A few years ago, I had the pleasure of listening and learning as four teams of teachers, including one from my own charter network, shared their stories of collaborative design thinking at the Business Innovation Factory. This “storytelling” event was the culmination of a six week project called TD4ED, in which teachers were given the space and time to consider a problem of practice and design their own solution.
While the four teams’ projects differed, a common thread appeared. Each team had clearly been energized by the autonomy given them and came out of the experience not only with a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm, but also with a tangible product to improve their schools.
Their enthusiasm was catching; I can honestly say that I teared up more than once, overwhelmed by this reminder of the collective power of teachers. But I was also left wondering whether I was doing enough in my role as a district leader to create the necessary space for such sparks to catch fire. After all, when I explored the concept of “change-mindedness” many years ago for my dissertation, I found partnership with colleagues as a key factor in contributing to that mindset. And the empowerment of teachers as a key lever for change guided my work in building professional learning communities when I worked as a consultant.
Yet, I know that I did not empower this team as much as this experience did. I wonder, have my core values changed? Or is there simply an incompatibility between the structure of school and the nature of innovation? What can we collectively do to give teachers the space, time and freedom to not only solve the problems in front of them but also to devise solutions before they even arise and to allow for the free-flow of ideas as Steven Johnson artfully discusses in his phenomenal book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation?
In describing the impact his team’s work can have on his school, one teacher used the term “evolutionize.” Indeed, thinking differently about teachers’ work and supporting their sense of purpose, power and partnership can both revolutionize and evolutionize both the profession and the field.