Two Traits of Innovative Charter School Teachers

The internet is brimming over with writing on the key traits of innovators – “great” ones, “successful” ones, “strategic” ones, alike. Rather than regurgitate the litany of skills that super-duper innovators apparently must have, I’d like to focus on two key traits that are specific to the innovation we so desperately need in today’s urban charter schools.

Charter schools receive a mixed-bag of public support – they can be just as terrible at meeting the needs of students as the worst public schools – but their autonomy can create space for moonshots. When schools trust teachers to make instructional decisions for their students, innovation is possible. Given the resegregation of schools in the South and the persistent gap between schools for wealthy and the poor in New Orleans, innovation is necessary (and no, it’s not the silver bullet either). The standardized teaching methods of non-traditional and traditional teacher training alike leave little room for personalized learning, where student agency is king. To shift from test-centered to student-centered schools, we need experienced risk-takers leading our classrooms.

Experience

“Duh” fails to express what I assume to be many veteran educators’ reaction to this trait, but it is critically lacking in many charter schools. Ask any teacher about their first year teaching anywhere, and you’ll hear a tragic comedy of epic failures. Neil Armstrong was better prepared to walk on the moon than most teachers are to take over a classroom. When a school’s teaching population is 1/3rd to 1/2 first- and second-year teachers, the focus is constantly on classroom management and basic content knowledge. Even third-, fourth-, and fifth-year teachers are still figuring out the common misconceptions, engaging hooks, and thought-provoking “why” questions for every lesson on the scope and sequence. In my brief six years teaching, I barely scratched the surface of what was possible.

To innovate in the classroom requires a keen understanding of what traditional, successful teaching is. It also requires experience with the content – where do kids seem to get most tripped up? Where are the opportunities to make the content relevant to them? When during the year can we break the mold and try something new?

Teachers innovate when they are passionate about a problem. When you’re a new teacher, most of what’s happening around you is problematic. Experienced teachers are better positioned to articulate the problem that innovation should address.

Risk-Taking

Experienced teachers benefit from their file cabinets – years of unit plans, behavior management systems, Powerpoints, projects, and strategies for engaging introverts and students with ADHD. But experience can breed complacency and stifle innovation; it is far easier to continue on using the strategies that have made teaching successful – or tolerable – than to try something new.

Innovative teachers see value in failure. Undoubtably, every teacher has experienced failure – likely on a daily basis. Experienced teachers have likely failed the most; great teachers learn the most from their failures. To take risks is to be open to failure and to engage with it – to ‘fail forward.’

“Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs

Risk-takers focus on the opportunity in innovation, but they also know when to say “no.” When rolling out the simple iPod interface, Steve Jobs responded to criticism about ‘missing’ features by saying, “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” Innovators are willing to draw a line in the stand for the problem they are passionate about, rather than drawing a wide net.

What else?

There are dozens of other traits that make a teacher truly innovative, from perseverance and reflection to curiosity and empathy. (George Couros touches on many of them in this blog post that turned into his book.) Focusing on these two traits is by no means comprehensive; rather it’s a starting point for the greenest schools among us, where groups of passionate, inexperienced educators are working tirelessly to improve opportunities for kids. Supporting the few experienced teachers in taking risks is the least we can do to encourage innovation in our schools. And it might just keep them in the classroom for a few more years, too.

What other traits do you find in innovative teachers? How can we help teachers to find these traits in themselves?