3 Mistakes I Made Trying to be an Innovative Teacher and Leader

Trying to be an Innovative Teacher and Leader

Let’s be honest. Being a teacher and school leader can be overwhelming.

There is so much to do (not enough time), so much to learn (where do we even start), and it all keeps changing. In my last post we dove into the real reason teachers and leaders are overwhelmed.

But, we want to make a difference. That’s why we got into education. We want to be innovative, creative, and make a greater impact.

It’s easy to say, but if you are like me, it is even easier to fall back into a pattern of what we’ve always done, instead of answering the question: What is best for this learner in this situation?

Which path to choose

We are also surrounded by teachers, leaders, parents, and even students who are playing the game of school. It’s been set up this way for years and it is hard to break decades of doing things “the way they always have been done” (even when we know it isn’t best for kids).

That’s why we often get a lot of resistance when we come up with new ideas.

It’s why there isn’t always positive feedback when we try to teach differently.

And, it’s why being innovative is not easy, even if it is needed in our schools today.

I’ll also admit that I got caught up in wanting to be the innovative teacher, without realizing all the mistakes I was making in this journey. If you are doing things a bit differently with your students, or in your school, or in your role – check out the mistakes I share below.

If for only one reason: to learn from someone who spent a lot of time making mistakes in the journey to new and better learning.

Trying to be an Innovative Teacher and Leader

Please Don’t Make These Mistakes That I Did Trying to Be the “Innovative Teacher”

#1: Too much time spent thinking, reading, and watching what might change your teaching, your school, education — and not enough time spent doing the work.

I read a lot of blogs, a lot of books, and watch a lot of videos on how to innovate in education and transform learning. So much so, that a few years ago I felt overwhelmed just by the amount of reading I had to do, and completely stopped, cold turkey.

I was spending so much time consuming information, that it left almost no time to create, make, and design something different.

I also was envious of what others were doing. It didn’t help me personally, or my students, when I spent this much time consuming.

After taking a break from all reading, I realized that there was a reason I consumed. I wanted to make that difference. Yet, unless I started taking action, there was not going to be any change that was made.

I started reading, watching, and listening with purpose again. This time, I choose wisely and purposefully what I fed my brain. And it served as inspiration and motivation in the creation process.

Don’t get drowned out by the massive amount of information (which is really good) and not make time for creating. Let it be the inspiration for innovative work instead.

#2: Focusing on the shiny new programs, apps, products, technology instead of what works.

Yes, I am still recovering from years of worrying about the newest, latest, greatest thing. Whenever a new product, or new release, or new phone would come out, I would jump on the bandwagon immediately.

For some reason it felt good to be the first, even if being the first had no impact on my life, my work, or what I wanted to do in my role.

The problem is that I was using technology, and pretending to be innovative, for the sake of technology.

I had the “new” part of innovation, but not the “new ideas that work better” piece. It is a trap that I still find myself struggling with, and the only way I’ve been able to focus on the work instead of the new is through a community of great teachers and leaders that hold me accountable.

#3: Trying to do everything by yourself. You aren’t a lone wolf, you are human, and humans need community to thrive and innovate.

Which brings us to our third mistake. One that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. It seems the majority of people I talk to who are doing innovative work in their schools or districts share one of two stories.

The first story goes something like this. They consistently try to improve and iterate and innovate. Each project and year go by as their students are exposed to new ideas and it takes a lot of time to get buy in from their colleagues and school leaders to allow this sort of work to happen inside of school. They tend to be worn out and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of time it takes to be innovative and creative, hoping that somewhere along the way someone will join their cause, and be innovative as well. After years of trying to do things the right way, they either leave for another place, or become bitter at trying to make a difference.

The second story is much different and goes a bit like this: They are part of a tribe of innovators. Their colleagues share, support, and praise learning that looks different. They fail often but have a team around them to help spring them back up and keep moving forward. There is a sense of purpose in their day-to-day work, and the students and school culture is a reflection of this type of innovative learning. They aren’t tired, but instead inspired to continue pushing the boundaries of what works best for students.

The big difference between story #1 and story #2 is that the person in story #2 has a community around them that supports, praises, and picks them up throughout the creative process. We must have a group of people we can lean on, bounce ideas off of, and talk to in order to keep doing the work that matters.

As Marget Mead said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

What mistakes have you made in doing innovative and creative work? What lessons have you learned along the way? Would love if you shared out in the comments below.

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Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Denise Weintraut says:

    Sadly, I find myself repeating your mistakes, specifically #1. Twitter is a godsend but also a curse. There are so many fantastic ideas there that you can spend forever just surfing and cataloging the ideas you want to try. I’ll certainly be making more of an effort to curate my research and work more to implement those ideas instead of just saving them for “some time in the future.” Thanks so much for sharing!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      I still find myself repeating these mistakes sometimes as well. The key is to be mindful when reflecting and acknowledging what we are doing, that was the big jump for me. Looks like you are being mindful about it right now!

      • Denise Weintraut says:

        I think you are spot on! Thanks again for reminding us that mindfulness is key!

