Session Summary: Mindfulness for the School Board

Kay Douglas, Senior Consultant, Texas Association of School Boards and Timi Tullis, Associate Executive Director, AASB

In this recorded session that has been shown to school board members in Virginia, Texas, and Mississippi, Kay Douglas and Timi Tullis presented a fun, engaging, and interactive look at mindfulness practices that can help people focus in times of stress, and how to model them in personal and professional life.

The presenters began with an explanation of what mindfulness is:

  1. Directing our attention to our experience as it unfolds
  2. Trains us to respond skilfully to whatever is happening, good or bad.
  3. Improves our thought process, feelings, and concern for others
  4. Helps us perform better, feel calmer, and less depressed

A simple definition of mindfulness is just being aware of what is happening right now, not looking to the past or future. Being present in the moment.

Board members generally hear about mindfulness in terms of our students. With busy academic and extracurricular schedules, pressure to perform on high stakes tests, bombarded with media, fewer face-to-face relationships before and since pandemic, students are experiencing increasing anxiety and depression. They are constantly in a “fight, flight or freeze” mode, which is stimulating different parts of their brains, resulting in decreased academic performance, more prone to impulsive behavior, and trouble sleeping. Mindfulness is aimed at stimulating the calmer prefrontal cortex of the brain to help students improve focus, be calmer, deal with their emotions, and resolve conflict more effectively.

The same things that are stressing out our children are also stressing out adults. This is where mindfulness skills can translate to school boards. Atendees were invited to share some of the feelings they, or students they know, have felt.

Mindfulness also allows us to take a pause. Without mindfulness, we immediately react to stimulus in a way that may not be productive, which brings about a reaction from the other person. Sometimes this can cause an innocent situation escalate out of control. Practicing mindfulness allows us to take a brief pause to think about what just happened, then respond—rather than react—to de-escalate a situation.

How do you react if you are triggered by something someone has said in a board meeting, in the grocery store, or on social media? Taking a moment to pause and reflect before responding (or not responding) can make all the difference.

There’s a difference between intention and perception. When we say or do something, we know what we intend. Others may perceive your intention differently, and not respond in a way you think they should. Mindfulness allows us to pause and think about what that person may have meant.

The mindfulness lessons we teach our students can also apply to their parents. During the pandemic, parents are experiencing high levels of stress from family and job pressures. We also need to train our teachers in mindfulness so we are all using the same language. Mindfulness and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) should be the plate from which we’re serving everything else.

As a result of the pandemic, everyone is learning a new job right now, including school board members, school administrators, teachers, students, and parents. Teaching is the profession that makes every other profession possible. Teachers had to hit the gound running and do things differently from the first day schools closed, delivering instruction both in-person and virtually. Everyone involved is doing their best, and it is important to everyone grace, especially our educators.

Some of the mindfulness benefits of tuning into what we are experiencing in the present moment, rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future, include:

  • More patience
  • Better focus and productivity
  • Increased compassion
  • Heightened body awareness
  • Less stress and anxiety

“Mind full, or mindful?” Here are six recommendations for being more mindful:

  • Breathe – In times of stress, take a moment to focus on breathing in and out. This will lower the stress and give you that mindful moment to respond, rather than react.
  • Pay attention to experiences and live in the moment – Focus on your senses: what can I see, hear, taste, smell, and feel? Take one minute, concentrate, and fill your mind with what is happening right now.
  • Eat mindfully – Don’t hurry, cook and eat in a good mood, feel the taste of food, soft relaxing music, eat your favorite food last, not multitasking, sit at a table, respect your body and health, drink more water. Mindful eating starts at the grocery store. Pack a snack bag of the healthy foods you like to eat.
  • Take a digital detox – Unplugging for even a small amount of time can be beneficial to your well being. As a board member, it is important to focus on the meeting, rather than on your phone or other device. How you behave online is noticed by the public. Board members can also be a role model for students.

