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Professional Opinion

Becoming a more mindful school leader

Being ‘present in the moment’ can be a powerful stress release
Lisa Gonzales is president of the Association of California School Administrators and is assistant superintendent of educational services in Dublin USD.
Lisa Gonzales is president of the Association of California School Administrators and is assistant superintendent of educational services in Dublin USD.

In a world of round-the-clock distractions, being a mindful leader is a powerful tool. Mindfulness is simply the act of being consciously aware and of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.

Research shows that mindfulness improves concentration, inspires creativity and energizes our interactions with others. Whether managing stress or achieving nirvana-like relaxation and focus, the qualities of mindfulness can help increase our leadership skills and personal satisfaction.

Why is it important?

Have you ever walked across campus after school hours, deep in thought while mentally preparing your “to-do list,” only to have your thoughts interrupted by a parent or staff member? It’s hard to be entirely present in the conversation they are pulling you into because your mind is stuck on the list.

The task at hand should be the other person, but our brains are often a little scattered with so much work and so little time that we can’t focus on that conversation as fully as we would like.

That’s where mindfulness comes in, as it helps us reconnect with others in a more meaningful, authentic way.

For Principal Rosanna Whisnant at Newton-Conover Middle School in North Carolina, being a mindful leader is about relaxing, reflecting and focusing solely on the other person.

“Listening intently and asking clarifying questions ensure I’m on the same page with others when talking,” Whisnant says.

Sarita Amaya, an assistant administrator of multilingual programs in Oregon’s Beaverton School District, adds that being a mindful leader is about “being fully present for yourself and becoming skilled at understanding your feelings, your needs and how to be nurturing, loving and compassionate to oneself.”

What are the benefits?

The practice of being present and attentive helps focus and refocus our interactions and strengthens our awareness. The physical benefits aren’t too bad either. After all, when we are relaxed, positive, alert and open-minded, the resulting “good brain hygiene” permeates our actions in the workplace and in our personal lives.

“The irony about mindfulness is that it’s not just a mental state of well-being, but a physical one as well,” says Nancy San Jose, an elementary principal in Los Angeles USD. “I believe that mindfulness is best sought through the healing of the physical brain via exercise, meditation, prayer, healthy eating, healthy relationships, reflection, positive self-talk and being out in nature.”

Mindfulness in our daily lives

School leaders follow a vast repertoire of practices in their journey toward mindfulness. Assistant Principal Eli Holm, at Cheney Public Schools in Washington, achieves it through the arts.

“Music is my stress relief, my mindfulness practice, my center—plain and simple,” he says.

Meditation is another possibility. Antoinette Gutierrez, principal at San Bernardino High School in California, says, “I take gratitude walks, use focused breathing quite a bit, and meditate daily, all of which keep my body balanced so the worries of the work don’t affect my mental and physical health.”

Gwendolyn Dorsey, a principal in Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland, adds, “I do mindful breathing at several points throughout the day to focus or zero-in on how I am feeling at the moment.”

At San Ramon Valley USD in California, Principal Joe Nguyen brings his mindful practices to both his professional and personal life.

“I take a moment in the morning to reflect on my daily agenda and expectations for the day. My faith definitely plays a role in my mindfulness activities as we practice mindfulness as a family at home.”

Being mindful

Start small. Practicing for a few minutes every other day or keeping a gratitude journal to focus on the positives can be a manageable beginning. The results funnel up to improved productivity and stronger quality moments with those we serve. Being a mindful leader is one more way to cope, focus and thrive.


Lisa Gonzales is president of the Association of California School Administrators and is assistant superintendent of educational services in Dublin USD.