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Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation

Shane Safir

Foreword by Michael Fullan







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“This luminous book guides school leaders in developing a school culture of trust, empowerment, and excellence. With compassion and clarity, Safir coaches the hard work of leading and sustaining change—while keeping our focus squarely on equity for every learner.”

—Kathleen Cushman
co-author of Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools

“If only I had read this fifty years ago. It took me time to learn that listening is teaching; and then, that being a leader is being a teacher! Shane's wise and practical book is what I didn't have then, and it's fantastic that we all have it now.”

—Deborah Meier
senior scholar at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, author of The Power of Their Ideas, Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem, and In Schools We Trust.

“As a leader in a diverse urban school, this book fills a void that I didn't realize was there. I'm sure these practical ideas on how to be a better listening leader will improve my practice immensely!”

—Audrey Amos
principal, John Muir Elementary School

“Shane Safir has written a brilliant book. As engaging as it is informative and as revelatory as it is relevant. It is a must-read for school leaders and those who aspire to lead.”

—Chris Emdin
associate professor of science education, Teachers College, Columbia University

“This book is a ‘must have’ for any leader trying to move the needle on equity. Drawing from her lived experience as a principal and leadership coach, Safir offers stories that give insight and practical strategies that get results. It's one you'll keep coming back to.”

—Zaretta Hammond
author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

“In The Listening Leader, Shane Safir eloquently describes a powerful approach to school transformation that starts with listening to the school community—including teachers, students, and families—and highlights the importance of cultivating leadership at every level. I encourage anyone interested in understanding how to improve our schools to read her book.”

—Shael Polakow-Suransky
president, Bank Street College of Education

“Shane's book is a must-read for new leaders as it underscores the often overlooked and under-practiced power of listening in leadership. This interactive book offers an alternative and empowering path to creating humanizing spaces in schools and immediately changed the way I interacted with students, teachers, families and community members.”

—Tamara Friedman
assistant principal, Berkeley High School

“Shane Safir's The Listening Leader is a godsend to a field of thinkers, doers, and reactors. From the very first sentence, Safir draws us into her personal story of leadership as well her wisdom on how listening can be a powerful act of transformation for individuals, schools, and communities. Reading this book illustrates how infrequently listening actually happens in our schools and school systems. Thankfully, Safir invites in a way that allows us to learn how to listen and use what we hear to take action on behalf of our students. Whether you are a teacher, coach, school or central office leader, this book will provide you with a fresh perspective and the necessary tools for moving forward as a listening leader.”

—Max Silverman
associate director, University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership

The Listening Leader, based on solid theoretical foundations and chock-full of stories, offers a rich and extensive exploration of this vital skill. After reading this book, you'll have no doubt about the powerful role that listening plays in leadership and you'll have many tools to refine your listening.”

—Elena Aguilar
author of The Art of Coaching and The Art of Coaching Teams

“The need for action to be informed by reflection is not an idea that is foreign to social justice educators. What is often missing, however, is how one's reflective process is shaped by their ability to listen to their community. From a space of vulnerability and introspection, Safir demonstrates a commitment to praxis and the powerful role that listening plays in our work.”

—Darrick Smith
assistant professor of educational leadership, University of San Francisco

“Shane Safir recognizes that in order to build equity and excellence in our schools that we have to lead with our ears and not our mouths. She provides excellent practical suggestions on how to do just that in The Listening Leader.”

—Larry Ferlazzo
educator, teacher advice columnist, and author

“At a time when leaders are in search of different approaches to transform schools, we have a new approach. Safir offers a compelling framework on how to engage in listening as an innovative approach to leadership. Through listening in caring, empathetic, and relational ways, the ingredients for equity can become a reality. An excellent read for school leaders. Read, listen, and learn!”

—Tyrone C. Howard
professor and associate dean, University of California Los Angeles

“For today's educational leader, The Listening Leader gives us the most precious gift—the opportunity to pause and reflect. We must take seriously Safir's call to slow down, tune into ourselves and others, and lead with the kind of integrity that is born out of a sense of collective purpose; this is the path towards meaningful school improvement."

—Young Whan Choi
manager of performance assessments, Oakland Unified School District

“Equitable school transformation is what is most needed in today's schools, and The Listening Leader provides the guidance and practical tools for educators to achieve it. Shane Safir pulls on her deep knowledge of academic and professional learning communities in order to provide educators with a special resource that we can all readily use. This book is a must-have for anyone seeking to positively transform their learning community.”

