This page is a review of the book, Rocking the Boat: How Tempered Radicals Effect Change Without Causing Trouble, by Debra Meyerson. The review is completed in phases, exploring a different aspect of the text and its connection in my professional life in each phase.
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 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 shows 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 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 being a tempered radical requires patience and perseverance and, “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 they perceive as setting them apart or excluding them; they can have different social identities from the mainstream but not feel these differences are a basis of exclusion; or they 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, family, and lifelong friends who they could depend on for support. 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 at the school fell well outside of normal work hours (or, more importantly, available childcare hours). It seemed no one else I knew was struggling with balancing their professional life and role as parent, as most could 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 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. 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.
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 act to affect change within our school. Some of my major concerns have been about access and equity for the students, professional support for the teachers, and a focus on high quality educational opportunities which 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 that “success” meant learning the objectives IB had laid out. 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 the students were capable of success were rewarded with most 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 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 to push back when I hear teachers say some kids “can’t” or certain curriculum is “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.
Task Three: Facing Challenges
Meyerson lists several challenges tempered radicals face. These include, ambivalence about their conflicting roles within an organization, incremental lures toward co-optation, concerns about damaging their reputation, and frustration or burnout. While I have had minor experiences with these, the ones that concern me most are frustration and burnout, which usually makes co-optation tempting. I have earned the nickname “mirror of truth” at work, which is to say, if you want an honest opinion, I’m your girl. I am certainly careful to word my feedback so I do not offend, but there are many times being the one people look to for critical feedback (not that I disagree with everything by any extent) becomes exhausting or I fear I am viewed as a naysayer. If I initially disagree with a practice or policy, I ask questions to understand the decision more before outwardly disagreeing. There are many policies I will speak up against, particularly if I think they negatively affect the students and learning. The co-optation becomes tempting when I use the language and concerns of admin while trying to help teachers frame their concerns to our superiors. Co-optation is also tempting when I am just burnt out or don’t want to be viewed as disagreeable so I sit on my concerns instead of voicing them. To avoid stifling important conversations, I try to be very judicious about what I speak my truth about and what I let go.