Relationships, Relationships, Relationships… how many times do we hear this phrase as educators? While most educators would acknowledge the importance of relationships, I think there is often a lack of understanding as to the power relationship creates. Being in the classroom with the same students on a continual basis can sometimes dull the edge of innovation. This is especially true with relationships. Think back to the first week of school each year, and the excitement that is created by new faces, new possibilities, and new relationships. As weeks turn into months, excitement and possibility tend to wear off, and they are replaced by comfortable routine. Being comfortable, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. However, being comfortable can lead to routine, and routine can lead to complacency. A complacent educator is the antithesis of an innovative educator, and this is especially true when developing and maintaining relationships.
UNDERSTANDING WE ARE IN THE PEOPLE BUSINESS
If being an innovative educator means finding the better, then being an innovative relationship builder is this times ten. How do you build innovative relationships with students or staff? Simply put, you find the method that works. As educational leaders, we are in the people business. This is an important distinction that you have to make early on. As a teacher, the environment you create for students within your classroom is the single greatest tool you have for engagement, empowerment, and growth. Too many times, teachers are caught up in content delivery, grades, and other routines that we establish and place before the relationships we build. Relationships are the key to learning, and they are something teachers have to work at daily to build, develop, and maintain.
A game has developed between myself and a couple of students at my school that we play each day. Simply put, it’s a race all day to see who can say “hi” first each time we see each other. In the hall, at lunch, in class, in the gym… the only rule seems to be that we have to be out of sight with each other before it starts over. I say “seems to be”, because this is something that is kid driven, and important to them. Whether I think it’s silly or not is irrelevant, because it is extremely relevant to those students.
Students remember teachers, not content. It is imperative that teachers leverage this truth and use it to create environments that students WANT to be in. Teachers are not in the content business, the lesson plan business, or the testing business. We are around students all day, with opportunities to make profound impacts. Student achievement is a result of learning enjoyment, which is directly related to the relationships we build as leaders. The moment a teacher forgets they are in the people business is the moment they stop being an effective leader
How can we be innovative in our approach to building relationships with students? Here are some things that I try to do on a regular basis:
ABSENCE OF RELATIONSHIP CANNOT BE AN OPTION
In order to build innovative, effective relationship in your school or classroom, I really believe teachers have to understand a fundamental change taking place in education. The primary role of the teacher is no longer to deliver content, but rather provide students with opportunities to use the knowledge they are gaining. The truth is that students no longer view teachers as a deliverer of content. There is no disrespect in that, but rather it is the reality of the age and a result of what we have at our fingertips. Just as this shift has made our classrooms more innovative, it has also made the need for positive and innovative relationships with student more important and vital than ever before. In the digital classroom, where information is essentially free-flowing and rampant, teachers have to figure out how to use the power of relationship to create engagement, which will lead to empowerment and growth. We have to build relationships that encourage students to take risks and use new information in meaningful ways. The teacher who still views their role as “delivering content” because they are the “professional educator” is in danger of fracturing relationships with students that cannot afford to be fractured.
Developing a culture of innovative relationship building often times requires a change of mindset. The possibility that a teacher's pedagogy can lead to fractured relationships can be offensive to some, especially to experienced teachers. This goes back to a fundamental questions that every teacher should ask themselves: “Do students WANT to come to my classroom?” If the answer is no, for whatever reason, the ability to reach that student in order to foster meaningful growth is significantly compromised.
People, and I would argue especially young people, have an inherent need, and a place reserved, for relationship. It's important to realize that, in the absence of relationship, something else settles into a student’s life. There is never “empty space” with young people. In the absence of meaningful relationships, apathy, indifference, and distrust can all find a place in students lives. This cannot be an acceptable alternative in our classrooms and schools. Avoiding this is going to mean changing our mindset, and becoming innovative in our approach to building relationships with students. At the end of the day, students don't learn from teachers they don't like.
As I have been on this journey to develop more of an innovator’s mindset, I have continually come back to two questions: What is the role of a teacher, and how does this fit into the traditional view of “school”? I really appreciate the “School vs. Learning” image that George Couros posted, because it forces teachers to look deeper into the role that we play. I think there are a few things that teachers need to do in order to develop an innovator’s mindset, which ultimately results in an innovative classroom. I first had to understand that I could not create an effective, innovative environment in my classroom unless I was pursuing an innovative mindset as a teacher. I could do new things, and even some exciting things, but if I wasn't looking to create an innovative mindset personally, then I would only be changing the climate of my classroom on given days. In order to change the culture of my classroom, being innovative had to become part of my educational philosophy.
For a long time, the idea of “school” has carried a certain connotation and definition. It has become an institution that is defined by certain characteristics that, over time, have become hardened and unchanging. The development of new technologies that has brought information, literally, to our fingertips, has started to push back on the “traditional” idea of school. If you are looking to change your classroom environment through increased innovation, it is important that you develop a philosophy and begin to view things through that lens. This is such an integral part of teaching because you want to change the culture of your building or classroom, and not just the climate. Climate can change day to day and week to week, and we should strive to develop a climate that promotes creativity, student voice, and innovation. However, the ultimate goal, for me, is to create a culture that promotes those things. My educational philosophy is core to this, because in order to change culture, I have to make decisions, design plans, and provide opportunities while looking through that lens. I believe the role of the teacher is no longer to provide information in mass, but rather to put kids in a position to use information in an effective, meaningful manner. I am trying to make classroom decisions through that lens, including how I design projects, assess students, and even how I relay information. It’s important to me not to micro-manage student learning, but rather give them opportunities to shine using their unique skill sets.
