How Might We (Re)Define Creativity In Teaching?

Two educators reflect on the role and possibility of creativity in their profession.

By: Elsa Fridman Randolph

This is the third installment in a series of exchanges, which occurred on Slack, a messaging and archiving tool for teams, between Regan Drew and John Marshall of Riverpoint Academy’s Trep Studio. In this series, Regan and John explore several themes related to being teacher designers. In this installment, the team reflects on the role and possibility of creativity in their profession. [Read the first installment, on how Regan and John radically collaborate, here, and the second, on their journey to embracing the design thinking process and mindset and how this has shifted their teaching practice here.]

Regan Drew and John Marshall form the teacher designer team behind Riverpoint Academy’s Trep Studio in Spokane, Washington. Riverpoint is an innovative public high school, which was founded using design thinking. Together, Regan and John run the studio where students form design teams to tackle real world problems and generate real impact. For this installment, I have asked the team to reflect on the role of creativity in their teaching practice. Are they creatively confident and satisfied? What does — (and what might) — it mean for a teacher to be creative? Read their reflections below and let us know what role creativity plays in your teaching.

Connect with Regan and John on The Teachers Guild

REGAN: This is an interesting lens to reflect on and think about. I grew up thinking I was NOT creative. My mother is a professional artist, her mother and sisters are artists — all incredibly creative and talented. People who knew my family would ask me, ‘are you creative like your mom?’ Umm, no… I don’t think so. I could not draw, paint, or sculpt and I wasn’t passionate about any of these disciplines. I explored interests in different areas, and never really found time for those things. My brother was incredible at those things — I could see that. I felt that creativity and the expression of creativity lived within those that had that “artistic” talent like my mom, her mom and sisters, or my brother. I just liked to “doodle.”

It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I actually started seeing or uncovering my creative potential.

JOHN: That is interesting @regan, about not being the “creative” one in your family. I, too, was not “creative” in the sense that I could not draw, paint or sculpt…that is what my brother and dad did. I have never been drawn to what are traditionally called the creative fields, or what is considered creative maybe?

But what I have come to realize is that I have always been a very creative teacher, and I have always considered myself a very creative teacher. I have always loved designing experiences for my students, and while I have often gotten the comment from staff and students that I am a bit “weird” as a teacher, I have found that students react quite well to the exploratory weirdness that I provide for them. Now, we have to remember that I am talking here about my work BEFORE I started to formalize this weirdness in a design thinking framework.

I have been thinking a lot about the role that creativity plays in my professional life. My initial thoughts about creativity in my teaching life were based around how my creativity was stifled by the system for a very long time. But then I started thinking back to how I managed to be creative in the traditional system, and I was really quite creative in that system, and more importantly I felt creative in that system.

Much of my creativity was used in figuring out how to express my teaching self within the confines of a traditional system.

I also have been lucky to work in buildings where creativity was valued and fostered. There was a “why don’t we try it” ethic in two of my buildings, and the principals just sort of let me get after it.

I think the reason that teachers don’t often think of themselves as creative is that we are directly creating, and being creative, in the service of others, and very rarely for ourselves…and this doesn’t always feel creative.

So when I designed an archeological dig for middle school students, and had them reconstruct a “culture” that I had buried in layers in a pit I was doing it in the service of finding a way around teaching “culture” and the connection to physical objects that the 18 year old textbook was presenting. It wasn’t like I was writing a short story or creating a painting that was meant to express some feeling or representing some “truth” that I wanted to express.

Except that I was. When I think back on this I was trying to represent some “truth”. I was trying to express some feeling that I wanted out there in the world, and saying that I wasn’t doing this was really a disservice to my own creativity and my own responsibility to those kids’ value as meaning makers. I was trying to express my own beliefs about how we come to know culture through the physical world. I was trying to get at a “truth” about culture.

And really? It was fun. It was creative. And I am lucky that I had a group of kids that would go on this creative, (dare I say “artistic” ) journey that I developed.

REGAN: @john, your comments really hit home and help me make sense of some things.

I, too, found creativity in a traditional system. In all honesty, I think I “had” to.

Like you, I had administration that supported my ideas and said, “go ahead and try it.” I think part of my courage to “pilot” new things also came from the reality I was facing.

When I began my teaching career, I was split in social studies and cte (business/marketing education) departments. In my first few years teaching I taught a wide variety of courses, from Yearbook, US History, Business Math to Sociology. In most cases, I wasn’t provided any materials and I also rarely had a colleague to collaborate with that was teaching the same course. In several of those courses, I was also supporting students that were a mix of grades 9–12, some with IEPs/504s, some in AP classes, some taking it for the second time because they wanted to pursue their passion and there wasn’t a “next course.” This was all a concern for me at the time, but I believe it was a blessing.

Without using textbooks, or previous materials, I continually set out on paths to create experiences that I believed to be meaningful to this diverse group of learners.

As you stated, I WAS being creative in this system, but I was doing it in the service of others. I was intently researching, observing, and listening to figure out how to adapt things moving forward. I had to. I had to because I truly cared about those students learning and having a positive experience. I was so focused on making their experiences meaningful that I didn’t think anything of it. I never stopped to think, “I’m being creative.”

As a teacher I connected with my creativity in two ways: problem solving, through a lens of designing for others and meeting their real and different needs, and expression.

Both my ability to design and problem solve, and express myself were spurred by the need to serve others in a meaningful way. The desire to serve my students resulted in my learning new skills and connecting with people that I learned from. At the same time, without knowing it — I could say I WAS creating for myself, I was getting to know myself better and building my creative confidence.

These opportunities to design and the support I received to “go ahead and try it,” resulted in me being happier in my job; being better for my students; more passionate about my role as a teacher; and more confident to take risks.

Through teaching, I did discover that I could be “artistically” creative like my family, if we look at creativity in that way.

More broadly (and more importantly), being on this continual design journey in the traditional system, (before formalizing things in a design thinking way), I discovered that I was a very creative person; confident to try and learn new things, and to deal with ambiguity. In a way, I too think I was seeking a teaching “culture” within the traditional system that worked for me.

It wasn’t until I experienced design thinking that I knew how to frame “being creative.” I thought that I just was a bit “weird,” like you
I know I had always thought of creativity much too narrowly.

Many of my students also had that narrow definition of creativity, supported by plenty of evidence in student reflections. When I first started teaching at RA, I came across this quote and I really connected with it. This quote helps us think about how, inside all of us, lies a creative person.

To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. ~ Paul Rand