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).  

29 comments:

  1. I am an innovative teacher. Some challenges I face:
    1.An administation that does not keep up with current research;
    2. Adminstrators that say they want innovation but do not support me when I practice it;
    3. Fellow teachers that are not open to change;
    4. Closed minds around what a final exam must look like.
    Yet I perservere, I have enough maturity and experience to be considered a master teacher and have a lot of respect where it really counts - students, parents and other innovators.
    When I hear people discussing "the box" (inside, outside, along the edges) my response is always "What box?".

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    1. Dear Kay,
      Thank you...What box? Brilliant!
      Have a great day!
      Neil

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    2. I see similar trends. However, I have lucked out with great administrators who get me. That makes a huge difference.

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    3. I love it: "What box?" Great question!

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  2. As long as customers (parent/students) don't get to vote with their feet and take their money with them, schools will be *increasingly* micro-managed like a Soviet toilet-paper system.

    All macro-level reform must be based on Choice.

    http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/SchoolChoice

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    1. The problem I see with school choice as a panacea is that we aren't selling widgets in a free market. Our customers (parents) can't delay or opt out of their purchase entirely if the market doesn't meet their needs (because they are legally obligated to education their child), and our true customers (students) have literally no say in the "purchasing" decision nor would they have the ability to objectively analyze their options. Many (most?) areas already have options in place regarding school choice, but we've learned already that options didn't solve the problems they were expected to. Even if we solved all of these, the typical "purchase" rate is one school per year, which I suspect would simply not work -- by the time a school earns a reputation as offering a good or bad "product", a significant portion of the school's staff, culture, and processes will have changed. The unavoidable limitations on education "purchasing" decisions is too great to provide the useful feedback that makes a hypothetical free market work.

      K-12 education can't possibly act as a free market, and that's why otherwise appealing free market business concepts don't apply constructively to K-12 education.

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    2. It's sure a good thing we don't use a market to buy/sell
      * food (which you can't opt out of for a week, unless you have a full pantry)
      * kids clothes (which we don't give them too much say in)
      * cars, houses, tax-prep services (which we don't buy very often)

      We may get to pick from multiple schools in our city, but all those schools are roughly identical because they have to worry about the same standardized test scores.

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    3. We're in a dangerous place when we use market norms to govern social spaces. Just a thought.

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  3. Hi John, I felt like you were writing this for me. The onset of technology has given me the tools to do the teaching I've always dreamed of--children are happier than ever, and now all of sudden, the constraints and controls are being thrust upon me like shackles. I honestly don't know what to do--now that I have experienced the confidence, self esteem and lack of behavioral issues that engaging and creative practice brings to schools--how can I return to "workbook-like" education with limited tools, approval forms, lengthy meetings to try out something new and more controlled pd sessions. Like you I feel the disconnect between all the reading I'm doing online and the connections I'm making with wonderful teachers all over the world and what's happening in public schools. Then people complain about private industry wanting to take over public schools, but public schools are suffocating their greatest advocates--the teachers who care. Oh well, I'm trying to make sense of it all. Thanks for having the courage to write this frank post.

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    1. I love your point that "public schools are suffocating their greatest advocates." Exactly.

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  4. I think one of the things about those who are on Twitter being the "innovative" voice is that they are ironically myopic in what they're talking about because, well, they don't do this everyday, and very often they seem to have a sort of "privileged" view of things. Yes, there are some that have been in very bad situations but most, like any good shill, are all about the successes and what you can do with all these tools that districts should magically be able to just afford. Meanwhile, you have teachers who feel like they are suffocating under conditions where they feel the deck is stacked against them and simply telling them to quit or opt-out or "blow up the system" is ... well, it's insulting, to be honest.

    Enjoyed your post here. It was way more level-headed than mine on a similar topic.

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    1. Context certainly shapes perceptions of reality. I find myself advocating a little less loudly for student voice after five students interrupt me during some vital instructions on a project that the students are really into.

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    2. I think that advocating for a stronger student voice is necessary, but the way I see it presented on Twitter isn't going to work. What I often see there is too general or isn't constructive overall.

      There are specific ways in which students can exercise their voices in schools that are being underused. Yet whenever I've talked to the average #stuvoice-r they've dismissive of things like changing the role of student government to advocate for students rather than just plan the prom, or that the student newspaper is a great tool in spite of Hazelwood. That leaves me wondering if they are happy about being "oppressed" in a sense because it gives them something to complain about.

      Which is cynical, I know. But it goes back to the whole boxes concept. If you're within the box and start repurposing the box, you might get more done than you'd think rather than constantly trying to think outside the box.

