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 dennissparks.wordpress.com.
“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.