reminded of this poem.  I’m reminded of that moment with Parker.  For me that’s come to be at the center of my work, the sense that we all need someone to bear witness to us, to listen with quiet spiritual presence, or to cheer us on, to help us remember, snout to tail down our thick length, our emergent and eternal lovliness.

Show Up As You

Elijah Hodge, Retention and Intervention Specialist at Phoenix Charter Academy Chelsea, takes Child's Pose.

Elijah Hodge, Retention and Intervention Specialist at Phoenix Charter Academy Chelsea, takes Child’s Pose.

(Guest Post by Sarah Miller, Chief Academic Officer of Phoenix Academy Network.) This graduation speech was written and delivered by Sarah Miller, CAO of Phoenix Charter Academy Network at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts on June 13, 2013. Phoenix Charter Academy Network is a group of schools in Massachusetts that serves high-school age students who have become disconnected from academic environments, and offers them support, structure and motivation to complete high school and go on to higher education.  Phoenix Charter Academy Network is a group of schools I have worked with for nearly a decade, and my pride at the 27 graduates of this year’s class, many of whom are the first in their families to go on to higher education, is unbounded.  I was moved by Sarah Miller’s call for authenticity in this speech, and her naming the difficulties of being authentic, no matter where we are in our lives or what our developmental phase.  This speech touched the audience watching these beautiful young adults graduate by calling out an essential human challenge: to be ourselves and to show up as ourselves in a world that often does not support authenticity or realness.  A powerful human observation, wrapped in a  graduation victory gift.  

Hello Graduates. I am really honored to be standing here with you, to get to share this stage. Today, I want to talk to you about authenticity: authenticity and honesty.  And to do that, I need to talk to you about my yoga class. I really love my yoga class.  I really, really love it.  And one of the reasons I love it is that it’s totally acceptable to go to yoga and just do this for an hour and a half.  You can go, walk in, and sit on the floor the entire time.  Because this is an actual pose in yoga.  It’s called “child’s pose.”   And many teachers will tell you that child’s pose “is always on offer.” And what this means is that no matter what the rest of the class is doing, you can always just sit….just rest….just be yourself.  No matter what everyone else is doing, you can just sit down and relax.  Child’s pose is always on offer…it’s always there for you.   So the rest of the class might look like this:

downward dog.jpeg copy

And you might just feel like sitting like this:

childs pose 2 copy

Many of you already know that we get so many messages about what we need to be or need to do or should want to be or should want to do that figuring out who we are as individuals really is quite difficult. Our families, our friends, our society, our TV shows, our movies, our Facebook pages, our iPods, our schools all send us messages about what we should be or do. But just knowing you are getting messages about how to be isn’t enough.  You have to do more, you have to be different, bigger than a person who just “knows.” And this is my challenge to you:

  • Without demerits or detention or a Dean, figure out what’s right to do and do that thing, regardless of what other people around are saying or doing.
  • Without grades or AP scores (clap for our first Advanced Placement students ever) figure out what you want to learn about and learn it deeply all the time. Just learn all the time.
  • Without Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, develop actual friends who are real and who matter and who inspire you to be and to give and love you for who you honestly are.
  • Without the Oscars or the VMA’s or the Billboard awards, pick your favorite music and listen to it relentlessly.

All the stuff I just mentioned doing is pretty typical for a graduation speech and they all bear repeating because doing these things is really, really hard.  Going your own way and being you is really hard, even if you think it’s not–it totally is.  And this is exceptionally true if you’re at all competitive.  Because sometimes in life, you’ll feel like you’re being asked to do this (metaphorically, of course):

fancy pose copy

Everyone around you might be able to just like handle it.  All the people next to you on the T or on the bus or at work or at school might just be able to go ahead and do that (metaphorically, of course).

You might just be thinking, “I just wanna do child’s pose.”  I wonder how many of you would? I wonder how many of you would just do what you feel like you want or need to do? I wonder how many of us, the grown people in the audience, your children, yourselves, all of us: I wonder how many of us really have the strength to do what we want and need in life? So, who cares?  What’s the real point?  It’s not yoga, that’s not the real point.  I don’t really want you to sit like this, I want something much more extraordinary for you.

