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PPE Institute Focuses on Mindfulness

Being an educator today can often be stressful. For the 54 education leaders who attended Inner Strengths of Successful Leaders -- a new interactive workshop offered by Programs in Professional Education (PPE) on the growing practices of mindful leadership -- it was time to find new ways to manage the daily challenges of the job.

“Education leadership is a pressure-cooker job,” says Professor Jerome Murphy, who cochaired the workshop. “In these tough times, mindfulness helps leaders handle their stress and strain without losing their cool and clarity. They can learn to notice their stuff instead of getting hijacked by it. That’s what this workshop was all about.”

About a year ago, Murphy, along with cochair Metta McGarvey, Ed.D.’10, pitched the idea of a workshop on mindfulness to PPE. “For the last six years, Metta and I have been quietly integrating mindfulness into the teaching of leadership, believing that education transformation begins with leaders who first transform themselves,” Murphy says. “We thought it was time to bring our mindful leadership approach to a wider professional audience.”

A brief research survey garnered positive responses from educators, says PPE’s Senior Director of Higher Education Programs Joseph Zolner, thus the workshop was developed. Inner Strengths of Successful Leaders is a departure from more traditional PPE programs that typically focus on improvements at a district level.

“Given the inward focus of the program, I was uncertain if there would be an audience for this kind of leadership development, particularly during these tight economic times when school districts, colleges, and universities are all looking very carefully at every dime they spend,” Zolner says.  The response, however, was strong and enthusiastic.  ”We easily filled the program and had several others on a waiting list.”

“Our experience with this program suggests there is a growing cadre of education leaders who appreciate the value of investing in their own personal awareness and professional growth,” says Zolner.  “This group of leaders understands that finding ways to manage the personal stresses and strains of leadership is just as important and beneficial to their effectiveness as crafting a thoughtful strategic plan that’s grounded in organizational needs.”

Mindfulness isn’t always an innate quality for leaders. Over the three-day workshop, participants learned techniques to develop qualities of mind that are critical in effective leadership such as clarity and composure. “Our workshop introduced a set of techniques that leaders can use to optimize their performance in situations of high stress and multiple demands,” McGarvey says.

Participants – who were given HGSE yoga mats when they arrived to the program – began their days with mindfulness practice, which often included a form of meditation. Then, as they moved through the day, participants had opportunities to build skills like concentration, self-awareness of unhelpful patterns of reaction, and self-compassion.

McGarvey contended that responding to stressful situations in a different way requires training. “Just as successful professional athletes have a physical training regime, we help leaders enhance their effectiveness by reducing stress and learning how to stay calm and clear in the center of a storm through mental training based on mindfulness practices,” she says. “In addition to learning new skills, we designed the workshop to help them further develop the inner strengths they already possess, enhance their ability to listen deeply and communicate effectively, and develop insights that can be applied in a wide range of situations and challenges.”

For Ridie Ghezzi, head of research and instructional services at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library, the PPE institute wasn’t her first exposure to the practice of mindfulness. As a manager to 10 fellow research librarians, Ghezzi admits that it can often be difficult to respond in a calm and productive manner on the job, so she has been practicing mindfulness on her own. She decided to attend the workshop as a chance to build on her skills. By the last day of the workshop, Ghezzi knew what she learned would make a different in her response as a manager, but also with the students at the library as well.

Miracle Educational Systems Superintendent Stevie Roberts signed up for the workshop without knowing anything about mindfulness. “At first I thought this was spiritual and I wondered what I was getting into,” he says. “I’ve attended a lot of institutes that are theory-based and you get a lot of tools, but none like this. This will live on forever for me. It’s like an Oprah Winfrey moment.”

The Houston administrator says that his school works with troubled youth, who often suffer from emotional and behavioral issues, and the workshop has offered so many helpful alternatives. In fact, Roberts plans to bring the practice of mindfulness to his school. “My school will be redefined as a result of this…and I’m starting now,” he says.