—Raquel Topete
instructional coach, East Side Union High School District

This book is dedicated to two beloved students, Alondra and Javon, and to my own babies, Mona and Maximo.

May we build schools that celebrate the light in every child.


I have never encountered any children in any group who are not geniuses. There is no mystery on how to teach them. The first thing you do is treat them like human beings and the second thing you do is love them.

—Dr. Asa Hilliard



  1. 1.1 Sheepish Thoughts
  2. 1.2 Leadership Archetypes
  3. 1.3 Levels of Data
  4. 1.4 The Listening Leader ARC
  5. 2.1 The Neighborhoods of the Brain
  6. 2.2 Anatomy of a Neuron
  7. 3.1 The Birdcage as a Metaphor for Structural Racism
  8. 4.1 The Six Circle Model
  9. 5.1 Listen to Build Relational Capital
  10. 5.2 Nonverbal Communication
  11. 5.3 Mature Empathy Cartoon
  12. 6.1 Strategic Listening Closes the Gap Between Stated Beliefs and Actual Practices
  13. 9.1 Author's Daughter Hiking in Central Jordan, August 2010
  14. 9.2 Seven Circle Model
  15. 9.3 The Current-State Literacy Story Behind JJSE
  16. 9.4 Sign on the Approach to Hanalei Bridge, Hanalei, Kauai
  17. 9.5 Instructional Leadership Team Models
  18. 10.1 Challenging Group Dynamic: What's the Temperature?
  19. 10.2 Productive Group Dynamic: What's the Temperature?
  20. 11.1 Sample Visual for Core Memory Maps
  21. 11.2 Fishbowl Structure and Best Practices


  1. I.1 Anchor Frameworks for Listening Leadership
  2. 1.1 Discourse I vs. Discourse II
  3. 1.2 Examples of Shifting the Discourse
  4. 1.3 A Framework for Levels of Data
  5. 2.1 Core Tenets of Listening Leadership
  6. 2.2 The Main Regions of the Brain
  7. 2.3 Examples of Threats and Rewards in Schools
  8. 2.4 Listening Leader Brain-Friendly Moves
  9. 3.1 Equity Channels
  10. 3.2 A Tale of High-Opportunity and Low-Opportunity Structures
  11. 3.3 Recognizing Microaggressions and Their Implicit Messages
  12. 4.1 Relational Trust vs. Contractual Trust
  13. 4.2 Mindful Listening Steps
  14. 5.1 The Six Stances of a Listening Leader (a Preview)
  15. 5.2 Deep Listening Principles and Pitfalls
  16. 5.3 Interpreting Nonverbal Cues
  17. 6.1 The Six Stances of a Listening Leader
  18. 6.2 Strategic Listening Principles and Pitfalls
  19. 6.3 Sample Instructional Conversation
  20. 7.1 Two Communication Approaches for Parent Conferences
  21. 7.2 Cultural Proficiency Tool for Listening to Parents
  22. 7.3 Five Ways to Listen to Parents
  23. 8.1 Tool for Practicing Deep Listening with Students
  24. 8.2 Guidance on Shadowing a Student
  25. 8.3 Talk Moves
  26. 9.1 Diagnosing the Challenges You Face
  27. 9.2 Six Steps to Influence Complex Change
  28. 9.3 Sample Current-State Stories and Equity Imperatives
  29. 9.4 Simple Rules and Design Features for June Jordan School for Equity
  30. 9.5 A Holistic Tool for Measuring Success
  31. 10.1 Strategic Listening Stances
  32. 10.2 The Experiential Learning Cycle
  33. 10.3 Two Types of Sample Agreements
  34. 11.1 Outcomes for the Leadership Retreat
  35. 11.2 Key Routines for Growing a Listening Culture
  36. 11.3 Safe-to-Learn Inquiry vs. Traditional Planning


