Leading schools has always been a stressful profession. Educational administration is by its very nature a challenging vocation that requires one to balance the needs of various stakeholders (e.g., students, educators, legislation, finances) in an equitable and innovative manner in response to ever growing demands for accountability (Klocko & Wells, 2015). The result may be the rise of a culture of stress (Queen & Queen, 2005) that promotes fatigue, turnover, and burnout. The situation is further exacerbated by the technological trappings of 21st-century leadership with its constant barrage of information from smart phones, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle. The school administrator consequently may have little room to psychologically breathe during the typical work day.
Such a state of affairs is important for at least two reasons. First, ongoing and unremitting stress can negatively affect physical and psychological health. It wears down the body and clouds the mind. Second, stress has the potential to interfere with one’s ability to make sound decisions. It can prohibit educational administrators from seeing the big picture during times of challenge. The outcome is that those who are faced daily with unscripted problems large and small may be at risk of making compromised decisions with far-reaching implications for the students, staff, and communities they serve.
The prime directive of a school administrator is to deliver sound decisions amidst a sea of information. Yet, making decisions that have real consequences for students and staff can prove stressful. It is all too easy for the stressed school administrator to lapse into a habit of decision-making that offers expedience at the cost of long-term positive change. Such situations exemplify how stress can overwhelm higher-order thinking and result in impulsive decision-making.
We are all familiar with impulsive thinking. Processed in the more primitive parts of the brain, it is characterized by a tendency to react to events in the moment (e.g., abruptly ending a heated meeting) in order to mitigate immediate discomfort. Alternatively, reflective thinking is processed by the frontal lobes, the highly advanced areas of the brain that make us most human. Reflective thinking serves as the seat of decision-making so necessary to function as an effective change leader. It is characterized by an awareness of long-term outcomes and an ability to balance competing information (e.g., inviting a problematic stakeholder to comment on a project so as to solicit eventual support). The reflective system thus offers a more nuanced stance from which to make decisions. Importantly, it can be strengthened through the meditative practice of attention and relaxation.
Training in attention offers school administrators an opportunity to take a more deliberate, reflective stance so necessary to leadership. Strengthening the ability to slow one’s thoughts and focus in the moment forms the core of attentional training. The goal is not to eliminate all extraneous thoughts, but instead to turn down the background chatter driven by anxiety or a hectic schedule. However, only learning to be mindful will likely prove insufficient. Focused attention must be coupled with a state of relative relaxation for maximum benefit to leadership.
Relaxation training bolsters the ability to calm one’s thoughts. In so doing, it promotes a greater sense of well-being for the school administrator that may also translate into an improved organizational climate. Research has begun to clarify what educators have known for decades; the climate set by a school administrator has a direct effect on the development of students (Berson & Oreg, 2016). This practice of attention plus relaxation promotes an improved ability to make decisions.
Putting these skills into practice can be as simple as making a habit to set aside the first few minutes of each morning to prepare for the day’s events. Some individuals may find it better to practice at home, whereas others may find the office more conducive to practice. Regardless, the goal is to build resilience in both attention (e.g., remaining focused) and relaxation (e.g., keeping calm) to produce more informed and effective decisions. What follows is a brief set of instructions to begin your own practice. Consider recording yourself while reading them aloud.
Instructions for Meditation
Allow your eyes to close, and take in a deep breath through your nose. Slowly exhale through your mouth. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. Just allow yourself to relax, from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Perhaps you already notice how your eyelids are becoming heavier. Just allow yourself to relax. Thoughts are going to come and go, and that’s just fine. Imagine your mind as a whiteboard, and with a large eraser quite literally erase any thoughts. Ignore all sounds. Instead, allow any noises to enhance your feelings of worth and well-being as you allow yourself to become more deeply, deeply relaxed.
Now, with your eyes still closed, imagine next to you is a golden beam of healing energy coming down from above. Step into that golden beam of energy, allowing it to come down over you as it moves from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Allow that golden beam of healing energy to relax the top of your head. Notice it becoming warmer and heavier. Allow that golden beam of healing energy to move down and relax your forehead, down over your heavy eyelids, nose, mouth, and jaw. Allow that golden beam to relax one side of your head, and now down the other side of your head. Allow it to move down and relax the back of your head. Now, allow that golden beam of healing energy to relax your neck. Just allow those muscles to release. Allow that golden beam of healing energy to relax one shoulder and shoulder blade, down through that arm and hand and warm fingers. Allow that golden beam of healing energy to relax the other shoulder and shoulder blade, down through that arm and hand and warm fingers. Allow that golden beam of healing energy to relax the chest, down through the abdomen. Feel that golden beam of healing energy moving down the length of your back, from the base of the neck down to the tip of the tailbone. Let it relax the hips, down through one leg and foot and warm toes. Allow it to move down through the other leg and foot and warm toes. Within that golden beam of healing energy, allow yourself to relax, from the top of the head down to the tips of the toes.
Now, count up from 1 to 5 as you return to full awareness. One. Imagine yourself stepping out of that golden beam of healing energy, knowing you can return at any time simply by closing your eyes and exhaling. Two. Continue with a sense of improved attention and deepened relaxation as you return back to the room. Three. Return back to the room ready to face the day reflectively and ready for change. Four. Become increasingly aware of your surroundings as your eyelids become lighter and lighter. Five. Now, allow your eyelids to open and return to full waking consciousness.
Practicing for Change
Meditative practice offers a brief, no-cost avenue to improve educational leadership. Becoming a more meditative school administrator takes little time or effort, with practice as simple as the steps outlined above. The resulting development of improved attention and relaxation skills can quiet our tendency to respond impulsively to events and foster a habit of making better decisions for positive change. By creating the internal space to stop and think, we can become more attuned to the daily realities before us. The result may be schools and systems that prove more compassionate and inclusive for all students. •
Berson, Y., & Oreg, S. (2016). The role of school principals in shaping children’s values.
Psychological Science, 27(12), 1539-1549.
Klocko, B. A., & Wells, C. M. (2015). Workload pressures of principals: A focus on renewal, support, and mindfulness. NASSP Bulletin, 99(4), 332-355.
Queen, J. A., & Queen, P. (2005). The frazzled principle’s wellness plan: Reclaiming time, managing stress, and creating a healthy lifestyle. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Jason A. Kaufman, Department of Educational Leadership, Minnesota State University, 7700 France Avenue, Suite 360, Edina, MN 55435. Phone: 952-818-8877. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org