At the beginning of every school year, before the students arrive, everyone who works for the school district is required to attend a “Welcome-Back-to-School” orientation on opening day. Typically, the orientation begins with an address from the superintendent followed by announcements from the principals of each school. Work that was completed over the summer is shared, appreciations and acknowledgments are offered, and strategic plans for the upcoming year are revealed.
I have attended many of these gatherings, as I have worked in numerous schools over my career as a school psychologist. However, I have never attended an orientation quite like the one I attended this year.
As I sat in the audience trying my best to ease into the transition from the open, blue skies of summer to the four dark walls of the high school auditorium, our director of human resources walked energetically onto the stage with a peculiar smile on her face. I suddenly slipped into psychologist mode as I mentally observed her demeanor:
Upbeat gait. Mischievous smile. Focused attention. Lively attitude. Atypical for setting. Intriguing…
There are certain emotions that are appropriate to display in professional environments. She was pushing the envelope with her curious enthusiasm. I wondered what she was so happy about. When she finally got up to the microphone she could hardly contain her excitement. I am paraphrasing below but you will get the gist:
Good morning everyone and welcome back! I am ecstatic to have the opportunity to introduce today’s guest speaker who will kick off the 2014-2015 school year! A graduate of Harvard University, he has worked with numerous organizations, including schools, hospitals, spiritual communities, nonprofits, start-up companies, Fortune 500 corporations, and even a division of Time Warner to help leaders in their fields improve in three main areas: Communication Skills, Leadership Skills, and Stress Reduction. He is the coauthor of four books, including; Mastering Communication at Work, The Three Commitments of Leadership, Your Brain on Golf, and Hijacked by Your Brain: How to Free Yourself When Stress Takes Over. His books focus on the importance of communication skills, leadership abilities, and stress reduction techniques. He has been working with our leadership team over the summer and is here with us today. I am honored to introduce to you, Mr. Jon Wortmann.
Okay. She had my attention.
Mr. Wortmann spoke for about an hour. In that hour I went from sitting compliantly in my chair to bursting out half laughing/half crying on the edge of my seat because he was talking about something that really mattered to me…something that could make a huge difference in my life and in the lives of my coworkers and students. Jon focused mostly on the concepts in his book, Hijacked by Your Brain: How to Free Yourself When Stress Takes Over. Jon knew his audience. He understood the pressure that teachers and other school personnel feel on a daily basis. He gave us simple yet powerful research-based tools to check in with our stress levels throughout the school day. For example, he taught us to recognize the “alarm” in the brain (the amygdala) and to notice when it goes off. He then showed us ways to quiet the alarm by connecting it with the more logical frontal lobes of the brain. As part of my work as a school psychologist, I have been using specific steps from the book with my students, which are described at the end of this post.*
Besides having more control and awareness over your brain during stressful situations, Jon also spoke about the importance of creating and maintaining healthy habits such as eating meals more mindfully, being in nature, getting enough sleep, doing things you enjoy, and engaging in physical activities. He spent a good deal of time talking about mindfulness, and he even led us through some basic meditative practices like conscious breathing, sensing, and simply being still. Jon made it very difficult to argue against the obvious benefits of bringing mindfulness into our daily lives.
Most of us were feeling his vibe. I looked around and observed my coworkers and the expression of validation on their faces. I, too, felt validated. Although I had been practicing this mindfulness stuff for years outside of work, I hadn’t been practicing it fully in the work environment. It was so much easier to be mindful at a yoga class, a weekend meditation retreat, or when things were going really well in my life. But when life became unbearably challenging, my mindfulness practices often flew out the window and I reverted back to my old patterns of dealing with stress, which for me included perfectionism, trying too hard, working too much, rushing from task to task without taking a break, and pleasing everyone else except for myself. By Friday afternoons I was spent. The weekends were reserved for recovering from the stress of the workweek. This cycle persisted for years, setting off my “alarm” so often that it began to misfire, resulting in chronic low-grade anxiety that became my baseline. Jon’s presentation came at the perfect time because I had started to wonder if there was a better way. Was it possible to change the cycle of stress-recovery-stress-recovery to something more balanced and healthy? Was it possible to be calm, focused, and mindful in a stressful work environment? Did the outside world need to change or did I need to change?