One of the biggest concepts sweeping education is the idea of teaching students to view failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. For a teacher, it can be easier to teach this than it can be to actually practice this. As you develop a philosophy and begin to make decisions through that lens, there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road. There will be ideas that you think are game-changers, which will ultimately fall flat with your kids. Changing culture in your classroom or building is not easy. Many students have learned, over time, to view things through the lens that traditional school provides. This traditional lens includes memorization and compliance. I am not necessarily blaming teachers for this, but rather I am recognizing this is what our system has promoted and fostered over time. Some of our highest achieving students academically struggle when presented with options outside of the traditional “is this right or wrong” mindset that has permeated classrooms. Having an educational philosophy is extremely important to helping overcome and change these paradigms. When an idea doesn’t work, a teacher needs to be able to look at the bigger picture and galvanize their belief and efforts, and a philosophy you believe in will enable you to do this. This philosophy that you create and will lean on will allow you to continue to pursuit of preparing our kids to be "future ready".
The idea of being innovative in the classroom is something that is sweeping the educational world. While the word “innovation” has become a popular buzzword, I think it can still be elusive for many teachers and school leaders. There are many different versions and ideas of “innovation” floating around. Some will point to new technology, while others point to new methods. There is even the idea that innovation is taking old methods and re-inventing them to reach students. I don’t believe any of these, as stand alone ideas, are completely right or completely wrong. My experience is that “innovation” is a combination of all of these things. I think this is true because all of these ideas can be used to produce something “better” for students. If you are producing something better, whether it’s new technology, new techniques, or re-defining old methods, you are bringing innovation into your classroom. I love how George Couros defines the’ “8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset”. While all of these are extremely important, I have found that three things have really become vital to my journey of developing an innovator's mindset.
"translating knowledge into action is perhaps more important than acquiring information"
- Thomas Friedman
FIND A PROBLEM, THEN SOLVE IT
The question of what students can do with the information they are obtaining is something we need to begin asking ourselves as educators. As my paradigm has changed over time, and the more I have developed a growth mindset, my philosophy about my students and the information they learn has changed. I had to ask myself, “why am I presenting this information to students?” If the answer was only to pass a test, either mine or a standardized one, then I realized I was doing my students a disservice. If all we are measuring is memorization and compliance, then we are not preparing our students to be future ready. It is important that we allow our students to use the information they are obtaining in practical ways. At the end of every unit or topic, I have started asking students to identify a problem they can solve with their new knowledge. This practice has become so much a part of what we do, that students now go into each lesson looking through the lens of problem solving. The process has now become one of students continually looking for problems to solve as they are introduced to new concepts. This concept is crucial to developing an innovative mindset in the classroom. As a teacher, your job is not to find problems for students to solve, but rather to create an environment where students look for problems to solve. This mentality is critical to not only having an innovative classroom, but also to fostering an innovative mindset in your students.
TAKE A RISK TODAY
The more I pursue innovation in my classroom and work to change my thinking to an Innovator's Mindset, the more truths about the process I have discovered. One such truth has to do with being a risk-taker in my classroom. The truth I have discovered is that, in order for me to develop an Innovator’s Mindset, I have to take risks. This has become a non-negotiable for me. My own willingness to take risks in my classroom stems from becoming sick and tired of watching my students be sick and tired of school. As I began to use various resources, such as Twitter, to grow my PLN and continually develop a growth mindset, I began to have a desire to break the cycle of traditional school that students hate so much. I began to ask myself, “is there a better way?” This has became somewhat of a mantra for me, as I have begun to ask myself this question with every unit, assignment, and topic. I have determined one of the best ways for me to find out if there is a better way is to take risks. Once you develop this culture, it becomes part of who you are as a teacher. I began to have conversations with my kids about taking risks. They love that I take them as a teacher, and they appreciate that I encourage them to do the same. Failure is definitely part of the process in an innovative classroom. However, failure should not be embraced or celebrated. Rather, in the innovative classroom, a culture of risk-taking actually encourages continued attempts to learn, grow, and innovate in spite of possible failure.
I wrote my first blog a little over a month ago. The topic of that first blog was the power and importance of becoming a connected educator. I have been on Twitter now for almost five months, and can say without hesitation that it has been the best decision of my professional career. The connection between developing an innovative mindset and leveraging the various networking opportunities available cannot be overstated. While Twitter is an extremely powerful networking tool for teachers, it is not the only tool. There are other social media outlets, whether it be Facebook, Voxer, or others, that teachers are now using to connect. There is also the EdCamp movement that is sweeping across the country. EdCamps, by definition, are natural networking opportunities for teachers, and we should be taking advantage of them. Not only do EdCamps allow teachers to come together from various geographical areas, but they also empower teachers to collaborate about the things that interest them and share the innovative things they are doing with their students.
One of the biggest benefits to using Twitter has been the opportunity to surround myself with like-minded teachers who have a growth mindset. The motivation and pursuit to be better is contagious, and results in the development of an innovator’s mindset. I love what George Couros says about Twitter: “Don’t let the fact that you can find terrible stuff on Twitter keep you from all the awesome stuff.” I only use Twitter for educational and professional purposes, and I follow enough teachers and leaders that my feed is filled with nuggets of growth and motivation. Networking with other teachers allows me to experience the innovative things they are doing with them. This experience, and the motivation it brings, leads me to try innovative things in my classroom and in my building. The power and importance of being connected in today’s educational climate cannot be overstated. The pursuit of an innovator’s mindset is continual, and leveraging networking opportunities is more vital today than ever before.
Joe Robison is a Middle School Science Teacher in Valdez, Alaska. He is passionate about his family, his faith, and his job. His desire is to be a leader for his family, and an innovator in the workplace. He enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife, Wylie, and their five small children. You can follow Joe on Twitter @joerobison907.