The following are my reflections on Rocking the Boat: How Tempered Radicals Effect Change Without Making Trouble by Debra Meyerson. The reflection develops in phases that reflect on various aspects of the text.
Task Zero, Review:
Rocking the Boat is a unique view of what being a change agent and leader truly entails. While many books about leadership discuss how to lead when one is in a formal leadership position, critique those in formal leadership positions, or tell the stories of everyday people who rise to leadership and effect change through dramatic and atypical means, Rocking the Boat explores the smaller, incremental ways in which anyone can affect change. Meyerson introduces the idea of the tempered radical, an individual who wants to make change from within an organization. This person’s role is a constant balancing act between challenging the status quo while preserving credibility and striving to be viewed as a an asset to their organization’s primary function. Meyerson effectively maps out multiple strategies these tempered radicals can employ to implement their vision for change. These strategies include quiet resistance, turning threats into opportunities, negotiation, leveraging small wins, and collective action. Meyerson points out that much of the work of a tempered radical is accomplished through the tempered radical having a clear vision of who they are and what is important to them. She notes that tempered radicals should always be on their toes looking for opportunities to nudge their agenda forward.
While Meyerson’s text helps reframe the idea of leadership, she does note many of the challenges faced by tempered radicals. These challenges include the stress from feelings of ambivalence about their desire not to conform and their desire to succeed. Additionally, radicals may struggle with co-optation, damaging their reputation, frustration, and burnout. She notes that being a tempered radical requires patience and perseverance and that, “everyday leaders do not quench the thirst for quick fixes, “killer apps”, or grand transformations…(they are)quiet catalyst who push back against prevailing norms, create learning, and lay the groundwork for slow but ongoing organizational change”.
Task One, How am I different?:
In her book, Meyerson lists three ways of being different from the mainstream. People can have difference social identities that they see as setting them apart or excluding them. Alternatively, they can have different social identities from the mainstream but not feel these differences are a basis of exclusion. Finally, a person can have philosophical differences which conflict with prevailing values, beliefs, and agendas in the organization.
As a white woman, I am a member of the mainstream in education. There have been some occasions where I have felt my difference from the immediate group I worked with set me apart. The most notable occasion of this is my role as a “single” parent, particularly when living in communities where I did not have a social circle to support me. I use quotes with “single” because I wasn’t always truly single, but my partner and I did not always live in the same city due to his work. I noticed this otherness when working and living in Lincoln, Nebraska. Most of my colleagues were married with children so it doesn’t seem like my status as parent should make me feel different, but they also had spouses, parents, and lifelong friends who they could depend on for support when their children fell ill or school functions occurred outside. Being new to the community, I lacked this support system. There were many times where late meetings or opportunities to serve on committees or volunteer opportunities at the school fell well outside of normal work hours (or, more importantly, available childcare hours). It seemed no one else that I knew was struggling with balancing their professional life and role as parent, as most that I knew were able to have their spouse or extended family assist. I cannot honestly say I did much in this time to push for change or awareness of my challenges in balancing professional and personal obligations. I did however begin to become much more vocal about this issue when I began working in Chicago. I was one of two parents employed in a faculty of over 50. The other parent had a stay-at-home spouse, so he was generally free for late meetings, fundraisers (and there are dozens of fundraisers a year in CPS schools), and other events that occurred (drastically) outside of work hours. The remaining staff was all very young and almost exclusively single. Additionally, our principal at the time had a reputation for firing those teachers who did not attend everything from Local School Council meetings to staff socials in the evenings and on weekends. I was regularly reminded that my tenure at the school would be short lived if I did not attend as many events as possible. This did not sit well with me. I began regularly having conversations with my fellow teachers and eventually my assistant principals about this unwritten expectation. I would remind them that we were in education and expect the parents of our students to be home caring for their children, not running around to every possible social event or giving up all their vacation time to be at the work for free.
Pushing back against my employer about expectations that conflicted with my personal responsibilities was challenging at first, but laid the foundation for finding my “voice” to speak up when I was concerned about developments in our school. My time in Chicago has been eye-opening about the myriad ways schools can be managed (and mismanaged). In six years our school has had six principals. This turnover has allowed for a variety of initiatives, educational philosophies, and issues. Prior to my time in Chicago, I would keep my concerns to myself and just do the best I could with what was in my control. In the past six years, I have learned how to professionally voice my concerns and work for goals I believed were philosophically correct.
Task Two, Becoming a Tempered Radical:
Meyerson lays out five ways tempered radicals make a difference. These are quiet resistance, turning threats into opportunities, negotiation, leveraging small wins, and organizing collective action. These actions fall on a continuum from working individually to very outwardly working with others. I have always gravitated more towards individual action rather than leading large groups or working for systemic change. This preference has gradually changed over my time in Chicago. More and more I have pushed myself to take action to affect change within our school. Some of my major concerns within the school have been about access and equity for the students, professional support for the teachers, and a focus on high quality educational opportunities that will result in deep, lasting gains for students over a short-term focus on standardized tests and school rankings.
One of the most important events in my career was my experience teaching our school’s inaugural cohort of students in the International Bacculareate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP). Chicago students are typically carefully selected for admission into these programs and tend to be high performing. Our high school was new and our students gained admission through a random lottery. Our first cohort comprised of hard working students with average ACT scores of 17- “college ready” is a score of 20. These were students who would not have been accepted into DP almost anywhere, but were part of the great experiment of starting a high school. It was an arduous two years for students and teachers alike. The expectations in DP are extremely high and challenge even the highest performing of students. The fact that most of our cohort lacked background knowledge to easily access the curriculum would not change the fact that “success” meant learning the objectives IB had laid out. The expectations remained high and it was the teachers’ jobs to deliver learning experiences that would allow our students to succeed. While students had a role in their success, I saw firsthand how the quiet biases and low expectations of many teachers impacted the students’ abilities to access the curriculum and learn. Teachers had to innovate, and it wasn’t always easy, but those teachers who never lost faith that the students were capable of success were rewarded with the majority of their students passing the exit assessments for their class. Those teachers who focused on the standardized test scores or educational background as the metric for the students’ abilities had low passing rates in their classes.
This experience was powerful for me because it confirmed all of my philosophical beliefs about who “can” (everyone) and who “can’t” as well as broadening my idea of what high quality instruction included. During the two years with this cohort, I would only occasionally speak up against a teacher who would be venting about how some of the students didn’t have what it took and instead focused on doing everything in my power to support the success of students in my class. Now, I take every opportunity I have to push back when I hear teachers say some kids just “can’t” or that certain curriculum is just “too hard” for non-honors students. I try to be supportive of teachers in private conversations or when I am leading professional development, but I always try to open their eyes to the possibility of students accessing rich content and then try to support them in any way I can to reach this goal.