The Power to Transform: Leadership that Brings Learning and Schooling to Life

reviewed by Whitney Meissner - December 07, 2006

coverTitle: The Power to Transform: Leadership that Brings Learning and Schooling to Life
Author(s): Stephanie Pace Marshall
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 078797501X , Pages: 272, Year: 2006
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The ending of this book captivated me. In it, the author writes a letter to her grandchildren, expressing her dreams and wishes for the type of life they might be able to experience. These ideas—that we want the future to be better for our descendents, that our schools should adjust to meet the ever-changing needs of the children, and that we have a calling greater than ourselves—are compelling themes that emerge as evidence that there are simple, yet important, ways to embark on the journey. As principals, we are often looking for a quick-fix, a new program to improve achievement, a book with an outline for creating and developing excellent schools. This is not that book, and that is exactly why school leaders should read it.

Marshall starts and ends her book with a question: “What would it take to create a generative and life-affirming system of learning and schooling that liberates the goodness and genius of all children and invites and nurtures the power and creativity of the human spirit for the world?” (pp. xvi, 209). Her book, or should I say, her visionary story, is organized into three sections and 14 chapters. Marshall begins many chapters with a story, of powerful human lessons learned, often from mistakes or risks. When we take risks and make room for error in our lives, we are making room for learning and growth.

Marshall entitles the first section of her book, “The Journey toward Wholeness.” She provides the impetus to embark on the quest for school reinvention, using terms such as “generative” and “interdependent” throughout the text. The passing fads that have moved in and out of our schools over the years are nowhere to be found. Instead, the motivation for change and improvement can be found within ourselves. Much of what Marshall shares in her story is the need for a new story of school—one filled with renewal, re-creation, and generation. Her ideas are timely; I believe most school leaders realize that much of what we do in schools is habit, tradition, or deep-rooted—but misplanted—structure from another time and based on other needs. I didn’t count the number of times “generative” appeared in her book, but it was enough that it got my attention: we need to be thinking about the schools of the future and the right way to get there. As she says, “This understanding is fundamental to designing a radical new system of schooling: the system’s identity must ground the design of its structures, not the other way around” (p. 149).

The other word that Marshall employed repeatedly was “interdependent.” I have felt for some time that one of the biggest barriers to change and growth is the lack of interdependence in schools and school systems. From classrooms, to schools, to districts, to state and federal departments of education, it is much more common to see a series of independent workers than people working together. Educators are trained to work independently, and thus, must make a concerted effort to learn to work interactively, so ensuring that this work is seamlessly interconnected with others in the organization. Nonetheless, Marshall nails this concept and captures it with these words: “The current story has schooled our children away from their wisdom, from accessing their relationship to nature, and from understanding and engaging in the world’s deeply systemic and interconnected problems” (p. 66). It is possible that the current story has done the same for our educators.

Another lesson school leaders can take from this book is the idea of “Learning Abundance.” Marshall’s ideas parallel Appreciative Inquiry–the notion that we should look at what is working and make it better, rather than dwelling on what problems exist and need fixing (Hammond, 1998). Appreciation and abundance exist for systems and individuals. “An abundance identity asks what is possible, not what is wrong. It asks how the community might co-create new learning conditions, not what’s to blame. It asks how we might invite and release all the potentials of our children, not how we can fix them” (p. 94). Again, the same focus on abundance is empowering for our children, our schools and school systems, and our educators.

In this busy hectic world, taking time to slow down to read, digest, ponder, and enjoy a book like Marshall’s can seem quite a luxury. The messages are deep within, and it takes time to draw them out—deep within ourselves, that is. The hidden message I received from Marshall’s book was the reminder that in education, we have the ultimate responsibility to help raise this and future generations of children, and that we possess the knowledge and strength to do it already. To accomplish this, we must set the right priorities, and we must do the important work. Toward the end of her book, she writes about “The New Slower and Deeper Conversation.” This is a life lesson for us all. She compels us to “convene…a slower conversation” on a regular basis. During such interactive, reflective discussions, educators take the time necessary to reconnect with the community, notice interconnection and interdependence, name the things that get in the way of integrity and sustainability, recommit to the purpose, nourish the spirit of self and community, and continue growing into a worthy future (p. 204). Slowing down to have such conversations will undoubtedly remind us that we can often do more with less when we take care of ourselves and our organization. It is so easy to get off track, especially in responding to other people’s urgent issues. Without taking time to reflect and reconnect, it is possible that school leaders and school systems would not even know how much energy is being spent in areas not connected to beliefs and integrity. We must slow down to make progress, as counterintuitive as that may seem.

And so, we end where we began, as did Marshall. In her letter to her grandchildren, which is well worth reading for yourself, she concludes this way: “Remember that contrary to the voices, images, sounds, and messages that surround and bombard you, your life is about:

Your integrity, not your position

Your voice, not your power

Your name, not your title

Your calling, not your career

Your legacy, not your success. (p. 214)

To all my education colleagues out there—those whose lives are seamlessly woven into my life already, and those I have yet to meet—this is a wonderful book to help guide your story as a person, a leader, a critical member of an interdependent system and to reconnect yourself with the reasons you became an educator in the first place. Consider this book a gift to yourself.


Hammond, S. A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative inquiry (2nd ed.). Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 07, 2006 ID Number: 12883, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 6:02:31 AM

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