I am in my fourth year as a school administrator, and while my job is very rewarding, it can also be quite stressful. I’m not alone in this feeling; in 2016, researchers compared the daily stress of teaching to that experienced by emergency room physicians. Earlier in my career, I would often look up at the end of the day knowing that I had been extremely busy, but not really knowing what I had done; like many of us, I was on autopilot.
I’ve always enjoyed what I do, yet at the same time, as the father of young kids, I did not want to bring the stressors of work home to my family. In 2021, when I had the opportunity to learn about and adopt a regular mindfulness practice—tuning in to the present moment, nonjudgmentally—everything changed.
Now, true to research findings on mindfulness in education, I can be present with students or teachers; increase my productivity; free up time in my day; and lower my perceived stress levels. And when I get home, I am able to put work aside to be present with my family.
Below, I expand upon these benefits of my own mindfulness practice and offer accessible strategies that other teachers and administrators can use to promote self-care throughout the school day.
Being Present with Students and Teachers
Maintaining a regular mindfulness practice means carving out small moments during my daily routine. For example, on my commute to and from work, I don’t listen to anything; instead, I focus on my breath and surroundings. This helps me to be present when I show up to work and when I get home for the day and supplements a personal meditation practice (for me, 15–20 minutes of breathing meditation each morning).
Throughout the work day, I also look for cues to tune in to the present moment. Like most schools, we have bells. Every time the bell rings, I try to be mindful of where I am and what I am doing. If I am in my office, I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. If I am with students or in a meeting, I use the bells as a reminder to become fully present in whatever I am doing.
These two habits help me listen to understand instead of listen to respond, whether I am in a student conference or a staff meeting.
Increasing Efficiency During the School Day
As an administrator, there are many days when I do not get the luxury of eating lunch. And on days when I do eat lunch, I often spend that time simultaneously checking my email, reading an article, or scrolling through my phone.
To further weave mindfulness into my routine, I am trying to break this habit by treating lunchtime as a mini break in my day, a time to be mindful of what and how much I am eating. I also take mini breaks by walking around the school. This has two benefits: First, I am present in the halls during the lunch period, and teachers and students see me pass by their classrooms. Second, I use the short break to focus on my breath, how my feet feel as they hit the ground, and notice my surroundings.
The more I practice mindfulness, the more I notice when my mind is wandering or when I return to autopilot, and the easier it becomes to cue myself to practice. Every time I pull out my phone or start to open my email on my computer, for instance, I now use those opportunities to come back to the present moment before diving in.
Mindful breaks help keep me on task throughout the day and boost my ability to assess what I am doing with my time. This keeps my productivity high, which means tasks don’t take as long as they used to, freeing up time in my day.
Lowering Perceived Stress Levels
I have a much greater ability to leave work at work because of my mindfulness practice. Rather than play a stressful meeting on a loop in my head, the mindful breaks that I take during the day leave me feeling significantly less stressed, interrupting potential rumination and centering my attention.
When I arrive at home, I no longer feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that still needs to be done to run a school effectively. There is plenty of research showing how poor we are at multitasking; being mindful of what I am doing allows me to focus on one task at a time, do it well before moving on, and complete it faster, freeing up space in my mind and on my calendar.
One of my favorite quotes about mindfulness, and one that you might share with colleagues or students, is from Thich Nhat Hahn, who said, “Today is the most important day of our lives.” Each day is the only day that we are guaranteed, so we should be present during the day and take advantage of it.
Are you ready to join me on this mindfulness journey?