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    3. You're right, Tom. The way it's presented on Twitter is often this very one-sided, loud version of student voice that just isn't true and just doesn't work.

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  5. I think you are bang on with these thoughts. There is a real lack of confidence and trust in teachers as a collective which needs to change. What if...we just went ahead with innovation? What if we could trust our principals and superintendents to trust us and give us time? What if we could explore new thinking and approaches and engage in real professional dialogue without worrying that we're always "doing it right'?

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    1. How can we gain that confidence and trust. I thought by being transparent and sharing all the "good news" in classrooms today, we could begin to be seen in a different light. Like so many others, I've also opened up my practice much more to parent/student voice and choice--to build learning communities, but still confidence and trust seem to be lacking overall throughout our country. I think some of it is due to the fact that many had troubling experiences in schools During my era there were many students with special needs left out of the success equation. Also I recently spent a day with many innovators who had challenging experiences in schools. So how as a collective group can we gain that confidence and trust?

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    2. I think that's what many teachers are doing anyway. They're essentially saying, "I'm going to do this regardless."

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    3. It becomes "This is what's best for my students. Period." Which doesn't fit with the common advice for new teachers, to keep your head down and mouth shut and the bulls-eye off your back.

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    4. It's a hard balance to make - the needs of the school and the desire to do what is best for kids. But ultimately, I want to fail on the side of kids and not on the side of the institution.

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  6. doing what's best for kids has turned into doing what you're told...or else! Many of the teachers I know no longer have the freedom to teach the way they know works for kids because their performance reviews will have all the checkmarks in the negative areas...it's so sad!

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    1. Performance reviews are so tricky too because often one administrator is responsible for more performance reviews than possible hence the process gets watered down.

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    2. I don't mind being evaluated. I don't mind data transparency. I just don't want multiple choice data as the only method of assessment.

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  8. As posted on FB:
    You make some very good points, but in the background is this: "innovation" as a concept is highly overrated. Like everything, innovation can be anywhere on the spectrum between excellent and horrible. Just because something is innovative does not make it wonderful.

    Also, once something has become generally used - no matter how well done - it's no longer innovative. Good practices should not be tossed out simply because they are not cutting edge.

    What works well for one teacher's personality may not for another. Why teachers are supposed to focus on student individuality but no regard is given for their own is a question I would like to see someone pursuing a graduate degree to research.

    Finally, as a former union representative for teachers, I will warn anyone who says "My administrators get it and support me": you are one very short step away from a new administrator who sees things very differently. A new superintendent, a new principal, a new curriculum coordinator, whatever: that person may see what you are doing as not being part of the "team" s/he is trying to build (has been brought in to create...) and your previously-lauded innovative practices begin to stand in the way of good evaluations.

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    1. I love your response to this and agree about innovation. I often wonder what people mean when they say "I'm innovative." For some reason it often seems be synonymous with "I use technology." While technology can be innovative, like you said, it doesn't necessarily make it a best practice.

      However, I also viewed the threads on #educon about "blowing up the system" and felt as if some stu-voice'ers truly believed that teachers don't matter, regardless of a failed system. Innovative or not, teachers are not without flaws, but if anything, many of us do what we do because we believe it matters. I think you ask an important question, why can't teachers place some focus on their own individuality? I know I struggle with this issue constantly.

      The greatest dilemma I have faced this year as an educator has been with an administration that claims to be supportive of building a community of excellent teachers but reacts to external conditions (data retrieved from test results, impending budget constraints based on legislative outcomes, technology integration based on what OTHER schools are doing, exhausting state standards, etc.). Nobody wants to have the REAL conversation: What do our students NEED?

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    2. And that's the rub.

      Admins don't have an easy job--one that in many ways looks like those circus performers tryings to balance 20 spinning plates. At some point, someone will have to say STOP. Enough. We're not just neutral here-- we're actively harming kids and the future of our country.

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    3. Yep. That's it right there. The external demands outside of the school often shape the policy within. However, you are right. We can't simply say, "this is how it is, let's deal with it." We have to actively work against things that harm kids.

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  9. I so agree with your points regarding the value of teachers and the impact of bad policy. Interestingly, I didn't take the #Educon stream as an indictment of teachers so much as an attack on the bad policies and external forces that have crippled education. It's the "system" within which education teachers and students are held hostage that needs to change.

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    1. Perhaps I viewed it differently. I don't think that was the nature of Educon, but of the way people tweet at conferences in general. My point is that we're taking the wrong approach. Blowing it up and reinventing it won't work.

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.

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