Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

08.09.16School Leader Summer Reading: Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat

Yesterday I posted about Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s new book ‘Get Better Faster’. Today I’d like to add another suggestion for your school leadership bookshelf: Mary Myatt’s outstanding High Challenge, Low Threat.

The book is a series of short but insightful meditations on leadership, built around the theme that a great leader should make his or her teachers feel safe and supported, should operate with humility and caring, and should combine that with an ethos of challenge-constantly push the team together to get as better as better can be.

Myatt begins:

“We are a challenge seeking species. The leaders who understand this are prepared, first of all, to push themselves.  At the same time they encourage their colleagues to push themselves. It is one of the most satisfying things in the world to do something to the best of our ability. To know that we are making a difference…. It takes guts, a willingness to get things wrong, and to keep going back and trying. Again and again.”

What makes Myatt’s book so powerful is the clarity of her vision.  People—adults especially—must be supported in taking risks and be allowed to struggle and fail if we want them to succeed and embrace challenge.  Schools must be built around adult cultures of high challenge but low threat, or, in the words of my Uncommon Schools colleague Katie Yezzi, “The message from the top has to be, ‘I’m out to get you better,’ not, “I’m out to get you.”  It’s a compelling vision and the book helps readers to reflect on ways they might build such a culture.

Each chapter–the “meditations” I mentioned above—is a quick 2-3 pages- designed, I think, to be read and then reflected on. There are about 45 of them and they consider the relevance and importance for leaders of showing gratitude, balancing extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, focusing on most important things (and thus ignoring the rest),in the power of truth telling, building trust, the benefits of shared leadership.

Within each meditation there’s a bit of detail on how one might do those things…examples of specific actions that would begin to accomplish the topics of each chapter—but not too much, and in some ways that’s one of the book’s strengths. Myatt helps you to focus on a critical idea—the importance of doing fewer things better, say—with enough examples to get you started thinking practically.  But the examples are limited enough to also give the book a kind of Zen… uncluttered, calm, in each idea enough flexibility for anyone to adapt and apply the idea.  She doesn’t for example tell you HOW the core business of your school should be defined, just that you should be clear yourself on it, and then start making decisions to spend your time only on the things that advance this core, for example. It’s wisdom without prescription.  A book that makes the insights within it accessible and applicable to schools across a wide range of philosophies, settings and approaches and focuses on what I think are indeed many of the most compelling qualities skills of top leaders: humility, focus, trust, a balance of accountability and autonomy, an intensive focus on building a successful school by helping teachers succeed.


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