Suggestions for a Seven Day Digital Detox:

Day 1: Turn off Push Notifications.
Day 2: Unsubscribe from unwanted email lists.
Day 3: Go out to dinner and leave your phone at home.
Day 4: Delete apps you never use.
Day 5: Don’t look at or post to any social media after 6 pm.
Day 6: Enjoy the moment without jumping on social media to share it.
Day 7: Pick up a paperback instead of a screen

  • Listen mindfully – Listening to someone and not just thinking of how we will respond. Mindful listening helps us become more focused and responsive, heightens sensory awareness, builds self-awareness and management skills, helps social awareness and effective management skills. Listen with your eyes to the person’s body language and facial expressions. Just hearing the words doesn’t provide the whole content of a person’s communication. Listen openly to the tone, pitch, volume, and words. In addition to content, allow yourself to receive the mood and spirit of what the other person is expressing.
  • Speak mindfully – This quote applies to board members: “If you know something hurtful and not true, don’t say it. If you know something hurtftul and true, don’t say it. If you know something helpful but not true, don’t say it. If you know something helpful and true, find the right time to say it.” It’s easy to perpetuate negative things going on in a district, but just because one person complains, doesn’t mean it’s true. Concurrently, if something is true and helpful, there may be a better time to say it than during a board meeting. A one on one meeting. Board members also have legal restrictions on what you can say as a social board member. As a public official, be very cautious about what you post to social media, even it is your personal account.

Do’s and Don’ts for mindful speaking:

  • Be patient / Don’t interrupt a person’s speech.
  • Keep it simple / Avoid acronyms, idioms, metaphors, abbreviations, fillers, and colloquialisms.
  • Speak clearly and slowly / Don’t speak loudly.
  • Be explicit / Avoid “Uh huh, uh huh” use Yes or No.
  • Pause between words / Avoid running words
  • Write down steps when needed, use visual tools (e.g. maps, charts) / Don’t let the person leave without having understood your point.
  • Repeat and rephrase when needed / Try not to use, “I would do…if I were you.” Use “You need to do…” instead.

One of the reasons for practicing the art of mindful listening and speaking is to be able to practice reconciliation. No matter how we try to ensure that our words are mindful and that we’re listening, we’re going to make mistakes. As humans, we will say something that someone receives other than in the way we meant, without knowing our intent. So as parents, teachers, and board members, that we practice the art of reconciliation. In addition to being in the moment, we can also go back and clarify. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. If someone in the board room is frustrating you, realize you are probably frustrating someone too. How would you want that person to approach you and talk to you, even though you may disagree. It’s even better if you get to know your colleagues better outside of their board behavior so you can treat them how THEY would want to be treated.

Sometimes we need to stop thinking, listen, and take in what’s happening. As a board member, when you find yourself being pulled in so many different directions, you need to ask yourself, “How can I take care of all these needs, focus on one thing at a time, and let things go that aren’t important right now.”

So many people are asking when things are going to “get back to normal?” I want to remind you that normal wasn’t perfect. We have learned so much during this pandemic about how we can do things differently. There were so many jobs we didn’t think could be done from home, yet we were able to transition. When you think about the changes that have happened, what are the things that have been made better?

One positive for AASB has been increased attendance at our virtual events and training sessions during the pandemic. Being virtual makes them accessible without costly travel, and easier to fit into busy schedules. While not the same kind of one-on-one engagement as in-person events, it is an opportunity to learn together as a team.

Sometimes you have to accept the fact that certain things will never go back to how they used to be. Life goes on.

We have spent time teaching you about mindful thinking, speaking, listening, and acting. These are the same things we teach our students. We want them to be critical thinkers, good communicators, collaborate with one another, and come up with creative solutions.

Attendees were asked to think of one thing they can do today, this week, at home, and at work, based on what they’ve learned during this presentation, to help hold themselves accountable going forward.

WAIT is a useful acronym that stands for “Why Am I Talking.” Instead of simply “talking to talk,” board members should ask themselves if they are adding something new to the discussion. A follow-up acronym is WAIST (Why Am I Still Talking).