“We need great teachers!” I frequently hear this war cry for improving schools. The insinuation is that great teachers can fix what’s wrong with our education system. However, in the last 5 months I’ve gotten a crash course in just how challenging it is for a single teacher to make meaningful change at a school or district level. I’ve spent the last five months filling out forms, writing course descriptions, meeting with decision makers, attending site council and board meetings, responding to a barrage of emails, and jumping through the necessary hoops to get a new program off the ground for next year.
Here’s what I’ve learned…schools and districts might like the idea of being progressive and innovative, but innovation requires two essential ingredients that are beyond my control as a teacher: financial investment and the desire to change.
If education is going to continue to evolve and improve, school districts must be willing to invest in new innovative programs. It’s not enough to keep funding the status quo. I’d love to see districts earmark funding specifically for innovation and experimentation. Schools make it clear what they value by where they spend money. If we say we value innovation, then we need to support that statement with funding.
When my first presentation to request funding for alternative furniture to enhance the project-based philosophy of this new program was met with skepticism instead of excitement, I wrote a Donors Choose project for moveable furniture. I spent hours working on that project proposal and sending it out via my social networks. As I worked on it, I wondered if most people outside of education realize how much time and money most teachers spend out of their own reservoir of resources to create their ideal classrooms.
This process has also reminded me how important it is for decision makers to move beyond their fear and embrace experimentation. I realize that change is scary, but it’s becoming more and more clear that schools need to change to stay relevant and meet the needs of today’s learners. Schools and districts with enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers should celebrate and support those individuals. It’s too easy to allow fear of the unknown to stifle innovation and limit the potential of forward thinking educators. The only way to keep those “great teachers” is to allow them to do great things. Otherwise, they will move onto other opportunities.
I see incredible teachers leave the classroom every year to pursue more financially lucrative opportunities. In fact, in my work beyond the classroom as a trainer and speaker, I’m often asked, “Why are you still teaching?” My response, “Teaching is my favorite job!” Well, working with my students and designing curriculum are my favorite jobs…the rest of teaching is exhausting and, at times, frustrating. I stay because I love what I do, but I can imagine being driven from this profession by all of the bureaucracy that makes change so glacial.
As this year comes to a close, I am simultaneously planning for the beginning of next year. Instead of enjoying the satisfying sense of closure that comes with the end of a year and sense of a job well done, I’m staring at a long to-do list of items that needs to get done to bring a new program to life by August. Figuring out how to fund alternative furniture and make sure students have access to technology rests squarely on my shoulders. It’s a daunting prospect. I understand why so many excited, forward thinking teachers get frustrated and leave this profession in search of spaces where their creativity is valued and celebrated.