This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Teacher.
Rapid change takes its toll on teachers and school leaders. All the more reason, says Robyn Collins, to address your own wellbeing, not least to ensure your longevity and sustainability in your challenging role.
'The world is too much with us: late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.' So wrote William Wordsworth in ‘The World is Too Much with Us,’ first published in Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807.
It’s worth asking, 200 and more years on, when was the last time you did something purely for yourself? When did you last ‘stop and smell the roses’?*
Jody Forbes, School Psychologist at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School, describes the ability to be still in a busy multi-tasking world as being ‘present focused’ or mindful and ‘savouring’ the moment. As she puts it, in ‘Stop and smell the roses: “Savouring” in a busy, multi-tasking, self-improving world,’ ‘savouring requires one to become fully aware of positive feelings, appreciate them and make deliberate attempts to prolong the enjoyment.’
Over the past 10 years the nature of education has been transformed. Changes to teaching practices, curriculum, accountability, role diversification and increased workload are all taking their toll on teachers and school leaders. This obviously has major implications for schools. Students suffer if educators are leaving the profession because they are exhausted, or too tired and stressed to enjoy their work. The school suffers as stress, staff turnover and absenteeism increases, not least because of their effect on budgets and general morale. Families suffer and, by implication, so does work effectiveness because of reduced family time. Society suffers by bearing the physical and mental health costs of educators who take stress leave or are frequently absent from work.
For school leaders, the balance between life and work is almost impossible to achieve as many in senior management are tied to their schools six or seven days a week and during school holidays. For school leaders, therefore, the expectation that they might be able to achieve a reasonable work-life balance is somewhat unrealistic as there is little time to spare in their enormously busy and complex working days.
For this reason, school leaders need to consider other ways they might provide some balance in their lives, mindful of the fact that there will be little time they can salvage for themselves. There are at least three things that don’t take an immense amount of time, which might help busy school leaders to avoid burn out. These are to:
- savour the good moments
- build resilience, and
- allow for ‘recovery’ time.
The art of savouring
According to Fred Bryant, writing in ‘The art of savouring,’ research indicates that the level of joy we get from positive experiences depends on how we think and act in response to them. We don’t necessarily feel joy when positive things happen to us, and when negative events occur we may simply ‘cope’ by dampening or cutting short bad feelings generated by negative events. In order to intensify or prolong positive feelings in response to positive events, and thus increase resilience when negative events occur, Bryant suggests we need to use ‘positive emotional intelligence.’
Studies have shown that the greater a person’s skill in savouring an event or activity, according to Bryant, the greater the joy he or she feels in response to positive events. The positive emotions generated by savouring not only make a person feel happy at the time, research has shown they also over time improve short-term physical health and lessen the risk of illness.
Unfortunately, school leaders, faced with unending demands on their time, are often too busy or distracted to notice, let alone savour, a positive outcome. The positive parts of a school leader’s work can become lost in the day-to-day business of putting out brushfires – dealing with difficult students and parents, solving staff problems and the like. Bryant suggests we need to take time out to savour the positive parts of our work in an intentional way that keeps us in touch with the things we love about what we do. He suggests 10 ways people can develop their ability to savour and, therefore, to capture the joy of the moment and ‘smell the roses.’
10 ways to develop your ability to ‘smell the roses’
1. Share your good feelings with others
Studies of how people react to positive events show that those who share with friends have a higher level of overall happiness than people who do not share their feelings, even if they’re alone at the time of the event. Simply thinking about sharing the memory with a friend adds to overall happiness.
2. Take a mental photograph
When building memories, people need to search for, notice and highlight the things they find most enjoyable. In the process, they not only pinpoint pleasurable aspects of the situation and enhance the intensity of their joy in the present, they also form clearer and more vivid memories they can more easily recall and share with others in the future. Simply consciously looking for the good things in activities leads to higher levels of happiness.
3. Congratulate yourself
Savouring the things you do well by ‘patting yourself on the back’ mentally is associated with improved wellbeing. Research shows that the more people mentally affirm themselves when they do well, the more they report enjoying the particular outcome and the more they are able to savour their success.
4. Sharpen your sensory perceptions
Blocking out distractions can enhance savouring by sharpening attention on the pleasure itself. Eating a piece of cake, sipping a glass of wine, smelling a rose or listening to music are all intensified, for example, if your eyes are closed and competing sights, sounds or smells are blocked out. As Bryant explains, college students instructed to attend to the physical sensations they experienced while eating chocolate reported greater pleasure, compared to students who performed a distracting task at the same time.
