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A Conversation about Leadership with Carol Tomlinson

A Conversation about Leadership with Carol Tomlinson

By
May 22, 2023

In this 10 Minute Tuesday, Eduplanet21 speaks with PLUS Author Carol Tomlinson about leadership and change. She provides insight into the difference between an administrator and a leader, and shares common traits of excellent leaders. As always, Carol brings her message to life through first-person stories. 

About Carol Tomlison:

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia where she taught courses in curriculum and instruction as well as serving as Co-Director of the School of Education and Human Development’s Institutes on Academic Diversity. Prior to joining the faculty at UVa, she was a public school teacher for 21 years, including middle school, high school, and preschool. She was named Virginia’s Teacher of the Year in 1974, Outstanding Professor at Curry in 2004, and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2020, Carol was ranked #12 in Education Week’s overall Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling and #4 in the field of Psychology. She is the author of 16 books on the topics of differentiated instruction and curriculum as well as many professional development materials and over 200 articles. Her books have been translated into 12 languages.

 

You can learn more about Carol’s Professional Learning Institutes on our website: 

If you prefer to read a transcript of this conversation, it is available below.

 

You can learn more about Eduplanet21 and the Curriculum Management and Professional Learning programs we offer, by visiting here

 

Full Transcript: Leading a Curriculum Mindset Shift

Clare Coupe Scott

 

Welcome to Eduplanet21’s 10 Minute Tuesdays. These are conversations with experts in education. My name is Clare Coupe Scott, and I work on the professional learning institutes at Eduplanet21. Today I am delighted to be joined by Carol Tomlinson. She's one of our Plus authors and she has a full professional learning institute on differentiation. Carol, thanks so much for joining me today.

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

It is a pleasure to work with you and a pleasure to be a part of Eduplanet21.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

We've had a lot of conversations about and certainly the content of your institute is really focused on classroom practitioners. But today I'd like to turn the tables a little bit and talk about leadership and its impact on differentiation if that's okay.

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

Sure. Very important topic.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

So let's talk about leadership in general. When you think about great leaders, what are some of the common characteristics of a great leader?

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

I've come to understand that there's a real difference between a great leader and a great administrator. Administrators have a really lot to do and plenty to fill their days and all the stuff has to be done. But leadership is a whole different thing. I think a leader has a vision for something important, something that will make a difference in their world and the world of the people who work with them. I think they kind of stay awake at night thinking about that vision and so they are energized by it. And I think great leaders then invite their colleagues to think about that vision with them and to contribute to it and to work with it. And in the working with thing, I think, and of course this is sort of a differentiation thing, I think they have to honor the entry points of the people who are working with them. I think they have to honor the strengths of the people who are working with them and the kind of support they'll need will be different. But I think that vision is, here's who we are, folks. There are lots of choices about how we can go about doing this, but whether we do this is really not a negotiable because this is what our job is, this is who we work for, this is what matters.

 

And then I think from that in case of differentiation, which may be the second part of your question, but here's an answer anyway. They have to model what they ask teachers to do. We ask teachers to know their students and to understand their variability and to appreciate it, to know it's an asset, and to get to know them as human beings and as individuals, and to look for their strengths and also understand the things that frustrate them sometimes and can confound their work.

 

And I think they then have to model what we ask teachers to do in the classroom, which is to take everybody on a shared journey, but also to provide different kinds of scaffolding and support different timelines. Different kinds of professional development, different sorts of in-class support, so that it maximizes the chance that people can get where they need to get and beyond and use their own particular strengths. I think they have to use a kind of formative assessment to say not only where are we and where are we going, but how's he doing and what's working best for him and what's not so good and how can I work with this person to move things along.

 

I think they have to understand that there's going to need to be different kinds of professional development, support for their faculty, depending on how many years a teacher has been teaching, how excited they are, what's going on in their lives, what their natural strengths are, and so on. And I think they have to do a couple of other very difficult things. I think they have to stay involved on the front lines with this change. Not, we're going to have somebody come in and do PD a couple of times and this will magically happen. It has to be in the center of their work, have to know what's going on in classes and what is and isn't working well, and elicit that information from the people that work with them. They have to fix things with their crew when it's not going well, and they have to be in for the long haul.

 

The research on change in schools is not very encouraging. It rarely happens when it does. And what I'm talking about here is significant change. Not, we got different pencil sharpeners, but significant change. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it is because of the kind of leader that I'm talking to you about who sees this as what their work is and they're deeply involved in the middle of it and they care about and listen to their faculty.

 

It's not about being an authority, it's about taking care of the people and the talents that are with you.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

Can you talk about maybe a great leader that you've seen in practice, either yourself when you were a teacher or in the work that you've done with schools and districts?

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

I've been really fortunate with that on several levels and over the years, my first two experiences in teaching were probably not with leaders who they may have later gotten much, much better, but at that point in their lives that was leadership was not their trait. And so I then was really fascinated by the various kinds of people I worked with who really did exhibit powerful leadership. And I've studied that a really lot, just in the world around me, but also in the literature of change. But I will share with you three instances really quickly.

One was a good friend of mine who was the principal for a while. She was a close friend of mine. We taught together for a while, and she was the principal in the school where I worked for a while. It was interesting. She was not a trained educator. She didn't really know much about the literature of research. She'd not even read a whole lot about what was supposed to go on in schools. But she wanted it to work. Whatever the “it” was, she wanted it to work and was willing to put the energy and time in.

