School Leaders Need SPACE, Too!


School teams that work with Challenge Success learn to create SPACE so students become more engaged, less stressed, and have a mindset conducive to intrinsic motivation and growth. This systemic approach which looks at: Students’ Schedules, Project-based Curriculum, Authentic Assessment, Climate of Care and Education of all stakeholders within the school community, helps promote engagement, well-being, and students who take pride in their progress and process as learners. 

Are school leaders, those facilitating these system-wide efforts, attending to their own well-being and long term sustainable success? Speaking from personal experience and listening to stories from others in leadership positions, it seems that leaders, too, need some SPACE — resources in terms of practices, tools, and networks of support to stay centered, present, and resilient amidst busy schedules, competing demands of multiple stakeholders, and externally imposed standards of success.  

Perhaps the following model of SPACE, adapted from the framework developed by Challenge Success, can provide a map so school leaders can best address their own personal effectiveness and well-being, and so they can in turn, best attend to all others they serve. Creating SPACE for leaders consists of: cultivating inner resources and Strengths, mindful Pacing, Accountability to one’s own declared values and standards of success, tending to a Culture of collaboration and support, and Education that feeds the body, mind and hearts of all involved. 

Take a quick personal inventory to see if you are providing yourself with the SPACE necessary to be as balanced, poised, resilient, inspired, and effective as you would like to be, and as the rigors of your job requires. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Strengths: Are you cultivating your inner resources in ways that enhance your leadership presence, sense of relaxation under pressure, and resilience? As psychologist/brain researcher Rick Hansen says, it is about having “the supplies in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life…as stable traits and enduring sources of well-being, wise, effective action, and contributions to others.” Having a centering practice has been essential to my well-being, resilience, and success. Centering includes: physical embodiment of an upright, open, dignified and receptive posture and state of being; setting positive intent in alignment with one’s purpose and values; reflecting on previous positive experiences of connection, courage, resilience and joy. 

Pacing: Do you mindfully schedule conversations, meetings, professional development throughout the day, week and year? Do you find opportunities to take “sacred pauses” and use time wisely to maximize your energy and performance? 

Accountability: Have you articulated for yourself meaningful measures of success, and have you been faithful to your own values? In the classic business book Great by Choice, Jim Collins uses the metaphor of a “20 mile march” (a way to hike across the country by consistently walking 20 miles per day) to portray the process of setting shorter tangible benchmark goals to keep us focused, moving forward and on track with regard to our broader vision of student success, even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty. It is easier to find evidence of smaller accomplishments, great efforts and noble attempts — bright spots that can be acknowledged and celebrated and which gives us momentum for larger-scale successes.

Brené Brown challenges us to narrow our core values to a set of two, then identify concrete behaviors aligned with these values and live by them. At the end of each day, can we look in the mirror and say to ourselves, “I have listened well, I had the courage to speak my truth in the most compassionate way possible?”

Culture of Collaboration: What are your declared aspirations, operational norms, and protocols that best align with your vision, values, and actions? This sets the context for others to partake on their own leadership journeys, and to collaborate in a spirit of mutual respect, to take risks, be accepting, forgiving and supportive of one another.

Education: What meaningful professional development opportunities do we design for self, staff, and parents that promote resilience and well-being, and engage the community in themes mentioned above?

As a martial artist (Aikido) for forty years, educator for 35, administrator for 20 and Challenge Success “associate” for 15, I know how hard it is to remain open, vulnerable and courageous; to remember we are not alone in our stories of accomplishment, setback, and sometimes even failure; and to remain faithful to our values and calling. Let’s take the SPACE for ourselves, and in doing so, be best equipped to serve others.


Alan Vann Gardner, Ed.D. currently serves as Principal of Apple Blossom School in Sonoma County. He has worked in both public and independent schools as a teacher, principal, and superintendent for over thirty years. While principal at Del Mar Middle School, Alan collaborated with Challenge Success for ten years, leading his teams through systemic change efforts resulting in portfolio assessment and new grading practices, changes to student recognition and scheduling, and inclusion of mindfulness and restorative practices within advisory, PE and leadership programs. He is also a senior practitioner and teacher of aikido, a non-violent martial art whose principles are readily applied to leadership, team development and conflict resolution.