Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

The Everyday Leadership of ‘Tempered Radicals’

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

This is a guest post by Dennis Sparks, Emeritus Executive Director of the National Staff Development Council, now known as Learning Forward. Dennis’ blog, “Dennis Sparks on Leading and Learning,” can be found at

“Radical learners” may sometimes feel like outsiders even when they hold important positions withing their schools.  Debra Meyerson uses the term “tempered radicals” to describe such individuals, and it is also the name of a book she wrote based on studies she has done on TRs, as she calls them.

Drawing on Meyerson’s Tempered Radicals and a 2005 interview I did with her for the JSD, I offer a set of attributes about “everyday leadership” so that “radical learners” can be even more effective in using their unique talents and perspectives to serve students and their school communities.

Who are “tempered radicals”?

“‘Tempered Radicals,'” Meyerson writes in her book, “are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations. …  Tempered radicals are likely to think ‘out of the box’ because they are not fully in the box. As ‘outsiders within,’ they have both a critical and creative edge. They speak new ‘truths.'”

Meyerson also sees TRs as “everyday leaders” who are “… quiet catalysts who push back against prevailing norms, create learning, and lay the ground work for slow but ongoing organizational and social change.”

Here are five attributes of tempered radicals who are effective “everyday leaders”:

They speak their truths, even when afraid: “[M]ost conflicts,” Meyerson wrote in Tempered Radicals, “are not created by tempered radicals; but tempered radicals are often the ones who speak ‘truths’ and raise issues that have been suppressed. … Such acts of deviation …,” she writes, “require self-knowledge and conviction to overcome enormous pressure to conform and to suppress beliefs that challenge the majority.”

They have strong support networks: “Allies remind you that your struggles are not yours alone,” Meyerson wrote in her book. “Having people with whom you can compare your experience helps you identify larger patterns outside yourself that need to change. . . . The biggest advantage of working in concert with others is that collectives have greater legitimacy, power, and resources than individuals.”

They have a bias toward action, especially “small deviant actions”:  “Sometimes [TRs] inspire change simply by behaving differently, and their small deviant actions challenge norms and set an example that others emulate . . .,” Meyerson wrote in Tempered Radicals. “Often tempered radicals lead change more deliberately by initiating small wins that result in new relationships, understandings, and patterns of behavior.”

They have clarity about and a laser-like focus on their most important goals: “Effective agents of change at the grass-roots level know who they are and what they are trying to accomplish,” Meyerson told me in our JSD interview. “Effective tempered radicals hold on to their deepest goals, which enables them to push through their fears and to choose their battles effectively.”

They promote, through their example and advocacy, experimentation and deep professional conversations: “Tempered radicalism is sustained through the daily interactions that occur within a supportive context …,” Meyerson told me in the JSD interview. “That’s done when teachers experiment, have some success, and have deep conversations with one another about the things that are working. … Experiments become the stimulus for conversation and the vehicle for professional learning.”

A final thought…

Tempered is an apt adjective to describe the radical learners who are drawn to this blog because of the inspiration and guidance it provides.

The attributes I described above are intended to provide yet another thread in this tapestry of ideas and practices to enable radical learners to better serve their school communities through countless acts of everyday leadership.

What is the Value of a Coach?

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Atul Gawande

A district administrator recently wrote to tell me that her district was facing “tough financial decisions” that are naturally causing lower morale.  Everyone in her district feels under attack. And “the coaches are naturally questioning their value.”

All of us experience dark times when we wonder if we are making a difference, and coaches are no different.  So I thought I would do my best to answer the coaches’ question.

What is the value of a coach?

Coaches Support & Encourage Teachers. A coach is a trusted friend to educators, a colleague, a sounding board, and a witness to the good.  These days can be difficult for educators, with increased expectations, decreased funding, more pressure and less encouragement.  Coaches provide an incredibly important service by listening, empathizing, and encouraging their colleagues respectfully and nonjudgmentally.