  1. I.1 What Is a Listening Mindset?
  2. 1.1 White Allies and Discourse II
  3. 1.2 Finding Courage
  4. 2.1 Listening Connects Two Brains Together
  5. 2.2 Overcoming the Brain's Negativity Bias
  6. 3.1 Moving Toward Cultural Proficiency
  7. 4.1 Early Indicators of Trust
  8. 4.2 Bianca's Protocol for Early One-on-Ones
  9. 4.3 Mindful Listening Tool
  10. 5.1 What's Your Listening Style?
  11. 5.2 Mature Empathy Stems
  12. 5.3 Affirmation Stems
  13. 6.1 Sample Visions
  14. 6.2 Orientation to Vision Stems
  15. 6.3 Strategic Listening Tool: Leveraging Level 3 Data
  16. 6.4 Challenging Unconscious Bias Through Reflective Inquiry
  17. 6.5 Reflective Inquiry Stems
  18. 6.6 Bias Toward Action Stems
  19. 7.1 Home Visit Case Study
  20. 7.2 Postconference Survey for Teachers and Parents
  21. 8.1 Five Ways to Listen to Students
  22. 8.2 Sample Fishbowl Questions
  23. 8.3 JJSE Staff Meeting on Serving African American Students
  24. 8.4 Criteria for Developing Essential Questions
  25. 9.1 The Key Properties of Complex Change
  26. 9.2 A Few Simple Rules for a District
  27. 9.3 Skinny Plan Tool
  28. 10.1 Brain-Friendly Facilitation Moves
  29. 11.1 Data from Learning Leader Chats
  30. 11.2 Tips for Team One-on-Ones
  31. 11.3 Nine Reflective Questions for Team Member One-on-Ones


There are countless books on leadership, but none like Shane Safir's The Listening Leader. When all is said and done, it deals with the forest and the trees. It unpacks both understanding and action. Overall, this book pays equal and integrative attention to “listening” and to “driving.” It will cause you to reconsider leadership in ways that you have not thought about.

The nature of leadership in school systems these days is badly outdated, as evidenced by the long-standing failure to make improvements. We need leadership that connects with the lives and the futures of students, parents, and teachers. We need new forms of leadership that lift students from seemingly inevitable inertia to lives of action and success. The Listening Leader lays out how to mobilize countless numbers on the ground to forge a path forward. Old leadership discourages; Listening Leaders will unleash unrealized energy. Here's the test: Apply some of the ideas of this book to whatever you thought was an intractable situation. Then leverage the new impetus.

Every chapter has gems of insight. Each begins with “This chapter is designed to help you . . .,” and lists the four or five big ideas that you will learn. Then, after delving into the topics, the chapter ends with Key Takeaways and Listening Leader Inquiry. This format alone gives the reader ready access to the ideas in the book as a whole.

Chapter 1 gets the reader immediately into courage of purpose and pathways of solution. We get to understand local accountability, formative versus punitive feedback, experiential use of data, and timeliness. In Chapter 2, we find the core tenets of the Listening Leader, which includes both rational and emotional elements.

Chapters have deeply insightful charts and frameworks. Here are a few:

Chapter 5 identifies a list of principles and pitfalls, which includes mistakenly leading from a self-proclaimed sense of urgency; viewing emotion as unprofessional; and failing to interpret nonverbal cues, including one's own. We learn how to understand and navigate complex change by engaging the Six Stances of a Listening Leader, and what to expect when leading complex change. In Chapter 9, there is a wonderful chart comparing how one would lead a technical versus a complex change. Simple rules are provided for complex change, such as “Make your first year of implementation all about learning, not performing”; and develop and learn from “skinny plans.” In discussing complex change, the author shows what she and others did to guide the change and learn from it. For example, the goal of developing “expert teachers who continually refine their craft” is coupled with allocating significant time for collaboration and professional learning. Achieving “real accountability” is linked with coleadership and consensus decision making, and so on.

In another chapter, we learn how to design a game-changing meeting around listening routines. The related appendix contains quick design tips, sample team agreements, and 10 great TED Talks for better meetings. There is also a powerful chapter on listening to students, something dear to my own recent work, where we are finding that students are “radical change agents” with respect to pedagogy, learning environments, and society.1 This chapter, written by Matt Alexander of June Jordan School for Equity, makes the case powerfully and shows the way, including five routines to build a culture of listening to students. There is an equally powerful chapter on listening to and connecting with parents for greater equity of learning.

All of Shane Safir's chapters are based on her own work and that of colleagues and coaching clients. The book reveals mistakes made by various leaders, what was learned, and how to do it better the next time. The Listening Leader connects us to other practical and deep work. This is a book that amplifies listening to a deep comprehensive art. What makes this book so timely is that educations systems are stuck now, mired in the status quo. Shane Safir offers a way out and forward.

Read it, act on it, and reap the benefits for all.

Michael Fullan
Professor Emeritus, OISE/University of Toronto



Any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.

