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.



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.