6 Practices of Thoughtful Leaders


In times like these when it’s obvious that the world is complex and contested that it is important for our young people to have thoughtful places to go to school.

If mindfulness is focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, thoughtfulness adds consideration. Thoughtful leaders are intentional about their behavior and communications. They exercise empathy for individuals and communities, they show consideration for the needs of others.

Weeks full of hate and violence make me think of leaders creating thoughtful places where young people practice consideration, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Following are snapshots of eight thoughtful leaders.

Principal Aaron Brengard (right) created a thoughtful culture at Katherine Smith School (see 18 things we liked) where student ambassadors showcase the project-based approach and show visitors examples of driving questions that initiate projects and quality products and presentations that showcase learning. Student agency is evident from the minute you step on the campus of the New Tech Network affiliate.

“We want people to be perplexed—to embrace the paradox of starting new schools,” said Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High in San Diego. While a great example of a coherent school model where everything works together for teachers and students, High Tech High isn’t simple–there’s a good deal of tension between engagement and rigor, pressure and support, improvement and innovation.

When Alex Magana (right) took over struggling Grant-Beacon Middle School he launched a process of thoughtful coaching and planning that resulted in a phased plan with strong staff support. His messaging about blended learning, extended learning and character development was crisp, and support systems were strong. He created conditions where everyone that chose to stay could be successful.

When teachers Cicely Benoit (blog thumbnail) and Aditi Rao opened Unlimited Potential, the innovative microschool middle school program for nonprofit Houston A+, they created a powerful culture and thoughtful community that includes partnerships with six museums.

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Everything at A+UP is focused on four key areas: communication, character, community, and college and career readiness. The clarity and coherence around these themes is unusual. Houston A+ UP is a great example of #PlaceBased learning–students visit the Museum of Fine Arts each week, and make regular visits to the Museum of Natural Science, The Holocaust Museum, Asia Society and the Houston Zoo.

Thoughtful leaders ask lots of questions about learner experience. Chris Lehman (blog featured image) leads the inquiry-based approach at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Shared values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are evident in every classroom across the thoughtful school model.

Lehman said, “Every student deserves an individual education plan.” He thinks their study skills class is important for helping every student find a way to be academically successful. Every student completes a capstone project that involves giving back to the community.

Bailey Thomson (pic on right, left side) was a teacher at blended learning pioneer Rocketship Education when she learned about plans for SPARK Schools in South Africa. Bailey and her colleagues have opened eight blended K-8 schools with an innovative flex model that incorporates design thinking.

Blended Learning Lead Dee Moodley (pic on right, right side) taught in a state primary school in England where technology was part of the curriculum and a blended learning rotation model was emerging. Thomson and Moodley are great examples of innovative educators with a heart for service. They’ve created a coherent school model and continue to iterate as they bring it to scale.

Dr. Charles Spellman isn’t bound by tradition. When employers told him that the generic education wasn’t valuable, he scrapped the program in favor of training on equipment that leading companies use. As a result of the thoughtful services offered at RAMTEC in northeastern Ohio high school, students there are among the only teens in the world certified by leading robotics manufacturers. It takes consideration at scale to provide the quality, efficiency and relevant services that Spellman makes possible.

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Some leaders are good at putting it all together–at creating a thoughtful synthesis. When Liz Whisnant’s school  in northwest Washington D.C. was due for modernization, she led a community conversation that took the core values of Horace Mann Elementary and converted them into design principles that offered specific advice to the architects (listen to her describe the process).

Whisnant (right) helps her community embraces the paradox of complementary learning approaches: one that offers students explicit strategy-based instruction, and one that offers a broad, constructivist approach that allows students to linger in the exploratory and discovery phases, only later to arrive at explicit ones.

Thoughtful leaders are often knowledgeable and skilled, but it’s application that’s key. They uncover and test their assumptions–their mental models of how things work. They construct learning experiences for their community that allow collective examination of assumptions and connections so that they can facilitate a series of temporary agreements that keep the community moving forward.

Thoughtful leaders cultivate productive mindsets–the dispositions and predilections that drive behavior and shape the impressions conveyed to others.

Effective leaders create thoughtful cultures and are thoughtful coaches; they create connections and lead thoughtful community conversations; they create coherent and thoughtful organizations that provide thoughtful and relevant services; they help everyone around them create a thoughtful synthesis of what’s happening in a complex and contested world.

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Bailey Thomson
Bailey Thomson serves as the SPARK Schools Director of School Operations. In her role, Bailey is responsible for ensuring that school operations in each of the network's schools facilitate student achievement and professional development of all staff. After graduating from the College of William and Mary in the United States in 2010, Bailey began her career in education as a Teach For America corps member at Rocketship Education, the network that pioneered blended learning in the United States. Bailey taught Grade 2 and 3 maths and participated in Rocketship's Emerging Leaders Program. In August 2012, Bailey moved to Johannesburg, South Africa to join the founding team of SPARK Schools. In the past four years, Bailey has led the design and innovation of both the foundation phase (K-3) and intermediate phase (4-7) personalized learning models in each of SPARK's eight schools.