—James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (delivered October 16, 1963)

I became familiar with the stark shape of injustice while interning for civil rights attorney Jennifer Wood inside the Rhode Island youth prison system—euphemistically called a “training school.” Wood was representing incarcerated youth in a class action lawsuit designed to improve conditions of confinement, such as access to education, quality food, and better facilities.

Each week, she and I followed armed guards through a half-dozen clanging security doors to meet with elected youth leaders. Sitting in a circle, we listened to young men and women share their stories and grievances. While taking notes on technicalities, we also witnessed much heartbreak—the profound frustration of being locked up in your prime, particularly in a system that's overwhelmingly stacked against people of color. I recall Ramón, an aspiring artist who shared his vivid and haunting drawings with me. I remember Shawna, a buoyant young woman whose cousins lived down the hall from her in the female dormitory.

These youth had bright futures, but because of the institutional racism shaping so much of their lives, they lacked the second chances many White teenagers have.

Through this experience, a painful truth became clear to me: The prison system had siphoned off huge numbers of young people of color—mostly Black, Latino, and southeast Asian—who were growing up in poverty. I was learning what many people of color know by necessity. I grew up in a majority White, middle-class suburb where many teenagers committed the same infractions that landed the youth I met in Rhode Island in prison. Yet I can't name a single kid I knew who did time for his or her behavior. This inequity branded itself on my heart and mind and fueled my later pursuit of a career in public education.

When I became an urban schoolteacher a few years later, I realized I had to “go for broke,” as writer James Baldwin had instructed teachers to do 30 years prior. Like so many educators, I faced both incredible opportunities and daunting challenges. How would I humanize my classroom inside an essentially dehumanizing institution? How would I support the most marginalized students to participate in a rich intellectual world? How would I develop a learning community in the face of radically different social, emotional, and academic needs? And as a White teacher working with students of color, how would I earn trust and credibility?

There were many ways to get this wrong, not the least of which is what author and Columbia University professor Christopher Emdin calls “a pervasive narrative in urban education: a savior complex that gives mostly white teachers in minority and communities a false sense of saving kids.”1 I wish I could say I got it right from the get-go, but the truth is that going for broke is an ongoing process. Educators of all backgrounds step into an inequitable system, replete with distractions and obstacles that pull us off the path to transformation. How can one stay humble, courageous, and grounded in the face of such challenges?

Today, there are countless hawkers of solutions and programs to turn around our schools. Although these reformers are well intentioned and have at times produced some good results, I believe that the best solutions lie in the brilliance of our teachers, our students, and their families. We can't “intervene” our way to equitable outcomes without listening to the people we aspire to serve.

As I'll share in this book, I eventually left the classroom to help found and lead a new high school in San Francisco. Many years later, I spent a sabbatical year teaching Jordanian and Palestinian students in Amman, Jordan, where I learned new ways to listen. Rather than following a predetermined set of pedagogical steps, I had to study subtle cultural cues, make sense of Arabic turns of phrase with no English parallel, and create room for my students' stories. I recall one assignment for which two young women from Gaza wrote harrowing narratives about surviving a recent Israeli military assault; one minute they were sitting outside chatting, and the next, the sky exploded with bombs. This experience reminded me that to empower young people, we must welcome their untold stories and constantly adapt to the shifting nature of culture and context. Listening and “going for broke” are lifelong propositions.

I start from the premise that we already know what it takes to educate young people. So what gets in the way? We struggle with low expectations—of ourselves as leaders, of our schools, and of so many of our students. We struggle to uncouple the blunt assessments doled out by high-stakes tests from the complex and deeply human enterprise of learning. And we struggle to convince teachers to design intellectually rich environments when so often our adult learning environments are devoid of depth and humanity. We can address these issues, and I hope this book will begin to chart a course.

I bring two different, but related, perspectives to this project. First, I carry my own hard-won experience as a teacher and school leader who learned, through early missteps and various successes, to navigate working across difference. Second, as a school and district transformation coach for over 10 years, I have supported a diverse cross section of leaders; this work has deepened my belief in the importance of listening and of growing a culture of transformation rather than relying on charismatic leadership to save the day. I know that the strategies in this book are effective for any leader who wants to create the conditions for change.

None of this will be easy. Interrupting decades—centuries, really—of inequitable schooling seems a Sisyphean task. But it is possible. I hope this book will help you find the courage to listen—to yourself, to your community, and to what's possible when you decide to go for broke.