Look Up! Three Practices for Leadership Mindfulness

http://galleryhip.com/look-up-to-the-sky.html

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.

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?

THE MINDFUL SCHOOL LEADER

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.

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.

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.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Sunday, October 10 on a beautiful, almost hot day in Boston, over 5000 students, parents,

My son Sam and me with DIY signs

children, educators, working people took to the streets of downtown Boston to join in support for Occupy Boston, a peaceful demonstration that says THE PEOPLE ARE TOO BIG TO FAIL.  Income inequality is killing us, corporations are not people, the middle class is dying.  We, the 99% have been much too quiet. We must take action.

I hit the streets with family, friends, students.  Using the human mike, this was the most well-organized, peaceful protest I’ve been a part of recently.  Students from UMass, Tufts, Bard, Harvard and Northeastern explained procedures as we got started.  “We have a constitutional right to be here.”

“We have a constitutional right to be here.”

“If you need medical attention this is what you do.”  “There are peacekeepers wearing green t-shirts in the crowd.”  “We expect this to be a peaceful demonstration.”  “If someone gets hurt, lock wrists and surround them.” “The police are our friends.”

Beginning slowly and picking up energy as we moved, amidst drums, a corporate 10K going on simultaneously, chantkeepers (“Ask me what democracy looks like/This is what democracy looks like!”), we left the Boston Common and marched through the financial district, our numbers growing audibly to roaring crowds.  We passed few observers who did not seem with the message. (“We are

"Self-Employed. $12K for health insurance. No retirement. I am the 99%"

the 99% You are the 99%!”)  A man working at a parking garage yelled back, “Hell yes I’m the 99%!”

At one point some office workers–folks in their offices on Columbus Day–held up a sign from their second story window. It was of FDR, with a slogan about reinstating the Glass-Steagall act, to huge roars from the crowd.  It was that kind of group–wonky Boston, in part.

Great Protester Signs:  “Things are bad when English teachers use swear words. Shit is Fucked Up.”

“1% cannot stop a new consciousness.”

I Was Told There Would Be Cake

“I was told there would be cake.”

“Who put the Slitherins in charge?”

Who Put The Slitherins In Charge?

Even with 50 Occupy Boston protesters arrested late last night, this is a movement growing all over the country.  We, the 99% are rising up to say we will not be quiet as our government is overtaken by private interests and economic elites.

#OccupyEdu is another way to get in

#Occupyedu is another way to join this movement around education, if protesting outside your door isn’t possible.

Just get in.  Just protest.

Once you’ve stood up, you’ll never sit down.

Let’s put our signs together…