Coaches understand teachers because they are teachers themselves and most model practices as a part of coaching. For that reason, they can empathize with teachers in ways that are more difficult for others. Coaches get what it is like to have a great day and an awful day (sometimes in the same day).  They know how rewarding and tough teaching can be.

Many coaches have told me that an important part of what they do is to listen to their colleagues when it seems like their colleagues have no one else who is able or available to listen.

Coaches Encourage Meaningful Conversation.  Every organization improves or declines based on the quality of the conversation within it. Michael Fullan, who has written more than 30 books about educational change, sums this up in his great book Leading in a Culture of Change:

We have found that the single factor common to every successful change initiative is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, things get better.  If they remain the same or get worse, ground is lost.

Coaches study the art of communication—often video recording themselves and reflecting on how they ask questions, listen, encourage, and connect. They know how important each interaction can be, and they strive to engage in positive, supportive, honest conversations at all times.  In this way, coaches move a school forward one conversation at a time.

A coach is a second set of hands.  I don’t buy the line that teachers don’t want to learn.  In my experience, when teachers are respected and treated as professionals, most of them are passionate about their own learning and growth. The trouble is that teachers are swamped with urgent tasks. Often teachers have too much to do to organize learning how to implement new practices.

Coaches make learning much easier. Coaches do the work of organizing materials, explaining the practices, modeling, and providing support.  Thanks to coaches, teachers around the world finally are able to do what they most want to do: find new ways to reach more students.

 A coach is a second set of eyes.  The task of teaching, as I experienced just a week ago, can be a complicated and crazy ride demanding every ounce of a teacher’s attention. When you are locked-in to ensuring that your 33 7th-graders are on-task and learning, it can be difficult to pause and deeply reflect on what is actually going on the classroom.

A coach can gather data a teacher would like to gather if they weren’t so busy actually teaching.  Also, coaches can gather data that might otherwise go undetected, recording, for example, how teachers use their time, students’ levels of engagement, teachers’ positivity ratio, and the kind of questions asked by teachers and students.

A coach leaves a legacy. We go into education because we want to make a difference, to leave our world a little better than we found it. George Lucas sums up what we all know to be true when he writes about the teachers who taught him:

 Apart from my parents, my teachers have done the most to shape my life.

Few people can be more confident that they are making a difference than a coach.  Every time a coach helps a teacher implement a new teaching or learning strategy, the coach is helping every other student that teacher will teach. One step forward for a teacher is one step forward for hundreds or thousands of children.  Multiply that impact by all a coach does every day, and you get a clear picture of the value of instructional coaches.

Education is the way we move society forward. And coaches are one important way we move schools forward. For that reason, if you want to make our world a better place, there are few ways more powerful than being a coach.

What is the value of a coach?  A coach is as valuable as a better future for our children. That seems extremely valuable to me.

Teachers as Leaders of Classroom Teams

Monday, January 10th, 2011

This is a guest column by Dennis Sparks Emeritus Executive Director of the National Staff Development Council, now known as Learning Forward and author of many publications about education, including his outstanding book Leading for Results: Transforming Teaching, Learning, and Relationships in Schools.

In every highly-effective classroom we study, we find a teacher who, like any great leader rallies team members (in this case, students and their families) around an ambitious vision of success.  . . . Without exception, these teachers define their role as doing whatever it takes to ensure their students’ success.

Steven Farr, December 2010/January 2011 EL

Sometimes it is the simple acts that are the most radical. That’s because their successful execution requires the most radical kind of learning — the development of new paradigms that affect how individuals view the world and the acquisition of understandings and skills that guide their actions in implementing the new paradigm. In this case, I’m thinking of teachers adopting a conceptual frame in which they view themselves as leaders of teams of students and their families and developing the knowledge and skills required to be successful team leaders.

In this new paradigm, teachers see themselves as leaders of cooperative student teams rather than as instructors of individual students who compete with one another for grades and their teacher’s attention. In such classrooms, all students and their families feel responsible for the success of every student and do everything in their power to ensure it. Teachers design meaningful, engaging academic work for student teams and explicitly teach their students essential interpersonal skills, including those of peer mediation and other group-based processes to settle disputes and address classroom discipline issues.

