Brave Teaching and Leading | Steve Barkley

Brave Teaching and Leading

An article by Joshua Freedman, Leading out of the storm: Taking Schools Forward (not ‘back to normal’) generated my pondering leading to this blog. He describes that when dealing with distrust, anxiety, and volatility our sense of safety is at stake. Leaders desiring to have followers feel safer may respond in either of these two ways:

  • One option is stasis. All these pressures might make leaders want to retreat — don’t rock the boat. At the same time, the status quo is not going to survive. We’re in a time of upheaval, and our constituents are demanding change.
  • Another option is bravery. We don’t need to and shouldn’t eliminate the valuable messages of fear. And, emotional intelligence doesn’t mean “obey all your feelings.” We need to listen and move forward. That’s courage.

While reading the article Compassion: A Teacher’s Greatest Learning Tool by Carla Tischio, the concept of teaching requiring courage and bravery was reinforced. She raised the question, “What do students deserve?”

Sometimes, compassion means responding with understanding and care to undesirable patterns of behavior. Sometimes, it means planning projects that capture the whole mind of the child—not just their ability to read, but their desire to discover and create. When we do this successfully, we allow the fear and shame some students carry around with them to take a backseat to more favorable and healthy effects. We must show compassion to all students—especially the ones who vex us the most. It is our responsibility to build an inclusive and restorative community where all children are invited to think critically, work collaboratively, and build respect for themselves and one another, even when inevitable challenges arise.

It’s much easier (requires less courage and bravery) to follow the rules, procedures, and pacing guide. I’ve been encouraging PLCs to be asking the question, “What do our students need us to learn?” Thanks to Tischio, I’m adding another question, “What do our students deserve? Identifying what students deserve will likely point us in the direction of things we might need to learn. Building our collective courage is a valuable outcome of an effective PLC.

“Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” (Maya Angelou)

Freedman points to the work of Paul Zak, identifying authentic relationships, rather than decisiveness, as a key to brave leadership. In a relational context, the goal is mutuality. Safety in uncertain times is built when people feel seen, heard, and valued. That means going beneath the surface. It requires us to engage our own and one another’s emotions. The tool for trust-centered leadership is emotional intelligence. For authentic connections, we need to know and trust ourselves and have the tools to know and trust one another. Social-emotional learning is as important for adults as it is for students.

Zak’s focus on trust-centered leadership is reinforced in Berne Brown’s descriptors of courage.

She labels vulnerability as the “only path to courage” and identifies uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure as the elements of vulnerability. As we return to teaching and learning in 2022, uncertainty is a constant. Risking is a necessity as stasis really isn’t an option. There is no going back to or waiting for normal. We must risk moving forward. Brown points out that vulnerability requires staying in difficult conversations: giving and asking for feedback when it’s hard. As I listened to those words, I realized that I need to apply them to stay in conversations with myself. Maybe that is where courage and bravery truly emerge. As a leader and as a teacher when I answer the question, “What do people deserve?” I may need to tap my courage to execute my appropriate response/action.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” (Nelson Mandela)

Feeling seen, heard, and valued

As teachers, what actions should you be taking that causes students to feel seen, heard, and valued?

As coaches and school leaders, what actions should you be taking that cause staff to feel seen, heard, and valued?

What leadership actions generate feeling seen, heard, and valued among parents and the greater school community?

“The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is:
What is the quality of the emotional relationships here?” (David Brooks)

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