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To maintain a clear sense of moral purpose, to advocate for those least advantaged in our current systems, and to be willing to both navigate within and sometimes, when called for, to take a stand against, some of the forces of our VUCA context, requires more than an ability to manage effectively. (p. 14)
Transformative Leadership: A Way Forward
To address the many challenges facing school leaders today (and by leader I include both teacher-leaders and those holding formal positions of responsibility), I want to suggest that because transformative leadership is substantively different from most other approaches, it offers a promising way forward. One major difference is its starting point. Transformative leadership starts at the end. It argues, with Foster (1986) that leadership that is “critically educative,” not only looks “at the conditions in which we live, but it must also decide how to change them” (p. 185). It begins by recognizing that the material realities of the wider community impinge on the ability of any organization to achieve success and on the ability of individuals within the organization to succeed. It acknowledges that an unequal playing field, in which the gap between rich and poor grows steadily, requires extraordinary effort on the part of impoverished children if they wish to be successful in school. It recognizes that the dominant cultural norms of our society create, as Delpit (1990) has for so long and so eloquently argued, a “culture of power” that advantages some children and marginalizes others within our schools, requiring once again a Herculean effort on the part of minoritized students to master both their home culture and that of the school. It acknowledges that for children whose sexual orientation (or that of their parents) is not heteronormative, whose belief systems draw from Islamic culture, or for whom their home languages are not English, schools are often not safe places. Thus, rather than bring their lived experiences into the sense-making conversations of the classroom, many children have learned they must hide or negate significant parts of themselves. (pp. 18–19)
Supplemental Chapter Resources
David Dean is a persistent and dedicated transformative leader, and, as might be expected in a diverse community, he is not without both supporters and detractors. When he first took up his new principalship, he found himself reporting to the school’s previous principal who had been promoted to the central office. Unfortunately, instead of offering her support, the assistant superintendent permitted her friends and “inner circle” from her previous position to bypass Dr. Dean and run directly to her. To compound the problem, as is common in days of rapid and complex change, the role had changed substantially as David’s job was not only to continue to lead the high school, but to oversee the construction and opening of a new building—a task that frequently took him outside of the old building.
Despite considerable political machination and unpleasantness, David Dean persisted—attending football games, traveling to the band’s jazz concerts, engaging the community and continuing to build relationships and garner community support. By year three of his tenure, the elected school board understood the negative undercurrents, instituted some changes in the central office personnel, and provided Dr. Dean with unconditional support.
Elsewhere (see Shields, 2009, p. 187), I described how, in his previous position, Dr. Dean stepped beyond the bounds of his position to provide support for a troubled teenager in ways his family could not, taking him to medical appointments and spending considerable time with him, earning the nickname of “Danny’s Dad” from other staff members.
At other times, Mr. Dean engaged in a kind of activism he sometimes portrays as “subversive” leadership within his school. On one occasion, for example, a teacher became angry when a name tag of one of the school’s mentally challenged young students had somehow become twisted and was lying on his back rather than visible from the front as policy dictated. Rather than simply moving the ID card (intended to identify students as belonging to that particular school), the teacher “wrote the student up” and sent him to the office. Mr. Dean refused to punish the student, but simply reported that he had “appropriately disciplined the student.”
David Dean sums up his need to do what he believes is right for students regardless of internal politics and pressures by saying, “I used to be an actuary and made a lot of money, but I could not sleep at night. Now I make much less, but I sleep well. I know I am doing the right thing for kids.” The message, once again, is the need for persistence and moral courage.
Like Mr. Dean, to be a courageous, transformative leader, we have to understand our priorities, act morally and decisively, and stand up against injustice wherever it occurs. Unless we can clearly articulate what grounds us, what guides us—indeed, what permits us to sleep at night, we will not be able to find the courage to act consistently in transforming and empowering ways. For that reason, we turn now to a fuller examination of the first step of becoming a transformative leader: knowing yourself.
As we saw in the text, Madeleine Grumet (1995) states that:
What is basic is not a certain set of texts, or principles or algorithms, but the conversation that makes sense of these things. Curriculum is that conversation. It is the process of making sense with a group of people of the systems that shape and organize the world that we can think about together. (p. 19)
Catherine Lake lives and breathes this philosophy. Her implementation of “conversation that makes sense of things” is quite different from curriculum as preparing students to pass standardized tests. It is not the typical conception of curriculum or teaching found in most colleges of education or in most teacher-education programs. It therefore requires considerable thought and work on a daily basis. Curriculum as conversation and sense-making with a group of people requires dialogue and interaction; learning is no longer a purely individual activity, although each person will take away something different based on his or her own basis for the sense-making. Curriculum as a conversation that makes sense of things takes the weight of responsibility from the teacher alone and distributes it to all members of the group.
To help teachers understand and enact this concept, Catherine is aware that she is engaging in transformative leadership. She acknowledges that this requires constant awareness of socio-economic inequities and ongoing dialogue about how to offer educational redress. She knows that, as a school principal, she is not necessarily changing the wider societal patterns of poverty and power, but at the same time, that she is always making decisions that take account of the need for redistributive polices in schools to help to correct inequitable outcomes. This is not as easy as it sounds, but also requires both commitment and moral courage.
