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Center for Enlightened Leadership

How Do Principals Focus on the Now?

  Christa Metzger
  Christa Metzger

Nothing ever happened in the past;

It happened in the Now.

Nothing will ever happen in the future;

It will happen in the Now.

—Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (1999)

When I was a principal, I didn’t know much about being consciously aware of focusing on the Now. It was probably because I was the product of scientific-rationalism, with its supreme belief in the mind and intellect as the primary guide for living and for making the best decisions. In the mid-1990’s I experienced a career crisis which led me to an awareness of other dimensions of my being. I learned that the mind is not only a precious gift which had been useful in my past, but that it could become a relentless tyrant. When thoughts cling to the past and fears flood the mind with anxiety about the future, the present moment is squeezed into a dark and narrow abyss where one can hardly breathe.

I read The Power of Now,by Eckhart Tolle, years after I had been a principal and district superintendent. Subsequently, I discovered the rich history in the literature of both Western and Eastern spiritual and religious traditions about this powerful concept: focusing on the Now. Here are a few of my favorite sources:

  • Thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote about detachment as the best and highest virtue.
  • Brother Lawrence, a humble Carmelite monk in the 1600’s, focused on the Practice of the Presence of God as he was washing his pots and pans.
  • Jesuit Jean Pierre deCaussade, in the 18th century, advocated the Sacrament of the Present Moment.
  • Thomas Merton, 19th-century monk, philosopher, theologian, and author, is known for his writings about contemplative practices.
  • Henry Nouwen’s little book, Here and Now, is a treasure on my library shelf.

Eastern traditions have an abundant history of present-moment mindfulness and awareness practices captured in ancient classics as well as in such modern works as The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh, and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

I wondered what I might have done differently as a principal if I had been more aware of the importance of focusing on the Now. What could such a focus mean in the daily practice of school leaders today?

Some of my recent retirement activities have led me to school administrators in Pamlico County—the county where I now live in eastern North Carolina. The Pamlico County superintendent, Dr. Wanda Dawson, a dynamic and brilliant leader, has become a good friend. She gave me permission to survey her administrators about this topic. I found it enlightening and encouraging to learn how these principals are focusing on the Now in their practices. What follows are some examples they provided.

Hurricane Irene: Pamlico County Middle School, where Lisa Jackson is principal, was devastated by this storm last year. The campus had to be vacated because of flooding and other severe damage. Regarding this, Lisa shares, “It was very important that I and my staff focused on NOW and continued to give our students the best school year ever…whether it was a temporary classroom without supplies and offices or having to share the cafeteria with the ‘little kids.’” She points out that especially in a crisis, when things are not in our control, it is best to “take hold of NOW and make the best of it, adjust as necessary.…”

Lesson: When the present moment is unpleasant, unacceptable, and even awful, you have to accept it (resisting it will create even more stress and anxiety), and then take whatever action is needed to change the situation.

Children with baggage: Kim Potter, assistant principal of Pamlico County Primary School and Fred A. Anderson Elementary School, states, “It is important to me as an administrator to focus on the Now and concentrate on making situations that students, faculty, and parents are facing better. We cannot change the past; we can only learn from it. When we spend too much time looking behind us, we lose focus on what is in front of us.”

Lesson: We all have emotional baggage from the past, from childhood, from our environments, from life’s experiences. It is important to acknowledge and recognize this, but not to dwell on it and allow it to become a burden that prevents positive action in this moment. We accept the “is-ness” of this moment and do the best we can with it now. In my own personal crisis, I spent far too much energy wanting to hold on to past identities instead of truly and unconditionally accepting my present situation without judgment or labeling. Only by accepting the Now can we be free to move on.

School and classroom climate: “Daily problems that are not addressed with faculty or students may become chronic and ‘toxic’…[T]his will poison the learning and culture of your school,” writes Sherry Meador, principal of Fred A. Anderson Elementary School. She also emphasizes the importance of not continuing procedures the same way we always have in the past, but to find viable solutions that will take into consideration and adapt to the changes that are always evolving. She wisely adds, “Focusing on the past is almost irrelevant… and focusing too far into the future is a waste of time…because everything is already obsolete as soon as it is produced.”

Lesson: Pay full attention to what is happening Now and adjust practices accordingly! The present moment is all we ever really have. We can pay brief visits to the past and the future when required to deal with practical aspects of life situations, but always be aware that life happens in the eternal Now.

Reflective Questions

  • How are my thoughts, memories, and patterns of the past robbing me of the freedom for positive action in the Now?
  • How are anxious thoughts or incessant plans for the future paralyzing my actions in the Now?

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