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Winter 2016

Being Mindful of Educators' Stress

Being Mindful by Daniel VasconcellosAt the Ed School's Alumni of Color Conference last spring, focused on equity and activism in education, Kirsten Olson, Ed.M.'98, Ed.D.'05, author of The Mindful School Leader, remembers one conference participant saying, "You know how we used to complain about the graduate school 'bubble' and how unreal it was? I want that bubble back!" This participant, an educator in her first "big" job after graduation, was burned out.

As Olson points out, school leaders often experience very high levels of professional stress and pressure. They can feel overwhelmed and don't always take care of themselves. It's not uncommon, she says, to spend 12 to 14 hours a day working or thinking about work.

The question becomes: How do you become an effective leader when your job offers little time for reflection?

One answer, Olson says, is mindfulness — a state of being aware and learning to be calmly focused on the present. When practiced on a regular basis, she says that simple mindfulness practices can help educational leaders slow down racing thoughts and manage that feeling that everything is urgent. Initially, however, the tricky part can be figuring out how to fit mindfulness into an already crazy day. Olson offers educators three simple practices they can try to start:

1. Take three breathing pauses each work day. Schedule them into your phone using an app or have someone remind you. Give yourself 30 seconds to stop, breathe in deeply, notice where you are, and then empty your lungs with a deep exhale.

2. Step outside to look up at the sky once a day. It's simple. "This takes no more than two minutes, and is better than excusing yourself to the bathroom when you need a break," Olson says.

3. During a conversation with someone — student, parent, your most troublesome staff member — stop, pause, and look deeply into his or her eyes. Not with a sense of challenge, of course. Instead, practice something called "mindful listening" that encourages the thinking in your head to stop.


Illustration by Daniel Vasconcellos