Never Underestimate the Power of a Coach

Coaching Articles - Essays for coaches

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Thinking and reading across the varied work of Leo Lionni has given Jan insights into literacy and coaching. Read to connect Leo Lionni's work to your practice as a coach.

Never Underestimate the Power of a Coach

by Jan Miller Burkins

Leo Lionni (from the collection of the Lionni family)

Whether discussing the environment, political movements or educational reform, the word on everyone's lips these days is "sustainability." There is a sense of urgency surrounding our work and our lives, which compels us to consider what we will leave behind. In education, literacy and instructional coaches are charged with supporting change that will continue of its own accord, or even extend itself. Because of this, we interrogate our decisions, asking what would continue in our schools if we weren't supporting teachers anymore? This litmus test of worthy coaching time really asks us to work with a vision for our legacies, and if we are considering legacy, we can learn from Leo Lionni. Over the last few months, I have been exploring the depth and breadth of the work Lionni left for us, and the ways his work continues to contribute to our lives.

The last book Leo Lionni wrote was his autobiography, Between Worlds, which describes his work in three worlds: commercial art, fine art and children's books. Here are a few coaching ideas we can gather from his monumental contribution to all three of these worlds where he thought, created and shared. If you think you know Leo Lionni well, you may find yourself surprised by the enormity of his work!

Sette Foglie by Leo Lionni

Every thing you do matters.

Leo Lionni wrote, "...early in my adult life I reached the conviction that all human acts have social and political consequences." This conviction drove his work within each of his creative lives. Whether writing children's books or designing ads, he believed that every artistic decision he made had implications for societal change. He worked with the drive like that educational leadership guru Michael Fullan refers to as moral purpose, which gave Lionni the energy to remain faithful to the idea that artists shoulder significant social responsibility.

If you do not recognize the latent moral purpose in your coaching work, then check in with those who inspire you, as well as with yourself, and reconnect to a compelling recognition that every coaching act matters.

"Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman" ad campaign for Ladies Home Journal

Ideas that are easy to generalize live longer

While driving to work one morning, I turned on National Public Radio just in time to hear a newly elected politician open her acceptance speech: "Never underestimate the power of the people!" This line offered me sudden and coincidental insight into Leo Lionni and his legacy, as Leo Lionni was the commercial artist "involved in the birth of a slogan that was destined to become part of the vernacular of the early forties" (from Between Worlds, p. 142). Having rescued the abandoned advertising slogan of a colleague from the trash, he reclaimed for Ladies Home Journal the line "Never underestimate the power of a woman." By illustrating a series of two frame cartoons showing endeavors at which men had failed and women had succeeded, he launched and sustained an advertising campaign of more than 100 cartoons. The cartoons ran steadily as ads in the New Yorker and other leading magazines for six years. Every single cartoon repeated that single, salvaged line: Never underestimate the power of a woman! The versatility of the slogan made it applicable in various cartoon contexts, and the tag line developed a life of its own, such that I heard it's close cousin in a political speech on the radio.

As a coach, look for those strategies and ideas that have broad application. If you present to teachers systems that generalize across instructional contexts, they are more likely to claim and extend them.

Paley writes about how Lionni's books influenced her kindergarteners.

Give people something to think about, and you may help them grow.

This is a recurring theme across Leo Lionni's art in all of the worlds in which he was creative. His effort was toward communicating ideas that mattered, and he gave viewers big ideas about which to think. Lionni didn't minimize his intentions toward provoking thought when he wrote for children, either. Each of his books carries a message. Annie Lionni believes the fact that her grandfather's books really say something is one of the reasons his work has become classic. And when Leo Lionni's books speak, children (and grown-ups) listen.

Vivian Gussin Paley spent a year exploring Leo Lionni's work with her kindergarten students and wrote The Girl With the Purple Crayon as a result. Lionni is one of few authors whose work could capture the attention of thoughtful children for a whole year, not to mention the way they engaged their teacher. Paley's eloquent narrative documents the ways Lionni's books challenged her students and her. If you have not given some thought and some time to the big ideas presented in Lionni's books with his now-classic, simple style, then pick up a few of his books, get comfortable and get ready to have your thoughts provoked. Such thought-provoking creative work is a hallmark of Lionni's legacy, which illustrates the ways that food for thought can sustain our work.

The most powerful long-term impact coaches can have is in the ways they support paradigm shifts in the ways teachers think about children, literacy and language. If we support shifts in the ways we approach work with students, then our legacy will manifest in every encounter a teacher has with children.

