Friday, February 1, 2013

Mindfulness for Educational Leaders: Developing Practice in the Present Moment

Caryn Wells
Associate Professor
Oakland University
NCPEA Executive Board

The challenges of leading schools are widely known and accepted as being complex and stress-filled. Principals report high levels of stress in their world of work, citing issues of diminished resources, increased accountability, media attention, and safety issues for staff and students (Cooley & Shen, 2003; Petzko, 2008; Wells, Maxfield, & Klocko, 2011). To be relevant for developing skills that practitioners need, the preparation of school leaders is charged with a list similar to the demands of the principalship- a job that Grubb and Flessa (2006) reported as, “a job too big for one” (p.13). School leaders take on responsibility for instructional and transformational leadership, the mediation of conflict, and myriad tasks and roles that are emergent and critical.

As university professors prepare aspiring and practicing graduate level students for leadership roles, there is an expectation among the students that the coursework is relevant and practical. We hear these comments from students who attend our classes as they share the issues that they face on a daily basis. One might assert that leadership is about doing, since the books and articles about leadership frequently contain verbs that describe actions that get results, inspire, motivate, move, and so forth. There is another side to the leadership; one that gets little attention, and that is the act of being, or as Kabat-Zinn (2005) reported, practicing being as opposed to doing.

It might seem impossible to consider the merits of being, until the intricacies of the word are examined. First, a sense of being is a type of non-doing that might seem to be in contrast to what we believe our roles and habits should be, especially in a leadership role. Consider how a sense of being might serve a principal throughout the day. To be with a teacher, parent, or student and be fully present, as opposed to being there but pre-occupied and distracted would serve the principal and the person in his/her presence. The focus becomes the person, not the anticipated response or the distracted mind of the observer. The practice of mindfulness cultivates a sense of being fully present in the moment (Smalley & Winston, 2010).

Carroll (2007) reported, “In the tradition of the mindful leader, rather than leading with will, power, and ambition, we lead and inspire others with openness, intelligence, and vulnerability” (p. 52). Much of this is accomplished through the practice of sitting still and observing. Mindful leaders, because they pay attention to what is actually occurring in the present moment, as opposed to what they expect or want to see, allows for a realistic picture. Williams and Penman (2011) summarized, “Mindful awareness- or mindfulness- spontaneously arises out of this Being mode when we learn to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment, to things as they actually are” (p.35).

 Mindfulness is a form of meditation that utilizes moment-to-moment awareness that is nonjudgmental and nonstriving (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). As such, mindfulness notices and accepts things as they really are (Gunaratana, 2002). Mindfulness involves the practice of meditating while allowing the thoughts and senses to be present in each moment; it is not about trying to erase thoughts from one’s mind. Mindfulness cultivates awareness for being fully present, something that is difficult for most people, who may live in past regrets or the busy agenda of today or tomorrow. Building administrators might be surprised to learn that they are not always living in the moment, particularly as they race from project to project, phone call to phone call, or interruption to interruption. It is the incessant interruptions and brief and fragmented interactions described by Hallinger (1992) that contribute to the feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed.
The workload stress of administrators includes pressure to multi-task as a coping mechanism for the unending ‘to-do’ list. Mindfulness meditation can slow down the pace of the moment and allow for a principal to be with the situation.

Mindfulness meditation is widely practiced in over 200 hospitals, prestigious law schools, and corporate America (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).  Jerome T. Murphy (2011) former Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education recently argued for expanded use of mindfulness to develop situational awareness and a balanced self that does not slip into reactivity for educational leaders. The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently sponsored a conference that featured, at its core, the practice and study of mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is widely reported in medical, psychological, and health related journals. Ryback (2006) reported, “At this point there are more than 1,000 research studies on mindfulness-based stress reduction published in peer-reviewed journals” (p.478). Neuroscientists, psychotherapists, medical doctors, scientists, educators, professors, and psychiatrists are investigating and presenting research on mindfulness that indicates the positive correlations of practicing mindfulness; the cultivation of empathy, compassion, listening skills, decreased anxiety and depression, and increased immunity (Black, 2010; Brady, 2007; Dane, 2011; Garland & Gaylord, 2009; Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn; Riess, 2010; Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998; Siegel, 2007; Smalley & Winston, 2010).

I have been teaching the concepts and practice of mindfulness meditation to graduate students for the past four years and while not true of all students, I hear repeatedly how the practice is making a difference in how leaders approach the challenges in their personal and professional life. I close with questions that allow us to think about the relevance of mindfulness for our students, and the benefits for them and ourselves, as we are involved with contemplative leadership. I welcome your feedback! Namaste.

Questions for consideration:

What is the future of mindfulness for educational leaders?

How do we, as professors, provide training and information on mindfulness?

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Dane, E. (2010). Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37(4), 997-1018. doi: 10.1177/0149206310367948.
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Wells, C. M., Maxfield, C. R., & Klocko, B. (2011). Complexities inherent in the workload of principals: Implications for teacher leadership. In B. J. Alford, G. Perreault, L. Zellner, & J. W. Ballenger (Eds.). 2011 NCPEA Yearbook: Blazing Trails: Preparing Leaders to Improve Access and Equity in Today’s Schools. (pp. 29-46). Lancaster, PA: DEStech Publications, Inc., Pro>Active Publications.
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