Leading Mindfully

Below is an excerpt from my new book Leading Mindfully For Healthy and Successful Schools available here www.routledge.pub/Leading-Mindfully

Chapter One: Leading Mindfully

This chapter will:

  • Make the case for a more mindful form of leadership
  • Set out three principles of leading mindfully
  • Suggest where we might begin to bring this into our practice

The cost of our work

Schools can be frantically busy places and stressful for everyone involved. These are not the optimum conditions for a healthy and successful education. As leaders we care deeply about this. Yet, in trying to make things better we seem to have lost our way. In her foreword to Mary Myatt’s (2020) book Back on Track: Fewer Things, Greater Depth, Clare Sealy sums it up brilliantly.

it’s not even a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees – some schools are so wedded to ticking off items in their i-Spy Book of Educational Improvement that they have forgotten the point of the whole endeavour” (2020).

New and competing agendas bring stress and the threat of burn out, to the already complex art of teaching. According to NFER data, in 2016-17, 9.9 per cent of teachers left the workforce, compared to 9.2 per cent in 2010-11 (Worth, 2018). For secondary schools alone, the figures are even higher, with 10.4 per cent of secondary teachers leaving the workforce in 2016-17. This has become an area of national concern. In 2019 OFSTED undertook a survey of teachers’ well-being across 2,000 schools. In response, teachers cited excessive working hours, more time spent out of the classroom attending to marking and administration, and endless meetings, as significantly affecting their job satisfaction. A recent OECD survey (2019) conducted in 48 countries found that teachers and school leaders in the UK are working longer days than in any other country apart from Japan.

Our system, and many of our schools, are injurious to our health. Howard points to a 2016 study that indicated that 73% of teachers said their workload was having a serious impact on their physical health (2020, p. 40). What we have come to see as the inevitable end of term illness is actually a known psychological phenomenon ‘leisure sickness’ (Ibid). Furthermore, Tom Bennett cites a range of figures from the Union’s Big Question Survey (2018) that found that 11% of teachers had been physically assaulted, 1 in 7 threatened and more than half verbally abused by pupils (Bennett, 2020).

The cost of Leadership

There is particular strain placed on leaders. Beyond the long hours required there is an emotional cost linked to ‘being the boss’ all the time. The effort involved in presenting a particular emotional stance as part of one’s work role is defined as ‘Emotional Labour’. In her landmark study of flight attendants Hochschild (1983) documented the toxic stress that resulted from the requirement on them to act a certain way, as part of their employment. These findings are applicable for school leaders too. Left unchecked, the dissonance between your own feelings and how you must present, can cause all sorts of problems. Suppressing your own needs and physical responses in the name of the greater good, consistency, or just to maintain a professional persona in challenging circumstances, can take a significant toll on one’s physical and mental wellbeing. This is often amplified as we move into leadership.

If we are honest with ourselves, how many of us feel secure in our schools? How able are we to be ourselves? There are so many pressures on us from above and below, it can feel hard to. I know that for many years, through a combination of external pressure and my own baggage, I did not feel at home in myself, in my body, in my school. Palpitations, sweating, dry mouth were my daily experience, and fatigue, muscle pain and illness the accompaniment to my weekends and holidays. Not only was this an unpleasant experience but being wound up that tightly meant I did not do my best work.

The already difficult context that schools operate in has been exacerbated by the isolation, fear, economic impacts, shifting goal posts and endless marking that the pandemic has brought. Recent research by the Anna Freud Centre indicates that many young people, already struggling pre-lockdown at what is described as the ‘sub-clinical range’, have moved up into the clinical range (Fonagy, 2021). Our staff are suffering too, with recent Teacher Tapp data indicating that anxiety rates are high amongst staff with Head Teachers consistently reporting the highest levels of anxiety (2021).

Survival Mode

As school leaders it can often feel we are too busy being reactive to stop and do the strategic work.

As a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENDCo) I knew that the thing that would make the biggest difference to the life chances of young people with SEND was improving quality first teaching. However, I was too often caught up battling for high needs provision timetabling or just fighting fires when dysregulated student invariably got removed from a lesson and needed an adult to calm them down.

As a Safeguarding lead, I knew the key to ensuring young people were safe was to make their school experience constant, predicable and ensuring there were good systems in place for effective joined up working. However, so much of my day was spent reacting to urgent safeguarding alerts and disclosures that I would rarely have the time, energy, or brain capacity to do the big picture work.