5. Shout it from the rooftops
Outwardly expressing positive feelings can intensify them by providing our minds with physical evidence that we are, in fact, joyful. Bryant suggests that when we receive unexpected good news we should laugh out loud, jump up and down, and shout for joy. By ‘putting on a happy face’, the evidence suggests, we may actually feel more positive.
6. Compare the outcome to something worse
If we compare good experiences with less pleasant ones, we have a frame of reference by which to judge the merit of the experience. The recent floods in Queensland are a good example of this. People who lost power or had car parks flooded were able to identify positives by recognising that they had not lost loved ones, homes or livelihoods. In another example, participants receiving grades or achievement scores were instructed to think about either how their scores could have been worse or how they could have been better. Imagining a worse outcome increased their appreciation of success, while imagining a better one lowered appreciation.
7. Get absorbed in the moment
Total immersion or absorption in an experience, what Buddhists call ‘mindfulness,’ is known to enhance enjoyment of that experience. Most people are able to recall a time when they were so engrossed in what they were doing they lost all sense of time and place. In such a state of mindfulness, people are able to enjoy the experience without judging while remaining mindfully aware of the feelings they are experiencing. When this happens, people report increased pleasure and reduced stress.
8. Count your blessings and give thanks
Showing gratitude for what you have is important in savouring life. Counting all of the things you are grateful for and then pinpointing why you are grateful reduces stress and increases happiness; and expressing appreciation out loud enhances the positive effects. In a week-long experiment, students who counted blessings at the end of each day reported higher levels of happiness than students who counted hassles or neutral events. Simply acknowledging a blessing internally, however, is not as powerful as expressing it outwardly to someone else. Research indicates that verbally thanking a friend, saying grace before a meal or expressing gratitude in prayer or song can actually increase joy by providing conscious awareness of positive feelings. With effort over time, people can cultivate an attitude of gratitude that becomes a habit, giving them a grateful disposition.
9. Remind yourself of how quickly time flies
Being aware of the transience of life and how quickly time passes can motivate people to seize the moment while it’s unfolding; however, Bryant says that time ‘makes savouring a rich and complex process’ because it doesn’t simply mean mindfully appreciating a positive experience in the immediate present. Savouring past good times by reminiscing and rekindling the joy from these memories, and looking forward by anticipating and imagining the joy you’ll feel in a positive experience or outcome, enhances happiness. Studies show that people who regularly reminisce about past positive experiences or eagerly anticipate future pleasure, such as a holiday, enhance their pleasure and therefore their mental health and wellbeing.
10. Avoid killjoy thinking
When it comes to savouring life it’s just as important to avoid thinking negatively as it is to think positively. At the end of a stressful day it’s important to treat yourself to a coffee, for example, without being tempted to think about the places you should be or the things you should be doing. If your relaxation time is punctuated with worry about what you’re not doing, enjoyment in the present moment fades. Research shows that the more killjoy thoughts people have in response to a personal achievement, the less they tend to enjoy it and the sooner their enjoyment fades.
Seven resilience building strategies
Developing resilience in the leadership role is essential to ensure the sustainability of the principal and leadership team, and to maintain their self-esteem and efficacy. Leaders who are resilient are able to cope well in adversity but they also have the capacity to feel positive about themselves and bounce back from negative situations. Kathy Lacey, in ‘Exploring sustainability in school leadership,’ explains that resilience is often seen in terms of skills or attributes that act as ‘protective factors or buffers.’ Drawing on the Project Resilience work of Sybil Wolin and Steven Wolin, she provides some strategies leaders can use to help them build the skills that develop resilience. The strategies come from a framework developed for the project which is based on how senior leaders use their strengths to cope with difficult situations.
1. Networking and building relationships
Resilient leaders make connections with others, take an active role in professional associations and local networks of school leaders, and maintain contact with trusted colleagues. They share their failures with colleagues without expectation that someone else will solve the problem for them.
Resilient leaders take charge of problems and relish challenges. They also know when to quit. As Stephen Covey observes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the main characteristics of resilient people is that they focus on and act upon what they have control over, rather than devoting time or energy to factors that are beyond their sphere of influence. They’re able to relegate to the background issues that are beyond their power to change and devote their time to problem solving and taking ownership of situations they can change.
Resilient leaders use humour to minimise pain and rejection. As Lacey puts it, they find ‘the comic in the tragic.’
Resilient leaders are creative. They find time to reflect on their work, often keeping a daily journal which they may share with colleagues or an executive coach; they spend time with trusted colleagues over a meal; and they participate in online forums. By using their imagination, explains Lacey, they develop ‘refuges where experience can be rearranged.’
