A Mindful Principal Is a Meditating Principal

Don’t let the fog of your life get in the way of making clear, purposeful decisions.

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By Josh Way
May 2020, Volume 43, Issue 9

As leaders of schools, how often do we project our own internal struggles and strife onto the daily occurrences of our schools? How often do we let the fog of our own lives get in the way of making clear, purposeful, and rational decisions? Our behaviors and actions have a lasting impact on our learning community even after we’re gone. A daily meditation practice can be an effective tool to help us see the world as it is by listening to our internal dialogue so we can approach our work with skill and clarity.

The Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation

Most people think of meditation and mindfulness as simply sitting on a pillow, relaxing, and clearing one’s mind, but these beliefs fall short. As more and more mindfulness programs gain popularity in schools and organizations these two terms are used interchangeably, often creating confusion.

Meditation is the intentional practice of placing your attention on a breath, mantra, phrase, or object, instead of on your normal discursive thoughts. Mindfulness is slightly more abstract. It’s the awareness that comes from intentionally and without judgment paying attention to the present moment. For the sake of simplicity, the general distinction between the two is that meditation is the act or practice and mindfulness is the outcome that emerges from meditation and other practices.

Mindfulness-based practices, like meditation, are becoming ever more popular in schools because of the positive impact they have on student academic improvement and social-emotional learning. In her 2019 review of the most current research on contemplative practices in schools, Katherine Weare highlights the positive impact mindfulness and meditation have on the mental and physical health of both students and educators. The research showed mindfulness instruction for students is most effective when personnel within the institution—like faculty or staff—provide instruction, rather than someone who’s not part of the immediate school community.

Why Meditation is Necessary for School Leaders

The daily tasks for most administrators are inherently complex, demand hyper focus, and occur at break-neck speeds, and many school leaders struggle with turning it off when they eventually leave campus. However, a consistent practice of meditation can provide the stillness leaders need to discern wayward thoughts, fears, and biases from reality.

A common belief among school leaders is “if I’m not panting in exhaustion by the end of the day, I didn’t do anything and people will notice.” Yet, this approach can actually have a damaging impact on the quality of work and the intrinsic value leaders place on the work of leading schools. Not only is this view unhealthy, but it’s also unsustainable.

In 1999, the educational researcher Kathryn Whitacker described the role of the school principal as having overwhelming responsibilities, information perplexity, and emotional anxiety. These characteristics have led to growing concern over administrator burnout—which is causing many administrators to leave the position.

Mindfulness Practice and the Workplace

Self-care among educators is an important emerging movement. Many educators are finding ways to bring fulfillment through mindful experiences, yet most exist outside of work, on the weekend, or at a retreat. There is a common belief that educators need to compartmentalize life by leaving work at work and leaving home at home. However, the workplace has so much potential for personal growth.

Most principals know that when staff struggles with work, a simple question about their home life unfolds a similar story that they’re seeing at work. Leaders are not immune from this, and, in some cases, they’re more vulnerable. Daily occurrences of being accused by parents of not caring about the disability of their child or a teacher blaming the principal for the uptick in student misbehavior can take a toll on the self-meaning of school leaders. Without the ability of discerning reality from perception, it can be easy to believe these comments and eventually begin expecting them. This is why having a consistent and regular meditation practice, where one can simply observe distracting and discursive thoughts without getting swept up by them, provides a daily experience, albeit short, in finding clarity.

How to Begin

So how can school leaders start to incorporate a consistent meditation practice into their own personal and professional lives? It begins with finding a practice that fits each person’s comfort level.

There is a common misconception that meditation is a religious practice only used by practitioners of Eastern religions like Buddhism, but that’s not true. The practice of meditation can be a wholly secular experience, similar to yoga. It’s become easier to find secular meditation teachers with a simple web search. Also, apps offer free guided meditations led by experienced teachers. Start small and be consistent. A daily meditation practice offers a glimpse into non-judgmental awareness that exists in all of us by noticing the thoughts and emotions that naturally arise, letting them go, and returning to the object of focus (like a breath or mantra). It is this constant practice that builds our capacity to bring this awareness into our workplace.

Most resources recommend a broad offering of mindfulness practices, such as mindful eating, reflective journals, or walks. These mindfulness practices alone will not cultivate the transformational stillness, awareness, and clarity that a consistent daily meditation practice can. A daily practice will create a foundation of mindful-awareness that, over time, will integrate into our daily lives.

Josh Way is a middle school principal in San Diego Unified School District and a certified meditation instructor.


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