Because I have a grave concern and deep worry. I worry about a world where we don’t think and act independently.  I worry about a world where we just do what we’re told and act in a way that everyone else does and nothing more.  I am gravely concerned about a world where we just do or be without thinking because it seems convenient.  So, I’m challenging you today to think, feel and act in the world with one word in mind: AUTHENTICITY.  As I’ve come to understand it, and I know I’m not old enough to really know but as I’ve come to understand it, being authentic and working through all this life stuff as an honest individual turns out to be one of the greatest challenges you’ll face. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times in your life where you’ll actually need to conform.  You’ll need to be like others and “go with the flow”.  That’s cool, sometimes you need to just drive in the right direction (this time I mean this both literally and metaphorically). But you have to decide when that’s going to be.  And you have to decide for you. And my hope is that you can figure out how to surround yourself with people who can help you be more and more authentic and honest the older you get, people who help you be more you.  In a world that’s sending you messages to conform and think the same, find the individuals that help you be you. Because sometimes, you’ll need and want to be like this:

fish copy

Sometimes you’ll need to be purple in a sea of gold, or say no when others say yes, or stand up for yourself, or go against the tide, or decide you don’t actually like Beyonce or whatever seems to be the popular opinion.  (For the record I think Beyonce is just fine….). And doing all this real activity takes real strength, real, deep-down, authentic and honest power.

So, in this new stage of life, I hope for you the strength to handle life with this kind of calm clarity, I wish you the strength to hold yourselves up, to be yourselves and trust your authentic self, and to be good with that–with you.  And I want you to know that Child’s Pose is always on offer.  It’s you that has to decide the difference.  When do I stand up?  When do I give into what I want? What do I authentically need/want/demand of myself? And with those questions asked and unanswered, I offer you luck.  I love you all a lot and am wonderfully excited that we are sharing you with the world in a more official way. So go on college, trade school, jobs go on, go out and do whatever that really, honestly means. Congratulations.

pca 2013 copy

Mom Solidarity: Women’s Walk For Peace

"I lost my baby in 2010."

“I lost my baby in 2010.”

If you Google homicides in Boston by year, a set of grim statistics is available:  the number of young men under 30 who are killed by gun or knife violence in Boston, especially in particular neighborhoods (Dorchester, Roxbury, South End).  Mostly, young men die in Boston; mostly they are men of color.  Mostly, the mainstream press never reports these homicides, and mostly, families who suffer these tragedies experience little attention or outrage beyond their neighborhoods, as  Cassandra Desroches  commented on a Facebook page in support of the Women’s Walk for Peace Boston and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.  Desroches said, “What gets me is that the media still focuses on the bombing. Don’t get me wrong- this was a historical epic tragedy! However… they are forgetting the neighborhoods of Boston who deal with ‘hood’ terrorism daily. I’m still waiting for this story to break!”

Yesterday, women (and men) all over Boston rose up and went walking early to highlight the 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace.  Amidst rain and overcast skies over 5000 of us gathered to transform pain and anger into power and action.  Moms wore t-shirts with the names of loved ones they had lost…

As speakers began loved ones gathered in tee-shirts memorializing lost loved ones.

Families gathered in tee-shirts memorializing lost loved ones.

Boston Mothers Care

Boston Mothers Care

Boston Mothers Care an amazing organizaton of women who meet weekly to support their women’s-focused mission in Haiti (bringing potable drinking water to a rural village in Haiti), came out with banners, backpacks full of information, and their kids; high school students memorialized lost loved ones–high school peers.

Jorgie, born July 1993, killed September 2012, age 19, memorialized by friends

Jorgie, born July 1993, killed September 2012, age 19, memorialized by friends

One mom, who had lost her “baby” in 2010, burst into tears as she told me about his unsolved murder as he sat in a car outside a convenience store.  Shattered lives and broken hearts were lifted up by an incredible Boston showing of solidarity and support for those who have suffered homicide and other forms of violence.  As we shouted, “What do we want?  Peace! When do we want it? Now!” individuals from the neighborhood leaned out their windows and doors waving and shouting “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Part of a national movement of mothers to end violence against their children, we can all support the movement by making a donation to the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute which provides education and support to survivors of homicide, or walk the event next year.  In the balkanized neighborhoods that unfortunately characterize Boston, efforts like this matter more than ever.  It was the right way to begin the day as a citizen of Boston and a mother. IMG_1591

I Am A Citizen of A Country That Does Not Yet Exist

The great Dr. Vincent Harding, whose words and moral presence has inspired me and my colleagues at IDEA for years, has never been more powerful here.  Speaking at the Children’s Defense Fund Annual Convention in Cincinnati, OH in July 2012, at a town hall on national and racial healing, Dr. Harding proclaims a vision for activism, and of world that is emmanent, that calls out to me at a nearly bodily level.  He asks us to believe into being that which does not yet exist.