The quality of our interactions also suffers when we are exhausted. If pushed for time we do not always give our colleagues or students, the attention, or the empathetic responses they need. Our brains, and therefore our practice, goes into survival mode (the neuroscience of which will be explored further in Chapter Two).

This can change but the paradox is that we get there by doing less. There is a zen proverb that says, “you should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” Whilst, I have promised this is not a book about meditation, the sentiment stands, taking time to breathe and zoom out pays dividends.

An invitation to do things differently

It does not have to be this way. As we move into a post-Covid world, there is more to do than ever before to ‘Catch up’ and get back to some form of normality. Yet, in creating this ‘new normal’, there is an opportunity, an invitation to do things differently, more mindfully. The pandemic has shone sharp light on how fragile and interconnected we all are. It has forced us to confront what really matters: health; kindness; community. It has revealed the necessity of teachers standing in front of students, sharing their knowledge of their subjects and drawing on their knowledge of their students. None of this can be supplemented by screens, you cannot just ‘google it’. The value of the human connection with teachers and students is priceless, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

There is a lot to do to make our schools safe havens in which learning flourishes. We need to get Back on Track and remember, as Sealy says, “the point of the whole endeavour”. Yet, our initiatives to address this often make things worse. In reaction, we slip into our default mode of doing more- another audit or checklist, a mandatory wellbeing event- to try and fix the problem. A culture of overwork, quick fixes and putting our humanity aside quickly sours good intentions. Furthermore, when we are stressed, at least over time, we do not see as clearly as we might and nor are we able to relate as well to others.

This is where a mindful approach to leadership comes into play. We need to find a way to support everyone’s wellbeing that is sustainable and gets the job done. And it starts with us. If we are burnt out or our decision making is led by fear, this comes at the detriment of those we lead and serve. It is our challenge as leaders, amongst the pressure, to carve out the space to stop. To look at things as they really are, in all their messy complexity.

We cannot do this by following the same old pattens that leave us exhausted and scared. Curiousness, clear-headedness, and space are required for learning to happen. As Myatt says “the likelihood is we will not be prepared to enter this space [of deep learning] if we are concerned about our image, how we come across, about what other people think of us. We have to put those factors to one side and accept that the pursuit of clarity requires us to let go of some of our preconceptions” (Myatt, 2020, p. 352).

Courageous Leadership

If we can find a way to let go of notions of perfection and the fear of what others think of us, accepting instead that we are always learning, we are able to more truthfully appraise how things are. Then we can begin to ask the questions that lead to real change. For example, the less concerned we are with our own performance in the classroom, the more able we are to listen and take on board others’ feedback. Or if we were to approach that scary audit that must be completed each year, as a tool to genuinely support us to know how to improve. If this could something more a task to be ticked off to prove our compliance, not only would we feel less stressed, but there would be more space to move the schools we lead forward.

This requires recognition of our humanness, that progress is not linear and that we all need time and space to embed new learning, as well as intelligent systems that serve people not processes. Thus, at regular intervals, mindful leaders pause, and reflect. From here they can clearly see what the priorities should be and what can be streamlined. Then they make space for others to do the same.

<Figure 1.1 here>

Finding clarity

Getting clear on where to spend one’s limited time and energy is both a cause and effect of mindfulness. Drawing on the work of Mary Myatt (2016, 2020) and Jamie Thom (2018), as well as a number of clear-headed leaders, whom I have had the honour of working with, I will discuss the role that streamlining and minimalism can play our wider school culture and in our classrooms in sections two and three.

Once we strip things back, we can see what drains us. This is usually lack of purpose and connection. What clears and energises us is feeling supported and like you are achieving something.

Letting go of the myth of multitasking is also key. In doing this you are able be present in what you are doing that moment. Surprisingly for some of us who believe we were being efficient by doing lots of things at once, rejecting multi-tasking can transform your concentration and your relationships.

As with the structure of this book, this must begin with your own practice. To begin with we must be the change we want to see, bringing the calm, the purpose and providing the opportunities for reflection. We must shield our schools from the things that do not matter, and which can distort practice; endless bureaucracy and unhelpful fear, generated through high stakes accountability.

This starts with how we use our time, organise our space and speak to ourselves. Then this way of working can be extended to our whole school priorities, the teams we manage, our classroom, and the way that our schools relate to their communities. Mindful leadership is a democratising and iterative practice. As it builds over time it creates more space and brings more people in. But it starts at the top, with us.

