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School & District Management Opinion

Discover, Acknowledge, and Learn From Your Innovative Teachers

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 29, 2016 5 min read
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Many institutions of higher education around the country offer an annual faculty award for innovative teaching. But, this phenomenon happens with much less frequency in K - 12 schools. We wonder how we can encourage the development of innovation for their students if they, themselves, are not recognized and rewarded for it. Does it present a dilemma for leaders whether or not to recognize with distinction, those teachers who pepper the school building with innovative thinking and actions?

Here, from an innovative teacher, Marisa Burvikovs, quoted in a Corwin Connect blog post

Innovation can occur on a daily basis in the classroom; the key is to listen to student’s ideas and approach standards in new ways to demonstrate learning while incorporating the interests of each unique class. Our best tool is our ability to listen to students and manipulate our teaching practices to adapt to their interests and needs. The innovators are students and teachers; anyone can help to create new and unique ideas to show learning.

Leaders who cling to traditional classroom design, the delivery of information, the assigning of homework as practice, assessing through multiple choice and essay tests, will not be well prepared to observe, encourage, support, and evaluate classrooms like Marisa’s. Yet, their past experience is familiar, comfortable and informs them that the traditional classroom is the one that creates student success. They are not wrong, it did. So what is a leader to do? Should one hunker down in the past success story? Or should a leader step into the less known water and adventure with those teachers who are innovators into a territory where students and teachers alike experiment with new ways of learning?

Shifting Gears
Leaders must know by now that schools exist in a framework built in the past to serve students of the past. We grew up in that system, were trained to teach and lead in it, and supported its growth and flexibility as societal needs changed. Now, we have arrived at a dilemma point: can these systems continue to expand and flex or have they reached their full capacity? Are the mindsets of educators, parents, students and communities ready to allow for something new? Do we even know who tenaciously holds to the practice and structures of the past? Could it be that these last few years have exhausted the grip of many and they are now ready to open their hands again and begin anew?

There are those who yearn to have their vision of the future considered seriously, who see the horizon and can describe how to get there. These visionaries know the world of contemporary students and would do well as a profession to discover them and invite them to explore what they see, and reward them for doing it.

Innovative Teachers In the Shifting Process
Innovative teachers are the key. Teachers are the ones who work closest to the students and are keenly aware of the differences between students today and students from the past. While busy trying to meet standards, teach curriculum, experiment with technology, group-work, projects and presentations, teachers are pushing against boundaries. Those boundaries limit the opportunities to develop new strategies and demonstrate that they work. The leader, whether innovative her or himself or not, can carry the message that innovation is valuable and essential as part of the learning process. The leader can establish new boundaries and open doors that encourage new practices and new partnerships. The leader can also support innovative teachers as the ones from whom we all can learn about how students respond to new and pioneering learning opportunities.

A Lesson from Stella
While visiting at her grandparent’s house, three-year-old Stella announced that she was to be the doctor and that her mother and grandmother were to be the patients. Expecting her to take her Fisher-Price® doctor kit from the sack of toys she brought along, they were surprised when she climbed up on the chair at the computer and began faux keyboarding as she asked about their symptoms. She then sent her patients to a different chair and told each to wait there and she would be right over to take blood to find out what was wrong. At three, Stella has a different view of the job of a physician and it includes careful listening while recording of information for future reference and analysis. Paper and pencil no more. The ability to analyze this and other patients information using software (Stella doesn’t know this yet...for now, she is simply inputting the info) for future use.

A three year old has developed a frame of mind about a doctor as an information gatherer and user of technology. Children with this orientation are arriving in increasing numbers in kindergarten. And, we all know, the gap between these students and some others will be great. But, it is children like Stella, and the curious others, who will speak their truth and hopefully be heard by those listening, innovative teachers.

We are not talking about those new things that have come from a district decision, like moving from textbooks to tablets, or from a library to an information center or collaboratory. We are talking about the way classrooms are organized around teaching and learning. If leaders are too focused on the daily grind, which is most certainly important, but have not been able to raise their eyes and look to a new horizon line, they have only to release the energy of those innovative teachers and watch.

It is not healthy for an organization to isolate its pockets of innovation without planning how it can spread across the organization. It is unfair if some children are permitted to miss the innovative classrooms while others participate in them over and over. The benefits of innovation are tangible and intangible both. Teachers with a natural proclivity for shaking things up and those who find such a thought terrifying can both become players in a new dynamic environment and both can become excited.

Innovative or Not, We Need Change Leaders
So creative and innovative or not, today’s leaders are called upon to be change agents who understand their role as facilitators of an important shift from the last century to this. That earth shaking includes breaking the pattern that we hold, imparting facts as the Holy Grail. The new eco-system includes understanding, application, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. This is not a shift that can be made by edict. Leaders, while striving to find their own vision for possibilities, need only to look inside their schools for teachers like Marisa who are pushing against boundaries and inviting a more flexible interaction between student and teacher, where they are models of innovation, always in search of the classrooms that best serve the students.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Photo by Cathy Yeulet courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.