Today’s guest blog is written by Valerie Brown, President of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC, specializing in mindfulness and leadership training for principals and others.
Catherine, a busy school principal at a large urban school in New Jersey, recounts her work day with exasperation during a recent mindfulness and school leadership training session offered by Lead Smart Coaching. During our session, she speaks wearily of trying to meet the expectations of rapidly changing deadlines; trying to concentrate despite noisy meetings in adjacent offices and throughout the school building; attend consecutive 2 to 3 hour meetings; and skip lunch or standing lunch. She describes “to be pulled out of bed like a cannon”In the morning and goes on and on until she collapses in bed at night. Does this sound familiar to you? Many of my school principal clients, like this stressed-out principal, have gone way beyond their challenge zone and are in their crash zone!
We know all too well the high stakes, the high demand, the high expectations of the school administration. We want school leaders to focus on motivation, confidence, creativity and strategic thinking. We expect principals to recover quickly in the face of adversity, to successfully adapt to the impossible, to be available 24/7 and to respond to lightning speed to complexity and change. School leaders are now reporting record levels of stress and overwhelm with real consequences for schools and student performance, not to mention the well-being of school leaders.
Instinctively, we know what mindfulness is and how to be mindful in our daily life. We know the feeling of being fully present to eat a wonderful meal or to have a good conversation. We also know when we are distracted, spaced out, lost in thought or overexcited, and how easily distracted we are, how our attention can be distracted by our own thoughts. Moments of unconsciousness are all too familiar: snacking without realizing that you are eating, partially surfing the Web while listening to music, texting while driving. Too often the almost constant flow of mental commentary, the seemingly endless range of judgments about ourselves, others, our environment, is mentally exhausting and prevents us from being fully present.
A conscious revolution: a well-focused mind is a well-focused school leader
Distraction, multitasking, “continuous partial attentionCognitive Overload: The education sector is addicted, and not just because it is under more accountability pressure than at any time in American history. “Jobs shape peopleDan C. Lortie wrote in his classic study of the teaching profession, and most educators have almost no day-to-day socialization or support for sustained attention or a focus on their own learning. This concentration divide now comes with intense performance demands based on standardized testing. It’s a blunt drink. “I arrived at the superintendency wanting to bring a reflection and a concentration on all aspects of my work, a school principal told me recently. “I feel like I’ve lost this now. “
The education sector’s dependence on distraction is both a reasonable adaptation and a terrible dysfunction – a hostile and unauthorized way of dealing with maddening working conditions. We cannot solve these problems by being more distracted.
Mental wandering is universal and is an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Scientists tell us that almost half of your waking day is spent in mental wandering, and that mental wandering is linked to negative mood. Consider this: you are getting ready for work, you are brushing your teeth. Your mind drifts from holding the toothbrush and smelling toothpaste to thoughts of an extremely difficult meeting scheduled for later today with a member of your management team.
Subconsciously and reflexively, you begin to contract the muscles in your neck and upper back. Your thoughts speed up, cascade into each other, anticipating the worst. You finish quickly, feeling like you’re running out of time. It’s no surprise that this diffuse and unstable focus impairs performance. What may be surprising is how often our attention drifts like a cork floating on a swift stream.
According to this research, although mental wandering occurs less when people engage in pleasurable activities, they are still prone to thinking negative thoughts. When you focus on a particular activity rather than thinking about something else, you are happier, say scientists. In these studies, a greater predictor of happiness was not the activity itself – external events and circumstances – but what you think and whether you engage in wandering the mind. Mental wandering causes unhappiness, not the other way around.
Your task is to bring the wandering mind back to the object of attention, which is usually your breath since it is always with you, and to change your relation to the current mental commentary of judgments, criticisms, analyzes, schedules, etc. do not try to suppress or grasp, or push back thoughts and emotions. You don’t strive to have a different experience. You accept things as they are: the pleasant, the unpleasant and the neutral. This act in itself for many principals is a big step towards self-compassion and well-being.
Deliberately bringing back the wandering spirit is important for many reasons. The mind is a “story-making machine” with the “switch” continually on. When you notice that the mind has gone astray, you are already back, an extremely important part of the refocus.
- By bringing the mind back, you strengthen your focus and focus.
- You notice where the mind is – in a painful thought for example, noticing sensations in the body, stiffness in the lower back or pain in the upper neck, if your breathing has turned into gasping, for example.
- In this observation, there is a lot of information about your stress level, the state of your well-being.
Conversely, you may notice that at the moment you are doing well, that you feel a feeling of well-being in your body and in your mind. You make the connection between what you think and what you feel — connecting the mind with the body. For principals, this is a powerful form of integration and congruence: your thoughts and body awareness align. This alignment is the basis of trustworthy and genuine leadership.
Mindfulness training strengthens the ability to direct attention amid the external distractions of daily life and the flexibility of consciousness to recognize what is happening in the moment.
Valerie Brown co-writes The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and Your School with Kirsten Olson. Connect with her on Twitter.