This article is for school leadership teams and leaders in educational organizations who know the answer to the question “Is your school’s mindfulness initiative working?” is a straight up “no.” Or in Dr Dweck’s Growth Mindset language, “not yet.”
SOME QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
We all need to reconnect with our why and course correct sometimes. The same is true for school cultures. If you aren’t yet seeing the results that you were hoping for, maybe they fizzled out after the initial enthusiasm or when getting back to the normal school day, these four points of reflection may help you understand why.
Reflect on the link to the school mission and core values, sources of stress within the school system or organization, school culture, staff well-being.
As a school, why do we even have a school mission or set of core values? What is it that makes us, as a school, as an organization, or as individuals, need mindfulness practices in our lives? And does the answer to this question align with the first? Does this need arise from something that we’re doing, or a disconnect between our sense of self and our organization’s declared purpose? Why do we need to be mindful? What’s the purpose of it?
Reflect on the degree to which staff are already embodying mindfulness right now, ways we can encourage staff to find a self-care strategy that works for them, and ways to identify staff with authentic enthusiasm for mindful teaching and learning when hiring new staff.
Do we help staff to improve their emotional self-care before starting a dialogue around introducing mindfulness into the classroom? Do mindfulness school initiatives work without compassion? Is a one or two day INSET training the best way to train staff in mindfulness? Is it fair to ask staff to teach mindfulness if they haven’t yet embodied the principles of mindfulness in their own way of working and living? What models of mindfulness training are available? Should we focus more on an opt-in model? How can we encourage/allow/expect our team to find a self-care strategy that works for them?
Reflect on the factors affecting teacher buy-in, encouraging grassroots teacher well-being initiatives.
Do they believe this actually helps student wellbeing? What do we do with the members of staff who are not interested? How do we value our relationships with people who are not necessarily buying into mindful action or compassionate action? What kind of space are we creating on our teams for those who don't buy-in? How can we support the members of staff who are leading the way in implementing mindfulness effectively with students?
Reflect on the alignment between words and actions, leading through compassionate mindfulness in an embodied way, and the impact on school culture of words misaligned with actions and systems
As school leaders, are we leading by example, embodying compassionate mindfulness in the way we communicate with our colleagues, students, and school community? Does the language we use and the actions we take align with the principles of mindful and compassionate leadership? Is mindfulness undervalued due to the manner in which it is introduced to staff? How do we profoundly change a school’s culture for the better by creating mindful school systems?
Maybe turning the situation around is about being able to listen, as a leader, to what the needs of your team are, and respond to them compassionately (rather than defensively or dismissively). Maybe it’s about mindfulness becoming one part of the bigger offering that you have for staff wellbeing, with the central focus being building positive relationships with your team based on mutual respect, compassion, and positive regard.
WHY THESE QUESTIONS MATTERS
Central to being mindful and conscious of every decision you make, and really living in that moment, is an awareness of you being connected with your colleagues, your students, your whole community. Doing things mindlessly, being pushed and pulled by the wrong kinds of emotions, fear-based emotions, will have negative effects. These negative effects impact the school culture and relationships with members of the school community.
When leaders are not embodying compassionate mindfulness, their staff see the initiative as superficial. Leaders need to ask themselves, “Do I want to be a compassionate leader?”. In the book Start with Why, Simon Sinek wisely points out that "Great leaders...lead with WHY. They embody a sense of purpose that inspires those around them." The key word here being “embody.” We need to ask ourselves:
Leaders who embody compassion have changed what they want to see in students and staff and, are essential for the success of any mindfulness initiative.
We spend so much of our lives working. Therefore, establishing the right kind of working environment in a school matters; we’re not just creating some product. We’re giving over eight hours of our lives, every day, to our students and colleagues. We need to fulfill our roles in a meaningful way and feel fulfilled by our roles. Otherwise, we’re simply in a 1980s “win at all costs” version of the world chasing profits, or league table positions, and everything is about the bottom line. Except we’re living in the 21st century, and we know that there is more to life than that.
Is this the kind of world we want to live in? In Creating the World We Want to Live In, Dr Sue Roffey highlights that schools need to “model and teach ways of being that enhance positive relationships.” How can positive working relationships be enhanced if staff mindfulness training is offered in a box-ticking kind of way?
The more conscious we are about sources of stress, the more effectively we can deal with real problems long-term. Let’s not just think about being mindful one hour a week. Let’s think about being a mindful organization or a mindful school culture, composed of mindful teams and mindfully constructed systems.
SCHOOL MINDFULNESS INITIATIVES AND ETHICS
Sometimes, organizations and school leaders make decisions to invest in mindfulness initiatives for the wrong reasons; there’s no ethical grounding for their decisions. Leaders need to ask themselves, “Do we and our staff highly value compassion and self-care?” If not, mindfulness is not going to work; the reasons for introducing mindfulness are disconnected from truly caring.
Are we creating a mindful school atmosphere where staff well-being is actually valued? Or an atmosphere where stress and pressure are mindlessly driving productivity with mindfulness simply being used to brush the real need for cultural and systemic change under the carpet?
A genuine sense of care for your students’ wellbeing, as an educator, and for the members of your community, as a leader, is needed for mindfulness initiatives in schools to work. When we truly care about others' well-being, we are open to the candid dialogue and feedback needed for a school’s mindfulness initiative to thrive.
Carol Dweck (2014) ‘The Power of Believing That You Can Improve’, TedX
Bridget Grenville-Cleave, Dóra Guðmundsdóttir, Felicia Huppert, Vanessa King, David Roffey, Sue Roffey, Marten de Vries (2021) Creating the World We Want to Live In: How Positive Psychology Can Build a Brighter Future
Simon Sinek (2009) Start with Why--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Andrew Mitchell is a learner and educator based in Belgium who is inspired by mindful practices in a range of different contexts. He is dedicated to creating the best possible environment for learning to take place - not just head learning, but heart learning!
Eleni Vardaki is an educator and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) therapist based in Greece who believes that if we care about student well-being, it makes sense to also care about the well-being of those who care for them. She works on stress, anxiety and academic success with individuals and schools.