I have had the pleasure of working with so many educators around North America and hearing about their individual journeys, as well as organizational success and struggles toward the building of a “culture of innovation.” This is not meaning that every single thing in a school or classroom is “innovative” and that there is nothing you wouldn’t see from ten years ago. It is about creating a culture where people are willing to take risks in their learning and create better learning opportunities for their students when they see a need or opportunity. It is about serving the students first, and not about what is easy for the adults.
Many places talk about the importance of innovation more than actually taking steps to create a culture where this is the norm. If administrators want this to happen, it has to be more than a statement, but an ongoing process.
So what are the things that can support educators in their pursuit of finding new and better ways to serve all of the students in front of them? Here are some questions to help inspire further action and remove barriers from the people you are trying to serve.
1. Are your professional learning opportunities mirroring what you want to see in the classroom?
Often we ask teachers to do something different in the classroom, while we continue to do the same thing in professional learning. The best way for teaching practice to change in the classroom is for professional learning to look different as well. We create what we experience. If teachers are not excited about the learning opportunities that are offered, why would we expect them to create engaging and empowering environments for students?
Model what you seek.
2. Are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practices?
I have noticed something about the organizations that I have worked with…The more paperwork that I have to go through to join them is often a sure sign that the district is less innovative. Here is why I believe this to be true. Those procedures and hoops that I have to jump through are usually a norm for the culture, not an exception. I am probably not the only person having to jump through these hoops. Many jobs at central office create more issues than solve, not because of the position, but the mindset. The best thing someone can do in these positions is find ways to remove barriers, not create them.
What are some things that you can remove from the plate of the people you serve to make innovation easier? There are already so many barriers in front of educators; creating superfluous ones when they are not needed will only discourage teachers, and sometimes principals, from trying new things to serve the students in front of them.
3. Is there transparency in your practice and learning?
I often ask administrators these two questions…”Have you learned anything in the last three months?” Which the answer is always “yes!” This question is followed with, “Could the people you serve tell me what you have learned in the last three months?”
It is not just about showing what you know, but showing what you are struggling with and what ideas you are wrestling with in your mind, and the people you are serving have a view of this process. This vulnerability is crucial to the learning of an administrator when we ask educators to take risks in their learning continuously. Don’t ask people to try new things if they do not see you doing the same thing.
4. Is collaboration an ongoing norm or do individuals and teams work in silos?
Have you ever seen the district that has a technology and curriculum department that work against each other, not with each other? This happens more than we like to admit and it often leads to initiatives and acronyms (so many acronyms) to implement from both departments being pushed down to teachers. It is the equivalent of every teacher assigning homework to students on the same night to justify what they teach individually, with no concern how much time that has just downloaded onto their students as a whole. Working together and finding common ground not only brings initiatives together, but it lessens the workload on teachers and gives the opportunity for depth of learning.
Focusing on working together versus working in silos is also essential for teachers. Common planning isn’t about every teacher doing the same thing, but taking advantage of learning from one another. No two classrooms should ever look the same because the students in each class are different, but there should be commonalities in practice. What is important is that we focus on bringing the best opportunities for all of our students, not just the same practices. Too often, we create equity at the lowest level for our students, where equity should be at the highest level. Learn from each other and never let ego get in the way of serving students. This is why believe competitive-collaboration is crucial in education. We need to both push and support. The balance of both in our practice as educators is crucial for growth.
We are all teachers and learners (including students), and when we work in isolation from one another, we are limited to our ideas, not the best ideas. Working in silos might lead to less work, but it doesn’t lead to better opportunities for the people we serve.
Let’s summarize the above into four areas…
- Model Learning.
- Remove barriers.
- Build a culture of competitive-collaboration.
- Inspire greatness.
These are things that are not separate from one another, but actually, fuel each other. With this focus, we move from saying we want to be innovative, to becoming so. Innovation only becomes a “buzzword” when we use the term without actually bringing it to life in education.