This radically different view of teaching requires that school leaders interact with teachers in new ways. Teacher performance evaluation would be less about a teacher’s “moves” and more about the quality of the academic work that teachers design for student teams and the strength of the teamwork displayed within their classrooms. Leaders would have frequent conversations with teachers about the features of meaningful, engaging academic work and the attributes of high-functioning teams. Formal professional learning would also address the understandings and skills required to design such student work and to lead classroom and family teams, among other topics.

In addition, if teachers are to be successful leaders of classroom teams, it is essential, I believe, that they themselves are active participants in strong, school-based collegial teams that have as their purpose the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Through their own experiences with team-based learning teachers will better understand the challenges and benefits of meaningful teamwork and be motivated to ensure that those benefits are available to all members of the school community.

Viewing teachers as leaders responsible for the development of high-functioning classroom teams will in many schools be a radical departure from the traditional “sage on the stage” paradigm. It will require extensive learning by doing and sustained, substantive professional conversations within teacher teams and between teachers and their leaders. Such an approach—deeply embedded within the culture of schools—is in my view an example of “radical learning” at its best.

The Undivided Life

Friday, December 10th, 2010

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.  E. E. Cummings

Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride. U2

I was listening to U2’s tribute to Martin Luther King,  Pride (In the Name of Love) as I drove across town the other day, and the song prompted me to wonder what it was about Dr. King that made it possible for him lead in the way that he did.  What is it about any person that makes it possible for them to be a powerful force for good?

Many ideas came to the surface.  Dr. King had a crystal clear moral purpose. He was passionate. He had a deep faith. He was magnificently articulate, disciplined, hard working and so forth.

These were the leadership characteristics I thought of first, but then I arrived at something that is at least equally important: Martin Luther King Jr., and others like him, live an undivided life.

I learned about the divided and undivided life in Parker Palmer’s profound and beautiful book, The Courage to Teach. Here is a what he wrote:

Many of us know from personal experience how it feels to live a divided life.  Inwardly we experience an imperative for our lives, but outwardly we respond to quite another… there are extremes of dividedness that become intolerable…

The institutions we inhabit, Palmer explains, can make it very difficult to live an undivided life because those institutions make claims on us that are at “odds with our hearts”:

That tension [between who we are and what our organization asks us to do] can … become pathological when the heart becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of the organization, when we internalize organizational logic and allow it to overwhelm the logic of our own lives.

Palmer describes Rosa Parks as “our most vivid icon of the undivided life.”  When she chose to sit at the front of the bus, he explains, she was deciding that she would no longer live the life divided. Indeed, when asked why she stayed in her seat, Palmer tells us, she said “I … was tired of giving in.” To live an undivided life, then, is to stop giving in.

And just like Rosa Parks, Palmer writes, teachers need to stop giving in.

I meet teachers around the country who remind me of Rosa Parks: they love education too much to let it sink to its lowest form … These teachers have decided that teaching is a front-of-the bus thing for them, even though their institutions want to move it to the back… they act in ways that honor their own commitment to the importance of teaching. What these teachers do is often as simple as refusing to yield their seat on the bus: they teach each day in ways that honor their deepest values rather than in ways that conform to the institutional norm.

It is the undivided life, I believe, as much as anything, that fuels many of our greatest actions whether we are talking about leading a generation-defining movement for freedom, or teaching a five-year old child to read.  And each of us carries within us the potential to stop living the life divided.

To know who we are and what we stand for, and act in ways that truly express that knowledge is an act of courage and integrity. But that action is also precisely what will save our schools, our students, and our selves.

There is so much we can do to improve the way all the people (adults and children) in our schools learn.  One way to start is to “stop giving in.” We can make it clear, in our words and actions, that education must always be a humane, authentic activity for everyone.

The divided life is soul destroying.  But the undivided life liberates us and our students and it is the beginning of creating the schools our children deserve.