Your Exciting New Educational Innovation Is Going to Fail.
Imagine you are a freshly minted school principal full of ambition and energy, and you are excited to be an instructional leader. Imagine that you have discovered a new way of doing something in the classroom which, according to published research, is an absolute game changer for students. You are very excited.
You are also going to fail.
I am not saying this with any malicious intent. I imagine that taking on a job as assistant principal in a school feels something like hanging an anvil from your neck and trying to walk around with it all day. The burden of responsibility is immense, and the real whip-cracking authority is surprisingly lacking. I admire anyone who becomes a principal with the mindset of making a positive difference in schools, because so much of the job involves simply keeping the existing system functioning through a combination of long hours, endless patience, pleading, praying, and occasional passive-agressive emailing.
Changing instructional practices will require you to convince a large group of classroom teachers to abandon methods that they have been using for years in favor of this shiny, new idea that you heard about at a conference. Sound easy? Think again. The tired old ideas that you want to sweep onto the ash-heap of history are not useless. In fact, many of them work pretty well and serve a distinct purpose. They do not work perfectly, of course, but that isn’t the point. Teachers have been making do with less for so long that we abandoned any expectation of perfection decades ago. Your wonderful new idea is highly unlikely to produce the sort of seismic improvements promised in the brochure. It is, however, very likely to be a major source of stress and effort during the implementation stage. This is why many teachers look at new educational trends with the kind of watchful hostility they would direct towards a live cobra.
Your only option to move the process along is to appeal to a higher power. If you can get the superintendent on board, your fabulous new idea will get a serious push. It is even better if you can also convince the district’s technology department to invest large amounts of money into software that supports your innovative strategy. Money talks, and once a few million dollars changes hands, your initiative is going to have legs. Nobody will want to admit that all that money was spent on something silly. At this stage, every administrator in the district is going to be given the task of making your dream a reality. Or, if we’re honest, they will be told to nag, threaten, and browbeat their staff into playing the game. District professional-development days will be scheduled, professional growth plans will be amended to include compliance with your new directive, and for a brief moment you will feel both important and powerful.
Enjoy it while it lasts, cowboy.
Sooner rather than later, you will come to a disturbing realization: you spend your working hours inside of a very small bubble of compliance. This includes your administrative assistant and any non-tenured teacher who happens to be in your line of sight. People snap to attention within this bubble but, disturbingly, do whatever they choose once they are breathing free air again. When the classroom door shuts, teachers have to make about ten thousand spot decisions with no help or input from their administrators. Your precious new innovative teaching method is going to be fed into this pedagogical meat-grinder, and you have very little control over what comes out on the other side. Veteran teachers, who enjoy much better job security than you do, will usually conform just enough to your demands to keep their evaluations clean. They will use some of the new lingo, and trot out a lesson plan or two if they are directly observed. Outside of that, it will be business as usual.
Please note that this is probably a good thing, as the odds of your bright new idea being worth the effort to implement is low.
You will be tempted to blame the teachers for their rebellious attitude, even as they are busy blaming you for being an overly-ambitious striver with delusions of grandeur. This is unfortunate, because you are not only playing for the same team, but you also both have a point. The unrelenting pace of work for a modern teacher is such that familiar methods of instruction and grading are absolutely necessary to keep things from falling into chaos. We rarely have the time or energy to experiment with alternative ways of doing things, even if the risk-to-reward ratio is favorable. The motivation for making disruptive changes is low, because another administrator will appear in a few years and institute a fresh round of innovations to implement. It is a never-ending cycle. Teachers deal with all of this by slow-walking changes to the point that things never actually change at all.
The good news is that successful teaching does not depend on a steady supply of shiny new pedagogy. This is one of the big takeaways from the mountains of educational research that is published every year: when it comes to pedagogy, everything works. I don’t belong to the Hattie cult where it is possible to create ranked lists of instructional methods independent of context. Successful pedagogy is intimately tied to the individual personalities of teachers as well as the demands of subject areas. The important thing for teachers is not to have our administrators push any particular new method of teaching, but for administrators to trust in our professional judgement, and to allow us to determine how we are going to best teach our students.
So, the bad news is that your bright new idea will probably fail. The good news is the business of teaching will live on without it.