During the fall of my first year of teaching general English, I was a 22-year-old in front of 18-year-old seniors. I taught in a struggling school in Kentucky, where many of my students were low-income. Be tough, my colleagues and administrators told me. Don’t smile until Christmas, or the students will eat you alive. With that terrible advice in mind, I went in with a plan to set high expectations. To look older and more authoritarian, I wore my hair slicked back into a tight bun and dark reading glasses.
As someone who loved to read, write, and create stories, I also wanted to inspire my students to love language. What I didn’t realize was that my toughness overshadowed any inspiration I tried to project.
On my first day, I sent my students home with the first tale in The Canterbury Tales, a Middle English story collection by Geoffrey Chaucer. The next day, when not a single student had read the homework I had assigned, I launched into a lecture about respect and responsibility. One timid student at the front of the room raised her hand and said, “We couldn’t read it.”
I went into another tirade about having a positive, can-do attitude. “No, Mrs. Lamb,” the student said. “We can read, but this book is not written in English.”
My jewelry-making gave me more ideas for innovative lessons that didn’t just pass the time or appease the administrative powers that be."
It was only then that I realized I had sent them home with the Middle English version of the text. I was so focused on being a tough teacher with high expectations that I created an environment where my students didn’t want to talk to me. And I paid dearly for it. Come October, my creative juices were zapped, and I can’t even imagine how my students must have felt. I began searching desperately for another job, wondering if teaching was the right career for me.
What kept me in the profession was something simple and unexpected: I began making earrings.
Finding a Creative Outlet
One weekend, during a rare break from grading and lesson planning, I ended up browsing the aisles of a craft store. I was stressed and exhausted. I impulsively threw some interesting beads and earring hooks into my basket.
At home, the young maker in me came alive. I would neglect the stack of worksheets on my dining room table and lose myself in creating jewelry. Before I knew it, I was setting up shop at local craft fairs and hosting in-home jewelry parties. I started to wonder if my real calling was as a jewelry designer. For the first time in a long time, I was having fun.
Because I thought I was leaving the classroom soon, I stopped putting pressure on myself to be a tough teacher. My jewelry-making gave me more ideas for innovative lessons that didn’t just pass the time or appease the administrative powers that be. A website called PostSecret, where people send their deepest secrets in the form of anonymous postcards, inspired a lesson where my students analyzed Shakespeare characters and created PostSecret postcards for them.
My craving for Airhead taffy candy during a late-night earring-making session prompted a discovery that the candy was made in our state. The next week, we did a thematic writing unit on Kentucky food, complete with samples donated by the company. While I was seemingly preparing to leave the teaching profession and wasting time making jewelry, I was actually becoming a more creative and passionate teacher.
Sparking Student Inspiration
In his book A Whole New Mind, the author Daniel Pink elaborates on the necessity of pursuing creative thought. In our students’ future, where more jobs are outsourced or automated, what will be necessary is creative problem-solving, divergent thinking, and unique perspectives on old ideas. Pink explains that it will take standout designs, ideas, and solutions to make a real impact. It is not only important that we cultivate creativity just because it feels good, but because our students’ future depends on it.
According to 2015 data collected by Gallup, about 7 in 10 K-12 teachers in the United States are not engaged in their work, even though teacher engagement is one of the most important factors for fostering student engagement. Student engagement is especially a problem the longer kids are in school; while about 76 percent of elementary-aged children feel engaged in school, only about 44 percent of high school students do.
I am not surprised by this data. But I have found through my own classroom experience that the key to both teacher and student engagement is the amount of creativity that they are able to bring to their work. That first year, both my students and I felt disengaged, disconnected, and apathetic until I became more creative as a person and teacher.
I would like to say that teaching suddenly became easy once I found my own outlet, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth. The truth is that teaching remained a challenge, and my own inspiration did not, in turn, always inspire my students.
But because my creative juices were flowing, I was able to give my students more opportunities to engage in creative learning. And at the end of the year, I wanted to stay in the classroom. The challenges and low points never completely disappear, but what has always made me a better teacher to the students in my classroom is the spirit of creativity.
Taking Risks for Passion
There is much at stake if we ignore the creative potential of our students. Developmental research shows that young people actually have a special affinity for risk that is well-suited for developing creative thinking. Teenagers like to rebel, be unique, try new things, and are highly impulsive. Because standardized methods of education often leave little room for deviation, teens can lose sight of this trait, or put it to use in less productive ways. I see this impulse that teens have as a hidden gem. It is our job as teachers to help them uncover it.
Young teachers are in classrooms where it’s easy to get bogged down by rules and regulations, but what our students need is our creativity. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to cultivate their own passions and should be open to letting those pursuits guide how they design lessons for students. They may be in environments with constraints—scripted curriculum, rigid administrators, or a culture of conformity—but students deserve teachers who are brave enough to take creative risks in order to give them the highest-quality lessons. And teachers deserve a working life that inspires them to do just that.