      • Raquel says:

        Thank you!! I am reading way too much and totally overwhelmed by the amount of information. I will be more mindful about what is helping me do better and what is “procrastireading!”

  • Barri says:

    This totally resonates with me!! Here’s my blog post with a similar idea that I wrote just last night…

  • Tristan says:

    Sadly, I find myself in the first story of #3. I am constantly improving and innovating. I am offering constant clubs and after school activities. I am swamped by children wanting to come in before/ after school and during lunch. My principal loves me, but the other teachers are not supportive. I’m not sure how to change the culture at my school. I would love to have other teachers take over some of my efforts.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hey Tristan, thanks for sharing. Yes, it can sometimes be a lonely island. How have your conversations been with colleagues? Do you find your online PLN helping in terms of being a supportive community?

  • Renee says:

    #1 is preaching to the choir as I sit with 3 books in front of me, trying to find a more interesting and engaging way to teach the material I need to present to my students. You would be horrified by the number of bookmarks I have on my browser (neatly organized in folders, of course). Thank you for this reminder.

  • Wow I’m not alone. Thanks for sharing.
    I find myself doing the same thing and missing out on some really awesome moments in class.

  • Barry Dyck says:

    Too true. It’s not just the “lone wolf syndrome” either. Giving students loads of control over what they learn and how they learn can cause tensions with other teachers, as these students are no longer willing to be passive and subservient. It changes the power dynamics as innovative teachers work and learn with their students. They aren’t spending their time exerting power to get students to comply and “be accountable.” Creating a learning culture rather than a school culture is a collaborative effort and requires courageous leadership who know how to ignite and get out of the way.

  • Shannon says:

    Thank you for this! I’m working hard to be a leader/innovator but there are moments when I feel isolated, or on an island all by myself. Somehow I need to find a community!

  • Rose Warrell says:

    I find myself in #1 a lot and also in #2. I am not sure how to balance it all. I want what’s best for my students. I want them to have multiple opportunities of learning and I want to make my classroom more student-centered. There is just so much out there…where to start? Where to go? Deciding what is best…I know that I am falling a lot, but I am always getting back up and persevering. Thanks for your input.

  • I’ve made many more than just these 3…and continue to make them. But here’s a big one: waiting until I think I have something figured out before I try it. I hesitated to do any PBL projects for a long time because I thought I needed to have every detail and every step planned out thoroughly ahead of time. And I’m someone who gets bogged down in the middle of a plan and has difficulty tying it up and getting on with it, so none of my PBL plans ever felt “ready”.

    So I just started doing one. It was incomplete, it was ugly, it was messy, pieces of it made no sense. Some things I tried crashed and burned horribly. Other parts worked better than I could have imagined. Some lessons I was planning literally minutes before the kids were about to walk in my door for the day. And in the doing, I figured out many aspects that I would never have anticipated. And the next time I did the project, I knew what to expect and I made it better.

    If I had insisted on being “ready” I’d still be waiting and my students would never have done the projects.

  • Patricia says:

    Hi there!
    My school is about to embark on PBL so the general feeling is one of anxiety…how to go about it where to start…it’s been a schoolboard decision and a few adaptations in schedules have been made but many of us feel it’s not enough.
    It’s been helpful to read about the issues some of you face who have been into it for a while.
    I’ll keep in mind the first tip. I tend to cram and bookmark and think there will be a new mentioned to go back on all that. And there seldom is. I guess I should go for one good idea and make it happen.
    Any memories of what that first PBL year at your schools was?
    Many thanks.

  • Jennifer says:

    Well said, A. J.! I think you’ve hit on something much bigger than just PBL though; in my experience these three things go for taking on any new endeavor, understanding, life change, etc. Thank you for the awesome post!

  • Alexis Mabe says:

    I feel like PBL is such a powerful too to achieve so many of the learning goals I have for my students. And yet, so many mistakes can be made! One of the first mistakes I made when I began my PBL journey was thinking I was doing a PBL when I really wasn’t.
    all projects ≠ PBLs
    However, I have stuck with it and now I am currently working with an Instructional Coach to create a “gold standard” PBL for my environmental science class – scared and excited to see what happens!
    Thanks for the post 🙂

  • Hands down, my biggest mistake as an innovative leader (so far) was thinking that innovation looked the same for every teacher. What I’ve learned is that innovation is really an exercise, a practice, like meditation- not a result. One person may have moved from having students independently completing worksheets to having groups work together to complete the worksheet, while another transitioned from designing a Hyperdoc working students through a unit to working with students to design a gold standard PBL. If you compared both results, one teacher seems more innovative than the other, when in reality both teachers are innovating their practice and exerting the same level of innovation energy. They just started from different points.

  • Paul Kearney says:

    Providing students with a detailed, well designed brief has two powerful advantages.
    it puts greater control in the students’ hands
    it frees you up to focus on the on the learning and not ‘the doing’ of the project
    This is especially true, when the project is more action based

  • Fran Meffen says:

    Loved reading this as I take time for reflection and renewal before heading into a new school year. Plan on sharing this with my PBL tribe which is made up of novice, journeymen and those who continue the walk towards mastery. Thank you for these reminders.

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