• Jan Avellana

In Support of the Innovative Teacher

Innovation in Education

Pete Foley, consultant and innovator, defines innovation as “a great idea, executed brilliantly, and communicated in a way that is both intuitive and fully celebrates the magic of the initial concept...Innovative ideas can be big or small, but breakthrough or disruptive innovation is something that either creates a new category, or changes an existing one dramatically…” After eons of top down mandates and a culture of distrust of teacher agency, teachers are now suddenly being emancipated to become courageous innovators in the classroom. This enormous paradigm shift results in teacher whiplash. It’s a hard new ask of professionals that are already suffering from overwork, low societal status and even lower pay. What would motivate a teacher to become a teacher-risk-taker-innovator? How do we help support and motivate teachers to want to navigate through obstacles that might keep them safely in the status quo?

The Innovative Teacher

Teaching is a risky endeavor. Like a broadway performer, the teacher stands alone in front of her students. Instead of just entertaining them for an hour or two with rehearsed lines and a company of fellow actors in the wings, the teacher must establish trust with her audience and facilitate the process of going from unknowing to knowing, often for hours at a time, usually for a year or more. Her audience has not paid hundreds of dollars to see her—in reality, some don’t even want to be in attendance, others may not even speak the same language as the teacher. Many would be scholars, even at tender ages, are convinced that they cannot learn from her and that she cannot teach them. All of this she must overcome, with nothing but love. So she peels off her armor—she must be authentic and passionate before her crowd, convincing each learner of their unlimited potential for good, and she must learn to love them first. Why love? Because learning can be a vulnerable act for both the teacher and the learner, love is the only force that makes a space safe enough to embarrass oneself in public with shaky first steps and possible failure. Only then can deep learning happen, when a student trusts the teacher enough to risk. That is our charge, and one we take, sometimes with fear, or joy and always with a dogged belief that every child can learn.

Meanwhile, onlookers yell, “Differentiate! Accommodate! Innovate!” And though she must and she will, the draw to protect oneself from the risks of innovation—learning that doesn’t blossom or take deep root in the learner, criticism from colleagues who feel threatened by anything new and parents that present with various levels of buy in and criticism.

Consider that in the classroom, nothing is rehearsed and very little support exists for teachers. Who can blame a teacher for choosing the safer road, though not the one that might help her learner or herself, to fly? Goodness knows that there is little incentive for teachers to risk taking their learners farther than the standards tell us we must. Teachers are not paid to be great, nor are we guaranteed accolade or reward—in fact many of the triumphs a teacher and learner experience are intimately contained in a moment between the teacher and the learner, within the confines of a classroom where few witness these daily feats of growth and daring!

Yet the innovative teacher exists. She cannot help but be who she is—a risk taker, a visionary, a rebel, a prophet, and for these very reasons, a leader. This is why it is so necessary to support our teachers so that like the dancer extraordinaire Agnes de Mille, innovative and risk taking teachers might take “leap after leap in the dark” knowing that there will be someone to catch her. Because only through risk and challenging herself and her learners, does a passionate teacher inspire and ignite a flame in others. The teacher who leads children into wonder, must be allowed to delight herself first, to risk and try and then to fail, knowing that her company will help her recalibrate her trajectory and encourage her to take aim and leap again. For this reason, we must as colleagues, as learners, as parents and as administrators—to champion the teacher leader who is willing to risk her significance in order to provide her students with new experiences that delight their curiosities and a safe harbor to learn to fly, protected from the damaging and stunting effects that early criticism and fear of failure can produce.

A Teacher Takes a Risk

The school year begins, and right away I am overwhelmed with the gargantuan workload in front of me. I hear about a call for teacher led grants. I am inspired, but also exhausted--is adding more work to my workload a wise way to combat stress? For weeks I let ideas gestate, and in between doubts, come spurts of hope and a renewed sense of purpose that seems to lighten my overwhelm. So I write the grant. I stretch, and dream, and wonder, and I risk looking foolish. I shirk back and reconsider all of the reasons this is just too “extra”. Then I breathe and hit “submit”.Regardless of the outcome of the grant proposal, I am already a better educator for having dared—I’ve researched a new strategy, reflected on how to best bring it to life for my students and invited community leaders to collaborate. A few days later, I get a note from my Principal who reads my grant proposal and says, “Looks amazing. I wish we could ask for $100k for that write up.” With that additional infusion of confidence from one human heart to another, my spirits lift further—I decide no matter what, I will find a way to implement this innovation because it’s good for the children. In the end, to nurture the teacher leader is to help ourselves because given the right supports, the innovative teacher has the ability to awaken the innovator in us all.

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