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October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

Fearless Leading

Courageous leading requires a dramatically different conception of the role of the leader.

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Teachers' beliefs about their students and themselves influence what they do in the classroom every day. The best teachers practice what we call the pedagogy of confidence, a pedagogy that is rooted in their passionate belief in their students' potential for high academic achievement and in their own ability to support all students (Jackson, 2001). Teachers who practice the pedagogy of confidence are fearless; they know how to negotiate the murky waters of conflicting curricular demands, overbearing assessments, and constant scrutiny to become the teachers they want to be.
But even the most fearless teachers need support from fearless leaders. Such leadership requires openness to new ways of doing things, intense examination of one's belief systems, and development of critical skills. In our leadership sessions at the National Urban Alliance (NUA), we have met many fearless leaders who are able to take what they learn from our leadership training and apply it in their schools in ways that facilitate growth in teachers and students.

New Metaphors for Leadership

Fearless leading requires a dramatically different conception of the role of the leader. A conception of the leader as the lone go-to person consumed by management concerns only serves to isolate leaders. We encourage leaders to use different metaphors to define themselves and their roles. These new metaphors derive from the four pillars of the pedagogy of confidence: motivation, mediation, cultural responsiveness, and high intellectual performance.

Leaders as Architects

Education leaders are architects. They put into place the environmental conditions that motivate key players. Leaders set the tone in their buildings. When they encourage risk taking, sharing across classrooms, openness, and transparency, they allow light to pierce the darkness of decisions made in isolation. They set up conditions that cry out for group contribution and consideration. When leaders see themselves as architects of the learning environment, they put into practice one of the four pillars of the pedagogy of confidence: motivation.
Housing almost 1,200 students in grades preK–8, the school where Angela Rockettwas principal occupied one square block in a large urban New England school district. The campus was divided into two divisions: one for grades preK–5 and one for grades 6–8. Each division had its own bell schedule, faculty, administration, and ways of doing things. Four years ago, the two divisions were connected by nothing more than an unkempt and underused interior courtyard, a record of underachievement, a state mandate to introduce data teams to guide instruction, and a hodgepodge of district-imposed initiatives.
Instead of becoming overwhelmed by these challenges, Rockett viewed them as possibilities. She decided to unite the two divisions around research-based pedagogy. The first structural change was to combine the two independently operating data teams from each division into one overarching vertical data team for the school. This move symbolically connected the two divisions under one vision and one goal.
Because teachers in both divisions were participating in National Urban Alliance professional development, Rockett used our approach to pedagogy as a second unifying factor. A frequent question that would surface after examination of data was, What NUA practices could help students perform better on these tasks?
Finally, the school won a grant from the Thinking Foundation (www.thinkingfoundation.org), which enabled them to explore using thinking maps to guide conversations during their data team meetings. Having the data team use thinking maps demonstrated the power of these graphic organizers and increased teachers' comfort level in using them instructionally.
These efforts have met with great success. School achievement is up, staff members share a common vision, and students benefit from consistent instructional methodologies. In short, Rockett, like all good architects, used the materials and conditions at hand to craft a revitalized and high-functioning education environment.

Leaders as Ministers

The root of the word administrator isminister, a word that takes personal power out of the leadership equation and replaces it with service. Ideally, ministers work on behalf of others in an effort to achieve a higher good. They are mediators, people who deliberately intervene between the individual or group and the environment (Feuerstein, 1982).
Schools need ministers—people who look out for the common good, are devoted to service to the school, and have the moral influence to improve conditions for learning and teaching. In some cases, this mediation involves political and community advocacy. In other instances, it involves putting together the right people and resources to support the school's mission. In all cases, it requires an intimate knowledge of teachers' and students' needs. Mediation, the second pillar of the pedagogy of confidence, is often behind-the-scenes work.
Principal Martha Davies believes that rich resources exist in her school's poor community. She further believes that it is her job to bring these resources together to make a difference in the lives of students and the community. One of these resources is the school itself. Housing approximately 400 students from one of the poorest sections of a city in upstate New York, the school is frequently open from 7:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., offering such on-site services as dental and medical care. To ensure maximum participation of parents and guardians in school activities, PTA meetings are held at dismissal time, and child care is provided. The school regularly holds potluck suppers, and communication is ongoing, extensive, inclusive, and immediate.
When the school received the results of the instructional assessment the National Urban Alliance conducts at the start of a partnership, Davies wanted to share the results with parents and guardians, as well as to demonstrate some of the new instructional practices her teachers were instituting. Since the partnership was in its infancy, some of the teachers had not received NUA training and therefore would not have example lessons to share. To ensure that no one was left out, NUA-trained teachers conducted lessons in colleagues' classrooms. Student-produced artifacts from these lessons were collected and displayed at the event.
The outside community is another rich resource that Davies uses regularly. Physically attached to the local YMCA, the school uses the Y's gym and library to enhance what is available in the school. The Lexis/Nexis mentoring program invites business people to meet with students during their lunch hours. In addition, the school has a partnership with General Electric to encourage students to become technological innovators.
Principal Davies embodies the role of administrator as minister. She uses her position to connect people to services and services to people. She acts as an intermediary who assesses needs, provides mediation, and then steps back and lets the process develop. As a result of these efforts, academic performance is on the rise. Between the 2006–07 and 2007–08 school years, growth was seen in 10 out of the 14 measures in New York State's accountability program.

Leaders as Soul Friends

Relationships play a pivotal role in learning, teaching, and administration (Barth, 2006; Delpit, 1995). Teachers can connect to students from various backgrounds by creating classrooms that are culturally responsive, the third pillar of the pedagogy on confidence. Administrators who become soul friends to the school community are better able to help teachers connect to students from different backgrounds.
The concept of a friend of the soul, ananam cara, is derived from the ancient Celts. The soul friend is meant to be friend, teacher, companion, spiritual guide, and someone to whom one confesses (O'Donohue, 1997). The friend of your soul recognizes you, and with that recognition comes understanding and belonging. A similar idea exists in African-American cultures, in the belief that one has the ability to "touch the spirit" (Mann, 2000).
Becoming a soul friend requires getting to the heart of what matters to another person. It involves creating a circle of belonging in which students and faculty feel safe to share their cultural perspectives and personal contexts, in which understanding and recognition are nourished and celebrated, in which meaningful engagement around powerful ideas flourishes.
In 2004, Margaret Sheridan became principal of a beleaguered high school in a large city in the southern United States. Academic underperformance, disenfranchisement, and isolation characterized the student body and the staff. Before Sheridan's arrival, the school had met none of its 13 goals under No Child Left Behind. Sheridan changed all that.
On her first day of school, Sheridan was greeted by a bevy of angry parents, the media, and halls full of students who did not have schedules. One of her first actions was to recognize the parents' frustrations, asking them if they would be willing to work with her. Next, she formed a team of previously disenfranchised department and school leaders, empowering them to do the jobs they were hired to do and more. She took similar actions with students. For example, she convinced a group of uninvolved, unfocused, and unmotivated girls to join the ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps). Finding a focus and purpose has transformed these lost souls into award-winning cadets.
Sheridan became a soul friend to her school community, modeling understanding, couching expectations in the lived context of the receiver, and knowing faculty and students deeply and nonjudgmentally. She worked tirelessly with her staff and students to encourage them to see the merits in culturally responsive interactions. Sheridan has built a community dominated by the African spirit of ubuntu: the sense that "I am who I am because of who we all are."
By 2005–06, the school met 10 of its 13 goals and achieved adequate yearly progress in math. The following year, it met all of its goals and achieved adequate yearly progress in reading and math, and it has continued to maintain these gains.

Leaders as Muses

The muses of Greek mythology are credited with providing inspiration across many artistic and intellectual pursuits. The artist who calls upon a muse has complete faith in the muse's ability to push the artist to a high level of achievement. The muse who answers the call believes in the artist's capacity to use the inspiration in powerful new ways. The artist/muse relationship is built on mutually high expectations. Leaders who act as muses hold high expectations for teachers and students and ensure that the school's focus is on achieving high intellectual performance—the fourth pillar of the pedagogy of confidence.
At Nancy Nieman's Midwestern urban middle school, expectations are high for all students. This school of just under 600 K–8 students, two-thirds of whom are black and 93 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, had not fared well under No Child Left Behind. Nieman was convinced that her students could do better.
Nieman determined that deep immersion into the pedagogy of confidence would unlock the potential of students and staff. When the National Urban Alliance came to the school for seminars and site visits, she made it her business to be a visible presence, providing both inspiration and support. Two years ago, she brought a team of her teachers to the National Urban Alliance's Summer Academy where, together, they developed a plan for infusing NUA principles into the life of the school.
Anchoring school change in the pedagogy of confidence enables the school community to take hold of a vision and make it prosper. Administrators who reframe their role as one of a muse inspire students and staff to grasp their vision and to push themselves beyond what others—and they—believe they can do.
In the three years that Nieman has led the school and partnered with NUA, district assessment data has shown that focusing on high expectations and pedagogical practices has made a difference. Students in grades 3–8 demonstrated growth in all 12 of the district's 2008–09 reading and mathematics assessments.

Total School Transformation

The pedagogy of confidence posits that the goal of schooling is to encourage fearless learning that propels students to capitalize on their potential and achieve high intellectual performance. Teachers who practice the pedagogy of confidence motivate students, provide mediation, teach in a culturally responsive manner, and focus on high intellectual performance.
Fearless leaders buoy such fearless teachers by filling the roles of architect, minister, soul friend, and muse. These four roles are a formidable antidote to the fear, hesitancy, and confusion that frequently buffet educators. Practiced together—and well—they increase teacher confidence and competence. Classrooms come alive with genuine inquiry, total engagement, and a burning desire for the work of the mind.
Propped up by the support of their fearless leaders, teachers and students can themselves be free. When fearless leading and fearless teaching are in place, a dynamic, reciprocal process takes shape that is built around developing learning confidence. Leaders who inspire confidence in their teachers enable teachers to inspire their students. As students grow in confidence and competence, teachers are inspired to develop student potential even further. Thus, the pedagogy of confidence builds pillars that support total school transformation.

Barth, R. S. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Educational Leadership, 63(6), 8–13.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Feuerstein, R. (1982). Instrumental enrichment. Baltimore: University Press.

Jackson, Y. (2001). Reversing underachievement in urban students: Pedagogy of confidence. In A. Costa (Ed.), Developing minds: Volume III (pp. 222–228). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Mann, A. (2000). Phonics and vocabulary building guidebook. New York: Intensified Accelerated Systems.

O'Donohue, J. (1997). Anam cara: A book of Celtic wisdom. New York: Harper Collins.

End Notes

1 All principals' names are pseudonyms.

Yvette Jackson currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She is the author of the 2011 ForeWord Reviews' Silver Book of the Year Award, The Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools, and co-author with Veronica McDermott of Aim High, Achieve More: How to Transform Urban Schools Through Fearless Leadership.

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