Resilient leaders have a strong moral centre and well-developed values, and want to make a difference. They’re able to use the satisfaction they gain from knowing they can change the lives of young people to counterbalance setbacks in their work.
Resilient leaders know themselves and others. They spend time understanding their strengths and work to improve in areas of weakness. They constantly reflect on their performance, read widely and are involved in professional development.
Resilient leaders are able to distance themselves from the difficulties in their work. As David Loader explains, in The Inner Principal, it can be hard when they don’t. ‘Criticism of my school was taken personally, as criticisms of me. With this mind set it became very hard to have a private life.... My personal failure was that I had no sense of myself as separate from the institution.’ Resilient leaders, as Loader explains, are able to manage their emotions and see emotional control as an essential part of their role. They understand that difficulties and setbacks, such as losing enrolments during the global economic downturn, are not personal.
According to Lacey, ‘the relentlessly increasing complexity of school leadership drives many principals to leave the profession prematurely to escape the pressure cooker environment.’ Lacey’s involvement in a number of research projects related to the sustainability of school leadership in Australian schools has led her to devise a strategy to increase leadership capacity to sustain peak performance while assisting school leaders to develop balance in their lives.
The strategy draws on elite sports psychology methods for maximising mental, physical, emotional and spiritual capacities by conscientiously adhering to exercise and recovery rituals necessary to perform the ‘incredible mental gymnastic task’ of sustainable, effective school leadership.
As Lacey explains, these capacities are like ‘those of elite athletes who use strategies of “ritual and recovery,” whereby they deliberately oscillate between exercising and resting a mental or physical “muscle,” thereby becoming fully engaged with maximising their performance both when they are working, and when they are not.’ She describes how, for example, elite tennis players display very high heart rates while serving and reduce their heart rates to close to normal during the time they perform the ritual of bouncing the ball a number of times before serving. It’s this ‘recovery’ time as they bounce the ball that enables them to sustain the high heart rate times needed during the game.
Lacey suggests that, like elite athletes, school leaders need to intersperse high work rates and the stress of their jobs with recovery time by attending to their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities.
In The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz argue, in discussing what makes some people flourish under pressure and others fold, that peak performance is not just connected to cognitive capacity. Rather, it’s a pyramid with physical health at its foundation, emotional health on the second level, mental health on the third and a sense of purpose, or spiritual health, at the top. ‘The ideal performance state – peak performance under pressure – is achieved when all levels are working together,’ explain Loehr and Schwartz. ‘Rituals that promote oscillation – the rhythmic expenditure and recovery of energy – link the levels of the pyramid. For instance, vigorous exercise can produce a sense of emotional wellbeing, clearing the way for peak mental performance.’
As Lacey explains, it’s the physical capacity, the base of the performance pyramid, that’s most neglected by school leaders. It’s for this reason, she says, that school leaders need to ‘systematise sleep, diet, hydration and exercise to overcome the compromises often placed on them by the demands of the job.’ They need to allow for seven to eight hours’ sleep, and go to bed and get up consistently at the same time; they need to eat a breakfast with a low glycaemic index every day, eat a balanced, healthy diet and minimise simple sugars, fats and salt; they need to drink a litre of water per 50 kilograms of body weight; and they need to get some physical activity every day. All of these can be done without adding time to a busy day. For example, taking a brisk walk for 10 minutes a day could be achieved by conducting meetings with senior staff while taking a walk around the school oval, and incorporating something as simple as one minute of deep breathing into every day could become a daily ritual that enhances wellbeing.
As Loehr and Schwartz explain, ‘The ability to summon positive emotions during periods of intense stress lies at the heart of effective leadership.’ Our emotional capacity creates our internal climate, which influences our performance levels. Positive emotions improve performance. Most people, if asked how they feel when they are performing at their best, use words like ‘calm,’ ‘challenged,’ ‘focused,’ ‘optimistic,’ ‘excited’ and ‘motivated.’
Negative emotions are costly and energy inefficient in the context of performance, so it’s important to summon positive emotions in moments of stress. We do this by seeking intermittent recovery for our ‘emotional muscles.’
Any activity that is enjoyable, fulfilling and affirming can serve as a source of emotional renewal and recovery. Too often, school leaders sacrifice the aspects of the role they find fulfilling and enjoyable, and spend their time on emotionally draining aspects of the role, such as dealing with difficult parents, students or staff. School leaders can strengthen their emotional muscles by pushing past their current limits for patience or empathy, but they must also build in recovery time by, for example, setting aside 30 minutes a day a walk around the campus and talk to students or by writing in a journal for 10 minutes a day.
