By Ari Kellerman
I consider myself to be a fairly growth-oriented high school teacher. I enjoy conferences that open new possibilities in my classroom, I subscribe (secretly) to several educational magazines, and I am in several teacher Whatsapp groups that keep fresh ideas flowing to be my tiny electronic friend. I also have the luxury of dreaming up new curricula every year for my school. I’ve used that opportunity to explore game-based learning, classroom-flipping, 3D design, and an entire year of classes based around field trips (more on these in future posts). I have designed and redesigned our school prayer, like 12 times, based on student recommendations. I look for new programs to run that connect my students to the outside world. And since I’m on the younger side of most of my colleagues (32), I don’t carry around the weight of “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years”. In short, I view myself as a teacher who is always looking to grow, always looking to innovate, and always looking to change things up for my students.
But let me tell you about a common occurrence in my life. I spend the whole day thinking, typing, creating, innovating, doing… and patting myself on the back for the educational journey on which I’m taking students! …Only to come home, open Facebook, and be put to shame by all my educator friends around the world.
This one has built a maker lab. That one is starting an education consulting business. This one got a grant to buy post-modern beanbag chairs for her classroom. That one takes his class to an amusement park every day to study engineering. This one just published a book on being the awesomest and most innovativest teacher in the world. Enough with the innovation shaming!
I feel like I’m always playing catch-up. How can I possibly feel good about my own innovation if the people around me have freakin beanbag chairs in their classrooms! So now you’re thinking, “What’s the alternative? People shouldn’t share their successes? How else will we learn from one another? You’re just being insecure!”
You are correct. I am being insecure. And I don’t actually want my friends and colleagues to stop sharing their amazing work. So before you judge me further, let me share some ideas I recently read about that changed my perspective, and may help those readers who often feel the same innovation-inadequacy that I do.
In The Ten Faces of Innovation (not an education book, but I highly recommend it to educators), author Tom Kelley writes about ten qualities that contribute to an innovative personality. To be clear, you don’t need all ten traits to be innovative; you really just need a handful of them. But if you lack some (or in my case, most) of these ten qualities, you’ll want to build your team with people who excel in the areas you lack.
For example, I most identify with Kelley’s second trait: The Experimenter. I enjoy prototyping new ideas and I learn best through trial and error. Lightbulbs are constantly going on above my head, and I try to find ways to implement those ideas before the next bulb steals the spotlight. I am used to planning a little and tweaking a lot as I go. I greatly lack, however, trait number 3: The Cross-Pollinator. I so badly wish I were a Cross-Pollinator, but I’ve learned (through my classic experimentation) that it can’t be faked. Cross-Pollinators are super-experts in one specific area, but have a wide breadth of interests and cursory knowledge outside of that area. Because the Cross-Pollinator is so in-tune with the goings on in the world, they are good at borrowing ideas from one area of interest, and solving problems in another.
Case in point: Mohammed Bah Abba was an entrepreneurial business man in northern Nigeria, from a long line of clay pot makers. Most of Nigeria is impoverished, with little electrical capabilities and lots of intense heat. Nigerians needed a way to store their scarce and expensive food. With refrigerators out of the question, Bah Abba drew on his knowledge of clay pots. When he placed one pot in a larger one, filling the space between them with wet sand, the liquid would evaporate towards the outer pot. This kept food in the inner pot fresh with just a periodic remoistening of the sand. In addition to changing the lives of thousands of Nigerian villagers, Bah Abba put many unemployed potters back to work. Bah Abba is a Cross-Pollinator. He looks at problems and asks himself, “What have I seen in my lifetime that could be used to solve this problem?”
I use these examples to illustrate how profoundly important it is to go on Facebook and suffer through the discomfort of seeing people doing different (cooler) things than you. Those people make up your circle, your team. I have begun to realize that my strengths will probably never lead me to a beanbag chair classroom, but seeing that type of novelty shapes my worldview of education.
One more example: I love talking to my students to get ideas. My philosophy is that student-teacher relationships come first and are the cornerstone of every decision an educator should make. It’s a pretty common business concept too – listen to what your customers have to say, and let their experience steer your ship. Then I came across this quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”
If Henry Ford were one of my educator Facebook friends, I would hate him. But I would also need him. We all have our ways of doing things. We have our perceptions of the kind of educators we are and want to be. But then there are people like Henry Ford and Mohammed Bah Abba and the Wright Brothers and beanbag chair lady – people who look at things in different ways than we do. And we need them on our side – not to change who we are, or even to aspire to be like them – but to make a better educational team for the world we live in.
So, while I continue to figure out what I’m good at, I’ve decided that it’s nice, even helpful, to see the strengths of my teammates on display.