Leaders are inundated with competing pressures: a viral tweet about the latest innovation, a new source of funding, interim benchmark data, an observation in a classroom, a complaint, another book someone wants to ban, and the messaging about a successful intervention from a neighboring school. These pressures can cause leaders to struggle with navigating what Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, coined “the tragic gap.”
Palmer defines the tragic gap as “the gap between the way things are and the way we know they could and should be…” The tragic gap is the tension between the tendency of humans to profess and plan for an idyllic future and the tendency to profess and plan for addressing the insurmountable reality they face today. Palmer argues that leaders “must learn to stand in the tragic gap, faithfully holding the tension between reality and possibility.”
With the constant barrage of competing interests and stressful dynamics of educational leadership, school leaders sometimes fail to live within the gap and lead. Leaders, like all humans, want to escape the tension and stand on the side of describing their current reality or prescribing what everyone should do to make an ideal future. Both approaches take leaders out of the action and move them to planning, professing, and panicking rather than focusing on calm progress toward a better future. Here are a few keys to successfully navigating the tragic gap.
Living in the Tragic Gap
A good place for leaders to start is engaging in small, doable habits that require compassion, courage, and curiosity.
Lead with compassion. Leaders must realize that their staff are also facing the tragic gap with the challenging problems in their classrooms. They must have empathy for this experience as well as the expectation that staff must stay within the gap as they work to solve the problem. Here are a few strategies leaders can use to support staff in navigating the tragic gap:
- Name and clarify the challenges and aspirations that teachers share by paraphrasing and checking for understanding: What I am hearing you say is…? Is that correct?
- Affirm that their challenges are real, difficult, and important to understand and solve. This is an important problem and one that is difficult to address.
- Use questions to make the problem observable. What does the problem look like and sound like for the student and for you, the teacher? What evidence are you using to understand this problem?
- Use questioning that generates criteria for a solution that is observable. Given these challenges, what would be a few criteria that we would use for selecting a solution?
- Use questioning that generates solutions that are manageable. What would be a doable next step for you and your students that would move toward a positive future by 1 percent?
- We stay calm when people engage in the tragic gap. When others speak in absolutes by stating either that there is one solution to a problem or that the problem is outside of the school, leaders listen and recognize the challenges they face. Leaders then use questions to move the team back toward the middle of the tragic gap.
- Leaders do not offer their own solution to the problem. If teachers are asking leaders for a solution, then leaders should go back to the solutions the team has drafted, use a protocol to explore research or practices from other departments, or offer a few different strategies and ask the team to review them.
Lead with courage. One of the most courageous things a leader can do is focus on what Simon Breakspear, co-author of Teaching Sprints, calls making “calm progress” the expectation of the school. The idea is that leaders make sure that staff slows down while implementing initiatives. A leader can do this by ensuring the following:
- The problem everyone is trying to solve is observable. Leaders should continually ask, what are we actually observing in relationship to students, teachers, and tasks? What can we see students doing? What can we actually see teachers doing? What are the actual tasks that students are working on?
- The solution that everyone is thinking of using is observable in the next few weeks. What would we actually observe in relationship to students, teachers, and tasks in a few weeks? What would we see students doing? What can we actually see teachers doing? What are the actual tasks that students are working on? How will we know our impact?
- The solution is part of a daily habit or routine. Ask, would this practice be routine for students and teachers each day?
- Staff should start with a sample before scaling. Who will we start with? Where can you try this with a small group (10–20 students) in one section or content area?
Leaders stick with the mantra “Go slow to go fast.”
Lead with creativity. Leaders must demonstrate the instructional practices they wish to see in the classroom. If the school is working on increasing quality classroom discussions, then they need to demonstrate classroom discussion in their staff meetings. For instance, a principal may use a protocol such as the final word to discuss an article related to the impact of ensuring that students are clear on expectations, a chalk talk to generate ideas for co-constructing expectations, or a tuning protocol to give and receive feedback.
Each protocol illustrates specific strategies that could be used to increase the frequency and quality of classroom discussion. Lastly, leaders should ensure that staff are aware of the leader’s modeling by reflecting on the process of the meeting, which includes the types of strategies the leader implemented, the impact of those strategies on staff understanding, and how such strategies could serve as a model for potential strategies to use in the classroom.