As activists in education, when the obstacles to real reform and profound, sustained transformation sometimes seem impossibly great, Dr. Harding’s message increasingly informs me, at a deep, soul level.

We are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist.  “A just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multi-racial country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders. That cares about what the earth needs.  I am you are a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist.”

The necessity of keeping on with the work, and proclaiming what is at the moral center of the work–both in action and in end–feels more and more like the project I am behind.  “After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.”  (Wallace Stevens).

How are we standing up together, and proclaiming the world that does not yet exist, in our work as educational activists?  Can we join together to do so?

Mindfulness Practice Inspired By Images of Devastation

Oradour Sur Glane

This is a guest post by my new friend Steve Rowley.  Steve got in touch with me after reading my recent piece in EdWeek on mindfulness.  Steve is a former superintendent and mindfulness practitioner who lives on Bainbridge Island, in Washington.  Here he writes about how that which seems unpleasant or threatening may actually be the thing that spurs us to deeper practice.

 

I learned a valuable lesson in cultivating mindfulness by visiting a site of mass murder. Earlier this summer I traveled to Oradour-Sur-Glane, France, where in 1944 the German SS burned alive over six hundred villagers (mostly women and children), desecrated their bodies, and then strafed the village–in retaliation for local French resistance. After the war, local survivors left the village untouched as a remembrance. Today you can see the region’s history of Nazi terror in the village’s memorial museum, and then walk through the charred remains of the town, including the church where the victims were rounded up and incinerated beyond recognition.

The ironic contrast is that I made this visit to Oradour during a week-long silent, Zen-oriented writing retreat with author and teacher Natalie Goldberg . I don’t think anyone in our retreat group expected to be so jolted by what we saw and felt at Oradour, and the experience dramatically changed the remainder of our retreat, as our writing dove deeply into the theme of war and conflict. After the Oradour visit and into the next day we filled our retreat space with painful stories of loss and devastation, and strong emotional reactions from our personal experiences and family histories emerged. Haunting feelings and many memories of painful experience swept through our minds, while we tried to get regrounded in our sitting practice for the remainder of the retreat.

Learning to use an experience as powerful as the one at Oradour to cultivate mindfulness was startling, yet clarifying. During turmoil was when Natalie’ Goldberg’s teaching came to life. The lesson she had already impressed on us was that we can use those things that distract us: sounds, smells, and cues from the outer world that upset the flow of meditation and writing as a drive to deeper practice. We can learn to use distractors, such as the sound of a chainsaw in the distance, or the horrific indelible image of a pile of burned bodies, to refocus our awareness and to bring us back to the here and now.

Our teacher emphasized that the practice of mindful mediation and our writing are forms of work, not relaxation. It’s a discipline and mind training. Learning to “let go” of our thoughts and feelings is easy when white billowy thought-clouds lazily drift by on a sunny day. But when those happy thought-clouds have vaporized and the mind becomes a turbulent storm of rain, wind, and utter chaos–this is when the practice gets real and is simply hard work. That’s when the discipline of just abiding with the continual stream of internal distraction gets tough, but is most important.

Steve Rowley’s photo from Ouradour

What I took away from my experience at Oradour and mindfulness practice there is learning to use distractors and even unpleasantness as a part of a larger practice. This also applies to my work as a leader in public education. In the past when I’ve been irritated or distracted by the incessant noise and interference that comes with the job of leading a school or an organization, I’ve thought of these interruptions and distractions simply as obstacles that get in the way of what I have to accomplish. I look back now and realize how hard I’ve had to work just to keep myself in a solitary vacuum to get my “to do” list done, leaving me mentally and emotionally at odds with the common and very human stuff of life: upset feelings, complaints, schedule changes, pushback on change, disagreements, unexpected events, and unintended outcomes.

Though mindfulness practice I better understand that the seeming distractors of our work as leaders can be used to cultivate our mindfulness, literally on the job. We can practice the discipline of incorporating distraction into our work to bring us to the here and now, the world as it is in the moment. We can use this discipline to better understand ourselves, and be to open to new possibilities with others. Like sitting and writing in the presences of profound turbulence, good leadership requires an everyday discipline of mindfulness to be fully present, all distractions included.