My questions were answered with a challenge. After Jon Wortmann finished his talk, our superintendent, a wise and gentle soul of a man who commands attention in a powerful, yet graceful way, entered the stage. I can’t recall the exact words he used but the sentiment came from a place of deep understanding, presence, and compassion. My memory and interpretation of what he said was something close to the following:
I invite each and every one of you to take what Jon has just shared very seriously. As leaders in our community we have a vital responsibility. Educating children is a privilege and one of the most important jobs there is. Our students look to us for guidance, strength, and knowledge. They learn by watching us. If they see that we are taking care of our own mental, physical, intellectual, and emotional needs, they will learn to do the same. If they feel our presence, compassion, and authenticity they will be invited to express these places within themselves. Take in what you’ve heard today. Slow down. Breathe. Meditate. Get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Spend quality time with people you love, doing things you love. Look into the eyes of your students and really see who they are. To support you in this endeavor, I am declaring this school year as, “The Year of You.” Take care of yourselves and watch with amazement the impact it will have upon your students.
I think I went into a mild form of shock when he finished because I just sat there with my mouth wide open. I had never in my 20+ years of working in the mental health and education fields heard a leader so candidly and sincerely make a proclamation like that. He knew that we couldn’t be at our best if we were stressed out all of the time. Kids can smell a burned out teacher miles away. And what good are we to our students if we are burned out anyway? Our superintendent truly understood the benefit of having healthy, mindful employees.
The success, health, and well-being of students starts with the success, health, and well-being of our teachers, counselors, school psychologists, paraprofessionals, and anyone else who works with children. Mindfulness is a huge part of this endeavor. This year’s orientation motivated me to speak more about mindfulness in the school setting. Since then, I have connected with the superintendent who has asked me to share my thoughts, knowledge, and experience with staff members. I offer a weekly meditation group for teachers every Friday at the end of the school day. I also teach yoga classes to school staff members. I have partnered with our dean of faculty to propose a meditation space in the school for student and staff use. I started this blog. I have also contacted schools and universities who are way ahead of us doing what I hope our school can eventually do, which is to offer a mindfulness program/department for the study of the self/mind.
But I am getting way ahead of myself here with my own unbridled enthusiasm. The true challenge is to focus on the goals while at the same time remain mindful in the present moment. Dear readers, I am very curious…what are your thoughts? Do you believe it is possible to be calm and focused in stressful situations and environments? Do you think that true change comes from the inside out, impacting those around us? What are your concerns about stress? What are some of the techniques that you use when you are feeling overwhelmed? Let’s share our thoughts, experiences, and ideas with the intension of making life a little bit easier for ourselves and each other.
*When I read Mr. Wortmann’s book, Hijacked by Your Brain, I learned about a strategy that he calls, “SOS” which stands for, “Step-Back, Orient, and Self-Check.” In the book, the authors give detailed explanations about what is actually happening in the different parts of the brain as you move through each step. I can vouch for the fact that these steps really do decrease stress, as I have utilized them during my counseling sessions with students who present with anxiety or panic attacks. Every time I have engaged a student in these steps they have reported a significant decrease in anxiety. The changes are almost immediate. SOS simply invites us to do these three things when we are stressed:
- Step back and pause. Be present in your body the moment you feel stress, without judgment. This can entail looking around at your surroundings, taking in sounds, sights, smells, and really experiencing yourself on a physical and sensory level.
- Orient yourself by choosing to think about something positive in your life, something you value, or something that is important to you, thus consciously choosing to focus the mind on something other than how stressed you feel.
- Check yourself by rating your stress level on a scale from 1-10 and then rating what Jon calls your “personal control” in order to help think more clearly in the moment.
To learn more about Jon Wortmann, go to www.whatsinyourway.com