Three Principles

There are three key principles that broadly underpin a mindful approach to leadership. These are meeting your own emotional needs first, going beyond binary thinking and leading without ego. If they sound a little abstract, please persevere. They are rooted in both science and the experience of wise and successful leaders. 

  1. Begin with your own emotional needs

The notion of leading yourself is the first principle of leading mindfully. The Buddhist tradition has long understood what science is now empirically proving; we are interconnected. Therefore, the wellbeing of young people and the wellbeing of the adults supporting them are integrated. As Sergiovanni states ‘teachers are best able to serve students when they themselves are adequately served’ (2005, p. 101). When we are healthy, in mind and body, we are better placed to enrich others. And crucially, when our work is successful it is enriching for us, as well as those we lead.

For some of us who are so burnt out, the notion that we could love our work, feel we have purpose and yet not be exhausted at the end of the day might seem alien. However, it is possible. As Parker J. Palmer puts it “in a culture that sometimes equates work with suffering, it is revolutionary to suggest that the best inward sign of vocation is deep gladness—revolutionary but true” (Palmer, 2017, p. 31). Finding joy in our work will benefit us and our students. Yet it is not easy to do if we are caught in the endless hamster wheel, that schools too often can be.

For many the notion of ‘self-care’ conjures up images of spa days and it is perhaps hard to see its immediate impact on the day-to-day reality of our schools. However, slowing down and taking time for oneself has a strong grounding in science. Inter-personal Neurobiology is a multi-disciplinary field, that draws on neuroscience, biology, psychology and psychotherapy as well as wisdom traditions from around the world, including Buddhism. This emerging discipline is illuminating the ways in which the embodied brain and our relationships interact to shape our mental lives (Siegal 2012). Studies have shown (Porges, 2017; Siegal, 2012), that our emotional and physiological state has a direct impact on those around us. Through our affective signals: our body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, we physically regulate (or dysregulate) the psychological and physiological state of those around us (Porges, 2017). This has roots in an infant’s absolute dependence on its care giver. We have evolved to be deeply and biologically interconnected to those around us (Siegal, 2012). Mirror neurones fire when an animal acts and when it observes the same action performed by another (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Transposed into the school environment, this wiring means that, if we come to the classroom or a staff meeting in a calm state, we physically create a sense of felt security in others; if we are dysregulated then others feel that too.

  1. Beyond binary thinking

In a Post Trump and Brexit, social media fuelled world, complex issues are too often set up as binary choices. The discourse quickly becomes polarised on both sides. Education is no exception, dividing along tired ‘Trad’ or ‘Prog’ lines. The reality is of course far messier and more complex. For example, structures are key to autonomy and boundaries are essential for healthy relationships. Furthermore, you can have the most thorough, evidence-based system but if it is not implemented with love, if people do not feel valued then it is doomed to fail. Crucially though, our values are brought to life in a framework of skills and knowledge, that enable us to follow through on our lofty intentions (Waterman, 2020). If we are going to be successful long-term then we have to engage with these paradoxes. This is the second principle of leading mindfully.

These false dichotomies have their roots in a much deeper intellectual split between reason and emotion, that suggests that relationships and feelings do not influence cognition. This could not be further from the truth. Neville illustrates how emotions play a significant part in learning and brain development, shaping “both what students see and hear and the ways they process it” (Neville, 2013). Our felt sense of security has very real consequences for our capacity to think clearly and creatively. At a most basic level, if we are hyper-vigilant our energy is diverted, as we scan for threat instead of being present. As such, our working memory will not have space to process the task in hand. Furthermore, severe stress can inhibit the formation of new memories, leading to a less developed schema (mental models of information). This, in turn, places more stress on the working memory as new information cannot so easily be assimilated into existing frameworks.

This is also why knowing what to do is not always enough. When it comes to making change, whether in our personal or professional lives, we also must be in the right space emotionally, and in our bodies, to be able to see it through. We must have what is referred to as a ‘felt sense of security’. Knowing this can help us understand why, despite being given a clear rationale for change, some colleagues or students may stick doggedly to old ways. It also reminds us to attend to culture and our own sense of felt security. Some leaders seem to have an ineffable ability to absorb stress, remain in their integrity and make clear headed decisions even in adversity. I suggest that this is not actually ineffable at all, but neither is it entirely a result of rational thinking. When we start to consider the role of the body and sense of safety in the workings of the mind it can be illuminating.

