My “One Word” for 2019, mindful, revealed itself to me during a conference as I drew conclusions about current issues in education. Discussions about student anxiety and trauma, teacher burnout, character development, and the importance of developing relationships all connected to pausing and paying attention to ourselves and others in present moments. Mindfulness is a practice that began in my personal life and has spread into my professional life, and now it happens to be the latest buzz in education as a tool for students and staff navigating through stress and anxiety. As a result of realizing how practicing mindfulness has helped me and can impact others, my goal for the upcoming year is to continue being mindful during every moment of every day and educating others about mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that emerges through paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” I began practicing mindfulness as a young mother trying to balance caring for my family while furthering my career. There was a point in my late twenties when I was feeling especially overwhelmed with having two young children and putting in long days as a teacher. One day I watched an Oprah show about finding the spirituality in simple tasks, like folding laundry and doing dishes. The idea of focusing on the task at hand and my particular role in completing the activity helped me reframe simple moments in my life. When I was cooking a meal, for instance, I paid attention to the therapeutic art of chopping vegetables and took the time to enjoy the aroma of the herbs and spices used in the recipe. I also focused on how the food would nourish and be enjoyed by my family. This strategy became a key habit in helping me appreciate and revel in simple moments.
Many years later, I began applying an intentional use of mindfulness as a principal. A pivotal moment happened when I was subpoenaed to testify in court the next day for a contentious child custody battle. Coincidentally, I had a Board of Education presentation to deliver that evening before I needed to review a three-inch thick file of information relevant to the court case. I was already feeling anxiety preparing for my first Board presentation as a principal. However, anticipating recalling facts on a witness stand in a room full of strangers really had me panicking. I remembered what I had read and learned about mindfulness in several journal articles and the importance of being present in the current moment and not worrying about the past or future. During the Board meeting that evening, I channeled all of my focus on the people at the meeting, the information I was sharing, and the students and staff who helped me deliver the presentation. The next day, I focused my efforts on remembering facts about the defendant and thinking about the well-being of the children involved while I was questioned on the stand for an hour and a half. Both events resulted in positive outcomes, and I emerged with my sanity intact.
Now, mindfulness has become routine for me as a school leader. Through paying attention to my feelings and emotions, I am aware of how my mood as the principal sets the climate in my school. Mindfulness also helps me think with better clarity and make more logical decisions. By paying attention in the moment, I have the ability to slow down and notice multiple perspectives and contextual factors that influence happenings. Then, I can better assess the fullness of a situation, considering the viewpoints of other people, and think clearly and act according to my values. This purposeful attention helps me create better solutions and respond more fairly and effectively to difficult and complicated dilemmas that arise daily in my job. Mindfulness also allows me to examine my own thought processes in an impartial way so I can self-assess my emotions and responses to ensure they are honest, fair, and free of my own biases or conflicts of interest. As a result, I am more aware of the ethical considerations within my decisions and this self awareness enhances my moral judgments. Overall, mindfulness help me to be authentic to myself and those I serve, and equips me with the balance and energy to lead with energy, innovation, compassion, and courage.
In addition to improving my leadership skills, mindfulness helps me to absorb the joy in every moment. While I am talking to students, I take notice and appreciate their innocence and curiosity. In classrooms, I marvel at the learning experiences teachers are masterfully crafting for our students. My heart sings when I see the genuine bonds between staff members and individual students, especially those students who are often difficult to love. It is pure pleasure when I notice staff finding joy in their respectful roles, seeing the smiles of students as they walk down the hall, and hearing hearty laughter emerge from the staff lounge. Taking in all of these powerful moments helps me store a plethora of positive energy so I can deal with the challenges that come my way. Being mindful helps keep me balanced and at peace.
Here’s to 2019 and savoring every moment of the upcoming year!