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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Trying to Be Innovative During a Standardized Time

By Peter DeWitt — September 30, 2012 3 min read
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A few years ago our school raised money for the Heifer Project. Though we had a two year goal, we raised the money in less than one year. We achieved our goal in less time because of a dedicated staff, hardworking students and very supportive parents. It didn’t happen because of points on an evaluation. It didn’t happen because someone told us we had to do it.

The Heifer Project was an idea that a few staff members had and it was something they had never done before. Those staff members were not worried about failing or who was watching. They only cared to help those who were less fortunate at the same time they taught our students how fortunate they were. There were many things they did besides raise money. Staff held reader’s theatres and completed student-centered projects to teach students about third world countries. This type of innovative ways to reach students happens a lot in schools.

Unfortunately, there has been some question as to whether schools can be innovative during a time when there are so many mandates and so much accountability. This year does feel differently than years in the past. There are so many new rules that pop up everyday. We seem to be playing Wac-a-Mole with state education departments because as soon as we hit one mandate down, another one pops up (Conspiracy Theory).

We know that we are at risk of losing our creativity. Sir Ken Robinson warned us of that a few years ago. Many think those days of being creative are behind us because our curriculum is getting narrower and there are teachers who feel forced to teach to the text and teach to the test. If we allow tests to dictate how we move forward, than we have really lost was is truly amazing about education. We can’t allow this to happen.

As hard as it is, we don’t control the mandates and testing, but we do control how we teach children. If we allow testing to dictate our days, than we are not taking the opportunity to show that we are more than test scores. Just because some state education departments may have distorted views on education, doesn’t mean we have to give up why we are in the field.

The other day I was on Twitter and we were discussing innovation on #Satchat which takes place at 7:30 a.m. on the East Coast and then again at 7:30 a.m. on the West Coast. #Satchat brings together educators from all over the world. Thankfully #Satchat exists because of Scott Rocco and Brad Currie, both administrators in New Jersey.

During the conversation that focused on innovation, some educators brought up valid points as to why they do not feel as though they can be innovative. They mentioned that the pressures of testing dictate how they should teach, and some mentioned that their administrators forced them to do test prep and didn’t give them the freedom to teach the way they want. If that is true, it is unfortunate.

I know that testing hurts students. It makes a large percentage of students feel as though they do not fit into the public school system. That is exactly why it is so important that we still work hard to be innovative. Those students need our best thinking and need to be engaged in other ways.

After spending time watching conversations take place and Tweeting back and forth with others, I know there are many educators who are still innovative during these times of accountability. More educators need to follow suit, and that includes principals. The following are some thoughts/suggestions:

• Principals have to let up the control. Stop micromanaging your teachers. Your job is to encourage innovative practices and support your staff and students, not dictate their everyday lives. • If principals want innovation, they need to model it or at least foster the ideas that come from staff. Don't be a top down administrator. Be one who stands by their side. An educator on Twitter said that if principals can't be innovative than they need to get out of the way. I disagree...if they can't be innovative they need to watch and learn from their teachers. • Testing has gotten out of control and parents have to continue to stand up, speak out, and perhaps even opt out. • Educators can't always use the test as an excuse to not be innovative because after awhile we may be at risk of sounding like Charlie Brown's teacher to our parents. • Innovation isn't just about technology. It's about how we engage our students. Not every teacher has the benefit of technology. However, not every teacher who has technology in their classroom is innovative. It's more than the tool; it's how you use it. • Find a balance. Being innovative doesn't automatically mean that you are making the new mandates and accountability system work. It means that you're better than the new mandates and the accountability system.

In the End
Sometimes this blog is as much for me as it is for anyone reading it. I struggle with innovative leadership on days when I’m incensed by the seemingly lack of knowledge about student pedagogy by the policymakers who enforce the rules. However, I also understand that I made a commitment to staff and students, even when the chips are down. The decisions from people who are at 30,000 feet above us will never replace the view we have from the classroom. And to quote the name of a recent movie, we won’t back down either.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.