How Can Teachers Build Innovation?
I am not in charge of a school, but as an English teacher, I am in charge of my English classroom. And, as a tech coach, I am in charge of how I talk to teachers about using technology.
Even though teachers don’t usually create school or district policy, we can help build a climate where innovation, growth, and risk-taking are valued. Good ideas often spread, so if we practice what we believe, our colleagues and leaders will notice.
We all have the opportunity to strive to be what George Couros calls school teachers, instead of classroom teachers. According to Couros, a school teacher is someone who, among other things, shares ideas with others. Who cares if you spent hours making something and the other person didn’t do anything? Who cares if other teachers tweak your lesson a bit? It drives me crazy when teachers complain about this. We are all borrow from someone / somewhere else. The goal is to teach kids. If someone else uses your stuff, great, you are helping more students.
I am lucky because I work in an environment that encourages risk-taking and experimentation. I think this boils down to 4 elements or permissions:
- Permission to Share: Sometimes I hear about toxic professional learning communities (PLCs) where one of two things happens: Either the majority of teachers insist on teaching the same thing year after after year, or the PLC members jealously horde their own lessons.Thankfully, that is not my situation. My own English PLC and many of the PLCs I work with as a tech coach welcome new ideas. Teachers share their work willingly and respect each other as professionals. Even when teachers don’t want to try something new the first time they hear about it, many are usually willing to give it a go after someone in the PLC tries it first.
- Permission to Fail: It goes without saying that when you try a new way of teaching, it will not be perfect the first time. I spent the first 10 years of my career just figuring out how to teach the regular way. How long will it take to figure out blended learning? There will be a few disasters along the way. In fact, there already have been some disasters! The trick is to find the kernel of promise and to build on that. And, honestly, when a lesson goes haywire, I usually care about it more than my students. They do not hold it against me the next day.
- Permission to Borrow: If I have an idea and no one around my school site wants to collaborate on it, I reach out to teachers at other schools and even to teachers in my online personal learning network (PLN). Usually I can find someone who has been thinking the same thing and is willing to talk it out or give the idea a try. Recently, a teacher from a different school reached out to me because she was interested in trying a 4-point, mastery-style grading system, inspired by Caitlin Tucker’s blog on the topic. This teacher and I met several times before proposing the idea to our principals. We are piloting it this year and, so far, we like it. Here is the information I sent home to parents about the change: 4-Point Scoring for ELA
- Permission to Change My Mind: Every teacher knows that some of the best ideas go awry. If you are innovating in your classroom, some things will flop. I’m not talking about in a “fail forward” sort of way. When that happens, I give myself permission to change course. I give my students permission to let me know when something is not working. Sometimes we have to call a fail a fail and go another way.
The Big What Ifs
In George Couros’s book Innovator’s Mindset, he lists a few what ifs. These are systematic and global changes he thinks would improve teaching and learning. Actually, change is the wrong word. The What Ifs are more like imaginings. The challenge is to imagine what it would take to improve education: What holds teachers back? What holds students back? What are the systematic flaws we would like to see fixed?
My Own What Ifs:
What if class sizes were reduced to a reasonable level?
What if teachers could choose their own PLCs?
What if time were built into the school day for students to get help?
What if grades were actually tied to learning instead of completion?
What if we truly encouraged students to take risks and fail (without consequence)?
What if we valued creativity enough to make that the primary focus of teaching and learning?
What if we stopped moving students along based on their ages?
What if we threw out the state standardized tests and implemented a portfolio system?
What if school schedules were flexible and allotted class time based on need instead of an antiquated bell system?
What if we updated classroom furniture and infrastructure in order to meet the needs of twenty-first century learners?
What if we built on students strengths instead of focusing on their deficits?
I could probably write fifty or one hundred what ifs. But, that’s not the point. It is nice to imagine a perfect world of education, but I don’t live there. I work in the education system we have. Generally, I don’t focus on what I wish would happen. I prefer to do what I can with what I have now. I am happiest in my teaching when I keep my mind on the students and their learning. Besides that, it helps to build a strong network of like-minded educators who also want to grow and improve in their craft.
So, yes, speak up. Join committees. Share your ideas. But don’t get bogged down my systematic problems. Keep your mind on the students. Keep your mind on the learning.