As yet, these conversations have not worked themselves into the mainstream educational discourse. In recent years there has been an explosion in educators’ understanding of cognitive science, which has had a direct impact of curriculum planning and classroom practice. I believe we need a similar revolution in terms of understanding the role of emotions, relationships and felt security in learning. If, as an educational community we can harness knowledge of how the brain and body functions, what happens to it under stress and how it can be modified (what is referred to as Neuroplasticity) we can use this to improve both learning and relationships. If we are to take the definition of Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s (2006, p. 75) that is popular with cognitive scientists that, “Learning is a change in long-term memory” then we must also attend to the role of feelings, and particularly feeling safe can play in the learning process. Taking time to rest and reflect is good for you, good for your students and the teams you lead. And not just in terms of their wellbeing, it will actually help them learn more.

The discipline of Interpersonal Neurobiology helps us to do this by explaining why it is that we can know something cognitively, yet under stress this reasoning can become compromised. That is how, despite best intentions, we often fall back into old patterns, as well as the ways in which we physically pass on stress to those surrounding us. This next chapter aims to explore the learnings from attachment theory and polyvagal theory to explain, not only how we function under stress, but how we can rewire and reconfigure our responses. It seeks to makes explicit some of what mindful leaders do implicitly, not just in their schools but also in themselves, and how this allows them to become clearer, more ‘in the now’ or more mindful. In doing so it provides a roadmap for teacher- leaders to, not only support their own wellbeing, but be more flexible and creative in response to others. 

  1. Leading without Ego

Mindful leaders can set their ego aside and be the adult in the room. This is the third principle of Leading Mindfully.

What I mean by ego in the context of this book, is the protective and self-serving part of our selves that particularly emerges when we are under stress. Where there is fear generated by external pressure, the ego fires up. It is much easier to be liked (be that by staff, students or Ofsted) but mindful leaders do what is in the best interests of their schools even when that means being temporarily unpopular.

Stepping away from a place of certainty can be scary. It often feels simpler and safer to resort to binary positions. Tragically, it can sometimes even feel like a choice between getting the job done and one’s values. However, this is dangerous. When we move away from a focus on the children and their learning, towards performance for an external audience, whether that be Ofsted, Ofqual, league tables or social media, we do damage. Not only to those young people that we are there to serve but also to ourselves. This is because our sense of meaning as teachers is deeply concept to our authenticity. If we try and ‘game’ the system, evidencing progress at the expense of real learning, it sucks the purpose out of our difficult and emotionally challenging job.

A mindful approach seeks reorient us, away from a performance and towards the things that really matter. In this way, as Mary Myatt, says our values are “lived, not laminated” (2007). That means, we walk the walk, day in day out. Even when it is unfashionable or exhausting. Not for approval or for Ofsted, or Twitter or because we fear reprisals from parents but because it is the right thing to do.

This is not easy. Implementing and maintaining a culture that ensures that school is a secure base for all can be testing. Children (and adults) will not always like the rules, nor see the immediate benefit of them. To consistently be the adult like this can be a challenge, to do so under stress even more so. We must have big arms and broad shoulders, much like a parent.

In fact, Popper et al’s research (2003) demonstrates, leadership has many similarities to good parenting. They both require loving attunement to another’s needs and clearly held boundaries. Not one or the other. Another paradox. The corollary of this is that understanding parenting and attachment styles can help us in our work. The attachment aware leader can recognise the defences that the ego puts up and hold them safely. By doing this, everyone- including themselves- can stay aligned with their purpose.

They do not get there without being reflective. Secure leaders have their ear to the ground and are prepared to change if things if they are not working. This requires the strength to trust, to be okay with not controlling or knowing everything, the strength to hold others to account and the discernment to know which is needed.

This is not always easy. The nature of being this kind of leader means you are vulnerable. What is more we all carry the baggage of being human. This includes our own experiences of being parented. Whilst we might never avoid our egos all together, and it is not the intention of this book to suggest that we should, self-awareness matters. Without it, in these vulnerable and stressful situations we can inadvertently end up triggering others’ trauma, as well as our own. To understand ourselves as leaders we must attend to our relationship with authority, as our ego is fundamentally shaped by this. This is what I will refer to in the next chapter as the Imprint of Authority.