Mental capacity is what we use to organise our lives and focus our attention. The mental energy that best serves full engagement is realistic optimism – seeing the world as it is but always working positively towards a desired outcome or solution. Mental capacity can be enhanced by using strategies like mental preparation, visualisation, positive self-talk and creativity.
School leaders can improve mental preparation, for example, by taking time before a meeting to sit down and think about what they really want to achieve, or by visualising the achievement of the outcomes. Incorporating these rituals in day-to-day work can increase strength, endurance and flexibility while decreasing the likelihood of being distracted by negative thoughts under pressure.
Spiritual health or sense of purpose
The top layer of the pyramid, a sense of purpose or spiritual capacity, relates to the crucial motivating force provided by core values. The potential of this force is evident among school leaders, with many harbouring a ‘deep love for their job’ and enthusiasm for education. Passion, commitment, integrity and honesty are the mainstays of spiritual energy. Strategies to develop these areas can often be ritual, for example, attending meetings on time as ritualised sign of one’s commitment, or including rituals in school assemblies that honour particular values. Recovery time might be as simple as savouring the sight of happy students in the school grounds.
The Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ) New Principals Program, facilitated by Stephen Scott, draws on this research and on Scott’s experience in working with principals in ISQ schools on work-life balance. While the New Principals Program focuses on four areas of leadership, it’s the personal leadership area that’s relevant here. School leaders in the program deliver a ‘monthly report’ during workshop sessions on their personal and work achievements and challenges. They also develop a ‘Top 100 matrix’ that includes 100 things each will do in the next 12 months in order to savour the moment and attend to their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
A typical matrix includes items related to relaxation (read 10 novels, see 10 films); physical health (lose 10 kilograms, run 10 kilometres 10 times); emotional health (have 10 nights out alone with husband or wife, set aside 10 full days with family, socialise at least 10 times with friends); spiritual health (attend 10 activities that nurture spiritual wellbeing, do 10 things you’ve never done before) and so on. Even if busy school leaders find that they need to reduce their matrix to a ‘Top 50,’ they shouldn’t underestimate the importance of looking after themselves.
At times it’s true for all school leaders that ‘the world is too much with us,’ but no matter how much you might wish for more time there are only 24 hours in a day.
Perhaps, savouring the world when you can, putting yourself first from time to time and stopping to ‘smell the roses’ may not reduce your workload, but it may increase your wellbeing and ensure longevity and sustainability in your challenging role.
Bryant, F. (2006). The art of savouring, Natural Solutions. Available at www.naturalsolutionsmag.com/articles-display/9739/The-Art-of-Savoring
Covey, S. (1993). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Forbes, J. (2010), Stop and smell the roses: ‘Savouring’ in a busy, multi-tasking, self-improving world. Insights 2010. Brisbane: Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School.
Lacey, K. (2006). Exploring sustainability in school leadership. CSE Seminar Series Papers. 151 (March). Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Education.
Loader, D. (1997). The Inner Principal. London: Falmer Press.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz. T. (2001). The making of a corporate athlete. Harvard Business Review. 79(1): 12-128.
Wolin, S. & Wolin, J. (1999). Project Resilience. Available at www.projectresilience.com
Wordsworth, W. (1807). Poems, in Two volumes. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme.
*Okay, for those of you who like to stop and test the accuracy, ‘Stop and smell the roses’ is actually a misquote of advice by American golfer Walter Hagen, in The Walter Hagen Story. Hagen actually wrote, ‘Don’t hurry, don’t worry, you’re only here for a short visit, so be sure to smell the flowers along the way.’
Hagen, W. & Seaton, S. (1956). The Walter Hagen Story: By The Haig, Himself. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Principals Australia (formerly Australian Principals Associations Professional Development Council). (2005). Leaders Lead, Leaders Matter: The Leaders Matter Workbook. Adelaide: Principals Australia.
The Leaders Matter workbook was developed as an integral part of the Leaders Lead project, an umbrella title for a program for school leadership, managed by Principals Australia, formerly the Australian Principals Associations Professional Development Council. Leaders Matter is about the wellbeing of school leaders and aims to strengthen the sustainability of leadership in schools by exploring the relationships between the professional, interpersonal and personal demands of leadership. The workbook can be downloaded from the Principals Australia website, www.principalsaustralia.edu.au/LL_LM_MAIN
This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Teacher. Author details have remained unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.