 

But she also had a deep instinct that what you did was find out what people were good at and help them get better at it. And when something was going belly up, she was not at all shy about addressing that, but never in a punitive way. I saw her in several instances really be able to say to people, “talk to me about how you're feeling about this work.” And they would say, “I'm not doing well, and I don't like it and I'm not happy with myself.” And she could very gently help them say, “there are many things in this world you can do with your talents, and it seems fair to yourself to look for one of those things that would make you happy every morning.” And had even a situation one time where she had done that with somebody, and they came back a couple of years later with an envelope that had $200 in it if I remember correctly. And they talked to her about person talked with her about how important been in their lives to help them see the need to find themselves. And she said, I still don't have a whole lot of money, but I had this left over this month, and I just want to give it to you to do whatever you think would be useful at the school here, because you do great work. The people that she supported also felt great about her. But even the people that she ultimately had to say, she never said, “I don't think you belong here.” She helped them sort of self-reflect.

 

I worked for a while with two teachers, one in an elementary school in Missouri and one in a high school in Vermont. And the two of them were fascinating to watch, a much longer story than I have to tell you in a ten-minute interview. But they both were working with their faculties to change for differentiation, which since what I study, is not surprising that I was studying them. But they had several things in common. They had that vision that was really strong. They had a sense of urgency. They set some parameters. They got input and advice from their faculty all the time. They were in classrooms a huge amount. Never to judge, but to say, you know, “I was watching this.” “This was really interesting.” “Tell me why you did this.”

 

The one in Missouri sometimes would sit down with teachers, and she had kind of a gentle way. Nobody seemed to mind this. She'd say, “tell me what your goals were today.” And the teacher would tell her. “Help me understand why any fourth grader would want to do that.” And the teacher would say, “maybe not.” But she just felt like somebody who cared so much that you didn't feel threatened if she talked with you.

 

The high school principal had a much tougher road to go because there was a lot of strife in the school before she got there and in the community. But she was able, again, to convey a vision, to provide support for those teachers on an ongoing basis so that they were continually learning to be very engaged with what they were doing, to take on battles when she needed to take them on, on their behalf.

 

In both of those cases, the schools were greatly transformed in just really fascinating ways. And in retrospect, when I was studying the data I had gotten there, though, the schools were different, and the principals were different personalities and different ages. They had many things in common, a number of them, things that I've just mentioned to you. But that sense of urgency, a real mission, and devotion to your people and to seeing how together you can make that work, I think is huge.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

Why do you think that great leadership is so important to the success of classroom differentiation?

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

I don't think it's about differentiation, Clare. I do think differentiation is incredibly important, but I think it's about maximizing the possibility of the humans who are teaching and the benefits to the kids. Great writers about change will tell us we ought not to go messing around with little change that's just going to throw things off kilter. We need big stuff to make a difference in kids lives. A school administrator who means well and plans for professional development days in a year and has one person come in and talk about this and another one talk about this, and may ask a couple of times in faculty meetings, what are you doing with this? Means well and is potentially doing a good thing, in a way, for teachers. But that's just not the kind of change, not the kind of support that it takes to make differentiation happen, certainly not to work with issues of equity, not to create a school where it has an ethic of excellence like Ron Berger talks about. Those kinds of things really are massive in their scope. And I don't think we make significant change with a good administrator. I think we make significant change with a great leader, and I'm not making that up.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

So for an administrator who wants to be a leader or a leader who wants to be a better leader, what are some things that they can do to improve their leadership skills and practices?

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

Well, I guess the same ways all of us learn. I've learned a huge amount from watching leaders. Just sitting and watching in groups I was in. And I've learned things that made me want to get up and respond to the charge and other ones that were making me look at my watch and wonder the next time I could go get a Coke. And you can learn from studying great leaders. A leader in a school can look at great leaders in the world right now. Zelensky is fascinating to me to watch what he's doing in a really miserable situation. There's no such thing as a perfect human being, but there are people that have a vision and that imbue other people with that electricity. And we can study that way. Lots of good books written on leadership and change by people like Michael Fullan, but a lot of other people as well who have written wonderful stuff, who study this their whole lives, and so of course, we can learn from them.

Finding your vision. Looking at people who talk about what it means to have that vision and remembering why you wanted to do this yourself in the first place, looking at the human beings you serve - teachers, students, and staff and figuring out what is it that's going to make these people proud and energetic every day when they come to work, even if we are asking them to do too much. There's a sense that this work is hugely worthwhile and that we can see the importance to other people and to ourselves. So, I think there are plenty of resources for that. We know a lot about leadership and there are people who are and aren't great leaders around us and things to read and people that we can ask and thinking about ourselves deeply pretty much the way we learn about anything else.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

Great. Carol, I really appreciate this conversation. I again think we kept it to right around ten minutes, which is great.

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

Good for us.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

So, as a reminder to anyone listening, Carol has a full Eduplanet Professional Learning Institute that's available for teams to participate in together. It's a great way to really develop a kind of cohesive approach and philosophy and practice around differentiation. I also wanted to let you know that she's recently published two books. One is called Everybody's Classroom: Differentiating for the Shared and Unique Needs of Diverse Students and another called So Each May Soar: The Principles and Practices of Learner Centered Classrooms. And she also released a second edition of Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom.

 

So, if you wonder what Carol did during the days of COVID now you know there was a lot of writing happening, right, Carol?

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

You bet. But there was also a lot of Eduplanet stuff happening too, so that's good.

 

Clare Coupe Scott

 

I'll make sure to link to all of those things in the notes for this. Carol, thanks so much for joining me.

 

Carol Tomlinson

 

What a pleasure, Clare. It always is.

 

 

 

You can learn more about Eduplanet21 and the Curriculum Management and Professional Learning programs we offer, by visiting here

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