Why Aren't Teachers More Innovative?


There is a perception about innovation that is somewhat demeaning to teachers. It's the idea that Daniel Pink or Sir Ken Robinson or Robert Marzano are the ones who can tell us how schools need to change. It's the idea that teachers just need more professional development, more coaching and more resources.

It's easy to see this perception in the corporate education reformers. Rhee and Duncan praise teachers while also pushing for measures that reduce professional autonomy and place reform at the mantel of experts who have never spent any time in an actual classroom. 

However, I noticed a similar issue in reading some of the #educon tweets and in engaging with a debate about "blowing up the system" on Twitter this last Saturday morning. It's the idea that maybe teachers don't matter. Maybe we need experts from the outside to push reform. Maybe what's stifling teachers is a lack of technological and pedagogical expertise.

What if the real issue is a steady stream of bad policy? 

On four different occasions, my students participated in collaborative, inquiry-based projects with students in other cities. However, we ran into issues when the other schools blocked blogs, social media, Google Docs and Skype. We had the plans. We had the will. What we lacked was the access. 

In my own classroom, I am held accountable by state law to teach a rigid four hour ELL block with exactly one hour of grammar, one hour of oral conversation, one hour of reading and one hour of writing. According to district mandate, I must teach according to the gradual release of responsibility (I do, we do, you do) that often goes against my constructivist, inquiry-based mindset. My students spend six weeks a year testing. 

I do what I can. I find loopholes. I blend the learning into a project-based framework. I use technology and advocate for a more authentic pedagogy. However, ultimately, even a bolder teacher like myself must face a wall of bad policy. True, we can stand up like the teachers in Washington. However, we are also in a hyper-red state, in a low-income area. Standing up will cost us our jobs. And I have a hunch that they would rather have a compliant warm body than a non-compliant professional. 

Some might say "just ask forgiveness instead of permission" or to point out that teachers are just being complacent and scared. However, these things are easy to say when you are outside of the classroom. The reality is that there are thousands of teachers doing innovative things despite the policy barriers. 

While people on the outside are speaking about thinking outside the box, there are people on the inside repurposing the box. They are taking what little freedom they have and pushing the boundaries. These are the teachers who are being disruptive rather than being destructive. They are leading a nuanced, sustainable change that impacts the lives of real students (not just theoretical kids that exist on conference speaker slides).