Look Up! Three Practices for Leadership Mindfulness


Photo: Galleryhip

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 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 inculcate 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 more clear 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 to get access to these practices? How to 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.




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.



Values That Matter

How do you organize for action in an education sector that’s as fractured as glass, ripped by conflicting opinions, and undergoing seismic economic and technical shift?  Over at IDEA they have spent years getting clear on their values, honing them again and again, making mistakes, trying again, and showing up for the work.  This graphic is as clear an expression of the work as I’ve seen, and a good set of values to be alive in.

What do you value?

Take a Beauty Bath

"To look at anything, If you would know that thing, You must look at it long…" (John Moffitt

“To look at anything, If you would know that thing, You must look at it long…” (John Moffitt)

This practice, of taking in the beauty around us, is something I try to do daily; I just wrote these instructions for our forthcoming book, The Mindful School Leader (Corwin 2014).

I find this practice extraordinarily satisfying. Do you have one like it?

The Beauty Bath

We recommend this five-minute, sensually-engaging practice to reset one’s mood, to appreciate and savor the goodness that is all around us, and to create a transformative pause. We, the authors of this book, use this practice every day and find the act of gazing at something intently and with concentration, taking in its details and appreciating its contours, colors, contrasts, and scents, a transformative act. We hope you will give it a try and report back on its results. As many poets have noted, to really see a thing, you must look at it long…

· When you are feeling the need to a shift or a reset, pause what you are doing and go outside. If you need to put on your coat and shoes, and the weather is terrible, all the better. There is beauty everywhere. If you cannot go outside and are cut off from the natural world at the moment, you can still find something of beauty around you.

· Walk around and notice something your eye alights on, something you have perhaps not looked at closely before. This could be a very ordinary thing: a crack in the sidewalk where a few blades of grass poke through, the petals of a petunia blossom in a window box on a busy city street, the vine that curves around an abandoned fencepost. You might ask yourself, gently, why has my eye alighted here? You do not need to answer this question.

· Now take some deep breaths, which you’ve been practicing since you began reading this book, with a deep gentle inhale and a powerful emptying exhale. You are preparing to let the thing you are observing really come into your eye and your inner eye, a place that sees and appreciates things with a quiet contemplative alternative vision.

· Simply gaze, with appreciative, curious eyes at the thing your eye has alighted on. What is extraordinary about what you see here? How is it a miracle that that leaf has sawcut edges like that? What does the deep pink of that lily blossom evoke in you? What is the effect of simply observing this beautiful and perhaps rather thing?

· Allow yourself to take in all the details, without a plan and without too much thinking. Simply be in the experience of observing. Do this for at least a minute. Let the details of your observation sit inside you, in the clear space you have opened with your breath.

· After a minute or more, thank the object or formation you have been observing, and exhale one last time. (You can say “thank you” silently or out loud.) Remind yourself to be grateful for your capacity to see anything (for vision!), for this sweet object you have just observed, and for the miracles of our planet that lie all around us.

· Back to work! Notice how you feel when you return to what you were doing previously. Allow yourself to imagine that this act of visioning can be refreshing and resetting, and then see how this is.

· Make this a daily habit! Enjoy.

We believe that a daily habit of the Beauty Bath will dramatically increase your capacity for observation, and also broaden and build your sense of appreciation and connection to the world around you. And we think that will be helpful as a leader.

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?


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!)


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.

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

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.


ssoosay’s Simple iphone Lock Screen Mindfulness Reminders (on Flickr)

(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.  Only this morning, a lively, 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 this 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 friend 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.


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 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.

Kirsten Olson, Ed.D. is Chief Listening Officer at Old Sow Coaching and Consulting, which specializes in transformational leadership services for educational organizations. She is the author of Wounded By School and founding board member of IDEA, the Institute for Democratic Education In America. Valerie Brown, J.D. is a former attorney and lobbyist, and is now president of Mindful Solutions, promoting transformation leadership services through awareness and renewal.  They are in private practice together offering leadership coaching and professional development solutions.