Nurture Your Innovative Teachers (or suffer the consequences)

“Dysfunctional schools become even more so because thoughtful teachers avoid working with colleagues who are marching the competition.”
-Linda Darling-Hammond

Recently I had extended conversations with two talented, dedicated, and innovative teachers who are attempting to transform teaching at their respective institutions. One is a high school teacher on the West Coast and the second a middle school teacher on the East Coast. Both of them go beyond expectations to try to meet their students’ needs. They carefully consider how their pedagogical practices impact student learning, they attempt to connect curriculum content to their students lives in meaningful ways, and they innovate regularly to improve their craft.

Yet, both are deeply frustrated with their colleagues seeming indifference to improving pedagogical practice. The high school teacher told me that she has tried on several occasions to discuss with colleagues how curriculum content could be made more relevant to students lives, only to be told that the department’s sole requirement was to cover what is tested at the end of the year. The middle school teacher told me that three new novels were chosen for students by department grade leaders because they came with a teacher guide that included prepared questions and assignments and not because they were gripping or relevant. No one in the department had actually read the novels.  

Of course, there are many hard-working and caring faculty who support each other at schools all over this country. I see that, too. But I’ve met too many innovative and risk-taking teachers who are discouraged by their colleagues or administrators lack of interest in improving pedagogical practice and whose schools are failing too many students. Many disgruntled teachers I’ve spoken to over the years were considering working at other schools with more supportive and engaged communities of teacher-learners, which would weaken the schools they leave. 

Passionate teachers willing to take risks need to be encouraged and supported. Fortunately, there are many ways school leaders can do so. In Motivating & Inspiring Teachers, Whitaker, Whitaker, and Lumpa point out that key motivational factors for teachers are “recognition, achievement, responsibility, and things of a more intrinsic nature.” Therefore, school leaders should make every effort to praise and acknowledge their “superstar” teachers and offer them regular positive reinforcement for their efforts. Even a simple “I hear you’re doing great things in your classroom” can go along way to improving a teacher’s commitment to innovation. After all, schools have to be places that support great teaching and school leaders must be instructional leaders. 

Additionally, school leaders can structure participation so highly valued teachers are routinely involved in decisions that impact the faculty. Ask innovative teachers to sit on school committees that determine policy. Send these teachers to conferences and have them present to faculty on what they’ve learned. Encourage and help them to write grants. Involve them in discussions on professional development plans. School leaders who demonstrate their support for innovation through these measures can also help nurture a climate of trust and cooperation.

As Whitaker, Whitaker, and Lumpa note, the more educators can observe, dialogue, and work with each other, “the better the climate, teamwork, and above all, the students learning will be.” Schools that improve do so by cooperative efforts of teachers and others in the community, so make sure your thoughtful and innovative teachers are a critical part of the process. As Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn point out in Coherence, people are motivated to change through meaningful work done in collaboration with others, so school leaders should form learning partnerships across grades and departments tied to daily work "to develop a common language, knowledge base, and skills" to further teacher capacity. Whether collaboration is focused on lesson study, coaching, mentoring, or some other form of professional growth, each group should focus on a central question:  “What are we doing and why are we doing it?”

Whitaker, Whitaker, and Lumpa remind us that reluctant or negative staff members with strong personalities may intimidate some innovative and risk-taking faculty, so "it’s essential that school leaders take away that negative power." One strategy is for school leaders to enlist innovative teachers to present at faculty meetings and department meetings and to write about their risk-taking teachers in faculty-wide emails. Since great teachers love to discuss teaching, school leaders should get these teachers to talk about their teaching in formal and informal gatherings with other educators. Encouraging reflective discussions about teaching may make some teachers uncomfortable, but by doing so lesser-performing or more reluctant teachers are being prompted to reflect on their pedagogical approaches. It is a needed process to develop a more positive and forward-thinking culture.

In every school or district there are “pockets of excellence,” great teachers doing great teaching. But if schools are to move from pockets of excellence to widespread reform they have to develop a system that acknowledges, encourages, and rewards innovative teachers willing to take chances to meet student needs. As Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond emphasizes, “the careful selection and intensive development” of teachers and leaders should be the central focus of school and district administrators and the core strategy for school improvement. 


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