We shall see that in doing that, another paradox emerges. That is that to truly be able to set our ego aside we must first attend to its needs. Our defences often emerge as helpful survival responses to challenging situations. However, when we are no longer in those situations, and they solidify over time into our personality or leadership approach, then they can become maladaptive. For example, if because of prior experiences, our sense of safety comes from being in control, we may go into ‘fight mode’ and slip into authoritarianism under stress. On the other hand, if our safety results from pleasing or pacifying others, we may try to bargain with or befriend those we lead. Furthermore, own fear response to a colleague or young person’s anger may trigger a ‘freeze’, leading to a form of shut down which might be protective but is not constructive in a leadership role.

If we can work with these, perfectly natural responses to stress, rather than against them we find the keys to a healthier and more empathetic way of working. The next chapter will suggest some tools to support you to develop your self-attunement. This a form of self- parenting, that includes awareness of our own attachment and authority styles and the ways in which we inhabit these in our bodies and behaviours. Attuning to oneself in this way then leads to greater attunement and emotional availability in our interpersonal interactions (Siegal, 2012).

Where to begin

It starts with slowing down. Noticing your breath and your body. ‘Notice that.’ will be a recurring suggestion in the book. Paradoxically (once again) through listening to our bodies and feelings, rather than overriding them, allows us not to be ruled by them.

Often our stress responses are pre-conscious. We might not be rationally aware of them. However, if we tune in: tension; pain and fear can be indications that something is wrong or needs to change. As Dan Siegal explains “when we pull away from pain, we actually make it worse. Moving towards a challenging feeling or situation helps us stay present” (Siegal, 2012, p. 286). By exploring them and giving permission to what is difficult, we can release tension and find ways of being that are more aligned or as Siegal describes it “integrated”.

What starts with the body can then be extended to other aspects of life. If we can engage with what is difficult- a challenging conversation with a colleague, the fear at the heart of a safeguarding case- rather than resisting it, we can ease the suffering just a little. What Kevin Hawkin’s explains in the following formula: Suffering= Pain X Resistance (Hawkins, 2017). By finding a way to avoid our fearful or avoidant strategies from being activated and by sitting with what is difficult, what Dan Siegal describes as “expanding the window of tolerance” we are able to help bring resolution to painful non-integrated processes in our lives (ibid) and in turn be more open for and to others.

Mindfulness practice

Whilst, I have been clear from the outset this is not a book about meditation, I think it is helpful to include a note on mindfulness practice at this point. Any leadership practice will be enriched by it. Research has shown mindfulness-based programs to be beneficial for adults’ psychological health (Bassam Khoury et. al, 2013), ability to manage stress (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009) attention and emotional balance (Sedlmeier et al, 2012). Many mindfulness-based programs that have been developed specifically for teachers. Such programs aim to support teachers in developing “habits of mind” (Roeser et. al, 2012, p. 167) so that they can create learning environments that are emotionally supportive, whilst also maintaining their own well-being and motivation for teaching.

When we train in mindfulness, we train ourselves to encounter the present moment. Much of this is focused on the body. Western, dualistic thinking likes to consider the mind separate to the body. (Feldman Barrett, 2021). However, many Eastern traditions, including Buddhism recognise what Interpersonal Neurobiology is now proving empirically, that they are fundamentally interconnected. By consciously cultivating the connections between the mind and body, we can find greater balance in our everyday lives. For example, slowing our breathing makes us feel calmer or feeling our feet on the floor helps us feel strong and supported. This is a rich resource for changing things, first of all for ourselves and then for others.

It is easy to say that there is no time for such practices, but as we shall explore taking time to pause and reflect always pays dividends in terms of how we feel in ourselves, how we relate to others and our decision-making capacity. It does not have to be something long and daunting, but having some time built in the beginning and the end of the day to sit and sense, rather than think, to be rather than do. The practice below is so simple and can be done anywhere: at your desk; on your commute; even in your classroom.

Short meditation to support yourself:

  • Find a comfortable seat
  • Sit up tall, use as many cushions or props to support you as you need and drop your shoulders
  • Put your hands in a comfortable place- try one hand on your chest and one on your belly or leave them both resting on your knees
  • Notice your breath, you do not need to force it, just watch it
  • Your mind will wander, that is okay, just return to your breath
  • Remind yourself that in this moment there is nothing to do and no one to be
  • Return to your breath
  • That is all

Overtime this practice can allow you to develop a rich reservoir of calm and support which you can draw from when things get difficult. As they inevitably will if you are a leader. When, we ‘get our own house in order’ and are well resourced ourselves we can really jump into our work in the way so many of us long to. Freed from our own ego’s fear and need to be approved of, we can be clear headed enough to really prioritise what matters for those we serve. Then we are finally able to be the adult in the room.

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