Lionni's baskets of mouse parts

Your responsiveness depends on your preparedness.

Leo Lionni's granddaughter explained to us that her grandfather kept baskets of the construction paper mouse heads, tails and bodies that he used to develop the characters for his stories. The baskets were at the ready, should inspiration set upon him. It was important for Lionni that there was a basket of mouse bodies, made from torn paper to depict fur, and a basket of mouse feet, tails and ears that were cut from paper.

I imagine Leo Lionni at a table with pieces of paper in various shades of brown and gray. He is tearing the bodies of mice into which he has not yet breathed life. He was very neat, so the remnants of paper are gathered in a neat pile, or perhaps there is another basket for debris. Then he takes scissors to pink paper and cuts feet and tails and ears that will communicate different emotions. Whether the preparation looked as I imagine it or not, it is work he did in advance of a moment when he would need to capitalize on his creative sparks.

Literacy and instructional coaches are wise to ready themselves and their materials a bit. What notebooks, books or other tools do you need to respond creatively and quickly to unexpected opportunities to support teachers? It is worth taking a little bit of time to gather your metaphorical construction paper and tear and cut for a spell.

Leo Lionni's first four children's books

Reflecting back can help you move forward.

This is one of the most important ideas Leo Lionni's autobiography offered me. Lionni was profoundly reflective. I wonder if his thoughts about his work and life were sometimes so intense that they were a burden. Undoubtedly, however, Lionni's reflective work helped him develop his thoughts and his skills. He had a very practical routine of looking at his work historically and comparing pieces to see where they connected and where he had changed. He writes in his autobiography about when he unpacked his first copy of Swimmy, his fourth book for children:

"I placed it with the three others side by side against the wall, dragged the armchair to the center of the studio, and sat down. The need to compare what I was doing now, and to recognize the direction in which my work was moving, was a habit I had inherited from Leon Karp [Lionni's colleague] (Between Worlds, p. 231). Lionni goes on to think aloud about how the books were different and what they each said about who he was and what he believed.

I really love this reflective exercise. What artifacts of our teaching lives can we review historically? What student products or remnants of our teaching selves tell our stories of growth? How can our studies of our own growth and change help us develop further?

Lionni sits among his children's books!

Nothing works like hard work.

As I have read about Leo Lionni and his work, I have been deeply astounded by the volume of his creative production. His autobiography explores three different worlds, all of which he worked in actively to produce art designed to make people think and feel.

As commercial artist, he managed a variety of prominent art campaigns, directed the art production of Fortune magazine, and was one of the founding fathers The International Design Conference of Aspen, which gave "tangible body to Leo Lionni's growing conviction that what was at stake was less the power of design to influence sales than our mission to help shape a reasonable and civilized environment for all human beings" (Between Worlds, p.194).

As a fine Artist, or a creator of work he referred to as "Art with a capital A," Leo Lionni was relentless. His spectacular pencil drawings and phenomenal sculpture testify to his talent and his skill. Like all dimensions of Lionni's creative life, he was an Artist with intent. He writes, "I couldn't prevent a silent monologue from developing in my mind, for I was vaguely aware that something of major importance was happening to me. I suddenly felt with great clarity that the few paintings I had done and the many I had dreamt had more to do with 'expressing an attitude toward the world' than with the desire or impulse to paint.... (Between Worlds, p.141). So he created fine Art prolifically, and with tremendous intent.

Of course, we know him best as a children's author and illustrator. He didn't publish his first book, Little Blue and Little Yellow until he was 50, and he published 39 more. His work ethic was tremendous, and the volume of books he produced contributes to the legacy we all enjoy.

The longevity of Lionni's influence is due, at least in part, to his prolificness. His work was his passion and he was always busy making things. The sheer volume of his production left us much to consider and gave us a legacy of thought and image that will long influence generations of audiences. As a coach, the amount of thoughtful work you do is likely to correlate directly to the longevity of your influence.

Closing thoughts

Leo Lionni's granddaughter, Annie Lionni, manages all the rights to his work. She coordinates museum exhibits and magazine tributes such as this one. She explained that toward the end of his life, her grandfather asked her to "promote and protect his work." "It has been my honor every day to do that," she stated. She spends her working days taking care of the legacy of her grandfather, managing the art and the stories that sustain his ideas. Annie said, "My grandfather liked ideas." Certainly, we like his.

You and your students may write to Annie Lionni at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to tell her how her grandfather's ideas have influenced you.