Catherine Lake, as we saw in the text, led her staff in a series of investigations that first changed their awareness, and ultimately their practice. Catherine was determined that every educator in her building would understand that there were some things that were “non-negotiable”—such as the need for equity, for every child to be held to high standards and to show progress in his or her learning outcomes.
One outcome of these conversations was a new and flexible approach to teaching both math and reading. The approach was based on the specific tasks to be learned and students’ unique abilities and knowledge of each task. In math, for example, one student might have already developed considerable skill with the grouping and regrouping necessary for complex addition and subtraction and could, for that unit, progress quite quickly and skillfully. In the next unit, if the same student had never learned measurement skills, he or she might require additional time to reach mastery. Hence, through a series of pre- and post-tests, students were grouped and regrouped to maximize meaningful learning. In similar fashion, students were regularly assessed for reading skills and regrouped accordingly.
Teachers also agreed on many strategies that would be highly controversial and perhaps unattainable in many schools—especially in unionized environments. They agreed that for each new task, those children having the most difficulty at a given moment should learn in smaller groups, with teachers with more skilled students voluntarily accepting larger groups. They decided that parent volunteers would be trained to assist in the groups where they were most needed (and not specifically where their own children were placed); and ultimately, they agreed to pool and redistribute some of their scarce fiscal resources to address needs that were newly identified. For example, the new approach to grouping revealed a lack of adequate high interest age/grade appropriate reading materials to meet the needs of a Spanish-speaking group of students, new to the school and the community. When there had been only one or two children per classroom falling below grade level expectations, this need went unnoticed; but with the new approach, it was clear that additional materials needed to be purchased from the already stretched and limited school budget. The teachers generously approached the challenge by renouncing individual requests to purchase the needed materials.
The foregoing constitutes an example of the collective and transformative outcomes that may be attained when a transformative leader persists in engaging faculty in conversations about student capacity, ability, and need. These actions do not occur spontaneously, but require ongoing attention and persistent support and encouragement on the part of a leader.
Moreover, these examples illustrate the importance and the effectiveness of transformative leadership. Persistence in these new approaches required Catherine to be willing to take risks, and to have the courage to take a firm stand, resisting threats about what might happen should the changes detract from improving test scores or meeting AYP.
As indicated by the public reports of school data and the movement of test scores over time, there is a clear need for consistent and persistent leadership. Catherine herself says that when she backed off in 2011 and relaxed the pressure for dialogue and understanding inequity, test scores dropped.
Nevertheless, recognizing the continued change in her school population from 21.9% low income and 70.6% White in 2002 to the current 46% low income and 33.1% White; the school’s performance exceeds what many educators believe to be possible.
John Law is a transformative leader in a school in which many people would never think about diversity or equity issues, given that the demographics of the school comprise 92% White students (no African Americans) and only 6% low income.
Moreover, we can see that test results are not an issue here, being well above the state averages, and generally above the district norm as well.
John Law, however, was so concerned about the ways in which many educators and community members in his and similar schools conceptualize education as a means for them to maintain their social and economic positions—positions he says he can only conceptualize as privilege, that it provided the impetus for his doctoral research study.
What John found was that, in general, educators in very affluent schools and communities were reluctant to acknowledge that the wealth of the community conferred any advantage or privilege. In fact, most educators refused to say their school or community had additional advantages, always comparing themselves to some place perceived to have “more.” Similarly, they spoke about their students being well-prepared and supported at home, about having hired highly skilled teachers and having engaged in comprehensive curriculum alignment, but they were almost pathologically unable to acknowledge privilege. If this is true elsewhere, it speaks, once again, to the strong need for all educators to be willing to engage in difficult conversations about the relations between education and public good and the need to help all students acknowledge their positionality and their responsibilities to the public good of their community, nation, and global community.
As one can read, in numerous accounts of Greek mythology, “Procrustes was an innkeeper who promised his guests a bed that fit them perfectly. However, as soon as the travelers were in his house, Procrustes would tie them to an iron bed. If they were shorter than the bed, he would stretch them on a rack until they were as long as the bed. If the guests were taller than the bed, Procrustes would cut off their legs until they fit. In either case, his victims died. Procrustes met his end at the hands of the Greek hero Theseus, who killed him the same way that the robber took care of his victims. Today the term Procrustean bed means a standard or set of conditions, determined arbitrarily, to which everyone is forced to conform.” (See http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Pa-Pr/Procrustes.html). Some dictionaries indicate that the term also refers to forcing someone or something to fit into an unnatural scheme or pattern.
See also http://www.mythweb.com/teachers/why/basics/procrustes.html as well as the Adventures of Theseus (http://www.sikyon.com/athens/Theseus/theseus_eg01.html) containing additional details and images. Interestingly, numerous images of this myth may be found during an online image search, with the following being representative: