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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Education Needs More Tempered Radicals

By Peter DeWitt — December 13, 2012 4 min read
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“Tempered radicals are people who operate on the fault line. They are organizational insiders who contribute and succeed in their jobs. At the same time, they are treated as outsiders because they represent ideals or agendas that are somehow at odds with the dominant culture”(2003. Meyerson. P.5).

Working in any system is complicated, especially one that has been as well-established as the public education system. There are those educators who are happy entering school every day following the same plans that they have for years, and they like being told what to do. They don’t question their surroundings and want to “just” teach their students. This does not make them bad educators; it just makes them happy with the status quo. These educators still help students succeed and don’t see the point in fighting everything happening top-down.

The reality is that slashing and burning is not going to happen in our present system, and it shouldn’t because there is a lot of goodness within the public school system that is effective with students. Of course, that also matters on your own school experience as well as the one you are presently having as a teacher, administrator or parent.

There are also educators who see the need to change everything. They want to slash and burn the present system and start a new one without walls or grades or too much adult interaction. They want to see sweeping changes in education and fail to understand why everyone else doesn’t jump on their bandwagon to help them make the sweeping changes that they feel education desperately needs. If you have ever seen Norma Rae starring Sally Field, you understand what I mean. They have a cause and want everyone to know what it is.

There is another group that can be found in schools and they are the tempered radicals. Tempered radicals may be teachers, teacher aides, parents or principals who want to see changes because they do not necessarily agree with the status quo, but they don’t want to wear their opinions on their sleeves either. Tempered radicals want to work within the present system in order to change it and make it better for all students, not just those who do well on tests or fit into a nicely wrapped box.

Education needs all of these stakeholders in order to improve it. There needs to be rule followers who will follow along and the extreme radicals who will fight hard to help change the status quo. However, education also needs tempered radicals who have the perspective of being on the inside and knowing what needs to change to make things better.

Education Reform
The interesting piece about being a tempered radical is what side of the education reform you fall on. Many policymakers who are trying to make sweeping changes may feel as though they are tempered radicals because they are going against the grain when really they are just people with radical thoughts. Many might argue that those radical thoughts are about making more money off the institution through testing and evaluation (Pearson Gets 1.7 Billion for Testing. Washington Post).

Tempered radicals are those educators on the inside who make subtle changes every day. Whether it’s the way they educate students (i.e. seamlessly using technology, parent communication, grading, etc.) or how they make changes to a building through shared decision making and listening to the needs of their stakeholders. Perhaps it is a principal who gives their teachers more autonomy or someone who sends out researched based articles on instruction and discusses them at faculty meetings so they can make changes in instructional practices.

For tempered radicals, the status quo is never good enough and it certainly isn’t good enough for their students. They want a better education system for children. Meyerson says, “Tempered radicals set themselves apart by successfully navigating a middle ground. They recognize modest and doable choices in between, such as choosing their battles, creating pockets of learning, and making way for small wins.” (2003. p.6).

Public education needs to be filled with tempered radicals, some of whom know it and others who have it within but haven’t expressed it yet. Many educators join the profession because they want to change it for the better while working within its constraints. They wanted to create better classroom environments for students.

Are Students Encouraged to be Tempered Radicals?
From a school perspective, how do we encourage students to become tempered radicals? How do we get them to care about their world? How do we break them out of a consumer mindset? We are all surrounded by social justice issues. Through community service projects students become exposed to issues that other community members face. Students need to understand that, even the shyest of students can work to change their surroundings.

“Many of these people who operate quietly are not trying to drive broad-based change; they simply want to be themselves and act on their values within the environment where that may be difficult.”(2003. p. 9). Whether it’s through missionary work with their church or students who want to begin a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in their school, students should be encouraged to be tempered radicals.

Our world is filled with issues that need our involvement. We have large political, economic and social issues that need our involvement. Our schools are in need of change, and our students should be an important part of those changes. As many students and adults wait around for other people to change our circumstances, tempered radicals are actively pursuing ways every day.

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Meyerson, Debra. (2003). Tempered Radicals: How Everyday Leaders Inspire Change at Work. Harvard Business School Press.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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