Today’s teachers function in a paradoxical environment. Students, families, communities, and educational leaders demand innovation in schools, while states and district leaders demand high test scores. Many teachers feel the weight of both demands and struggle to fulfill these seemingly opposing expectations simultaneously. A school culture focused solely on student achievement as measured by standardized assessments can limit teachers’ and school leaders’ abilities to innovate.
Most of us would agree that innovation in today’s schools and classrooms is a necessity. To reach our students and prepare them for an uncertain future, teachers and school leaders cannot continue to teach and lead as they have in the past. School leaders must take responsibility for building and maintaining a culture that inspires innovation. A culture that fosters innovation will not occur accidentally. It must be purposefully cultivated and sustained through intentional action. Below are four intentional actions school leaders can take to inspire innovation.
Take Risks, Fail, and Own It
Many teachers will feel uncomfortable taking instructional risks without a leader who explicitly and implicitly encourages risk-taking. It is not enough to tell teachers to innovate. School leaders who inspire innovation show, through their daily actions, that it’s okay to take risks and, more importantly, that it’s okay—necessary even—to fail. School leaders must be willing to try new techniques and approaches to leadership, be transparent about their choices, and own their successes and failures. Take a new approach to faculty meetings or classroom walkthroughs, for example, and explain your purpose for the new approach. After implementation and reflection, engage teachers in honest conversation about the effects of the new approach. Be open to criticism and be willing to celebrate when things work and admit when they don’t.
Make it clearly known that school is a safe place for risk-taking by communicating the importance of risk-taking and innovation regularly in conversation with teachers and students. Newton-Conover City Schools, a small city school district in North Carolina, encourages innovation by providing an annual grant opportunity for teachers. The Innovative Grant, funded by money collected from facility rentals, is used to fund projects proposed by teachers that extend curricular opportunities, foster higher-level thinking, and enrich student learning through culture, art, music, and other activities. Teachers are encouraged to apply for Innovative Grant funds to create memorable learning experiences that would not be possible without additional funding. According to Superintendent Dr. David Stegall, the goal of Innovative Grants is to “take away excuses and provide teachers with the opportunity to be creative and try something new with no fear of failure.
Break Out of Routines
A simple change in routine can be enough to inspire innovative thinking within a school. Innovation can be stifled in an environment where everyone always knows what to expect. Students and teachers alike can be inspired to innovate in a culture where routines are challenged and new ways of doing things are welcomed. Flip your next faculty meeting. Start your morning announcements with an unexpected shout-out or celebration. Lead an impromptu school-wide brain break. Plan a flash mob for your next parent night.
School leaders can leverage distributed leadership by crowdsourcing solutions to address real school issues. Are you having issues with the car rider line? Committee schedules? Parent involvement? Ask teachers and students to brainstorm solutions and create new procedures to solve real school problems. Don’t accept “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Demonstrate a willingness to throw out routines that aren’t working and embrace innovative solutions.
Make it Personal
Because teachers are actual human beings with unique interests, passions, strengths, and needs, school leaders would do well to spend time getting to know their teachers and find out what makes each teacher “tick.” Teachers will respond in different ways to leaders’ attempts to foster innovation and risk-taking. Through personalized mentoring, support, and feedback, each teacher can grow to embrace innovation and become a risk-taker. Consider how the following approaches might impact teachers in different ways.
- Share a timely article about an innovative teaching practice.
- Host a lunch-and-learn for discussing recent teaching innovations and how well they worked or didn’
- Facilitate peer classroom walkthroughs focused on innovative teaching.
- Invite a teacher to share an innovative approach at a district leadership or school board meeting.
- Match teachers with business partners who are interested in supporting innovative teaching.
A certain technique might appeal to some teachers but not others. Personalize these opportunities based on the relationships you’ve built with teachers as individuals, and give them choice whenever possible.
Don’t Stop Teaching
Factors that influence teaching and learning change frequently, while schools and districts may be slower to change. Teachers are continually faced with new challenges and opportunities. For school leaders who left the classroom many years ago, it can be difficult to relate to those challenges and opportunities and understand how best to foster innovation in the classroom. School leaders who continue to identify as teachers and spend time teaching even as they assume administrative responsibilities are in a great position to experiment with innovative practices. Better still, these leaders can speak from experience when discussing innovative practices with teachers.
When facing classroom teaching and learning challenges themselves, school leaders are forced to innovate to meet the needs of learners. Inevitably, as in all classrooms, some teaching practices will work well and others will flop. School leaders can openly share their current teaching successes and failures, inspiring teachers to innovate by modeling classroom innovation themselves.
We know that school culture can positively or negatively supercede other school and teacher factors that contribute to innovative teaching. The school leader is ultimately the person responsible for determining, establishing, and sustaining school culture. By taking intentional steps to foster risk-taking, school leaders can inspire innovation that improves teaching and transforms the overall school culture.