“True happiness comes from bringing all your attention to whatever you are doing right now.” -Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is happening around us. We are a mindfulness district, which means that all of our teachers have been trained in the practices and teach mindfulness lessons to learners through either the classroom teacher or the school counselor. Our goal is always to be sure our learners have a wide variety of tools to use to regulate their emotions and learn how to be fully present. Many of our teachers use a mindful minute to center the energy in the room before they begin a lesson or an activity. They have access to tools like breathing balls and chimes to use in classrooms. In addition, many of our elementary classrooms have Peace Corners. It is a space within the classroom filled with mindfulness and sensory tools with QR codes to short videos that teach how to use each tool so that learners can independently take a break as they need one. Many of our learners are now able to go to the Peace Corner, self-regulate, and return to class activities very quickly. It sends the message to them that we all need a break sometimes, and it is okay to take one when you need it to get recentered and ready to learn or collaborate with others.
We offered mindfulness retreats to our teachers last year on a few Saturdays to help them learn self-care strategies and often use mindfulness tools to start staff meetings. We always want to be modeling with adults what we want for learners in classrooms. We try hard to have our leaders in our schools with our teachers and learners as often as possible, so we only meet as a whole team (Principals, Assistant Principals, District leaders, and instructional coaches) once a month for about two hours during the school year. We used to try and cram as much information into those meetings as possible, jumping from one topic to the next each month. This year, we are trying to model iteration and reflection, so we switched the meetings to be an opening with some new learning, usually from learners or teachers talking to us about their experience in our schools. We spend the rest of the time in collaborative groups reviewing the professional development plans that are embedded in our school improvement plans to make sure we are continually reflecting on what support our teachers and learners may need. The teams add elements to the plans based on ideas from other leaders or from the time we use to reflect on their new learning.
Frequently, our leaders are running out of the meetings at the end as they need to get back and do lunch duty or have teacher and parent meetings. Schools are really, really busy places, and often the leader needs to be reminded to take time out of that busy day to connect to people and make time to be truly present with them. We ask our teachers to use their time to foster relationships with learners and create classrooms that are authentic communities. As the leader, do we do that enough with staff? I am working on putting down the laptop or the phone when someone comes to talk to me so I can give them my full attention, but it is a work in progress for me. We are all always trying to do so many things at once; we sometimes forget to be mindful of the interaction that is right in front of us. It may be the moment when a colleague, friend, family members, or learner needed to connect, and our distractions may have us missing those crucial moments. It takes practice and reminders for me to be sure I’m staying in the moment and not too quick to move on to the next thing or check my latest notification on my phone or computer.
We recently had the opportunity to participate in the first session of a new leadership series from Youth Frontiers called Geometry of a Leader. Our principals, assistant principals, and some district leaders came together to learn, listen, and practice being present with one another. We spent time reflecting on how we could be more present with all the people in our lives, including our staff and learners. It was a very powerful few hours of practicing our listening skills with one another and listening to some beautiful live music from one of their staff musicians. We took the time to be connected to one another and made commitments to what we will take back to our schools. We talked about mindfulness, its importance in leadership, and left with four keys to presence:
- Turn your body towards the person.
- Make and keep good eye contact.
- Listen to understand.
- Give the person your full attention.
To some people, it may sound silly that we need reminders to do these things when engaging with someone, but I certainly do. “Do you have a minute?” is something I get asked many, many times each day. I am not 100% sure how everyone else defines a minute as often I am needed for much longer than that, but my new commitment to others is to say no when I really don’t have the time with a promise to follow-up when I do. It is when I try to squeeze in the time for someone when I am in the middle of something else that I am the least present. I need to be mindful of that all the time.
Many of our leaders have sent feedback on how much they enjoyed the retreat, how they have started to use the four keys, and the impact that is having on their relationships with staff. Principals need time to learn and reflect just like everyone else. We are excited to see how the next two retreats on humility and courage influence our leaders and help them grow their skills. Presence, humility, and courage are such vital skills in leadership that help us to focus on who we are as well as what we do.
“If we don’t take the time to be human with each other, our humanity will fade away.” Our retreat leader repeated that phrase several times, and it stuck with me. Human connection is so essential in the work we do in schools. We know it should drive everything that happens in classrooms, but we also need to be sure it drives how we lead and what we model each day.